“More than half of the French directors who were successful in the last 30 years didn’t come from a national [or state-backed] school. It doesn’t mean the way they teach is bad; it means the way they select directors isn’t right for people like me,” says Besson, who decided to take matters into his own hands.
In 2012, the director started his own free film school, Ecole de la Cite, on the grounds of the studio where he shot “Lucy” and his most recent sci-fi adventure, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.”
As it happens, the studio was also Besson’s idea, built on the grounds of an old power plant in the semi-dangerous north Paris suburb of Saint-Denis. Dubbed the Cite du Cinema, the massive steampunk-style complex boasts room for soundstages, post-production facilities, a cinema makeup academy and private offices — several of which have been converted into classrooms.
Since Besson is mostly busy directing and producing movies, he entrusts much of the operation to longtime collaborator and École co-founder/VP Isabelle Agid, who has taken the mission of inclusivity to heart.
“We have people from Africa, Poland, China. We are open to everybody,” Agid says. “We prefer motivated, extremely creative people — people who have passion and ideas.”
Rather than demanding high grades or a baccalauréat degree (the French equivalent of a high school diploma) the way such state-run film schools as La Fémis and Louis-Lumière do, Agid and Besson have developed a three-day selection process consisting of interviews and creative contests from which they select 60 students for the two-year program.
“Some of our applicants have never touched a camera before. The only requirement is that they must be between the ages of 18 and 25,” Agid says.
Because the goal was to create a tuition-free program, Besson went to the country’s top studios and TV channels, including TF1 and Gaumont, with a simple pitch: “We have a lack of screenwriters in France,” he told them. “Let me form them for two years, and then they’re yours.”
The companies agreed, underwriting the operation. At the end of each term, École hosts a cocktail attended by France’s top producers where students pitch their best ideas.
This past year, Besson invited five students each week to observe him during the making of “Valerian” — 20 weeks in all. During pre-production, he took the entire class through one of the film’s most complicated scenes, “the big market,” consisting of nearly 400 shots.
“I put the entire storyboard on the wall, then I bring 60 students in and we shot all 400 shots with a camera, where they each played a part, so they went through the entire construction of the scene, from shooting to editing to sound effects and music,” he says.
For Besson, the exercise helped him fine-tune the scene, while providing a real-world teaching opportunity in which he explained the reason he chose one shot over another, why he chose a particular lens or held a shot for just one second, etc.
“You learn everything on the set,” says Hugo P. Thomas, a graduate of the École’s inaugural class who partnered with two fellow students, Marielle Gautier and Zoran Boukherma, to turn his student-made short into a feature, “Willy 1er,” which premiered in the indie-oriented Acid program at Cannes last year. (Along with “Waiting for Violette,” the film is one of two features spawned by École-made shorts.)
Unlike most of his fellow students, Thomas already had a master’s degree in law, but wanted to make movies, and the program offered a practical, hands-on approach.
Still, the school is so new that the diploma program has not yet been accredited by the state — though that should come within the year. And yet, students graduate with such professional experience, the school has a 100% employment rate, according to Agid.
“People who graduate from our school come out prepared to do whatever it takes,” Thomas says. “If a door is closed, they’re not afraid to punch it. It’s not a school where you will be comfortable, and that’s a good thing to have in the film industry.”