13 Futuristic Facts About The Fifth Element

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If The Fifth Element—which was released 20 years ago today—isn't the goofiest, most outlandish sci-fi action movie ever made, it's not for lack of trying. Luc Besson's 23rd-century spectacle features a breakout performance by Milla Jovovich, and had Bruce Willis saving Earth from a giant rock one year before Armageddon. You probably think it's either great or terrible—there's not much in-between on this one. If you're on the "yes" side, here's some knowledge to add to your multi-pass next time you watch it. 

1. Léon: The Professional helped it get made. 

Mad Frenchman Luc Besson had five features under his belt when he started working on The Fifth Element in 1992. But his respectable track record wasn't enough to pull in the kind of financial backing he needed for a futuristic sci-fi adventure. So after some pre-production work (including meeting with designers; see below), he put The Fifth Element aside and—in the course of 11 months—wrote and directed Léon: The Professional, starring Jean Reno, 13-year-old Natalie Portman, and future The Fifth Element villain Gary Oldman. Léon's strong showing ($45 million worldwide, on a $16 million budget) gave the people who controlled the purse strings more confidence in Besson's ability to make The Fifth Element a success, and the project was put back on track. 

2. Besson kind of wishes it had taken even longer to get it made. 

He explained to The Playlist: "I was a little bit frustrated because I made the film right before all the new effects arrived. So when I did the film it was all blue screen, six hours, dots on the wall, takes forever to do one shot. Now, basically, you put the camera on your shoulder and then you run and then you add a couple of dinosaurs and spaceships." He said he'd love the chance to make another futuristic sci-fi film—maybe even a sequel to The Fifth Element—now that technology has made it easier. 

3. It was inspired by French comic books. 

As a teenager in the 1970s, Besson devoured his countrymen's comics (called "bandes dessinées" there—"drawn strips"), especially the sci-fi titles by artists like Jean-Claude Mézières and Jean "Moebius" Giraud. Besson enlisted those two to head up the production design team for The Fifth Element, and used their sketches and storyboards extensively. Giraud and Alejandro Jodorowsky later sued Besson for plagiarizing their comic The Incal in The Fifth Element, but the case was dismissed. (Giraud had, after all, worked directly with Besson on on the film.) Jodorowsky later said it was the comic's editor who'd filed the lawsuit, not him and Giraud. 

4. It borrowed some ideas from Plato.

Maybe you knew this, but Luc Besson didn't. He conceived The Fifth Element as a teenager in the 1970s, taking the four classical elements (earth, water, wind, and fire) and combining them to make a fifth (life). Turns out that a lot of ancient people had already come up with the same basic concept, including the Greek philosopher. Besson said, “When my father came across Plato’s writings on the subject, he came to me with the book and said, ‘Do you know that your movie is a remake?’ I read it, and was amazed to see the similarities between what Plato had written and what I had put into the script”

5. Besson is a hands-on director. Literally.

Besson usually operates the camera himself, which means he's right there in the middle of things rather than off to the side. He doesn't call "cut" between takes (he doesn't like to stop the momentum), but will instead simply talk to the actors and tell them what he needs. And if an actor isn't quite where Besson needs him or her to be, he'll take the actor by the shoulders and move him or her manually. For the actors who hadn't worked with Besson before, this informality took some getting used to.

6. Chris Tucker's role was meant for Prince, who thought the costumes were too effeminate. 

According to costume designer Jean Paul Gaultier, Besson had lined up Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts, and Prince to play the leads in 1992, before financial problems delayed the project. (It's not clear whether any of them had officially signed on or were merely considering it.) Besson arranged for Gaultier to meet with Prince when the singer was in Paris so he could show him sketches of his designs. The meeting proved awkward (as one assumes many meetings with Prince are), and The Purple One later told Besson that he found the costumes "a bit too effeminate." It's entirely possible that the production delays would have prevented Prince from committing anyway, but it's fun to think about what Ruby Rhod would have been like in different hands. Quieter, probably.

7. At the time, it was the most expensive non-U.S. film in history.

It cost north of $70 million, or about the same as The Lost World: Jurassic Park, released the same year. 

8. Nobody can agree on what year it takes place in. 

The first scene is explicitly set in 1914. Everything after that is said to be "300 years later," which we understand is just an approximation. Korben Dallas's alarm clock says the year is 2263. But the notes on the 1997 DVD edition say 2257, and Besson says 2259 in his book The Story of The Fifth Element

9. The cast didn't know what the Diva looked like until they saw her onstage.

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Besson wanted to capture everyone's natural astonished reactions the first time they saw the Diva Plavalaguna. To achieve this, he simply kept the actress (his then-wife, Maïwenn Le Besco) hidden behind a curtain until the time came to film her entrance. So while the idea of an outlandish blue alien hanging around the craft services table with Bruce Willis is amusing, it didn't happen that way.

10. Some of Milla Jovovich's high kicks were performed by a "leg on a stick."

The actress trained for her fight scenes, but she was still mostly a novice. In particular, she couldn't kick very high. As she explained it, they worked around this by using a (presumably fake) leg on a stick, held just below the frame. She would move her body as if to kick, and the leg operators would swing the thing up into the frame. Movie magic! 

11. Gary Oldman doesn't like the movie.

In 2014, Oldman told Playboy that he "can't bear it." To be fair, he doesn't seem to have much fondness for most of the movies he's been in.

12. It offered Luc Besson the opportunity to ruin his second marriage and launch his third.

The director had been married to Maïwenn Le Besco, who plays the Diva Plavalaguna, since 1992 (when she was 16 and he was 33, but that's another story). She didn't want to be in the film, adhering to the old adage that married people shouldn't work together and co-workers shouldn't marry each other. But when the actress Besson had cast as the Diva dropped out, Le Besco took the part and gave a memorable performance. Alas, Besson didn't share his wife's policy of not mixing work with relationships. He left her during the production for Milla Jovovich, whom he married at the end of 1997 and divorced two years later. He was also married once before Le Besco and once (so far) after Jovovich.  

13. A famous fashion designer worked his fingers to the bone to get the costumes right. 

Jean Paul Gaultier, the enfant terrible of the fashion world who once gave Madonna conical breasts, designed the futuristic costumes for The Fifth Element—more than 1000 of them. He didn't just design them, either: For crowd scenes, where there might be hundreds of extras wearing his costumes, he'd go around making adjustments to ensure everyone looked right before the cameras rolled. So take a moment to appreciate the details next time you watch the movie, OK?

11 Surprising Facts About George R.R. Martin

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Game of Thrones fans know the epic HBO series is based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, but beyond the TV show, how much do they really know about the author? Sure, they know it’s taking him a really long time to finish The Winds of Winter, the sixth book in the series, but what about him as a person? Here are a few things you might not know about the man who brought us the world of Westeros.

1. As a kid, he made money selling monster stories.

The famed author grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, where his father was a longshoreman. "When I was living in Bayonne, I desperately wanted to get away," Martin told The Independent. "Not because Bayonne was a bad place, mind you. Bayonne was a very nice place in some ways. But we were poor. We had no money. We never went anywhere."

Though his family didn't have the means to travel outside of Bayonne, Martin began to develop a love of reading and writing at a very young age, which allowed him to imagine fantastical worlds beyond his New Jersey hometown. He also learned that writing could be a profitable endeavor: he began selling his stories to other kids in the neighborhood for a penny apiece. (He later raised his prices to a nickel.) Martin's entrepreneurial efforts came to an end when his stories began giving one of his kid customers nightmares, which eventually got back to Martin's mom.

2. He is obsessed with comic books.

In 2014, Martin sat down for a Q&A about his career at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. Though, given his love of fantasy worlds, it might not be surprising to learn that Martin is a comic book fan, he also credits the genre with inspiring him to begin writing in the first place.

"I’m so grateful for comic books because they were really the thing that made me a reader, which in return made me a writer," Martin said. "In the 1950s in America, we had these books that taught you to read, and they were all about Dick and Jane, who were the most boring family you ever wanted to meet ... I didn’t know anyone who lived like that, and it just seemed like a horrible thing. But Batman and Superman, they had a much more interesting life. Gotham City was much more interesting than wherever it was where Dick and Jane lived.”

3. He built a library tower in Santa Fe.

In 2009, Martin bought the home across the street from his house in Santa Fe, New Mexico and turned it into an office space with a library tower built inside. The tower is only two stories tall, because of city building restrictions, but it seems only fitting that the author/history buff would want to be surrounded with books while he writes.

4. A fan letter got his professional writing career started.

Martin's love of comic books is what got his professional career rolling, too. "I had a letter published in Fantastic Four, and because my address was in there I started getting these fanzines and I started writing stories for them," Martin said during the same Santa Fe Q&A. "Funny enough, people writing stories in these fanzines at the time were just awful. They were just really bad, which was good because I looked at these awful stories and knew I could do better than that. I may not have been Shakespeare or J.R.R. Tolkien, but I was certain I could write better than the crap in the fanzines, and indeed I could."

5. A failed novel led to a television writing career.

More than 10 years before A Song of Ice and Fire debuted in 1996, Martin wrote a book called The Armageddon Rag in 1983. Though it was a critical disappointment, producer Phil DeGuere was interested in adapting the project with Martin's help. While that never came to fruition, DeGuere thought of Martin when they were rebooting The Twilight Zone in the mid-1980s and brought him on board to write a handful of episodes. He later did some writing for the live-action Beauty and the Beast series, starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton.

6. Network television standards were not a fit for Martin's style of writing.

Though Martin found success as a television writer, the constant back-and-forth about what they were or were not allowed to show proved to be too much for the writer. "[T]here were constant limitations. It wore me down," Martin told Rolling Stone. "There were battles over censorship, how sexual things could be, whether a scene was too 'politically charged,' how violent things could be. Don’t want to disturb anyone. We got into that fight on Beauty and the Beast. The Beast killed people. That was the point of the character. He was a beast. But CBS didn’t want blood, or for the beast to kill people ... The character had to remain likable."

7. He owns an independent movie theater.

In 2006, The Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe closed its doors, which saddened many locals who were regular patrons, Martin among them. Several years later, Martin decided to give the theater a second life and, after a slight makeover, reopened its doors in 2013. Today, in addition to independent films, the theater holds regular special events—including screenings of Game of Thrones episodes. There's also an onsite bar that serves Game of Thrones-themed cocktails, like the signature White Walker.

8. Martin credits HBO with changing the rules of television.

Network television standards may have been too tame and regimented for Martin's tastes, but all that changed with HBO and The Sopranos, which he credits as paving the way for a series like Game of Thrones to exist in its current form at all.

"I credit HBO with smashing the damn trope that everybody had to be likable on television," Martin told Rolling Stone. "The Sopranos turned it around. When you meet Tony Soprano, he’s in the psychiatrist office, he’s talking about the ducks, his depression and that stuff, and you like this guy. Then he gets in his car and he’s driving away and he sees someone who owes him money, and he jumps out and he starts stomping him. Now how likable was he? Well you didn’t care, because they already had you. A character like Walter White on Breaking Bad could never have existed before HBO."

9. Martin thinks it's important for writers to break the rules.

While he's an admitted fan of William Goldman, Martin has a very different opinion of noted screenplay expert Syd Field. "There is a book out there by Syd and it’s his guide to writing screenplays and it’s probably one of the most harmful things that has ever been done for the movie industry,” Martin said. “For some perverse reason, it has become the bible not for writers but for what we call 'the suits,' the guys at the studios whose job it is to develop properties and give notes to supervise screenplays. They take Syd Field’s course and they buy the book and they start criticizing screenplays like, ‘Well you know, the first turn is supposed to be on page 12 and yours is not until page 17, so obviously this won’t do!'"

"Syd just writes downs these ridiculous rules," Martin continued. "If there really was a formula as he says, then every movie would be a blockbuster. We would just connect A, B, and C and we would have a great movie and everyone would pack the theater to see it. But every movie is not a blockbuster. Many movies that follow his rules precisely actually go down the toilet."

10. He’s a skilled chess player.

"I started playing chess when I was quite young, in grade school," Martin told The Independent. "I played it through high school. In college, I founded the chess club. I was captain of the chess team." Eventually, Martin discovered that he could actually make some money off this skill.

"For two or three years, I had a pretty good situation. Most writers who have to have a day job work five days a week and then they have the weekend off to write. These chess tournaments were all on the weekend so I had to work on Saturday and Sunday, but then I had five days off to write. The chess generated enough money for me to pay my bills."

11. He has a very specific way of writing, which is why he hasn't finished the winds of winter.

Fans have been waiting for a while for the next book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and Martin has been honest about why it's taking him so long. "Writer’s block isn’t to blame here, it’s distraction," he said. "In recent years, all of the work I’ve been doing creates problems because it creates distraction. Because the books and the show are so popular I have interviews to do constantly. I have travel plans constantly. It’s like suddenly I get invited to travel to South Africa or Dubai, and who’s passing up a free trip to Dubai? I don’t write when I travel. I don’t write in hotel rooms. I don’t write on airplanes. I really have to be in my own house undisturbed to write. Through most of my life no body did bother me, but now everyone bothers me every day."

Can You Guess the Meaning of These Dothraki Words?

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