Photographed in retro black and white, Paris gets the star treatment in Angel-A, a new film from multitasking French director, writer and producer Luc Besson. It opens stateside on May 25 in LA and New York.”The shoot went like a dream, thanks to an amazing crew, which bonded together as never before, and thanks to two wonderful actors,” declares Besson.The film pairs Jamel Debbouze, known to moviegoers for his role in Amelie, and willowy Rie Rasmussen, who was deliberately cast to tower over her diminutive co-star. It’s the first acting role for the Danish-American former model who is herself pursuing a directing career. Rasmussen had to learn French for the film, which she managed with great aplomb.In Angel-A, Thierry Arbogast, Besson’s longtime director of photography, paints a lush sun-and-deep-shadow portrait of Paris. The many well-known locations where the film was shot, including the Eiffel Tower and the city’s architecturally dramatic bridges, also get the chiaroscuro treatment. The production designer on Angel-A is Jacques Bufnoir, who has also worked frequently with Besson. Frederic Thoraval is the film’s editor and recording artist Anja Garbarek composed her first soundtrack for the movie.The film is about a petty crook on the lam who is about to end it all by leaping off a bridge, when he notices a woman similarly inclined who jumps first and he follows in order to rescue her. She winds up taking him under her wings, both literally and figuratively, in an evolving surrealistic relationship.For Besson, known for films such as La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Dimension, Angel-A is his first live-action movie since 1999 when he made The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. In the interim he has produced numerous films, and spent five years working on Arthur and the Invisibles, the first part of an animation trilogy, that was released in the US late last year. He talked recently with Below the Line about the making of Angel-A.Below the Line: Why did you decide to shoot Angel-A in black and white? Luc Besson: Ten years ago when I first imagined the film, the images that came to me were in black and white. They were mostly images of Paris, especially its bridges and certain places in the city where you can see a series of the bridges spanning the Seine, one after the other. My first great thrill in making the film was to rediscover the true and beautiful Paris—the one that enthralls millions of tourists every year and that we Parisians walk past each morning with our heads down. I had a burning desire to film the Paris which, over the last 40 years, has witnessed all my sorrows and joys.BTL: What were the aesthetic considerations? Besson: The black-and-white photography encapsulates the film’s oppositions—the yin and yang, the tall and small, the introverted and extroverted, the good and the bad. I needed to have this little poetry in the film. Is it real, is it a dream, or is it a fairy tale? I used the black and white to relax the viewer and to create a kind of mood where it’s possible to enjoy the scene and also believe it. Also, compared to black and white, color is very crude—it’s the news, it’s rough.BTL: Your director of photography, Thierry Arbogast, actually shot using color stock and then converted it to black and white, I understand.Besson: Yes, it was shot in color, then we treated the film at the lab. The thing about converting from color to black and white is that the green, the red and the yellow don’t react the same way as they normally do. So we shot tests of every aspect of the film—the clothes, the interiors—to see how they would look in black and white. If you were to see the film as shot in color, it looks absolutely terrible.BTL: You made the film during the summer in Paris, when the city is almost empty and the days are long.Besson: Yes, we shot the film in July and August—when Paris clears out. And we shot early because the light at that time was essential. We had quite an unusual schedule, shooting from 5 to 10 am every morning and then sometimes also in the evening. During prep, I sent my assistants to make pictures of all the bridges in Paris at all hours and from all directions—north, south, east and west. I knew from the pictures what was really the perfect time for the light. As a result, Thierry didn’t have to use any artificial lighting for the exteriors.Paris is made with stones and iron. They react a lot whether it’s in the sun or the shadow. It becomes very white or very dark. And the angle of the sun on stones makes it very deep in shadow or very clean and clear. You just wait for the right hour and it’s magical. So my preference was to rehearse a lot beforehand, and then to be like a commando when it was the right time to shoot. We’d arrive on the set for 45 minutes, work very fast, and then get out. Sometimes we worked only one hour a day.BTL: I’m told you didn’t let either your cinematographer or your production designer, Jacques Bufnoir, read the script in advance. So how did you manage to create the look of the film with them?Besson: It’s not just a crazy idiosyncrasy on my part as the director. I’ve worked on five films with Thierry. And I’ve worked with Jacques Bufnoir, the production designer, before. So both know me well and how I work. If either is reading the script, I know what kinds of ideas they will come up with. My goal, especially with Jacques, was to challenge him—I’m not going to tell you what to do, I want you to be much more clever and inventive than me, because I already know the script. And he came up with wonderful, crazy ideas that would never be there if he had read the script in advance.I adopted the same technique with the rest of the crew. For them the shoot was like a soap opera. Since we were shooting in chronological order, they discovered what the film was about as they were making it. They only got to know how it all ends on the last day of the shoot.BTL: The comparison has been made between Angel-A and Woody Allen’s Manhattan, because both are in black and white and your film is a kind of love poem to Paris much like his is to New York. To what degree were you influenced by Manhattan? Besson: I saw Manhattan 20 years ago. The souvenir that I took away from the film was it’s heart. I particularly remembered how its black-and-white photography went especially well with the music by George Gershwin. Though it’s not the same city, and it doesn’t have the same framing, and the music is very different, I think I succeeded in depicting Paris a bit like Allen did Manhattan; and I also have a score that fits very well.BTL: You used a young, new composer, Anja Garbarek, who had made recordings, but had never done a soundtrack. How did you come upon her? Besson: I knew of her father, Jan Garbarek, the saxophonist, who played with Keith Jarrett in the ’70s and ’80s and I was curious to listen to his daughter’s music after I sensed that she had grown up surrounded by Stanley Clarke and Miles Davis. I went out and bought her first two albums. They were magnificent. That was at precisely the same time that I had pulled out of nowhere those few pages of a script. So I wrote the film while listening to those two albums. At the time, the composer I usually work with, Eric Serra, was already working on Arthur and the Minimoys, my animated film [released late last year]. So, Anja composed the original music for Angel-A, which also features a few themes from her earlier albums that we rearranged.BTL: Can you can talk about Frederic Thoraval, your editor? Some directors refine the movie in the editing process, but you say that you see the movie in advance in your head.Besson: I come from pictures and writing. I am always editing in my head, even while I’m shooting. I know exactly how I want it, so I’m a nightmare for the editor. I’m with him most of the time and he follows what I want. There aren’t so many shots in Angel-A. There are some super-long scenes where the two characters just talk and talk. That m
ade it quite easy to edit. So it only took a couple of weeks.BTL: The film has several unusual visual sequences. For example, when Angela lives up to her name and suddenly sprouts wings like an angel and flies up into the sky. How was that accomplished? Besson: I rehearsed a lot with Rie Rasmussen to get the body movements so they were believable. She was on something from the circus like a teeter-totter where she could go up and down. She was playing with the movements and also had to find a good balance. Then the wings were added using computerized visual effects.BTL: In your view, what makes the Angel-A distinctive in your body of work?Besson: At 45 years old, I’m pretty naked in this film. I deal with this man who lies all his life, and decides not to lie anymore, which creates a story of every man. You always make the film at the proper age and the proper time in your life. I couldn’t have made Angel-A when I was 20. You have to go through life, with shock and pain and distress—otherwise you don’t know what you’re talking about.
Written by Jack Egan