Sometimes, things are not what they first appear. Director Luc Besson's "The Family," which he also wrote, falls into that bin, neatly defying categorization. The movie, which boasts the talents of Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron and newcomer John D'Leo, as well as the blessing of Martin Scorsese, has elements of comedy and action, as well as themes (and in-jokes) borrowed from classic mobster movies like "Casino" and "Goodfellas."
De Niro plays a former mob boss having a hard time settling into life under witness protection in France's Normandy region after ratting out his friends. His difficulties mirror those of a typical retiree: he's listless while trying to find ways to fill his time, and old habits from his former job (read: trying to resist murdering a plumber who backtalks him) die hard. (Pun intended.)
Besson, for his part, was anxious to work with De Niro, and would have no one but him for the part. In a phone call prior to the film's Sept. 13 release, I talked with Besson about his inspiration for the movie, how a failed dinner 20 years ago started his friendship with De Niro, and whether we should expect to see several more installments of "The Family," a la "The Transporter" and "Taken."
KASE WICKMAN: Where did the inspiration for this movie come from? What were you looking for in your next film?
LUC BESSON: You know, it all comes from the book ["Malavita" by Tonino Benacquista]. The book was very funny and was really an homage to [Martin] Scorsese and [Robert] De Niro and all these terrific films that we have seen from them. I loved that, I love the homage, to see Robert like 30 years later with his robe and slippers. Just the image makes me smile. Even if they're a little older and try to hide, they're still really badasses. If you try to lie to them, they just kill you. [laughing] It was just funny. It was really funny to read.
The first thing I did, because you can't make this film without Robert and Scorsese, so I sent the book to Robert, and said, "If you like it, I can write the script, but I don't want to start if you don't like it or if you're offended or blah blah blah. You need to like it, otherwise I won't do anything." So he read the book and called me back and said, "Luc it's great, it's very funny." That's how it starts.
Did you and De Niro have a prior relationship? Are you friends?
Had you been looking for something specific to work on together?
Since a long time. Actually, 20 years ago, I proposed to him to do "Leon: The Professional." And his agent called me and said "Mr. De Niro wants to see you, he wants to have a dinner with you." So I flew from Paris. I thought, "Oh my god, he wants to see me, he wants to have a dinner with me! He probably loved the script and wants to do it!" So I flew and we sat in a restaurant, and he said, "Luc, I want to have a dinner with you because I'm not gonna make the film. I don't want you to take it badly, you know." So then we had a very nice dinner for two hours, and we became friends since then.
Would you have done "The Family" with anyone else?
It absolutely had to be De Niro?
Yes. That's why I don't even write the script before, you know I say if you like the book, then I write the script, otherwise I won't do it without you and the agreement of Scorsese. It's such a love letter to these guys. You need to be sure that they're smiling and happy with this, or don't do it. You just have to ask. And both of them, they read the thing and they laughed and said look, it's great, it's funny, let's go, do it.
You said that it's an homage to Scorsese, but did you have other directorial influences on this movie?
It's an homage to him, the film. But what was difficult is to make an homage without trying to copy him. The way it's shot and everything is not influenced by him at all, it's the subject. The subject is him, it belongs to his world, but I tried to film it from my point of view from Normandy point of view. So the mistake would be to copy him. He has his own style and is a unique great style. I don't even try it, you know.
Has he seen it? What was his reaction?
Oh yeah, yeah. He said he likes it, and he said he laughed a lot. He laughed a lot. And the most important thing for me is that De Niro was great in the film. So coming from him, I was thinking that, I think that Scorsese take every drop of the lemon, you know, and he squeeze Robert like a lemon and take all the juice out. My big fear was can I be able to take at least one drop out of the lemon? And because it's very intimidating. These two guys have made so many wonderful films together, it's always hard to go after that, you know? But we worked a lot with Robert, and I really put a lot of energy and pressure to get this drop of lemon [laughing] and I'm very happy because I think he's really great in the film.
How do you want people to feel after they laugh? It's definitely a dark comedy, but people might be uncomfortable cracking up at high school kids beating the crap out of each other, or other things that happen in this movie.
As you said, it's a dark comedy and you have to accept it, you know? You're gonna laugh because the guy is killing the plumber. [laughing] I think why we're laughing is, I think when we see the plumber cracking the first joke, you say, "Oh my god, don't do that, please. You're gonna die." The pleasure comes from seeing the plumber cracking jokes one after another, and you're saying, "You're gonna die, my man, you're gonna die!" And the funny thing is he says, "No, I didn't even kill him! I brought him to the hospital!" He was nice. He didn't kill the guy.
A lot of your work, from "Taken" to the "Transporter" series, has involved multiple sequels. Is there any thought yet about making "The Family 2"?
I don't know, honestly. Let's -- no, I don't even know. I'm just enjoying the moment. We have the premiere tonight, I'm excited, we're all going to be there and it'll be such a great night. I just want to enjoy the moment and hope that it works and that people will be happy.
The sequel is always a demand from the audience. I saw so many people after "Taken," and they say, "Oh my god, you've gotta do another one, it's so good!" And at the beginning, we said no, there's no way. We never even thought about how you would do a sequel to "Taken," it's not possible. And then we started thinking about it to try and find a good idea, and the good idea was not to do another one, but to do the second part of the story. Actually, "Taken" 1 and 2 is the same story cut into two.
How will "Taken 3" work? What'll that be about?
Yeah, we're working on it, because we found a good idea.
Liam Neeson has said he's on board.
Yeah, he likes the idea, so. You have to be very respectful with the audience. it's not so much about the money. I want to honor the people. They trust you, they see 1 and 2. If you don't have a good idea on the third one, don't do it.
Is the script done?
No, no, no. It's not done yet. We're working on it.
If you were going into witness protection, like your characters in the movie, what would your cover story be?
I guess I would feel more comfortable than Robert to say that I am a writer. [laughing] I would be comfortable with that. No, I would probably say I am a gardener or something.
"The Family" is in theaters now.