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11 Expert Facts About Léon: The Professional

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It's been over two decades since writer/director Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional hit theaters, and we’re willing to bet that you’ve yet to shake off how the movie made you feel. The crime thriller that launched Natalie Portman’s career, and put French actor Jean Reno front and center in Hollywood, Léon tells the story of a professional assassin who takes in his pre-teen neighbor after her family is murdered. The two then develop a friendship so close that you might still find yourself fearing it could cross the line of appropriateness (even if you've seen the film 100 times and breathed a sigh of relief at its outcome). With its boundary-pushing plot and expert direction, the film is widely (and rightly) regarded as one of Besson’s best works.

1. NATALIE PORTMAN’S PARENTS WERE COMPLETELY AGAINST HER PLAYING MATHILDA.

It was an extremely complicated role for an 11-year-old: Not only would she have to deal with a broken home and violence, but she’d also have to deal with the unwanted sexualization of a young girl. In Starting Young, a documentary about Portman that’s included on the 10th anniversary DVD edition of Léon, the actress admits that after she read the script, she was so moved to tears by the film that she knew she had to have the role. Her parents weren’t as convinced. “My parents were like, ‘There is no way you’re doing this movie. This is absolutely inappropriate for a child your age ... and I was like, ‘This is the greatest thing I’ve ever read! You’re gonna ruin my life!’” she shares in the doc. “[I] was basically just fighting with them so much.”

2. IN THE ORIGINAL SCRIPT, LÉON ACCIDENTALLY WALKS IN ON MATHILDA WHILE SHE'S IN THE SHOWER.

Portman’s parents were understandably not comfortable with this scene. In Starting Young, Portman notes that her parents scaled the sexual undertones way back. It was a point they made sure to detail in their daughter’s contract.

3. RENO AND PORTMAN WEREN’T ALLOWED TO REHEARSE THE FILM’S MOST CONTROVERSIAL SCENE, WHERE MATHILDA PUTS ON A DRESS GIVEN TO HER BY LÉON.

Up until the moment of the dress scene—which was deleted in the original U.S. theatrical version for its racy content (it would be restored a decade later)—it’s easy to believe that Léon acts as a person stuck between childhood and adult male. It isn’t until this turning point that one begins to worry. Here, Mathilda makes Léon tell her he likes her dress and whispers to him the importance of a girl’s first time having sex. He rejects her advances, but the tension is evident in his expression.

As Reno puts it in the film’s DVD commentary, it’s “the beginning of the perversity.” Reno often asked the director when they would read the part, and Besson would avoid the question. Not being able to read the scene helped Besson and his cast genuinely capture the awkwardness the characters felt at that moment. “[Léon and Mathilda’s] relationship was very connected and very strange,” Reno concluded.

4. PORTMAN’S PARENTS ARE THE REASON WHY MATHILDA QUITS SMOKING IN THE FILM.

As per the agreement Portman’s parents outlined with Besson, the actress was allowed five fake cigarettes in her hand during the entire film shoot, and she was never allowed to inhale a single one of them. If you pay close attention to her character, you'll see that she only puts the cigarette to her lips, but never blows smoke out. Additionally, her parents demanded that her character quit smoking at some point in the movie. In the film, Léon scolds Mathilda for smoking, and later you see her throwing her unfinished cigarette away when she’s alone.

5. PORTMAN’S MARILYN MONROE IMPRESSION IN THE FILM WAS INSPIRED BY MIKE MYERS.

During her audition, Besson asked Portman if she could do any celebrity impressions; what you see in the film is the entire arsenal that she presented to the director. While she was obsessed with Gene Kelly and Madonna as a kid, her Marilyn Monroe impression was done without having seen any of the legendary bombshell’s work. “I had never seen the original Marilyn tapes at all,” Portman says in Starting Young. She goes on to admit that her impression was informed by a vague memory of Mike Myers impersonating Monroe in Wayne’s World.

6. BESSON GOT THE IDEA FOR LÉON WHILE WORKING ON LA FEMME NIKITA.

In the 1990 film La Femme Nikita, Reno plays Victor the Cleaner, an operative sent in to salvage Nikita’s botched mission. According to the DVD commentary, Besson was so inspired to explore Reno’s character further that he developed a story around him, which became Léon. Fortunately (in retrospect) for the director, when filming of The Fifth Element was delayed due to Bruce Willis’s schedule, Besson was afforded the time to shoot The Professional as a passion project.

7. THE CHELSEA HOTEL WAS USED FOR THE INTERIOR SHOTS OF MATHILDA AND LÉON’S APARTMENT BUILDING.

Léon and Mathilda’s apartment building might look like a place where burnouts escape to cook some meth, but the spot is actually an iconic part of New York City history. The Chelsea Hotel was once a place where Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso enjoyed philosophical exchanges; Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Charles Bukowski, Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen, and Iggy Pop all called it home; Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey while staying there; Andy Warhol filmed Chelsea Girls within its walls; and Sid Vicious’s girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, was found stabbed to death there (leading to Vicious’s arrest).

8. THE CITY OF NEW YORK INSPIRED THE FILM.

While the film was shot in both Paris and New York City, Besson has noted that Léon is first and foremost a New York movie. “When it comes to Léon I feel comfortable in New York because for me, in New York, you can be invisible. You can see someone lying on the street and no one will stop,” Besson told Stumped Magazine. “If you have no phone and no credit cards, no one knows where you are … One more thing: you can’t shoot Léon in France because in France in every building you have a concierge and she knows everything. She is glue with the police all the time so you can’t be invisible in Paris.”

9. GARY OLDMAN’S CLASSIC DELIVERY OF THE LINE “BRING ME EVERYONE!” WAS PURPOSELY MEANT TO MAKE LUC BESSON LAUGH.

Never one to under-serve his characters, Gary Oldman—as Stansfield, the film’s drug-addicted DEA agent antagonist—gave Besson everything he had, creating one of the most memorable (and now classic) moments of the film. “What’s funny is that the line was a joke and now it’s become iconic,” Oldman told Playboy. “I just did it one take to make the director, Luc Besson, laugh. The previous takes, I’d just gone, ‘Bring me everyone,’ in a regular voice. But then I cued the sound guy to slip off his headphones, and I shouted as loud as I could. That’s the one they kept in the movie. When people approach me on the street, that’s the line they most often say.”

10. BESSON HAS SHUT DOWN RUMORS THAT A SEQUEL IS IN THE WORKS.

So stop asking. During his press tour for Lucy, Besson told The Guardian, "You can't imagine how many people ask me for a Léon sequel. Everywhere I go they ask me. If I was motivated by money, I would have done it a long time ago. But I don't feel it."

In an earlier interview with Cinema Blend, Besson elaborated on the topic, saying, “Natalie is old now, she's a mother … It's too late. If I got an idea tomorrow about a sequel, of course I would do it. But I never came up with something strong enough. I don't want to do sequels for money; I want to do a sequel because it's worth it. I want it to be as good or better than the original."

11. JEAN RENO PLAYED LÉON AS EMOTIONALLY REPRESSED TO MAKE SURE THE AUDIENCE KNEW HE HAD NO SEXUAL DESIRE FOR MATHILDA.

In the DVD commentary, Reno says he made a conscious decision to make Léon a little slow so that he didn’t come off as physically threatening to Portman’s character. “[Léon is] somebody who’s lost his parents, an immigrant, in fact ... If you’re not smart, it means no brain, means not a lot of words, so you have to put a lot of emotions. You defend yourself in that way, the instinctive,” Reno says about portraying Léon. “If you’re slow, [Mathilda] will control the situation."

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Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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15 Things You May Not Know About Close Encounters of the Third Kind
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Columbia Pictures

We are not alone. Here are a few facts about Steven Spielberg’s 1977 UFO classic, on its 40th anniversary.

1. IT WAS INITIALLY A VERY DIFFERENT FILM.

Spielberg’s initial story outline involved UFOs and shady government dealings following the Watergate scandal, which became a script entitled “Watch the Skies.” The idea involved a police or military officer working on Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s official study into UFOs in the 1950s and 1960s, who would become the whistleblower on the government cover-up of aliens. There were numerous rewrites—Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader even took a crack at it, penning a political UFO thriller titled “Kingdom Come” that Spielberg and the movie studio rejected—before the story we know today emerged.

2. IT’S NAMED AFTER LEGITIMATE UFO RESEARCH.


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Spielberg partly based his idea on the research of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a civilian scientific advisor to Project Blue Book who eventually admitted that 11 percent of the study’s findings about unidentified flying objects could not be explained using science.

The title (which is never specifically explained in the movie) is actually derived from Hynek’s own alien close encounter classification system: A close encounter of the first kind is sighting of a UFO; the second kind is physical evidence to prove the existence of an alien; and the third kind is actual contact with alien life forms.

3. THERE’S A CAMEO FROM THE GODFATHER OF UFO RESEARCH.

Hynek, who also served as a technical advisor on the movie, makes an uncredited cameo in the final scene of the movie. You can spot him pretty easily—he’s the goateed man smoking a pipe and wearing a powder blue suit who pushes through the crowd of scientists to get a better look at the aliens.

4. NOBODY WANTED THE STARRING ROLE.

Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Columbia Pictures

The director first offered the part of Roy Neary to actor Steve McQueen, who turned it down because he said he couldn’t cry on cue, something he saw as essential to the character. Spielberg then went to Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, and James Caan who all turned him down as well before asking his friend Richard Dreyfuss, who previously worked with Spielberg on Jaws, to take the part.

5. BUT IT WASN'T THE MOST DIFFICULT ROLE TO CAST.

Spielberg approached French actors like Lino Ventura, Yves Montand, and Jean-Louis Trintignant to play Claude Lacombe—who was based on famous UFO researcher Jacques Vallée—before settling on director and sometimes-actor François Truffaut. The initially skeptical Truffaut, who was nervous about appearing in a big budget Hollywood movie, accepted the role because he wanted to compile research for a book about acting (he never did write the book).

6. MERYL STREEP COULD HAVE PLAYED ROY'S WIFE.

Many actresses—including a then-unknown Yale Drama School grad named Meryl Streep—auditioned for the part of Roy’s wife Ronnie, but he ultimately cast actress Teri Garr because he saw her in a coffee commercial and loved the way she was able to convey a wide range of emotions in a 30-second clip.

7. THEY SHOT IN A DISUSED AIR FORCE HANGAR.


Columbia Pictures

Spielberg wanted to shoot in real suburban locations rather than studio backlots, but the production had trouble finding locations. The biggest question: Where could Spielberg shoot the climactic canyon sequence with the mothership?

The production looked for huge indoor enclosures that would allow for the massive scale of the scene, though they only found ones with center support dividers that spoiled the openness Spielberg wanted for the UFO runway. The only location producers found without center dividers was a 300 foot by 300 foot disused hangar that had been used for dirigibles during World War II at Brookley Air Force base in Mobile, Alabama.

8. THE TEAM BOUGHT A HOUSE FOR THE PRODUCTION—AND SOLD IT FOR A PROFIT.

The Nearys' house, which is located at 1613 Carlisle Drive East in Mobile, was actually purchased by the production for $35,000 so they could do whatever they wanted with the interiors. It was later sold for $50,000 after production wrapped, netting a $15,000 surplus that went back into the film’s budget.

9. THE MEMORABLE 5-NOTE TONES TOOK A LONG TIME TO FIGURE OUT

Composer John Williams worked with Spielberg to come up with the movie’s distinct five-note musical method of communication between humans and aliens—which Spielberg partly based on the Solfège system of musical education—a year before shooting began.

Williams initially wanted a seven-note sequence, but it was too long for the simple musical “greeting” Spielberg wanted. The composer enlisted a mathematician to calculate the number of five-note combinations they could potentially make from a 12-note scale. When that number proved to be somewhere upwards of 134,000 combinations, Williams created 100 distinct versions, and they simply whittled the combinations down one by one until they had a winner.

10. SPIELBERG USED TRICKS TO GET THE PERFORMANCE OUT OF HIS CHILD ACTOR.


Columbia Pictures

Cary Guffey, who plays little Barry Guiler, had never acted before, so Spielberg set up ways to coax a performance out of the 3-year-old. To get a shot of Guffey reacting to the aliens first approaching the Guiler house, Spielberg slowly unwrapped a present for the young actor just off camera, making him smile. Guffey even exclaims “Toys! Toys!” in the final take.

To get the boy to react to the aliens offscreen, Spielberg had Guffey walk up to his mark where—unbeknownst to the little actor—two crewmembers were dressed as a gorilla and a clown standing behind cardboard blinds. When Guffey entered the kitchen, Spielberg dropped the first blind revealing the clown to scare him, and then dropped the other blind to reveal the gorilla, which scared him even more. The gorilla then took off his mask, revealing the film’s makeup man, Bob Westmoreland, who Guffey recognized, causing him to laugh and smile in the final take.

11. THE MOVIE NEARLY FEATURED VERY EARLY CGI.

Spielberg originally toyed with the idea of using computer generated images to create the aliens and their ships, even going so far as to have animator Colin Cantwell create a CGI test of three UFOs floating over a stadium. The single-shot test, which took three weeks to complete and was one of the first computer generated images ever created for a film, proved to be unfeasible for the whole movie—so the idea was dropped.

12. THERE WERE SOME UNORTHODOX IDEAS FOR CREATING THE ALIENS.

Spielberg wanted the aliens to be non-human beings that glided instead of walked, and he had a weird idea to pull it off: An orangutan dressed in a specially-made suit. For a screen test, the production team outfitted an orangutan in grey spandex and strapped it into roller skates. The orangutan immediately took off the skates and crawled to its owner, so a full test couldn’t be completed, and the team scrapped the idea. The majority of the small aliens in the final movie were played by local elementary school girls from Mobile in specially made grey suits and masks who were heavily backlit to create the final alien silhouette effect.

13. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS FEATURES A PRECURSOR TO E.T.


Columbia Pictures

To create the alien who bids farewell using the musical hand signals at the end of the film, Spielberg enlisted the help of Italian special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, who designed a fully articulated steel, aluminum, and fiberglass animatronic puppet that Spielberg nicknamed “Puck.” Puck’s expressions were based on photos of Guffey. The puppet was operated by a crew of seven puppeteers, with Spielberg himself controlling the final articulation before the alien leaves to go to the mothership.

Puck would help inspire E.T. after Spielberg asked himself, “What if this little guy didn’t get back on the mothership?” Rambaldi would also go on to design the character of E.T.

14. SPIELBERG BET AGAINST HIS OWN MOVIE—AND REALLY CASHED IN.

Spielberg and his buddy George Lucas both had new movies coming out in 1977; Lucas’s was a little movie called Star Wars. Lucas thought his ramshackle space movie wouldn’t make back its budget, and he knew his friend’s new movie would break box office records just like Jaws had done, so he offered Spielberg a friendly wager. Both agreed to give the other 2.5 percent of the profits of their respective films. Lucas grossly underestimated his movie, which went on to become the second highest grossing movie of all time if adjusted for inflation (in comparison, Close Encounters is #71). The difference ended up being $40 million.

15. SPIELBERG DIDN'T LIKE THE VERSION THAT WAS INITIALLY RELEASED.

Spielberg wanted to release Close Encounters in the summer of 1978, which would have given him ample time to edit the film and finish its special effects—but Columbia Pictures, which was going through major financial troubles, insisted he have it ready for a November 1977 release, leaving the director with a final cut on a movie he didn’t feel was completely ready. 

Three years later, the company allowed Spielberg to “finish” the movie under one condition: That he show the inside of the mothership, which would give the studio’s marketing department an angle to sell this new version. The director capitulated, adding new scenes and cutting others to create a “Special Edition.” The director was unhappy with the scene, though, and later cut it for the Collector's Edition home video release.

ADDITIONAL SOURCES:Blu-ray special features; Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Classic FilmClose Encounters of the Third Kind Diary.

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