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Interview: Luc Besson

A couple of hours after Aung San Suu Kyi finally received the Nobel Peace Price that was awarded to her in 1991, Time Out Mexico talked with Luc Besson who was waiting for his flight in Oslo’s International Airport.

When Besson read the script for The Lady, not only did he cry for a couple of hours, but he decided he would not only produce the film -like Michelle Yeoh had asked him- but he would also direct it. The story is based on Aung San Suu Kyi's life: a Burman woman who was condemned to house arrest for fifteen years, because she asked for democracy and tried to free her country from a military dictatorship. She was then separated from her husband and children who lived in London. Finally in 2012 Suu Kyi is set free, and after 21 years she was able to leave her country to receive the Noble Peace Price, that in 1991 her husband and children received on her behalf.

Moments ago you were at the Nobel Peace Price ceremony, how did you feel about being there?
It vas very emotional, her speech was brilliant, it was very emotional because twenty years ago it was the prize received in the hand of her husband and kids, and twenty years later it's her coming on stage, so it was very emotional.

Was it like the movie wasn't over yet, like you were now a character in it?
It's strange for me because when we did the ceremony in the film in 1992, we did it over and over and over, it was almost as I had been there in '92, I know it by heart. And suddenly it was like going in the film, it was very strange.

Could you describe the moment when you first met her? Were you nervous, excited?
I was for sure excited, at the same time kind of frustrated, because when we started the film, we thought that there was no chance that she would be freed one day. We've been working three years on the project trying to get information all around the world, because we didn't have a lot of information, and almost at the end of the shooting she was freed. And it was such a surprise for us because we were so happy that she was free. It is very difficult to make a film about someone who is alive, you know you're always scared to make a mistake or to do too much or not enough, you really have to be respectful on one hand, and you're dealing with something that you think it's the truth, and you can't verify it.

And the good news is that at the end we got to meet her, and her entourage, and talk with Burma people who got to see the film, and find out it wasn't so far from the truth.

I was so happy to meet her in person, beacause she's a very important person for me, and being able to spend a couple of days with her.

Did you get to talk about the film?
Honestly, the first time we met I was so thrilled, so we talked about her and how she felt and all those years she was in the house arrest, and she was also very curious about everything in the outside world, she hadn't been outside in twenty years so there was a lack of information, so she had a lot of questions about everything. And we almost forgot to talk about the film so we didn't talk so much about it, she was just very nice and happy that we spent time talking about Burma,  because awareness is important in such an age. If people forget you or forget the fight, they will forget the country. If you're not in the light, then they forget you, and the film was very useful and she thanked us for that.

How do you feel that most people are going to know about her, not through the Noble Peace Price, but through your movie?
As long as the people that watch the film go on the internet afterwards to learn more about the country, it's fine, because that's the awareness that we want. You know, a lot of people will want to know more about her after watching the film. So any light  that we could put on her at the time was good: a song, a film, a Nobel Peace Price, no matter what, if everyone is talking about it, then she's alive and we can help. So the film is just one more film.

Has she seen the film?
I don't know. Probably... I can tell you that the entire Burma people have seen it, for sure. It was the most pirated film in Burma, and I'm happy. I'm no usually very happy with piracy, but for once I was very happy about it. They have my blessing.

I've seen interviews where you said that you decided to direct the movie because the script was so moving it made you cry. What was it in her personal story or personality that moved you so much? Do you feel identified or have a woman in your life that resembles her?
No, I think I'm a normal human being, so you know I've seen a lot of people crying during the film and at the end of the film. We're all living for the people we love and our children, so when you see a story like this one, and what she has to go through, when we see the strength that she has, and the natural authority... I was just very impressed and moved by that. I don't know if I would be able on her position... I don't think that I would be able to do what she had done. So I was very impressed, and I think that not being able to see your dying husband, and not being able to see your kinds for ten years is probably the worst thing that can happen to a dad or a mother, or a wife or a husband. So that's why I was reacting to that and I think any normal people would react the same.

Why was the movie focused on her decisions and her relationship with her husband rather than the politics and problems her country was going through? Would you classify it as a love story or a historic film?
My point of view was to talk about the story people didn't know and to see the human point of view. The political aspect is in a way that many many journalists around the world are able to talk about it, at they can teach you about it. The shame is that most of the journalists were not talking so much about it, but that's not my fault. What I want the people to understand is beyond the legend, beyond the charismatic Burman Orchid, there's a human being, and how she did it, and how she went through all this and is still alive. And if we can learn something form her, we can have people around the world do that. We have people that are in a good situation and that if they see this example, maybe they can help.

The funny thing is a lot of journalists complained that "why don't you talk more about politics?" because that's the area where they can say something, but my answer is "why don't you talk more about her in politics?" because I am not a journalist or a politician, I'm a writer/director. I was more interested by the human aspect.

How did you, the actors, and the crew prepare for the film?
The most difficult part is you can't go in the country, you can't meet the people, you can't have information, so the work was for four years between Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, family around her, couple of  Burmas who were outside of Burma, ministries... We tried every way to get information as close as possible to the truth. We found two hundred hours of VHS, when she was filmed during the meetings in public or lecturing in her house, so these two hundred hours were very very usefull for Michelle to prepare, to see her: how she moved her head, her way of speaking. So it was a lot, a lot of research for almost four years and you're obliged to do that without a camera, because you want to be very discrete prepping the film about her because you can get people in trouble, it had to be undercover and by the time people found out we were doing the film, we were almost finished.

Did you ever get threats from the government of Burma?
Towards the end of the shooting in Thailand, we could feel there were spies around the shooting and trying to get in with the extras, we feel that and we played very low profile. We didn't get any direct threats, but at the end of the film we felt it was time to get back to France.

In your films, no matter the genre you find a way to make your characters human with real emotions and layers in their personality, and somehow convey a message, why is this?
You know, I think the world is very cynical, so I don't see why as a filmmaker I can't show feelings and emotions, love, I'm much more interested in that I mean, we are not missing cruelty, we are not missing absurdity. The world today is too hard, and too cold in a way, I'm fighting against cynicism. You know it's funny when people say "oh your film, or your script is too romantic or too cheesy" and I say "yes, but your way of thinking is too cynical" also. And I think it's important to fight against that, at least in a movie.

You know it's funny because Suu made a beautiful script today and it was also about that, if today we are not able to have peace around the world, if today we are killing the planet, if economy is killing people everyday, it's because of cynicism, our society today is so cynical that the king is money and we're loosing what we are, it's my way to fight it.

How do we recognize Luc Besson in The Lady?
I always talk about love in my films, but I was shy before, I just talked a little about it, but  in almost all my films there is a love story. This is the first time I allowed myself to really talk about it, the way that Suu Kyi and her husband love each other, with dignity and the distance, it's very beautiful, and I think that for the first time I was able to talk about it.

Is this something you will now start doing, will you start making more love films?
I don't think that just because you eat something at lunch that you really like, that you should eat it everyday.

Click here if you want to read the translated interview