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Ankler Special Edition: Luc Besson Responds
Last I saw Luc Besson, the director was at the height of his world. I visited him in 2016 at his massive studio, on the outskirts of Paris for an article about the making of Valerian, then underway. Then considered the most successful force in European cinema, Besson was overseeing not just the sci-fi epic that was touted as the highest budgeted Euro-film in history, but also a host of other productions as well as a burgeoning film school on the campus of his studio.
The past few years have led to one of the most stunning reversals of fortune in film history. Following the box office disappointment of Valerian, Besson’s Europa studios has been put in mothballs and the film school closed.
Worse still for Besson, his personal reputation came under the crosshairs of the Me Too movement when an actress who worked on Valerian filed rape charges against him, followed by reports alleging a long-standing pattern of harassment by former employees.
In recent months, the skies have begun to clear, a bit. The Paris Prosecutors office cleared him in the rape investigation and subsequent look into his treatment of employees. The anonymous claims in the initial press reports never materialized into specific charges or lawsuits. There have also been announcements of funding that would get the Europa machine back on its feet.
Last week, however, the comeback hit a road bump when Parisian authorities announced they were re-opening the rape investigation. In fact, “re-opening” has a different meaning in French law than in the United States, wherein accusers are entitled to ask for independent review of a case when they are dissatisfied with the outcome rather than it being a response to new evidence.
In any event, the announcement prompted Besson to want to speak out after his long silence. He gave a tearful interview to French television, and then, through representatives he contacted The Ankler about a discussion about the charges. There were no ground rules or restrictions on the interview.
In contrast to the director presiding over a bustling, multi-headed venture I had last met, I sat down with a much subdued Besson in the now quiet Europa offices in Beverly Hills. Our conversation follows.
This conversation has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
Ankler: Why don't we start what's on the table this week: the announcement that the rape charges against you are being reviewed.
Luc Besson: This is the normal process. She complained over a year ago. They opened the dossier. They made this long, long investigation, very precise. Almost 12 months. I went to the cops two or three times. The cops had seen more than 50 people around me. Mostly women who had worked with me. They had interrogated her. And then two to three months ago, they closed the dossier and said, ‘There is nothing.’ But by law anyone has the right to say, ‘I do not agree.’ I want another judge. So a few days ago, they nominated another judge, and that's the process. It would be, of course, less pain for everyone if she stopped after the first time, but she wants to go farther.
Do they go through the whole process again, talking to everyone?
LB: No. From what I've heard, the new judge takes the dossier, reads everything. If she thinks there are key things that are missing, she can ask one or two more things. After that, she makes her conclusions.
So what is your response to Ms. Van Roy's accusations?
LB: I don't know where to start.
What was your relationship?
LB: I had an affair with her for years. I regret that. A lot. It was a very sweet relationship. We'd see each other once in a while. It was always sweet; we'd never fight or anything. It was very sweet, that's all I can say. And the accusation comes one day . . . from nowhere. I couldn't understand, even now. I don't know why.
What had been your last communications with her?
LB: When I heard the thing, I tried to call her a few times and text her and I said, ‘I don't understand.' But she didn't call me. The relationship was super-sweet, smiling. Goodbye, come back soon. I miss you already.
Was there, even in a playful way, any violent element to your relationship?
LB: No, that's not my type. I have an aversion to violence. Except in films, because I know it's fake. I'm 60 years old. I have no record anywhere of any violence towards anyone. I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't take drugs.
What reason do you think she would have to make this up?
LB: I don't know. Honestly, I don't know. I think it's not up to me to answer that.
You've called her a fantasist.
LB: No, I never said this.
It came through your attorney.
LB: Maybe him but not me.
That's not your characterization of her?
LB: I don’t know why she does this thing. I really don't know, and I hope one day I will know.
Why are you choosing to speak publicly now?
LB: The other day I made this interview in France Because, as you know, the sensitivity between here and France is quite different. We're less business-oriented. We're more like artistic oriented. Americans are always mocking us for that. So I went on TV, and I made this interview a few days ago where publicly I said I have this relationship with this woman. I also said I had relations with other women a few times in the last 20 years.
But because my wife and my kids are the people I love the most in the world and why I would take the risk to hurt them? So I did one thing I never did in my life: I went to see a shrink. I know it's very common here. But no one around me ever went to see a shrink. So I went to see him twice a week to understand what I'm missing? Why am I creating that? Why I need so much affection and love from somebody else. And it's very clear now, just coming from a family where—it was nothing big nothing interesting—just parents divorce, I'm in boarding school, lack of affection, lack of love. And then you're looking, every time you see grass,
you think the grass is greener over there. Because something is missing and now I understand the process, how it's working. I know I won't be in this kind of problem anymore in my life, for sure.
Let's go through some of the particular charges that have been made against you. But first talk to me in general about your relationships with women who have worked for you.
LB: I know there is a few women who talk with one journalist specifically. The problem with that is they are anonymous. I don't really recognize a situation they talked about. And some of them are like more than 20 years ago. I don't recollect the thing.
Does it describe behavior you recognize in yourself?
LB: I don't recognize any of that behavior. Saying [that] though, if I have at any moment with anyone by my comportment bothered someone with a hug or with something that people at the time didn't want to share with me, and I didn't see that, I apologize. For sure. Because I never meant to bother someone, and if I did, I sincerely apologize. For sure, it was never my intention. I'm a sensitive guy, and a set is a very sensitive place. We are building feelings. You're happy, you cry, you're screaming, you hug, and we're all like that on the set.
At least in France, I was in this kind of environment since I'm 17. We are showing our emotion. We are sharing our emotion. So if someone at a certain point because, a person who has a bad experience before and is kind of shocked because you make a hug, I understand that. But I've never seen it, like, consciously, and I've never had someone at the time say, 'Hmmm!' Because then I would apologize. Right away.
It's kind of hard because I always try to treat women with respect for sure, always. And I never went over the limit or something. I know exactly the power of 'No.' Exactly. I mean, there's no ambiguity about 'No.' So I remember there's this case, where the woman doesn't say her name and it's 30 years ago, and honestly I dont recognize the way they describe it.
There's one woman who gives her name, and so I went on the internet to see her picture.
You didn't recognize the name?
LB: It was 24 years ago. She said we met in London and we have a tea together, and I believe her. It's possible. Then I invite her to dinner and she said no. And then she went back home. It's possible. Twenty-four years ago. Inviting a woman for dinner, it was not really unusual.
She said she felt her career was derailed because she refused to have dinner with you.
LB: That's totally coming from space. The last 24 years, I made three kids and ten films. I have other things to do. Like to take care of one woman that I just met once. I would spend hours to ruin her career? Let's be reasonable. First: I don't want to. Why? Why would I do that? It's impossible. I don't have this power. It's difficult when you hear this kind of thing. Something is wrong in the thing. It looks more like . . . I don't know.
Are you touchy in general with people?
LB: No, I'm . . . what is the right word? On the set, we are all extra-sensitive that's for sure. You're filming an actor who is going to cry because he's losing his mother. When he is through, 50 people are crying at the same time. When you say cut, I'm going to take the guy in my arms, for sure. Yeah, we have this kind of comportment. This kind of sensitivity. But for example if after the set is over, I go to the office. And I have 50 people working for me. I shake hands and I say hi, but I don't hug there. It's different. So that's it. That's all I can describe the thing.
Has there been anytime you forced someone to kiss you?
LB: No. No. That's not my type. That never happened. What's the point? Honestly. Love is here to be given not to be taken. What's the point? Just for you to understand also, when I'm on the set in a normal day, I have an average of three to five women waiting to see that I'm by myself to give me a paper with their phone. To say, I would love to see you after the set. Call me, please.
And how do you respond to that?
LB: Never in my life do I answer this type of thing. Ever. I smile and say, thank you very much. But I have this solicitation five times a day. I never force anyone to do anything. It just doesn't make sense.
There was a woman the report, an intern at Europa around 2000, who said that you would give her unwanted hugs, had rubbed her body, kissed her on the lips and taunted her when she didn't like it.
LB: No, I don't who is this person. You know what's interesting also, the cops talked to, I think, almost every woman who has really worked with me. My assistant, other women really close to me. They talked to all of them. And I think it's interesting to me that none of those women ever complained about my bad behavior. It's just the opposite. They say I'm a gentleman and that I never would do anything. So its very surprising that . . . the same journalist. A few people. It doesn't say the name. I don't know what to say about that. It's very strange.
The woman the former casting director in that article, complained of a sexualized atmosphere in the office. Said there were also physical gestures she described as sexual aggression. Said she has seen a lot of forced kissing and people forced to sit on your lap.
LB: No. No.
Have you propositioned actresses in auditions?
LB: No, never. You know why? Because I love my job. And I know what I'm doing in an audition, I'm looking for the best person for the part, and that is all. Sometimes people from my own family say, 'Please Luc, can I do the casting?' But I never treat anyone even in my own family different. I'm a professional, and when some people attack me like this, I feel very offended.
I do a casting and I'm doing a casting and I take the best person for the part.
Have you done auditions in hotel rooms?
LB: Hotel rooms, no never. When I'm in Paris, I usually have a salon. And yeah, the salon is an office so I see a lot of people. Men, women, casting, producers.
Are there always other people there?
LB: Sometimes yes, Sometimes no.
How do you feel now about being alone with an actor in a hotel suite?
LB: Now that I see how things are there, now I will be more careful to be sure that no one is bothered by anything, to be sure. But I never had any problems, since like 30 years.
So it's never a situation where you're sittting on a bed talking to someone who's come in to meet you?
LB: It's an office. There are tables and chairs.
But you know by the way, for example for Valerian, I remember one time. Because the office for the film is at St Denis; it's kind of far. Sometimes in the morning, it's easier for people to make the meeting in Paris, then to go there and come back. But my wife was almost always there.
She was the producer.
LB: She was the producer of the film. She wasn't always in the room, but if not, she was in the bedroom. And she never feels uncomfortable with that. But I understand that the image can be taken wrongly. If you say it's a bedroom. Young girls are coming in the bedroom. It's not the reality of things. It's an office, in a hotel. There are men, women, producers. I can give my agenda. You will see the list of people coming. We don't sit this way, by the way.
So I will correct that for sure in the future.
Given this experience what are some things you'll change about the way you do business?
LB: I think what's important is that I'm living in the world of unicorns and dolphins. I'm living in my dream. I'm writing four scripts a year. Most of the year, I'm in another world. I'm like this since I'm 5 years old, because when I feel pain, I always escape into this other world. So in a way, I'm a little too naive. I think everybody's cool, and everybody's nice and we love eath other. I'm a little bit like this.
When the first woman starts to talk, I'm like, whoa. First, I'm glad they are talking because I'm not so aware of this big problem, A few days ago in France they announced that 109 women died by their own husband punching them. Just in France. I was not aware of this number, and it's insane. The women took the risk to talk. And now its fair to ask what kind of risk the men are ready to take to help them. Because they take a risk, and I feel solidarity with these women who get hurt. There's bad behavior which is one thing—a guy trying to seduce and he's not very good. It's not nice. It's unpleasant. We have to correct that for sure. But there's also real crimes and for me, that's the thing.
The first thing we have to change is men should have absolutely no solidarity at all with these guys who are acting badly. For sure. No solidarity. Solidarity should go with the woman, and I think that’s super important for men to understand that.
Why then should we not believe these women who have said these things about your behavior?
LB: It's not to believe or not believe. I mean, I know the truth. I know the truth, and I can't understand someone not trusting me, and justice is here for that. And I helped the justice for 10 months to do their job and the dossier was closed and clear. The first judge said, it never happened. There's no violence. Now if someone doesn’t want to believe me, that's fine. But even if one was lying, it's not so much the thing. It hurts me and my family and my business and everything. But that's not the problem. The thing is 99% of the women tell the truth. So let's not obscure the real problem if one or two is lying. Most of them they don't. Justice is here to help them, and we should be here to help them.
Would that apply to the other women who made the accusations to the media who said you made unwanted advances, who said you touched them in inappropriate ways? How should we look at them?
LB: The same way. The way I am, and the way I was educated, if I did something wrong, I would say it. And actually I did something wrong. I betrayed my wife, and I say it. No one asked me, and by myself I said more than once. I'm not proud of it, believe me. And so if I have a behavior of trying to kiss her face—I would say it. It's nothing compared to cheating on my wife a few times. It's nothing. I will say it.
The moment today is so difficult that I understand now that the words are out and the women can talk. It's great! But you know to come back 24 years ago and say, you invite me for dinner or did this. It's kind of complicated because we can not really separate why this accusation. How it really works with this journalist. There's a lot of unsaid things also. That doesn't make it clear. That's what justice is here for. These women, they talk, which is great. But they don't go to the police or to justice to say it.
Are there things you look back on and at the time they were just the way people behaved, but by today’s standards you wouldn't behave that way today?
LB: Me personally, since I'm 17, the way I was educated: respect of a woman. No is no. And that's the rules. Do I push this rule one day or another? No! Because that's the rules. When I was 17, and I feel some love for a young girl and I try to seduce her, I'm using my sense of humor and you try to be nice. And that's what you try. Most of the time they say no., and it's fine.
Now the time is different and just being nice and polite is not enough. Especially if you have power. Power is a nightmare.
Why is that?
LB: I hate power, because it changes everything, and I understand that now.
Did you not understand that before?
LB: No, because I always think that if i see a woman, if we go for lunch and it's outside of the work, I think it's because she is interested and pleased in Luc. But my shrink made me understand that no one is seeing you like Luc. No one. Everyone is seeing Besson, the powerful director. And I was naive enough to think that by day on the set, I'm this famous and powerful director, but by night if I'm by myself, I'm Luc. I thought that everybody in the world had this right. But I understand now, and that's why I'll totally change my comportment in the future.
It makes me sad in a way, but everybody will see this powerful Besson director and that's it. Now it's clear.
How would you tell women why they should feel safe working for you now?
LB: Can I remind that I've made 17 films with actresses in the main role just to show how much I love and respect women? Because I don't know anyone in this world who has made so many films pushing women to the front to show how much they are strong, wonderful. So I just want to remind that. Because it's important. How to be safe with me? My only ambition is to create. To make a good film, that's all. And if anyone is worried, maybe I will be sure to have other people with me all the time, if they want to have this security. But all the main actresses I work with, I'm still friends with them, I love them. They say, when will we do a film together again? So I thought I was one of the most safe guys to work with, because I did everything for my actors. Screamed at the technicians, because actors are the most important thing. They are the ones on the frame, so I'm dedicated to them.
How would you direct your staff to deal with complaints in the future from people who feel uncomfortable for any reason?
On the next film I do, I will make a speech first, and I will talk about power and responsibility. I will recommend that anyone—men, women, anyone—who has feelings for anyone on the set, they should hold that for later, after the film. For everyone powerful in the film, I understand now that someone who works for you can be totally frozen by the power you have. And I never really see it before. For me, anyone can come see me on the set. There is no distance. But I will make this speech to recommend to everyone with power, every chief of services, you're here to work. Don't engage any relationships or sensitive relations with anyone on the set for sure.
Are there different perceptions and behaviors between Europe and America on these things?
LB: Yeah, Just on the set. Everyone kisses each other every morning. Everyone. But not here. And that's fine. The grip, the sound engineer, actors, actresses, directors. Everybody is hugging and kissing every morning. I can't even tell you how much I kissed and hugged Jean Reno in my life. Because Jean is like me. We need this physical interaction to show that we are together on the thing. When you see a match of soccer and they hit a goal, the 15 guys are like hugging each other and jumping on the grass kissing. Everybody thinks it's normal. So a set is a group of people who hit a goal and find their limits. It's the same energy. And it's kind of different in Europe. We're much more sensitive. It's more like a family working together. It's made by hand. It's not so organized. It's so screaming and tears and laughing.
Everything that’s happened the past couple years, how has it changed you? What have you learned?
LB: I come from a family of divers. I was not meant to make movies. I didn't know anyone. And we had no money. The adventure was amazing. It goes down, it goes up, it goes down, it goes up. It doesn't matter. I don't mind. So I'm not complaining. I've been lucky. But I think also I take risks, since the beginning. I've never made the same film twice. I always change. I went from Fifth Element in space to Joan of Arc, to black and white to films for kids. So when you take risks, then for sure you have more risks of going up and down, and I'm fine with that. I still have a couple films to do. Not too much, but a couple. This entire year just stopped me from making these films, and it's too bad, because they're pretty good. I pass them in my head every day, they're very good. I hope people will see them one day.
Have you had moments in the past few years when you've just wanted to walk away from everything?
LB: Yeah, a few times. But I don't want to go with a lie. I tell my truth and I hope this woman will also tell the truth one day. But no, I'm not going to give up because of a lie, that’s for sure. I'm here. I'm ready to shoot. I want to shoot and there's lots of people in town who are ready to help me, and yes, of course they wait, let's see what's going on with the case. Everybody's nervous. Which I understand. But I won't let everything down for life. No.
How have you worked through this with your wife and family?
LB: The accusation, no one in my family or people who know me believe it for one second. They know who I am. By the way, I have a 50-year track record of no incident, nowhere in the world on anything, except the speed limit on my car. That's it. I feel like all the stories we heard in this movie business world . . . . I never destroyed a hotel room. So I've had a life that is pretty clean for 50 years. So the people who know me, and my kids never believe it, for sure.
But the real thing that makes me cry is that I betrayed their trust. My wife and my kids. And that was hard. I sat at my table with my kids and my wife, and I tell them, I tell them the truth, what I had done. I was not proud at all. And they listened to me in silence. (Exhales) That was pretty hard. And they are in the process to forgive me, for them. The rest, they know who their father is. And I think the fact that I want to understand. That I went to a shrink twice a week. They can see the effort. It's not just pretending. I didn't work for a year, because I couldn't work and my business stops complete for a year because of this accusation and I spend way much more time with them and now it's okay after a year, they forgive me. But I did something much more important in their eyes. I said I will never again. And I'm a man of my word. It will never happen again.
Any other thoughts on this moment?
Just that, we have to understand that it's not a war between men and women. It's a war of men and women together fighting against bad behavior. That's the real war. And some people try to use this war to push women against men, and I really think it's wrong. The best ally in this war are men. We are the allies. Believe me.
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