1997 was a landmark year for films in all genres.
“They had ‘LA 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 Associate Producer on French author Luc Besson’s futuristic sci-fi mind journey. Set in the year 2263, it sees former military cab driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) join forces with a mysterious orange-haired woman named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) to save the planet from a malevolent alien force aided by ruthless businessman Zorg (Gary Oldman).
The sprawling action film was packed with color, music and eccentric humor; It starred Chris Tucker, who played flamboyant TV personality Ruby Rhode, and hired comic artists to envision a future New York City and designer Jean-Paul Gaultier to create cutting-edge costumes.
“Luc Besson did everything I think 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 each department and just told them to do what they do, not micromanage. That was an epiphany for me.”
25 years later, Amicarella, who last worked on Roland Emmerich’s Moonfall, is still impressed by Besson’s work. “It’s funny, it’s imaginative, it’s got romance and action, it’s kind of mind-blowing. They have these crazy, unforgettable characters, and it’s a bit confusing at times,” he said. “The bottom line is it’s really unique and holds up in today’s world.”
Below, a look at some of the film’s highlights (and occasional glitches).
“I was invited 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 that’s the guy who made ‘La Femme Nikita’ and ‘The Professional’, major milestones. I said, ‘To work with Luc? Absolutely.’ “
The opening shot
“You have this lazy shot of a spaceship flying across the screen, reminiscent of the opening scene of ‘Star Wars,'” Mangini said. “I needed to create the sound of a slowly moving spaceship, and I didn’t want it to sound like a rocket or a jet. I had an old recording of Tibetan monks singing; I slowed down this shot to make it unrecognizable.”
Willis, who recently went public with an aphasia diagnosis, had a reputation for being difficult on set. But, Amicarella said, “What I saw was a great respect between Bruce and Luc. I would say, and I mean that as a compliment, Bruce certainly knew who Bruce was. Of that he was very sure. We have Bruce in his prime – he was very charismatic.”
Jovovich, who appeared in The Blue Lagoon when she was 15, broke into stardom as Leeloo. She wore a bright orange wig and an iconic outfit consisting entirely of scant white bandages, and spoke in an alien language that Besson invented for the film. She also became engaged to the director, marrying him later that year but divorcing two years later.
Despite his all-in performance, Oldman said in a controversial 2014 interview with Playboy that he wasn’t a fan of the film. “Oh no, I can’t take it,” he told the magazine, explaining that he took on the role as a favor to Besson after the director funded a film for Oldman.
Speaking of foreign
“Those big brass Mondoshawans, the good guys, they had to speak in that weird tuba-like voice,” Mangini said. “We used this emerging technology called vocoding, where we called in actors to read the voices of the Mondoshawans, and we used those voices to trigger other sounds, like brass instruments, to create the sounds.”
For the villain Mangalore: “We used a similar technique, but we worded something [it] with grittier sounds like bears, camels and gorillas to give them a more brutal sound.”
Besson claimed in a Tweet 2016 that Prince was originally set to play the role of Ruby Rhod. But Tucker, a comedian who previously had small roles in films, gave a wild performance. “When we edited the film together, Sony Columbia was concerned that the character might be a little ‘off the grid’ to the general public,” said Amicarella. “Luc said, ‘No, that’s what I want,’ and he arranged a preview for the core audience at the time, which were teenagers. It scored really well for that character, and that ended that discussion.”
In one of the film’s major 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 gave birth to her 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 had to ship the negatives to LA,” Amicarella said. “I got a call from the lab and they said, ‘We suggest you come to the airport.’ They took me to a waiting room and three big guys walked in with these huge bags of negatives. When they were unloading the negatives from the plane at LAX, they had fallen and been run over by a forklift. And the scene that got mangled was the big scene, the shooting at the opera house where all the stars are running around. I had to call Luc.” They managed to fix the damage, but the experience, Amicarella said, “wasn’t good. But it was one of those things where, as well as you are prepared, the unexpected happens.”
The sound of the earth being saved
“At the end of the movie, they’re arranging the crystals and they have to do this cosmic merging and Leeloo faints and this beam of light goes up into the sky — there’s this very angelic chorus,” Mangini said. “We wanted it to sound like something charitable. So we made this noise by yelling at a piano. When you yell at an open piano, the strings vibrate sympathetically—creating that angelic choir sound.”