If The Fifth Element—which was released 20 years ago today—isn't the goofiest, most outlandish sci-fi action movie ever made, it's not for lack of trying. Luc Besson's 23rd-century spectacle features a breakout performance by Milla Jovovich, and had Bruce Willis saving Earth from a giant rock one year before Armageddon. You probably think it's either great or terrible—there's not much in-between on this one. If you're on the "yes" side, here's some knowledge to add to your multi-pass next time you watch it.
1. Léon: The Professional helped it get made.
Mad Frenchman Luc Besson had five features under his belt when he started working on The Fifth Element in 1992. But his respectable track record wasn't enough to pull in the kind of financial backing he needed for a futuristic sci-fi adventure. So after some pre-production work (including meeting with designers; see below), he put The Fifth Element aside and—in the course of 11 months—wrote and directed Léon: The Professional, starring Jean Reno, 13-year-old Natalie Portman, and future The Fifth Element villain Gary Oldman. Léon's strong showing ($45 million worldwide, on a $16 million budget) gave the people who controlled the purse strings more confidence in Besson's ability to make The Fifth Element a success, and the project was put back on track.
2. Besson kind of wishes it had taken even longer to get it made.
He explained to The Playlist: "I was a little bit frustrated because I made the film right before all the new effects arrived. So when I did the film it was all blue screen, six hours, dots on the wall, takes forever to do one shot. Now, basically, you put the camera on your shoulder and then you run and then you add a couple of dinosaurs and spaceships." He said he'd love the chance to make another futuristic sci-fi film—maybe even a sequel to The Fifth Element—now that technology has made it easier.
3. It was inspired by French comic books.
As a teenager in the 1970s, Besson devoured his countrymen's comics (called "bandes dessinées" there—"drawn strips"), especially the sci-fi titles by artists like Jean-Claude Mézières and Jean "Moebius" Giraud. Besson enlisted those two to head up the production design team for The Fifth Element, and used their sketches and storyboards extensively. Giraud and Alejandro Jodorowsky later sued Besson for plagiarizing their comic The Incal in The Fifth Element, but the case was dismissed. (Giraud had, after all, worked directly with Besson on on the film.) Jodorowsky later said it was the comic's editor who'd filed the lawsuit, not him and Giraud.
4. It borrowed some ideas from Plato.
Maybe you knew this, but Luc Besson didn't. He conceived The Fifth Element as a teenager in the 1970s, taking the four classical elements (earth, water, wind, and fire) and combining them to make a fifth (life). Turns out that a lot of ancient people had already come up with the same basic concept, including the Greek philosopher. Besson said, “When my father came across Plato’s writings on the subject, he came to me with the book and said, ‘Do you know that your movie is a remake?’ I read it, and was amazed to see the similarities between what Plato had written and what I had put into the script”
5. Besson is a hands-on director. Literally.
Besson usually operates the camera himself, which means he's right there in the middle of things rather than off to the side. He doesn't call "cut" between takes (he doesn't like to stop the momentum), but will instead simply talk to the actors and tell them what he needs. And if an actor isn't quite where Besson needs him or her to be, he'll take the actor by the shoulders and move him or her manually. For the actors who hadn't worked with Besson before, this informality took some getting used to.
6. Chris Tucker's role was meant for Prince, who thought the costumes were too effeminate.
According to costume designer Jean Paul Gaultier, Besson had lined up Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts, and Prince to play the leads in 1992, before financial problems delayed the project. (It's not clear whether any of them had officially signed on or were merely considering it.) Besson arranged for Gaultier to meet with Prince when the singer was in Paris so he could show him sketches of his designs. The meeting proved awkward (as one assumes many meetings with Prince are), and The Purple One later told Besson that he found the costumes "a bit too effeminate." It's entirely possible that the production delays would have prevented Prince from committing anyway, but it's fun to think about what Ruby Rhod would have been like in different hands. Quieter, probably.
7. At the time, it was the most expensive non-U.S. film in history.
It cost north of $70 million, or about the same as The Lost World: Jurassic Park, released the same year.
8. Nobody can agree on what year it takes place in.
The first scene is explicitly set in 1914. Everything after that is said to be "300 years later," which we understand is just an approximation. Korben Dallas's alarm clock says the year is 2263. But the notes on the 1997 DVD edition say 2257, and Besson says 2259 in his book The Story of The Fifth Element.
The cast didn't know what the Diva looked like until they saw her onstage.
Besson wanted to capture everyone's natural astonished reactions the first time they saw the Diva Plavalaguna. To achieve this, he simply kept the actress (his then-wife, Maïwenn Le Besco) hidden behind a curtain until the time came to film her entrance. So while the idea of an outlandish blue alien hanging around the craft services table with Bruce Willis is amusing, it didn't happen that way.
10. Some of Milla Jovovich's high kicks were performed by a "leg on a stick."
The actress trained for her fight scenes, but she was still mostly a novice. In particular, she couldn't kick very high. As she explained it, they worked around this by using a (presumably fake) leg on a stick, held just below the frame. She would move her body as if to kick, and the leg operators would swing the thing up into the frame. Movie magic!
11. Gary Oldman doesn't like the movie.
In 2014, Oldman told Playboy that he "can't bear it." To be fair, he doesn't seem to have much fondness for most of the movies he's been in.
12. It offered Luc Besson the opportunity to ruin his second marriage and launch his third.
The director had been married to Maïwenn Le Besco, who plays the Diva Plavalaguna, since 1992 (when she was 16 and he was 33, but that's another story). She didn't want to be in the film, adhering to the old adage that married people shouldn't work together and co-workers shouldn't marry each other. But when the actress Besson had cast as the Diva dropped out, Le Besco took the part and gave a memorable performance. Alas, Besson didn't share his wife's policy of not mixing work with relationships. He left her during the production for Milla Jovovich, whom he married at the end of 1997 and divorced two years later. He was also married once before Le Besco and once (so far) after Jovovich.
13. A famous fashion designer worked his fingers to the bone to get the costumes right.
Jean Paul Gaultier, the enfant terrible of the fashion world who once gave Madonna conical breasts, designed the futuristic costumes for The Fifth Element—more than 1000 of them. He didn't just design them, either: For crowd scenes, where there might be hundreds of extras wearing his costumes, he'd go around making adjustments to ensure everyone looked right before the cameras rolled. So take a moment to appreciate the details next time you watch the movie, OK?