Brain Storm: Luc Besson on the Origins of 'Lucy'

The French filmmaker gets cerebral with this Scarlett Johansson action movie about the smartest woman ever

Luc Besson Lucy Scarlett Johnasson
Jessica Forde/Universal
Scarlett Johnasson in "Lucy."
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Nine years ago, Luc Besson came across a theory that humans only use 10% of their brain capacity. A quick Google search would have informed the French filmmaker responsible for cult classics like La Femma Nikita (1990) and The Fifth Element (1997) that many scientists believe we actually use our entire brain — but the idea of unlocking the mind's "untapped" potential stuck. What started as some casual leafing through books on the topic turned into an obsession that involved seeking out professors and engaging in long philosophical discussions about the power of gray matter. Then, one day, the director had what he considered a breakthrough.

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"The brain cell only has two solutions, either to reproduce or be immortal," Besson says. "Obviously, we choose reproduction; we make kids and we pass it on. There are so many things that are repetitive in our style of life; I'm very excited and concerned about these patterns. It's very interesting." He could feel the inspiration for a movie coming on. "I didn't want to do a documentary," he clarifies. "I wanted to do something that was entertaining — but with a catch."

That's certainly one way to describe Lucy, Besson's latest action film that, like his previous work, features a strong female heroine and no shortage of gunfights or car chases. But embedded within the director's usual Euro-trashy take on Hollywood genre movies is a gonzo, Tree of Life-like intellectual yarn. We follow the title character — a naive American living in Taipei, played by Scarlett Johansson —  as she's forced to be a drug mule for the mob. Rather than making Lucy swallow several bags of a bright-blue European street drug, however, her captors surgically insert them into her abdomen. Then the package breaks loose, and the narcotic starts flooding her system. Suddenly, our heroine develops a genius-level IQ, a scary facility with firearms and the fighting prowess of an MMA champion.   

We're still in a recognizably Bessonian world as the bespoke-suited bodies begin to pile up — then the telekinesis, time-tripping and Dawn-of-Man sequences commence in earnest, and you wonder if you've been dosed. You could propose that Besson has always included food for deep thought (ideas on gender politics, arguments about the concept of free will) into the pulpiest of his superficial, stylishly violent works. But Lucy uses his obsession with the brain's fascinating evolution to transform this multiplex fare into something far more warped and ambitious: an attempt to chart humankind from its finite prehistoric age to the era of a fully evolved Homo sapien with 100% brain capacity — what Besson calls "the ultimate cell." Even the esoteric inserts of rodents creeping up to a mouse trap, cheetahs stalking gazelles and vintage footage of a magician levitating his volunteer doesn't quite prepare you for the film's far-out climax. "I've pushed the audience to be alert," Besson says. "But if you are expecting a normal thriller, you won't be ready for the end [of the movie]," the director admits. "It will look very weird."

The bait-and-switch aspects of Lucy — make viewers think they're watching a trashy action flick, then thrust them into 2001: A Space Odyssey territory — shows the evolution of the 50-year-old Besson, who says he's grown tired of the shoot-'em-up genre. "I'm not the same moviegoer or moviemaker as I was 10 years ago," he says. "There are action films made now that are really well done, but after 40 minutes, I get bored. It's all the same." That's quite a revelation for someone who's responsible for producing The Transporter and Taken films. But it's those cash cows that made it easier for Universal to sign on to make Lucy, something Besson half jokingly calls the film's first "miracle." 

Getting a movie star to operate on his wavelength when it came to playing the smartest, deadliest human in the world was the second one. Besson met Johansson a few years ago following a mutual interest in working together. She was intrigued by the script, and when she asked to meet for a second time, the actress peppered Besson with questions about the character. "I think it was only after we came to, ‘Okay, we're going to do it,' that she realized how hard [the role] would be to play," Besson recalls with a chuckle. The two finally they came up with the best method to map out Lucy's evolution. "We put a big piece of paper on the wall," says Besson, "and we wrote 10%, 20%, 30%, all the way to 100% — and then I filled the entire paper with what she can do and can't do at each level. It was almost like a checklist before you take off on a plane. So every morning when Scarlett knew which scene we were doing, she would just refer to the big piece of paper on the wall. I think if we didn't do that she would have been lost."   

Like Johansson, Morgan Freeman — who plays a professor that Lucy seeks out as her newfound abilities start to manifest themselves — says he instantly realized the film's distinct difference from other action movies. But even he admits he was scratching his head. "You always leave production wondering how it will turn out," Freeman writes via email. "I don't have that kind of imagination or else I would have written it."

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And it wasn't just Morgan who was curious how it would turn out. Besson says everyone, including Universal, had questions, especially in regards to a grand time-travel finale that wasn't finished until late in post-production. "In the early stages, watching the last 20 minutes with green screen, no one was understanding where it was going to go," he says. "It was such a mess. I was probably the only one going, ‘Yeah, don't worry...it's going to be good.'"

Only time will tell if Besson's off-the-wall idea to explore our brain's capacity — and eventually, life, the universe and everything — through the guise of a Hollywood thriller connects with audiences. Looking back now, the filmmaker says he's fulfilled by the fact that he was able to pull it off, regardless if anyone else gets it. And though Besson says he's not sure if he'll do another film in this style again, he realizes that, at his age, it's time to go against the grain. "I try to diversify myself as an artist," he says. "I'm happy that I did Lucy today because I'm 50-years-old now. I think I would have fucked up this film if I had done it sooner."