Set secrets of the sci-fi classic

Set secrets of the sci-fi classic

The year 1997 was a banner one for movies in every genre.

“You had ‘L.A. Confidential’ and ‘Donnie Brasco,’ ‘Good Will Hunting’ and ‘Titanic,’ and ‘As Good as It Gets,’ ” producer John Amicarella told The Post.

“And,” he said, “you had ‘The Fifth Element.’ “

Amicarella was an associate producer on French auteur Luc Besson’s futuristic sci-fi head trip. Set in 2263, it sees ex-military cab driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) team up with a mysterious orange-haired woman named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) to save the planet from a malevolent alien force, which is being helped by ruthless businessman Zorg (Gary Oldman). 

The sprawling action movie was stuffed with color, music and eccentric humor; it made a star of Chris Tucker, who played flamboyant TV personality Ruby Rhod, and enlisted comic-book artists to render a future New York City and designer Jean-Paul Gaultier to engineer cutting-edge costumes.

“Luc Besson did everything I thought a great artist should do,” sound designer Mark Mangini, who worked on the film (and just won an Oscar for “Dune”), told The Post. “He hired the most creative people in every department, and just told them to do what they do, without any micromanagement. That, to me, was an epiphany.”

Twenty-five years on, Amicarella, who most recently worked on Roland Emmerich’s “Moonfall,” is still impressed with Besson’s work. “It’s funny, it’s imaginative, it’s got romance and action, it’s kind of dazzling. You’ve got these wacky unforgettable characters, and it’s a little baffling at times,” he said. “The bottom line is, it’s really unique and in today’s world, it holds up.”

Below, a look at some of the film’s high points (and occasional mishaps).

The script

Luc Besson in front of a poster for “The Fifth Element” in 1997.
picture alliance via Getty Images

“I was brought in to read the script in front of Besson’s secretary,” Amicarella recalled. “I read it and said, ‘OK, I don’t really get it.’ But this is the guy who had done ‘La Femme Nikita’ and ‘The Professional,’ major landmark films. I said, ‘To work with Luc? Absolutely.’ “

The opening shot

“You have this languid shot of a spaceship traveling across the screen, reminiscent of the opening scene of ‘Star Wars,’ ” Mangini said. “I needed to create the sound of a slow-moving spaceship, and I didn’t want it to sound like a rocket or a jet. I had an old recording of Tibetan monks chanting; I slowed that recording down, to make it unrecognizable.”

Bruce Willis

Actor Bruce Willis (right) and director Luc Besson , during this morning's photocall for "The Fifth Element",  which Premieres tonight during the 50th Cannes Film Festival.
Bruce Willis and director Luc Besson at the 50th Cannes Film Festival in 1997.
PA Images via Getty Images

Willis, who has recently gone public with a diagnosis of aphasia, came with a reputation for being difficult on sets. But, said Amicarella, “what I saw was a great respect between Bruce and Luc. I would say, and I mean this as a compliment, Bruce certainly knew who Bruce was. He was superbly confident in that. We got Bruce in his prime — he was very charismatic.” 

Milla Jovovich

Milla Jovovich in a still from the film.
Milla Jovovich in a still from the film.
The Kobal Collection

Jovovich, who’d appeared in “Return to the Blue Lagoon” when she was 15, broke through as a star in the role of Leeloo. She wore a bright-orange wig and an iconic outfit consisting entirely of scant white bandages, and spoke in an alien language Besson invented for the film. She also became involved with the director, marrying him later that year but divorcing two years later.

Gary Oldman

1997 Gary Oldman stars in the new movie "The Fifth Element"
Gary Oldman played ruthless businessman Zorg in the movie.
Getty Images

Despite his all-in performance, Oldman said in a controversy-laced 2014 interview with Playboy that he’s not a fan of the film. “Oh no, I can’t bear it,” he told the magazine, explaining that he had taken the part as a favor to Besson after the director had financed a film for Oldman. 

Speaking alien

1997 Bruce Willis stars in the new movie "The Fifth Element"
Mangalores have Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) in “The Fifth Element.”
Getty Images

“Those large, brass Mondoshawans, the good guys, they had to speak in this weird sort of tuba-like voice,” said Mangini. “We used this budding technology, called vocoding, where we brought in actors to read the voices of the Mondoshawans, and we used those voices to trigger other sounds like brass instruments, to make the sounds.”

For the bad-guy Mangalores, “We used a similar technique, but we formulated [it] with cruder sounds like bears and camels and gorillas to give them a more brutish sound.”

Chris Tucker

Chris Tucker as Ruby Rhod.
Chris Tucker as Ruby Rhod — a part that reportedly Prince was originally going to play.
The Kobal Collection

Besson claimed in a 2016 tweet that Prince was originally supposed to play the role of Ruby Rhod. But Tucker, a comic who had small parts in films before this, gave a wild swing of a performance. “When we were cutting the film together, Sony Columbia was concerned about the character maybe being a little ‘out there’ for the general public,” said Amicarella. “Luc was like, ‘No, this is what I want,’ and he arranged a preview for the core audience at the time, which was teenagers. It scored really high on that character, and that put that discussion to rest.”

The diva

The diva
The character Diva Plavalaguna sings an aria from the opera “Lucia di Lammermoor” (dubbed by opera singer Inva Mula) in “The Fifth Element.”
(c) Columbia Pictures

In one of the film’s big set pieces, the character Diva Plavalaguna sings an aria from the opera “Lucia di Lammermoor” (dubbed by opera singer Inva Mula). The 20-year-old French actress who played the diva, Maïwenn, was Besson’s then-wife; she’d given birth to their child when she was 16. The two broke up during filming when he became involved with Jovovich.

The LAX incident

“We were in London, and we had to ship the negatives to LA,” said Amicarella. “I got a call from the lab, and they said, ‘We suggest you come down to the airport.’ They put me in a waiting room, and three big guys came in with these huge bags full of negatives. As they were unloading the negatives off the airplane at LAX, they’d fallen off, and got run over by a forklift. And the scene that got mangled was the big scene, the shootout in the opera house where all the stars are running around. I had to make the call to Luc.” They managed to fix the damage, but the experience was, Amicarella said, “not good. But it was one of those things where, as much as you’re prepared, the unexpected happens.”

The sound of Earth being saved

A scene from "The Fifth Element."
At the end of the film, crystals are arranged to achieve cosmic fusion.
(c) Columbia Pictures

“At the end of the film they’re arranging the crystals, and they have to get this cosmic fusion, and Leeloo faints and this shaft of light goes into the heavens — there’s this very angelic chorus,” Mangini said. “We wanted it to sound like something beneficent. So we made this sound by screaming at a piano. If you yell at an open piano, the strings sympathetically vibrate — and create this angel-choir sound.”


Rachel Meadows

Rachel Meadows

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