'Lucy' unleashed: Scarlett Johansson powers up in Luc Besson's sci-fi thriller

The big problem in writing about Lucy, opening July 25 from Universal, is not giving away too much. Writer-director Luc Besson is happy to discuss how he cast the movie, the problems he faced shooting it, and the intricate special-effects work required before its release. But he understandably doesn't want to reveal what happens.

"There is this old theory, which is not true, by the way, that we use only ten percent of our brain capacity," Besson says by phone from his office in France. "What is true is that we have something like 100 billion neurons in our brain, and we're never using more than 15 percent of them at any one time. Where could we go if we could use the entire 100 percent?"

Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, a college student in Taipei whose accidental exposure to a synthetic drug unlocks the full potential of her brain. "That's the plot I had ten years ago," Besson says, "but I didn't have the whole story. Maybe five years later I could divide the story into parts, how with this new capacity you could first control yourself, then others, then matter itself. I won't tell you the last part, at 90 to 100 percent, when you reach ultimate control."

As a founder of L'Institut du cerveau et de la moelle épinière (ICM), which is devoted to brain and spinal-cord research, Besson could fashion his story around recent scientific advances. "I don't want to do a documentary about the brain," he jokes, "but I needed to find some basis for the story. What impressed me was that there is so much similarity between a cell and a human being. We almost act like cells, we follow the same patterns. That's what I wanted to talk about."

Morgan Freeman, who plays scientist Samuel Norman, has similar interests in brain research. (Freeman hosts the Science Channel series "Through the Wormhole.") The two met for Danny the Dog (a Jet Li vehicle released in the U.S. as Unleashed). "He's an angel," enthuses Besson. "When I told him the subject of the movie, he said, 'I'm in.' He already knew everything I was talking about."

As for the other two Lucy co-leads, Besson says he was looking for a way to represent different aspects of humanity. The Egyptian actor Amr Waked plays Pierre Del Rio, a French policeman. "The fact that he is French and Arabic makes him a good representation of France today," the director explains.

Warm and affable, Besson is self-effacing about his work, and frequently breaks into laughter in the middle of replies. When he approached Waked by phone, the actor was in the middle of demonstrations at Tahrir Square in Cairo, their conversation interrupted by gunfire that Besson imitates lustily.

For Choi Min Sik, the star of Oldboy, Besson arranged a meeting in a Korean restaurant. The actor doesn't speak French or English, so for two hours Besson acted out the entire Lucy script, playing all the parts. "I was so scared that the translator wouldn't explain the film, show the feelings," he says.

On set, the two worked out a way to communicate through hand gestures. "I don't know Korean well enough, so I can't tell if the tone is good for a particular line. Sometimes he would want to do another take, and I would trust him about it. But he's very professional and generous, and I could see his energy, his expression. It's his body language that's important, and that's international."

Besson met with a few candidates for the lead in Lucy. "In Hollywood you're so lucky because there are ten or fifteen great actresses who could play the role. It's a question of who understands the script, who is passionate about it, and whether you feel good with her."

The director did not know what to expect with Johansson. "She came up in jeans, no makeup, she was here for work. I said, 'That's my kind of girl.' I was comfortable with her right away. She's a very hard worker, even in that first meeting it was nothing else but work. 'What do you propose? What can we do?' It was very straightforward, almost rough."

Although Johansson loved the project, it took her a couple of months to realize how difficult her part was. In Besson's script, her personality changes as the drug's effects increase.
"The easiest part is in the beginning," he says. "She's 23 years old, she's a student, she doesn't know what to do with her life, she's partying a little too much. Later on, when you reach thirty, forty, fifty percent, your humanity is fading away. You have no fear, no passion, no love. How do you play that without becoming a robot? That was hard to find, every period in the film she has to play differently, even if it means she looks totally crazy at times."

EuropaCorp, which Besson founded in 2000 with Pierre-Ange Le Pogam, has not only become a key movie producer and distributor, it has raised the bar for action films. Franchises like The Transporter have become international hits, while Taken helped spark a resurgence in Liam Neeson's career. Besson's influence has been wide-ranging, with several of his movies reworked for new audiences. District 13 became the Paul Walker film Brick Mansions, while La Femme Nikita and Taxi became both features and TV series in the U.S.

Besson is often content to leave directing to others. "Writing is something I need to do," he says. "I feel so much better when I write for two or three hours, and when I don't, I get cranky. But directing, I need to feel I can bring something to the film that maybe others won't. When I see Taken, honestly, Pierre Morel did a great job, I can't make it better. But with Lucy, I have to do this film."

Lucy is the first time Besson has worked entirely on digital. The director aimed for an "extra lucid," clear look with pronounced depth of field.

"From the beginning of the film, the first time we see Lucy, I want the camera next to her, no matter if she's just walking, taking a cab, in the hospital—whatever she's doing, I am there, I'm three feet away from her. I want viewers to feel that they are a part of her."

Besson was delighted to use special effects that weren't available at the start of his career. "When I did The Fifth Element, I was struggling because you had to lock the camera for six hours on a green screen and put crosses, marks everywhere. Now it's so much easier for a director, the only real limit is your imagination."   

Achieving that vision still requires a lot of work. Besson meets with special-effects artists for months before the start of shooting to work out settings. For safety reasons, one car chase from the Louvre to the Place de la Concorde had to be pre-visualized.

An intense shootout in which Lucy kills five mahjong players shows off Besson's uncanny ability to frame action vividly and coherently. "That's an easy one," the director laughs. "It's basically a Steadicam in two different moves, one from the front and one from the back. I thought it was funnier, more impressive, if she kills the five guys in one shot. It took about an hour."

Pressed, Besson then reveals the "homework" behind the scene, including casting suitably menacing Chinese actors. After a scout found the location, he visited it twice to figure out how to block the scene. "When I come on the set, I know a couple of ways to do it, I know which one I prefer, but I also have time to use something like a certain light or mood. If the actress has an idea, the DP, the producer, we can be inventive, be free to try something else."

With a career that stretches over 30 years, Besson is still excited by the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. "I think I try to react like a moviegoer," he says about his directing style. "make what I like when I go to the movies.”

While he is intrigued by the effects behind Lucy, "what I prefer by far is being in front of Scarlett with a zoom lens. She has a scene on the phone, the tears are coming, and I am following with the zoom very, very slowly, trying to breathe with her, sharing the moment. That's the most exciting for me, when you are connected to an actor. That's the best."