Twenty years after the release of "The Fifth Element" (on May 9, 1997), we still have one question: What in the world was that?
Luc Besson's flamboyant, over-the-top sci-fi epic, starring a blond Bruce Willis, an androgynous Chris Tucker, a tragically-coiffed Gary Oldman, and Milla Jovovich left viewers stunned. Some loved it, some hated it, but it was a box office hit around the world (for many years, the biggest French cinema export ever), and it remains a cult favorite today.
Still, as many times as you've marveled (or snickered, or just gawked) at "The Fifth Element" on cable, there's a lot you may not know about the movie -- its long gestation (22 years!), the hilarious story of how Tucker landed his role, and the production's scandalous off-screen love triangle. Here are the elements that made the film.
1. Besson (above) said he started writing the screenplay when he was 16, creating the vivid fantasy universes to combat the boredom he experienced living in rural France. But it didn't reach the screen until he was 38 years old; by that time, he felt he was old enough to actually have something to say about life.
2. The filmmaker had approached Willis to star as heroic cabbie Korben Dallas back in the early 1990s, before he had financing in place. He also sought Mel Gibson, who turned the part down.
3. Ultimately, Besson thought he'd have to settle for a cheaper leading man, but in a chance conversation with Willis, the actor said that if he liked the script, he'd figure out a way to make the money work. "Sometimes I just do it because they're just fun," he said of his movie role choices in 1997, "and this was a real fun movie to make." He'd end up signing on for a reduced salary up front and a percentage of the profits.
4. Oldman, who'd played the villain in "The Professional," took the bad guy role of Zorg as a favor to Besson, who'd helped finance Oldman's directing debut, "Nil by Mouth." "It was me singing for my supper," Oldman recalled in 2011. "I owed him one." He did his duty, but he didn't think much of his performance. "I can't bear it," he said in 2014.
5. The filmmakers auditioned 8,000 actresses to play mysterious, scantily clad heroine Leeloo. Besson said he saw 200 or 300 of those actresses read. One of them was Jovovich, who had taken a break from acting after "Dazed and Confused" three years earlier, in order to focus on her singing career. "Milla has this physical thing, she can be from the past or the future," Besson said in 1997. "She can be an Egyptian or a Roman. She can be Nefertiti and she can be from outer space."
6. "Fifth Element" would relaunch the future "Resident Evil" mainstay as an action star, a career for which she began training over several months of rehearsals for Leeloo, studying acting and karate for eight hours a day.
7. Even so, the martial arts novice couldn't manage some of the high kicks required of her character. They were accomplished via artful editing and an artificial leg operated from just outside the frame.
8. French fashionista Jean-Paul Gaultier designed the film's elaborate, gender-bending costumes. He had to outfit at least 900 actors and extras. One costume included a jacket that was said to have cost $5,000.
9. Chris Tucker (still best known at the time for his scene-stealing "Friday" role) won the role of colorful media personality Ruby Rhod because the part had been turned down by Besson's first choice: Prince.
10. So why did Prince turn down the role? As Gaultier explained it in 2013, the "Purple Rain" star found the proposed costumes the designer had shown him in illustrations to be "a bit too effeminate." (Let that sink in for a minute.)11. Gaultier had also unwittingly offended Prince with his description of one proposed outfit, a mesh suit with a padded, fringe-bedecked rear. Gaultier kept referring to this part of the suit as a "faux cul" ("fake ass"), but because of his thick accent, he said Prince misheard him as saying, "F--- you!"
12. Tucker has said he took inspiration from both Prince and Michael Jackson in crafting his performance as Ruby Rhod. Quipped Gaultier, "Maybe he's less Michael Jackson and more Janet."
13. Besson enlisted influential French comic book artists Jean Giraud (a.k.a. Moebius) and Jean-Claude Mézières to design his futuristic universe. Willis' flying taxi was inspired by the images of a similar vehicle in Mézières' title "The Circles of Power."
14. The New York scenes were created using a combination of CGI (for the flying cars), live action (the people), and scale models (the buildings). A crew of 80 on the production design team spent five months building dozens of city blocks at 1/24th scale.
15. The language Leeloo speaks had a vocabulary of 400 words invented by Besson and Jovovich. They practiced it by writing letters to each other in the made-up tongue.
16. Besson cast his wife, Maïwenn Le Besco, as the alien Diva Plavalaguna (above) after the actress he'd originally chosen dropped out. But during the shoot, he left Maïwenn and took up with Jovovich.
17. Besson and Jovovich married at the end of 1997 and divorced two years later, after he'd directed her in the lead role of his 1999 movie "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc."
18. The astonishment on everyone's faces when Plavalaguna appears was real. Besson had isolated his wife from the cast so that no one would know what the Diva was supposed to look like until they saw her in character as the blue-skinned alien.
19. Surprisingly, hero Willis and villain Oldman share no screen time.
20. "The Fifth Element" cost a reported $90 million to produce, the costliest film made up to that point by a non-American production company (in this case, the French studio Gaumont). It earned back $264 million worldwide, $200 million of which came from moviegoers outside North America. It held the record as the most globally successful French-produced movie until "The Intouchables" in 2011.
21. The movie earned one Oscar nomination, for Best Sound Editing.
22. As sophisticated as the visual effects seemed at the time, Besson found them frustratingly primitive. Today's digital effects would have made shooting "Fifth Element" much easier, he said recently. He's currently finishing for July release the sci-fi epic "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets," based on the Mézières stories he loved as a boy. Besson says it features 2,734 effects shots, compared to a mere 188 for "Fifth Element."
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