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How The Fifth Element Became The Ultimate Sci-Fi Cult Classic

"The Fifth Element" was released in a different era of Hollywood blockbusters. In 1997, the industry had basically reached the pinnacle of practical effects and CGI had already begun to make a huge impact. Yet more importantly, before the age of sequels and remakes, studios were more willing to take a gamble on original stories to the joy of the numerous fans who adore the cult classic.

Director Luc Besson knew what he was up against even then. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, he said, "When I started this film, I knew I had a 50% chance that after this I will not be in the movie business. You cannot write a sci-fi that is funny, first of all, made in France with Jean-Paul Gaultier [designing costumes] and the hero is a woman. And then you know what? She speaks a language no one understands! When you start that way, why not take all the risks?"

Ultimately, the risk paid off because even though the film did not smash records on its opening weekend, a respectable profit was generated and over time its popularity has increased considerably. Here are the various elements behind the scenes of the movie that cemented Besson as one of the most successful filmmakers to come out of France.

Luc Besson began worldbuilding at 16 years old

Two decades before the release of "The Fifth Element," director Luc Besson was already developing both the story and futuristic world of the film at 16 years old. In an interview with Mr. Showbiz, he said, "I was living outside of Paris, 60 kilometers from Paris. No TV. No V.C.R. Very much in the country, and not so many friends. It was pretty boring for an adolescent. So, I started to invent this world where I can be a wild cab driver. It was just a way to escape at first."

At first, Besson was fleshing out the story in the format of a novel, however, over the years that mentality changed. The director told Nerdist, "It was not a film in my head. I never thought about making a film of it. So, it was a novel for a long time and then, at a certain point, 10 years later, I said, 'You know what? I would love to make a film of that.' But I started changing a lot of things because a novel is really different."

For the futuristic New York where much of the story takes place, the director wanted a good mix of past and future. In a Reddit AMA, Besson explained that the goal was to make the megacity look as if it had been partially destroyed and rebuilt in some places, but then remained intact in others, similar to how European cities were devastated during the bombings of World War II.

There is at least one Star Wars reference

Even though Luc Besson initially came up with the idea for "The Fifth Element" two to three years before the release of "Star Wars: A New Hope" in 1977, the future director would not make his film until 20 years later. The two sci-fi films have often been compared with each other, and Mr. Showbiz is not the only one who has considered the film to be the "Star Wars" of the '90s.

Besson himself did not shy away from linking the two films and purposely put at least one reference to the sci-fi classic with the character Major Iceborg modeling the same iconic hairstyle as the one worn by Princess Leia. Although the director never claimed more connections than that, it is also interesting how much Ian Holm looked like Obi-Wan Kenobi in his cloak, as pointed out by Mr. Showbiz.

Bruce Willis was not motivated by money

Even though Bruce Willis was perfect as Korben Dallas in "The Fifth Element," he almost did not get the role. In an AMA session on Reddit, Besson revealed, "I had asked Mel Gibson first because he had his office next to mine at Warner Brothers. He peeked into my office every morning to tell me that he was thinking about it. After three months, he passed."

Possibly because of that experience the director then opted for a different approach. Besson told Mr. Showbiz, "When the production began, we made the decision to not go for a big star. We thought the size of the movie was the star and [would] take a good actor, younger, not so expensive. We said, 'Let's put the money in the sets, the costumes, the special effects. Like 'Star Wars' 20 years ago.'"

With that said, the storyteller did envision Bruce Willis as the lead, but figured that he would cost too much. Fortunately, Willis did not care about the money and sought out Besson to make sure the director knew he'd be willing to make a deal if he liked the project. The meeting was a success when the two then met at Willis' home in Malibu to discuss the film. The action star told Entertainment Weekly, "I just liked Luc — I liked the story, I liked the idea. I thought it would be fun to go to France and make a movie."

Milla Jovovich faced steep competition for her role

The casting call for the pivotal character of Leeloo in "The Fifth Element" included a staggering list of 8,000 people. Luc Besson personally met with 200 to 300, including Elizabeth Berkley, as the actress revealed to Movieline.

Milla Jovovich also auditioned and was only 19 years old at the time, but she did not do well, at least in the first round. In a Reddit AMA, Besson explained, "She was not so good. Too nervous, too much make-up. A few weeks later I met her not on purpose in a hotel where we were both staying, she was wearing a large t-shirt and no make-up. We had a very nice talk, and I offered to do another test right now. I took a small camera and tortured her for an hour, she was brilliant."

In the spontaneous screen test, the director put Jovovich through some bizarre exercises like asking her to close her eyes, imagine she is not from this world, and then he observed her reaction as she acted out seeing a common object as if it was for the first time. Not only was he impressed with her ability to improvise, Besson also liked her exotic look. He told Mr. Showbiz, "She can be from the past or the future. She can be an Egyptian or a Roman. She can be Nefertiti and she can be from outer space."

The logic behind Milla Jovovich's costume

Even though model Milla Jovovich wore her iconic bandage dress very well in "The Fifth Element," there has been some controversy with the revealing outfit as some see it just as another attempt to show a Hollywood heroine in as little clothing as possible. The actress also admitted that it made her uncomfortable to wear on set at times. Though whether right or wrong, the unique costume is one of the most unforgettable aspects of the film.

It may seem like the outfit was only made to show Jovovich nearly nude, but there was some reasoning behind it. Jovovich explained to Vogue, "Being in a hospital, they put a robe on you that is open in the back so they can reach in and put injections and tubes. So, you have to have as little as possible, but for the sake of modesty, you have to cover up. ... When people get wounded, like, they just put bandages to cover the necessary bits. And Luc and Jean Paul talked about this bandage idea, and Jean Paul was like, 'Genius! I love it.'"

Gary Oldman does not understand the film's popularity

Luc Besson may have been super impressed with Gary Oldman's performance in "The Fifth Element," as well as the actor's incredible ability to recite random lines of "Hamlet" at will while on set, but Oldman himself was not pleased with his work. In an interview with Playboy, the actor admitted that he is highly critical of nearly all his performances. When asked specifically about the sci-fi film, he responded, "Oh no. I can't bear it."

Even worse, Oldman revealed to Role Recall that he had no real desire to be in the film. The actor said, "I directed a film and Luc Besson was one of the producers and had initially helped me with raising financing. I was singing for my supper. He called, he said I need you to do a movie. I didn't read the script. It was a favor." When asked what he thought about the film especially since it's become a cult classic, he replied, "I know, I know. But that's the wacky world we live in."

A few perspectives went into the creation of Zorg

When developing Zorg, the main villain of "The Fifth Element," Luc Besson used examples in history as inspiration when so-called righteous individuals committed horrific atrocities. In the interview with Mr. Showbiz, the director said, "You always see these Christian people, these religious people, always fighting for the noble cause. In fact, they kill millions of people through history. They fight for a code, but they burn everybody for years."

Besson had a starting point, but he collaborated with both Gary Oldman and Jean Paul Gaultier to completely flesh the character out. When talking with the costume designer, the two worked together to come up with key words to describe the character, and he said, "For Zorg, it was 'dandy, nouveau riche, Hitler.' So, it's a kind of mix of that. Zorg will buy Picasso because it fits with the couch."

The character was still not quite finished and Besson worked with Oldman for the finishing touches. The director told Entertainment Weekly, "It took some time to get the voice of the character, because he's so extreme, Zorg. So finally, he proposed this sort of half-Texan accent, and it was very funny."

Luc Besson initially wanted Prince to play Ruby Rhod

When casting the fascinating, gender-fluid character of Ruby Rhod for "The Fifth Element," Luc Besson met with Jamie Foxx and Chris Tucker. When talking to Entertainment Weekly, he recalled that he liked both actors but ultimately decided that Tucker fit the role better since Jamie Foxx was built like an action hero himself and Besson wanted to reserve that look for Bruce Willis.

Although Tucker did a fantastic job as Ruby, he was not Besson's first choice as the director had another star in mind who he felt was made for the part. "Prince was actually supposed to do the part before Chris. But it was a nightmare, because he'd give you an appointment and then he comes, like, seven days late. [Laughs] And sometimes he shows up when you don't expect him," he recalled. "You can't grab him, you know? He was free and he wants to stay free. But when you think about Prince and then you watch the film, you feel there is a flavor."

Milla Jovovich and Luc Besson had conversations in the fictional language

One very interesting aspect of Leeloo in "The Fifth Element" is that when she speaks her divine language, there are no subtitles. It would be easy to assume that's because the words spoken by Milla Jovovich were just gibberish, but that was not the case at all. Luc Besson put a lot of work into developing the fictional language to the point that it was possible to have a real conversation with it.

In the interview with Entertainment Weekly, the director explained, "I wrote a dictionary with 500 words. But we were the only two who spoke it on the set. She had to learn it, and then we could talk to each other in it." Besson wanted the audience to see Leeloo through the perspective of Korben Dallas, so just as the main character could not understand her, neither could viewers.

Jean Paul Gaultier designed the costumes

Whether you love or hate the film, there is no denying that "The Fifth Element" has its own unique look. The quality of the visual effects is quite high for the time, however, the extensive wardrobe of the cast members is far more impressive. Costume designer Jean Paul Gaultier was one of the top creators of the design world due to his ability to think outside of the box and he certainly brought that mentality to the film on a massive scale. For his work on "The Fifth Element," Gaultier created over 1,000 costumes.

The renowned designer was relatively new to the movie industry at the time, so he may not have been aware of how impressive his accomplishment was, but others definitely acknowledged it. At the retrospective for Gaultier at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot said, "A thousand costumes is like 10 collections but all for one movie. It's an incredible amount of work people don't even know about. For a thousand costumes, he may have even done 5,000 sketches before narrowing it down" (via Elle).

Barely any CGI effects were used

"The Fifth Element" is quite the visual spectacle, yet very little CGI technology was used to make the film, relying mostly on practical effects instead. Luc Besson told Entertainment Weekly, "Technology today is so easy that you can do whatever you want. At the time it was a nightmare. But we used, I think, only two green-screen shots in all of it."

As an example of the old-school methods used, co-producer Iain Smith added, "A lot was done with model miniatures. The New York set we built in Venice, in California. Fhloston Paradise as well. But they're not small things — they're big, big miniatures, if you follow me."

A lot of planning went into the effects, especially for the massive explosion in Fhloston and the large Mangalore alien suits worn by the actors. An entire team was dedicated to making sure the people inside had enough air and water during filming. There were also cameras in the masks so the crew could literally tell the performers where to go because they were completely blind within.

The cast members grew close during filming

The cast members of "The Fifth Element" grew close during filming as they would spend a lot of time hanging out together both on and off the set. Milla Jovovich told Entertainment Weekly how she would party with Chris Tucker and said, "We got along because both of us were from the West Coast — West Coast in the house! Everybody was going out together and clubbing."

Bruce Willis was not as social as the rest of the cast, but his wife, Demi Moore, did spend time with them on set. Jovovich added how she was close enough to sometimes do a special favor for the couple and said, "Demi was on set a lot, and she was rad. I would babysit for them sometimes when I wasn't working. I was so young, I probably had more fun with his kids at that time."

Willis was a little distant during production focusing on the work, but he certainly enjoyed it and threw a party for everyone at the end. Co-producer Iain Smith said, "He played jazz for us. He's a very, very good jazz musician. And I think that was his way of saying 'Thank you, guys, it's been a trip,' you know?"

Milla Jovovich and Luc Besson's controversial relationship

After Milla Jovovich was hired for the part of Leeloo in "The Fifth Element," Luc Besson and the actress began dating. This was no surprise to co-producer Iain Smith who told Entertainment Weekly, "Luc said to me at one point, 'You realize that whoever I cast as Leeloo, I have to fall in love with them.' And I understood what he meant by that. He didn't want just some pretty girl, he wanted someone with that particular individual thing that Milla had."

Smith was supportive of the relationship though because he felt it would improve the film. He added, "Luc is a very active guy and he's passionate and all that entails, so we didn't find [their relationship] that surprising at all. It meant that the performance Milla gave was invested with the love, if you like, that they had."

The co-producer was far from the only one involved in the project to notice the couple had hit it off, as Bruce Willis said, "I would have to swear you to secrecy, because the real romance was between Luc and Milla. By the time I had gotten to Paris they were already kind of smitten with each other." In 1997, the couple then married in Las Vegas, but there was a lot of controversy surrounding the relationship because the director was already married to Maïwenn at the time, the actress who played the Diva Plavalaguna in the film. Two years later, Jovovich and Besson would also split up.

Luc Besson has little interest in making a sequel

Luc Besson will never make "The Fifth Element II," or sequels to any of his films. He told Entertainment Weekly, "No matter how much you love a film, the fun is to try something else. Otherwise I'm going to do 'Fifth Element,' 'Sixth Element,' Seventh... And if I listen to people I will do 'Nikita 2,' 'Nikita 3,' 'Leon 2' and 'Leon 3.' And that's not interesting."

A continuation of the story also does not make sense to the director since the intergalactic entity known as the Darkness only emerges every 5,000 years and would mean that the main characters probably would not be in the sequel. Besson explained in an AMA on Reddit, "[Leeloo], Korben, and everyone else in that movie fulfilled their purpose. Would a sequel be set even further into the future? Would Leeloo and Korben fight some kind of new threat? It would be hard to up the stakes after saving the universe in the first movie."

In the same response for that session, Besson made it seem like he might be open to another film within the same cinematic universe with different characters, just not a sequel. On the other hand, he then joked about a standalone feature starring Chris Tucker as Ruby Rhod, so there's probably very little genuine intention behind that statement.