Considered the French equivalent of Steven Spielberg, filmmaker Luc Besson has a reputation for creating fast-paced, ultra-stylish, and hugely budgeted films with mass appeal. The son of two scuba instructors, he was born in Paris on March 18, 1959, and spent most of his youth following his parents on the club Med circuit between Greece and Yugoslavia. Like his parents, Besson was an avid diver. At the age of ten, he swam with a wild dolphin while his parents were on a dive. The experience so moved him that he decided to devote his life to observing and understanding the sea mammals by becoming a marine biologist. Living in such close harmony with the ocean had a profound effect on Besson; the idea for his film The Big Blue was born after an Italian filmmaker showed him footage of world champion free diver Jacques Mayol descending 92 meters on one breath of air. Before it became a screenplay, the film was a story Besson titled Le Petit Siren.
Besson's dreams of becoming a marine biologist were dashed at the age of 17 after an accident that rendered him unable to dive. Following his recovery, he moved to Paris to finish school. While readjusting to city life, Besson discovered television and the cinema. They soon replaced his passion for the sea, and he decided to pursue a filmmaking career; after dropping out of school, he began seeing nearly a dozen films per week. He also began toying with the possibilities of Super-8 film. At 19, Besson went to Hollywood and spent three years working on and learning about American films. The influence of the experience led one critic to claim that Besson's films are really just American films made in France.
Later, Besson served in the military and subsequently spent three years as an assistant director. He also continued experimenting with different types of film and making an occasional music video. One of his short films, L'Avant-Dernier, was a precursor to his 1983 feature directorial debut, the grim, future-set, sci-fi drama Le Dernier Combat/The Last Battle (1983). Essentially a silent film boasting exceptional camerawork, it won two of the highest prizes awarded at the prestigious Avoriaz Science Fiction Film Festival and 18 more at various other international festivals. All in all, it marked an amazingly auspicious debut for its 24-year-old director. Around the time he was making the film, Besson also founded his own production company, Films of the Wolf.
Besson's second film, Subway (1985), was a freewheeling and funny crime drama set entirely within the Paris Metro that examined the lives of the punks and fringe dwellers who lived there. In tone and style, the film has been compared to a rock video and has become a cult favorite in France. Besson then went all out for his third film, The Big Blue (1988), which was shot in English. Considered his most personal work, it reflected 12 years of development and was heavily influenced by his experience of seeing the Mayol film and a later meeting with the great diver. The ocean plays a primary role in the story about a free-diver who must choose between his love for a woman and his passion for the sea. An unprecedented success in Europe, the film bombed in the U.K. and the U.S. largely due to inept editing, a different ending, and a new soundtrack; even in its mutilated form, however, the movie could still be appreciated for Besson's use of his trademark breathtaking wide-angle shots. The director later received some degree of justice when a three-hour director's cut was released.
Besson's biggest hit came in 1990 with Nikita (or La Femme Nikita, as it was known in the U.S.), the lightning-paced tale of a troubled young woman who is turned into a sophisticated and deadly government assassin. Starring Besson's then-wife Anne Parillaud, the film was a sexy, intelligent thriller. It was no surprise, therefore, that it inspired a U.S. remake, Point of No Return (1993), and a television series on the USA cable network. Besson's next feature film, the 1994 Léon (or The Professional) boasted a strong performance by Besson regular Jean Réno as the title character, and a star-making turn by Natalie Portman as his young protégée. In 1997, Besson returned to the sci-fi genre with the flamboyant The Fifth Element starring Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, and Milla Jovovich. Inspired by a daydream he had while studying in secondary school, the film was a breathtaking, visually mind-boggling experience; it was enormously popular in France, winning both a César and a Lumière de Paris d'Unifrance award for its director. Two years later, Besson exchanged future fantasy for medieval history with The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. An epic outing that starred then-wife Jovovich as the doomed saint, it sank at the box office and was savaged by the critics, despite lavish production values and a strong cast. Besson has also served as a producer on a number of films, including Oldman's Nil by Mouth (1997), and, in 1994, he made the seldom-seen but extraordinary documentary Antarctica, an examination of life beneath the polar ice caps.
As the new century began he tended to focus more on writing and producing than directing. He helped bring a variety of projects to the big screen including Taxi 2, Kiss of the dragon, The Transporter films, District B 13, and Unleashed.
He returned to the director's chair for the animated film Arthur and the Invisibles in 2006, and two years later he would help write one of the year's surprise hits, the Liam Neeson action film Taken. In 2011 he directed The Lady, and produced the action film Columbiana, and the year after that he helped pen Taken 2.