Visionary director Luc Besson (Leon, The Fifth Element) brings his unique style to the big-screen adaptation of Jacques Tardi’s acclaimed comic book, The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec. Louise Bourgoin plays the title character, and in a recent Q&A, the director and actress discussed the film.
LUC BESSON Q&A
Q: Tell us about how you met Jacques Tardi.
Besson: It’s a long story. I first fell in love with his heroine, Adèle, about ten years ago. I tried to contact Tardi, but unfortunately he had agreed to do Adèle with another director. At the time, I was a bit saddened, but pleased that he had chosen a “great” director and wished him the best of luck. I waited impatiently to see the movie, which never came out. After three or four years, I called Tardi back and he told me he’d fallen out with that particular director and filmmakers in general. He rejected the whole idea of a movie adaptation. I had to convince him to reconsider. We met several times. We needed to reassure him, prove our credentials and wait another year to buy back the rights that his agent had sold to someone else. After six years of waiting and negotiating, Tardi finally agreed to sell me the rights to his Adèle.
Q: How did you go about adapting the comic book?
Besson: I wrote a first draft of the adaptation, staying very faithful to the comic book, Tardi’s universe and the underlying characteristics of Adèle Blanc-Sec.
I gave my script to Tardi in a state of undisguised anxiety. It was nerve-wracking in the sense that he wrote the comic book and I had made his character my own by adapting it. But I struck lucky because he read the script and said, “It’s great!” He recognized his comic book and character, and at the same time discovered a film adaptation of them, not just the transposition of his story into moving pictures. That really won him over. The only change he asked for was to the name of one of the characters.
Q: Tell us about Louise Bourgoin (Adele).
Besson: I’d been following Louise’s career for some time–from wacky weather girl on (cable channel) Canal+ to female lead opposite Fabrice Luchini in Anne Fontaine’s The Girl From Monaco. Her ability to play a range of totally different characters really appealed to me because it’s a very rare talent, which is particularly relevant to the role of Adèle, who adopts about fifteen different disguises in the movie. When I met Louise, we hit it off immediately and I was sure that I had my Adèle.
Louise is very open-minded, always on the ball and able to switch from hot to cold in the blink of an eye, just like Adèle, but less crazy. Louise is also very hardworking and extremely reliable. With Adèle, it’s more complex because she keeps going her own way and nothing can stop her! On set, the crew nicknamed Louise “the accountant” because she was constantly checking the continuity and shot list. She knew it all by heart. Working with her was a complete eye-opener!
Q: Tell us about Mathieu Amalric, who plays Dieuleveult, the film’s villain.
Mathieu Amalric was one of the first actors I chose for Adèle. I really like the man and the actor. He’s one of the greatest talents of his generation, capable of absolutely incredible metamorphoses. His performance in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is simply astonishing.
I met with Mathieu to offer him the role of Dieuleveult, but he replied that he was taking a break from acting to devote himself to directing. Actually, I think I sweet-talked him into it with the help of his children. He went home and mentioned it to his son, who said, “You’re nuts! Tardi, Adèle Blanc-Sec, that’s amazing! You have to do it!” Mathieu called me back to say he’d make an exception for Adèle. So it all worked out fine and the shoot with him was a complete pleasure.
When audiences see Dieuleveult in the movie, I don’t think they’ll recognize Mathieu unless they know which character he’s playing. Facially, he’s unrecognizable. He even altered the tone of his voice. He totally subsumed himself into the character in a quite exceptional performance.
Q: How about Gilles Lellouche, who plays Inspector Caponi?
Besson: I’ve known Gilles Lellouche a long time. We met in 2003 on Pourkoi… Passkeu, his first short film. I’ve always had a lot of time for Gilles, but I never found a role to offer him.
Physically, Caponi isn’t too dissimilar to Gilles. He just needed to put on some weight. I didn’t ask him to gain thirty kilos in two months, like Scorsese with De Niro on Raging Bull. We just padded him out a little. After barely a couple of meetings, we’d got our Caponi, who isn’t an easy character to pin down–he’s a gruff, provincial type, not the sharpest tool in the box. He’s always slightly off the pace, which constantly creates comedic situations. He’s also one of the key characters in the movie and a good counterweight to Louise and her investigation.
Q: Tell us about Jean-Paul Rouve, who plays the inept hunter Justin de Saint Hubert.
Besson: There’s a striking physical resemblance between Jean-Paul Rouve and Saint Hubert in the comic book, the big game hunter who abandons a safari to hunt the pterodactyl. We just needed to give him a little goatee, darken his eyes a touch, put a pith helmet on his head, and he was absolutely perfect!
Q: Tell us about how Jacky Nercessian took on the role of Esperandieu.
Besson: Jacky Nercessian is another actor who has an astonishing capacity to metamorphose. He can play any role, even a crazy old lady if you give him a dress and a wig! On Adèle, Jacky was in make-up for five hours a day. It’s a wonderful role for him to get his teeth into because he has huge stage and film experience and I don’t think he ever got the major role he deserved. I hope he will now because he truly can play anyone and anything.
Q: Tell us about Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, who plays Adele’s sister Agathe.
Besson: For Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, it was tricky because she plays Adèle’s sister. They bicker and fight all day long, but they’re quite alike physically and facially. I’d never met Laure, but I was very pleasantly surprised.
Q: What about the film crew you assembled for Adele?
Besson: I called on talented technicians, most of whom were old acquaintances. Thierry Arbogast as DP. We’ve worked together since Nikita. Olivier Bériot did a very special job with the costumes. He’s a hugely talented designer, whom I’ve got to know well because he also worked on the Arthur trilogy.
The production design is crucial in Adèle, and once more I brought in Hugues Tissandier, who worked with me on Joan of Arc and the Arthur trilogy. We get on really well. As usual, we started by working with reduced-scale models of the sets, which allow me to select my camera angles. With models, you soon notice if the ceilings are too high or too low, or the walls too far apart. Hugues now uses digital technology to design and pre-visualize the sets, which means I can take a virtual tour to preselect the angles I want to shoot from and the lenses I want to use. It also saves money to use new technology because we reduce set construction to what will actually be in the shot. Our research was made much easier by the abundance of texts on Egypt and the valuable collaboration of Jacques Tardi, who opened up his private library to us. Jacques owns an apartment filled with period books and documents, and Hugues spent a lot of time there with him. I think Tardi was quite impressed by the quality of our work, judging by his reaction when he first saw Adèle’s apartment. It was very moving to see. Jacques arrived on set and entered Adèle’s apartment, which he had created after all, and suddenly Louise, as Adèle, came to meet him, in her green dress and feather hat, and handed him a copy of the comic book that she had signed for him. It was a wonderful moment.
It’s true I often work with the same crew. They’re all very good, real “warriors”, some people would say, but I guess I don’t want them to work exclusively on my movies. I’m delighted when they go to the USA, China or anywhere else with other directors. They see different things, have enriching experiences, and that nourishes my work. The important thing for me is that they still want to try new things, push the envelope a little bit further. I ask a lot of them. More, always a little bit more…
Q: How was shooting Adele different from your other films?
Besson: Every film is a different experience, because of the story, characters, actors, people you meet and also, above all, because of when you make it. When you make your first movie, everything’s brand new. I was twenty when I made The Last Combat. Then time goes by… You’re not the same person at 25-30, not the same at 40, not the same at 50…
There’s a sort of complex alchemy between your own spiritual and intellectual development and your practical experience. The big issue, when I start shooting a movie, is knowing how I can use that experience and still have the new and fresh take on things that is vital to making a good movie.
On Adèle, we did a lot of groundwork in pre-production and I really focused on that phase. It was also the first time I wasn’t also producing. Having a producer, Virginie Besson-Silla, my wife, was a very enjoyable experience to the extent that I was able to devote all my energy to directing. I was very demanding, the whole time, and I gave it all I had. I really wanted this movie to look as good as possible and for the editing process to be nothing but pleasure, sheer pleasure.
LOUISE BOURGOIN Q&A
Q: Were you familiar with Jacques Tardi’s work before Luc Besson offered you the role of Adèle Blanc-Sec?
Bourgoin: Yes, I had read and adored the nine albums in the series. Adèle Blanc-Sec is one of the very few comic book heroines who isn’t an airhead or a bimbo. She doesn’t go out of her way to be nice to people, she’s strong and quite caustic, and that’s what I like about her.
As for Tardi, I find that he tells pretty offbeat stories. The endings are always very surprising, nothing happens in a predictable order. The fact that he draws without the story totally locked down makes his work seem very free, and often impertinent and original.
Q: Tell us how you met Luc Besson.
Bourgoin: His assistant called me in the middle of the week to ask if I would meet him, without giving me any further details. We met the very next day. He gave me the screenplay, which I read that evening. I called Luc right away to say I absolutely wanted to do it. Next day, when we met, he said, “You’re Adèle!” It all took barely 24 hours.
I was very proud that he gave me such a multi-faceted role and had faith in me despite my relatively slender filmography. I couldn’t wait to start rehearsals, and because Luc’s such a perfectionist and a hard-worker, I was able to prepare for the part months in advance, which was wonderful.
Q: What was it like working with him?
Bourgin: Like working with Superman. He sleeps three hours a night, edits, shoots, always has time for his family, actors and crew, stays focused and objective, and knows and gets exactly what he wants. I really had to step up and it was an amazing experience. We did a lot of work on the character of Adèle both physically—I even learned to walk more stiffly—and dramatically—I learned the whole script before we started shooting and rehearsed my lines endlessly. Luc told me that if I could say my lines without being put off by him moving around me, that meant I had it down. So, while I paced up and down saying my lines, he goofed off to try and distract me. And when he couldn’t distract me, I knew I’d nailed it.
Q: How did you approach playing a comic book heroine?
Bourgoin: Above all, I was struck by Adèle’s physical appearance. She has a very singular face, with an upturned nose and freckles. She doesn’t care what she wears—her hats are particularly shapeless but she doesn’t give a hoot. It’s nice to have a female character who doesn’t conform to the standards that are usually inflicted upon us.
Q: What character traits did you particularly focus on?
Bourgoin: Personally, I think it’s an enormous help to have to “transform” yourself slightly to get into a character. It definitely benefits the performance. Basically, I have always liked wearing disguises because my mother only took photos of me as a child when I was wearing a disguise. I don’t know why, but disguise equaled photo and I used to love that, so I dressed up every day as Davy Crockett, a fairy, a ladybug…
Q: Tell us about the Adèle Blanc-Sec in Luc Besson’s movie.
Bourgoin: I’d say that Luc’s Adèle is a little more likable than the comic book Adèle. She’s more human, genuinely sensitive. As the story progresses, we realize there are things that hurt her, that Adèle has flaws, which she tries to cover up, of course. She’s opinionated, feisty, touching, and brutally honest, with a real sense of humor. She’s a sort of female Indiana Jones. The story is packed full of fantastic adventures for her, like riding a pterodactyl, bringing mummies to life, paddling down the Nile in a sarcophagus, and saving the President’s life, but she also has more private, emotional moments, with her sister in particular. It’s fun to play such a bold and physical heroine and it’s rare in this kind of movie, where women are often just a foil for the men, conforming to a stereotype and giving the lead, who is usually a man, things to do. In Luc’s movie, it’s the heroine who’s in control of the action from beginning to end. It’s a wonderful role for an actress.
Q: How did you get on with the rest of the cast?
Bourgoin: They were all on set only a few days at a time, so it was a bit frustrating because I didn’t really have time to get to know them, except Laure de Clermont, who plays Adèle’s sister, Agathe, and with whom I got on really well. Acting with Mathieu Amalric, who plays Professor Dieuleveult, was like a dream come true, but the latex mask and dark glasses he wears in the movie made it feel like I was acting opposite a kind of disembodied Amalric. That was a curious sensation—you realize how difficult it is to act without being able to see your scene partner’s eyes, to bounce off their expression. Jacky Nercessian, who plays Esperandieu, is an incredible actor who constantly made me laugh. In fact, I have nothing but good memories.
Q: What do you think of Hugues Tissandier’s sets?
Bourgoin: As a former art student, I admit that I was amazed by the sets Hugues built. It was a real shock when I went into Ramses II’s tomb for the first time. Adèle’s apartment—her bedroom, the bath, the ornaments—all draw closely on the comic book. Hugues did an incredible job.
Q: Tell us about the costumes.
Bourgoin: They’re sumptuous. I wear eighteen different costumes in the movie. Olivier Bériot took his inspiration for some of them from period etchings, and the others came straight out of his imagination when there were no archive documents, like, for example, the tennis dress or the safari outfit that I wear in the desert. I guess, in 1912, there weren’t many women tennis players because it was essentially a sport for men, and so there aren’t many illustrations. Adèle’s costumes are a compromise between period fashion and the requirements of the movie, and I have to say it was fascinating to see things come together, gradually bringing my character to life.
Q: Which are your favorite scenes?
Bourgoin: When I read the script my indisputable favorite was the scene with the stammering policeman at the police station. It’s an incredibly funny scene. I was so looking forward to it that I put too much pressure on myself and it took me several takes to get it right.
The scene with Patmosis, the mummy who’s a nuclear physicist, stepping out of a display case in my apartment and asking for a cup of tea is very funny, too.
The tennis scene is fun and esthetically appealing. In 1912, a woman had to play tennis very elegantly. I had to take lessons to learn the way they moved back then, turning a forehand, backhand, smash or service into a kind of ballet step, knocking the ball back while kicking your back leg up high and holding the pose on the tiptoes of your other foot. It was quite complicated but looks good on screen.
And then, of course, there’s the scene where Adèle rides the pterodactyl. Luc found a pterodactyl tamer—I had no idea they still existed (laughs)—and I trained for three months, starting ten meters off the ground until I was flying as high as the Eiffel Tower with no saddle or harness. I confess I was pretty pleased with myself. Compared to that, the camel in Egypt was a piece of cake.