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Going Underground – A Journey into Luc Besson’s Subway

Luc Besson was just twenty-six when his second full-length feature Subway was released in his native France to commercial and critical success. His first to be shot in colour, following his experimental debut Le Dernier Combat (The Last Battle), Subway would boast many of the themes and visual elements that would later surface in his more recognised work, such as Nikita and Leon (The Professional). More light-hearted and action-orientated than its predecessor, Subway was an anarchic blend of comic book violence, madcap humour and 1980’s New Wave pop music. While its narrative was almost nonexistent, the movie was based around a series of individual set pieces that followed its protagonist, a charming con man, as he attempted to elude both sides of the law after committing a crime.

The origin of Subway can be traced back a few years earlier to 1978 when a nineteen-year-old Besson was at a crossroads in his life. Two years earlier, following a diving accident that had left him confined to a hospital bed for several weeks, he was forced to give up his passion due to serious injuries. Instead, Besson became obsessed with photography and cinema and decided that he would shoot his own short film. Following his discharge from the army he formed his own production company and found minor work on a variety of productions in both France and the United States, including an admin job on the James Bond sequel Moonraker. It would be during this period, in which he was trying to arouse the interest of Gaumont, a major French studio responsible for most of the country’s successful productions, that the initial concept for Subway would begin to take shape.

While walking through the Metro station in Paris, Besson noticed an open door that prohibited access to the public. Curious as to what was lurking behind Besson decided to venture inside and was shocked to discover an abandoned area of the station, where the homeless took shelter in the long-forgotten corridors and rooms of this secluded section of the underground. Immediately sensing the cinematic potential, Besson began toying with the idea of a story based around a station which, in his words, had been ‘taken over by zombies of the night.’ Over the next few weeks he began developing the concept and eventually adapted it into a screenplay, but due to his lack of experience he was unable to sell the script to any studios. Disappointed at the rejection he decided to file the story away and focus on a new project.

Around this time Besson had been working on two different ideas, neither of which resembled the claustrophobic setting of Subway. The first was an imaginative one-hundred-page science fiction tale called Zaltman Bleros that, almost twenty years later, would provide the inspiration for his big budget adventure The Fifth Element. His second story continued his passion for diving and would eventually be adapted into his 1988 epic drama Le Grand Bleu (The Big Blue). But soon Besson realised that if he was to be taken seriously by producers and studios then he would need to gain experience outside of the system and so he began work on a short film shot in black-and-white with no dialogue.

L’avant dernier was a post-apocalyptic science fiction story in which two scavengers fight against each other for survival. The ten-minute project would serve as the foundation for his subsequent feature, The Last Battle. L’avant dernier would mark the beginning of several key collaborations for Besson, some of which would last throughout his career. The screenplay would be developed with Pierre Jolivet, who had previously worked for Besson’s father in a hotel, writing shows for the stage with his brother, Marc. As well as his script duties, Jolivet would also play the unnamed hero. Jean Reno, in the role of the antagonist, would become a key player in the Besson circle in later years, taking lead roles in The Big Blue and Leon, as well as minor parts in The Last Battle, Subway and Nikita.

Following the modest success of The Last Battle on the festival circuit and its subsequent distribution through Gaumont, Besson decided to return to his earlier screenplay. Due to his recent acclaim the studio finally expressed interest in his Subway project and soon actors and locations were being suggested by executives. For the key role of Fred, a petty criminal who flees from gangsters and police into the darkness of the subway Besson initally approached twenty-eight-year-old François Cluzet, whose work with New Wave filmmaker Claude Chabrol in the early 1980s had helped launch his career. Despite only being a relative newcomer himself, Cluzet declined at the opportunity of working with an inexperienced director.

Early in development, before turning his attention to The Last Battle, Besson had been sleeping on the couch of writer Marc Jolivet, whose close friend Richard Anconina was also staying. Besson had promised Anconina the part of Fred, but while Besson had worked on his feature debut Anconina’s career had advanced considerably following his César-winning performance in Claude Berri’s Tchao pantin (So Long, Stooge). With Subway now back on track and under pressure from Gaumont to cast a known star Besson once again searched for a suitable actor to take on the role.

Despite being a French production Besson approached pop star Sting, frontman of the British group The Police and received an unexpected positive response from the thirty-two-year-old singer. ‘I have rarely met someone as magnetic as Sting,’ Besson would later confess in his retrospective L’Histoire de Subway. ‘I speak English with my hands but it wasn’t a big deal as I came with Le Dernier Combat and the film is silent. We went to have a drink in a drink to tell him the story of Subway. I do not know how! But he agrees.’

Sting had previously appeared in the coming-of-age drama Quadrophenia and was set to co-star in David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune but Gaumont, unfamiliar with his work, lacked interest. Alongside Sting another performer Besson had approached for the project was Charlotte Rampling. Having enjoyed a prolific career since the mid-1960s, Rampling’s diverse roles had included the Peter Cushing horror Asylum, Henry VIII and His Six Wives and the erotic drama Il portiere di notte (The Night Porter) with Dick Bogarde. But Rampling dismissed the script as being amateur and Besson, frustrated by her response, instead offers the part to Isabelle Adjani.

With past collaborations that included François Truffaut and Roman Polanski, Adjani was already an experienced screen veteran at the age of twenty-nine, having recently won a César Award for her part in One Deadly Summer. But conflicting schedules between Sting and Adjani caused further issues and Sting, who was already balancing a constant touring schedule while preparing for his first solo album, eventually backed out of the project. Once again Besson was without a lead actor and under increasing pressure from Gaumont, whose patience was starting to wear thin.

Besson eventually settling on Christophe Lambert who, two years Besson’s senior, had already appeared in a variety of supporting roles before finding international fame as Tarzan in Hugh Hudson’s fantasy Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. Both the movie and its star received praise upon its release, with Variety’s Vincent Canby describing it as a ‘most unexpected, most invigorating surprise,’ before hailing Lambert as ‘remarkably believable and affecting both as the naked ape of Africa and then as the uncomfortable aristocrat, who tries desperately to fit in with his new family.’

Greystoke, in which he had been credited as the more English-sounding Christopher Lambert, would launch his career and soon lead to a starring role in another soon-to-be cult classic, Highlander. ‘What interests me is the director and the quality of his script because, once the filming begins, he is the boss,’ explained Lambert to French cinema site Sofilm. ‘Luc wanted to tell this story of underground Paris. The idea had come to him because one day, passing under the Arc de Triomphe in the underground tunnel that connects the Champs-Élysées to the Avenue de la Grande Armée…Luc met the marginalised who lived underground, he saw the small rooms that the characters of the film occupy.’

Lambert saw his character as a culmination of the Little Prince, a classic tale of isolation and discovery from French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Mad Max, George Miller’s gritty, post-apocalyptic road movie that first introduced international audiences to Mel Gibson. ‘His delirium, his innocence touched me,’ Lambert later said of Fred. ‘For me, he was a child trapped in an adult body.’ By the time Lambert was brought onboard Besson had already established most of the supporting cast. Jean-Hugues Anglade, who would portray the roller-skater, had been discovered by Besson after a viewing of l’Homme blessé (The Wounded Man), in which he played a young man coming to terms with his homosexual urges.

With Lambert officially cast as the lead Gaumont become more receptive to Besson’s vision and agree to a budget of fourteen million francs, despite the company’s insistence on renaming the project Métro de nuit (Metro Night), much to the disgust of the director. After finally convincing the producers to release the movie as Subway, a shooting schedule of seventeen weeks was prepared, ten of which would take place in the Porte des Lilas on Paris’ Métro line. Lambert would prove to be an animated lead, clearly relishing in his mischievous role after the pressures of portraying Tarzan in an international production.

For Besson, working with composer Éric Serra on-set was an enjoyable experience. Serra was cast as a bassist jamming inside the subway along with drummer Jean Reno, making his third appearance in a Besson project. While the majority of the crew consisted of artists whom Besson had worked with on prior projects, such as costume designer Martine Rapin, Subway would also boast the talents of production designer Alexandre Trauner, a veteran of such legendary filmmakers as Billy Wilder, John Huston and Orson Welles, leading to a body of work that had earned him an Academy Award for The Apartment and two César Awards.

The experience of filming Subway was not without its difficulties, as many of the cast and crew suffered from claustrophobia due to the confined spaces they were forced to shoot within. With the location being a real subway, the corridors were filled with dirt, which caused some – including Besson – to fall ill during the two-plus months they were underground. Despite these setbacks, the real-world location gave the movie an authentic appearance, despite its comic book tone. But eager to capture the the ordeal on film, Besson arranged for the experience of creating the movie to be caught on film, the behind-the-scenes footage ultimately forming a making-of featurette.

Released in the spring of 1985, Subway was met with mixed reviews from critics, many praising the film’s production design and visuals but criticising Besson’s script. ‘Subway has a highly energetic visual style and a set of characters and situations so thin that they might as well be afterthoughts,’ said Janet Maslin of the New York Times, while Variety’s review added that ‘Subway brings to mind Orson Welles’ quip about the cinema being the greatest electric train set a boy could have.’ Despite the criticism, the movie would be nominated for a total of thirteen Césars, winning three of the categories, while also receiving a BAFTA nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

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