She's got the look... Lucy director Luc Besson on Scarlett Johansson
You probably wouldn't use the word "ordinary" to describe Scarlett Johansson.
But to director Luc Besson, she is ordinary and quite the average girl, albeit a very pretty one.
"Scarlett's not as glamorous as portrayed in the magazines," said Besson to M in a phone interview from Taipei, where he was promoting his new sci-fi action flick Lucy.
"She's just a very hardworking and serious girl."
That's why the French film-maker, 55, felt she was perfect to play the titular character, a young foreign student living in Taiwan, who becomes a reluctant drug mule for a mobster.
Lucy, which opens here tomorrow, follows the transformation of an "average girl who's a little lost and doesn't know what to do with her life" to one possessing superhuman traits - including telepathy and telekinesis - after ingesting a new drug that unlocks her cerebral capacity to startling levels.
Besson, in his prolific 30-plus-year career as screenwriter and director, has created some of cinema's most unique and toughest female characters.
Take 1990's La Femme Nikita's titular character, Mathilda in Léon: The Professional (1994) and Leeloo in The Fifth Element (1997).
While Besson was reluctant to talk about his earlier femme fatales such as Natalie Portman and Milla Jovovich, he was more than happy to talk about his latest muse, calling her acting "spectacular" and "impressive".
The movie required Johansson to go from extremely vulnerable to utterly invincible - something the US actress did effortlessly.
"I was thinking that a couple of things would be hard to catch, but I was surprised how easily she did it."
A lot is riding on Lucy to be successful. The movie cost an estimated 49 million euros (S$82 million) - the most expensive film Besson's production company EuropaCorp has made.
Although reviews have been mixed, Besson isn't concerned as he knows he has a winner in his hands.
He said: "Lucy is now released in many countries, and I can see that people are stunned by the film.
"That's all I want, to have people leaving the cinema scratching their heads, asking questions."
Of course, having the charming Johansson helped, but Besson denied that the good response was from marketing the movie purely on Johansson's popularity.
"People seem to think we planned all that," said Besson.
"Between our initial meeting two years ago and shooting the film last year, she did Captain America: The Winter Soldier and other things.
"Lucy is nothing more than an artist who met an artist and did something at the right moment. That's it."
Lucy, he said, was written nine years ago, and certainly wasn't done with Johansson in mind.
It was during their first introductory meeting that he knew she was the one. He was also glad that Johansson, 29, was keen to work with him.
"You need to find someone who understands the film, and one who's attracted to the part."
Likening the process to being in a relationship, he added: "It's very important to find someone whom you're happy to spend eight months with."
Besson has churned out "over 60 stories of which 90 per cent are turned into films", and he credited his success to his massive imagination, which he said stemmed from having "no toys, TV or video games" while growing up in Greece and Yugoslavia.
"The only things I had were a piece of wood, rocks and some boxes... I had to invent all my stories."
The visionary director, who writes about five to six stories a year, also said that inspiration comes from anywhere.
"I see beauty everywhere. I'm sure I can find two or three angles that are beautiful even in your office," he said, chuckling.
Besson is not working on any stories at the moment, and is cherishing the bitter-sweet moments of promoting Lucy.
"It's always painful when you release a film," he said.
"It's almost like you're seeing your 18-year-old kid leaving the house and telling you 'Ciao! I'll never see you again, Mum and Dad!'
"I'm in this period right now, so I don't think I can think of anything else.
"I'm happy and proud of my kid, but am also sad at the same time."
Scarlett's not as glamorous as portrayed in the magazines.
She's just a very hardworking and serious girl.
- Director Luc Besson on Scarlett Johansson
The star maker
Luc Besson has been both praised and criticised throughout his career. But it's undeniable that he has turned many actors into international stars.
We look at those in Hollywood who have been blessed by the hand of the Frenchman.
LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL (1994)
Her big-screen debut was nothing short of striking, especially considering Portman was only 12 when she won the part of would-be child assassin, Mathilda.
Without Besson, we wouldn't have Portman the Oscar winner.
LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL (1994)
The Frenchman was already a regular Besson collaborator, having first worked with the director on L'avant Dernier (1981) before La Femme Nikita. But it was playing the hitman Leon that brought him much acclaim.
THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1997)
Before she became the orange-haired alien Leeloo, Jovovich was but another model-turned-actress known for being nude in the controversial Return To The Blue Lagoon (1991).
She became Mrs Besson No. 3 after making the film but they split two years later. Leeloo made Jovovich a femme fatale, a persona she solidified with the Resident Evil series.
THE TRANSPORTER (2002)
While he featured in Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels in 1998 and Snatch two years later, this Brit became an instant action star in The Transporter. Besson put him behind the wheel as reluctant martial arts hero Frank Martin, creating a franchise and a Hollywood career for Statham.
Nobody had a career makeover like Neeson, thanks to a brilliant script by Besson. Neeson went from Oscar-calibre actor into a credible lean and incredibly mean fighting machine. Sadly, the same trick has not worked for John Travolta or Kevin Costner.
Giveaway: Win Lucy movie tickets
We have five pairs of in-season movie tickets to Lucy to give away, courtesy of UIP.
Rated NC16 and opening here tomorrow, Lucy stars Scarlett Johansson and is directed by Luc Besson.
To win, answer this question:
Name the actress who plays the titular character in the movie Lucy.
1. Natalie Portman
2. Scarlett Johansson
3. Milla Jovovich
SMS your answer to 146077877 in the following format: TNPMLUCY
Each SMS costs $0.21 (with GST). Contest ends on Sunday, 11.59pm.