Luc Besson INTERVIEW: The Fifth Element Director talks ‘Dogman’ & miracles on set

Luc Besson INTERVIEW: The Fifth Element Director talks Dogman & making miracles with 80 dogs and their ringleader, Caleb Landry Jones

Writer/Director Luc Besson, also known for Leon: The Professional and Nikita discusses his new action-drama piece and creating movies focused on overcoming incredible and continuous hardship.

With more than 20 works in his filmography, Luc Besson presents his latest, Dogman, at The Busan International Film Festival in a huge 1000+ person open-air cinema without a seat to spare. He remarks on the experience, “It was very moving, heart-warming. [Even with subtitles] everyone was so focused throughout the film.” He’s not wrong – this crowd is with him every step of the way.

Later it becomes clear, Director Besson does not like being on the other end of the camera. Completely over photography, he impatiently waits for it to end, practically tapping his foot without splitting a single smile. But as soon as the cameras are stowed, he transforms into a playful, engaged, bear-of-a-man excited to explain how he captured wonders with his film. Swapping easily between native French and perfect English, he notes, you can only train dogs so much. The rest, he says, is magic.

Director Luc Besson at the Busan International Film Festival 2023. Photo credit: Kristen Lazur

Dogman is fantasy-based-on-reality about ‘the abandoned’ who build their own less rigid tribe. Originating from a news clip, Besson expounds on his thinking, “A man caged his son with dogs, what could that [child’s] life have been like? What opportunities would that bring? He could become a terrorist or Mother Theresa. From there, I started imagining. Guiding him into a path of goodness and kindness, the dogs provide the unconditional love that Douglas never received from his family.”


When you meet the Dogman, you’ll see how that kind of beginning – at least in Besson’s imagination – can mold a person. Unsurprisingly, he’s a tough fit for society, finding an occasional contemporary on the outer rim. The core is a character grounded in the emotions of a child who wasn’t allowed to develop.

“In the beginning, the character is 10 years old. I took a strand from that ball of yarn, imagining how he would react to his surroundings – with his father, his brother, God. The structure of the script is simple – it’s Frankenstein’s monster. People are scared, but look closely – monsters can be loveable. What makes him a monster are his circumstances and the only thing he can rely on is hope. I wanted to show the process of how the character overcomes, despite his hardships.”

33-year-old Caleb Landry Jones is incredible as the entirely compelling yet intermittently unnerving Douglas. He’s the epitome of a misunderstood anti-hero – you want to cheer for him but at the same time, you can’t help but pause occasionally – what? – but then there are those dogs. Dogs know the good people, don’t they? The absolute faith of those dogs conveys everything you need to know. Yet in this, dogs aren’t the blind recipients of Douglas’ care. Neither are they doing tricks for scraps. No, they serve each other like the King who sits in the trenches with his troops, dodging bullets and sharing rations, often from the same tin.


Besson talks about recruiting Landry Jones. “I didn’t know much about Caleb at first, though we met a few times before. As it’s such a different role, I wanted to get to know him and by our third meeting, we started talking about the film. Caleb is such a hard worker, a diligent ant. I’m so lucky to have worked with him – we became partners in crime.”

The co-stars are clearly the dogs, Besson working with over 100 to make the film over the course of two years. “I’ve had dogs since I was four, so I know a lot about dog-to-human relationships. You can’t force dogs to perform, but rather you must build circumstances for them. Miraculously the scenes came together.”

Besson continues, describing a day on set, hanging out in the litter. He notes it’s easier than working with humans, then quickly adds that he’s kidding. Yet there’s pure joy as he talks about having to become a five-year-old to get to know them properly.

“There’s a scene where Douglas reads Shakespeare to 80 dogs. It would have been impossible to shoot that at 8am because dogs are so energetic then. We walked them for three hours, played, gave them double rations – then the dogs were perfectly still. Caleb put a lot of emotion into his voice and about two-thirds of the dogs reacted, such as tilting their heads. Did that dog really understand Romeo and Juliet? I’m not sure. But when Caleb was reading, it felt like they were listening.”

One scene has the wheel-chair-bound Douglas baking – it’s one of several that demonstrates his symbiotic relationship with the animals. In this, as he reads through the recipe, dogs fetch ingredients from the panty, bringing each one by one. “Caleb brings a lot of emotion to that scene and the dogs were really good at absorbing it. One of the dogs, Mickey, responded beautifully to Caleb’s agony. The dog was so gentle with him. Unintended beautiful moments like that felt like miracles.”


The film is set in New Jersey, which was a bit of a surprise. As a Pennsylvania native, the state next door, I had to ask – why the Garden State? “One part of New Jersey is clean and open but there’s a part of the state that feels forgotten in time. I intentionally didn’t specify a year, wanting it to feel like a space outside of time. We found a part of NJ that was perfect to give that sensation of timeless.”

Along with the backdrop, dark spaces and pops of red, there’s a wide selection of music. “As with the location, the music is intentionally not of a specific era. For the cabaret scenes, I considered what he could sing that wouldn’t require a lot of movement [because of Douglas’ physical state]. I chose static, beautiful songs with lyrics that intertwine with the film’s message – tunes from Marlene Dietrich, Edith Piaf.”

It doesn’t take much encouragement to harken back to some of his most powerful works, igniting him with energy just talking about it. “I love sci-fi – to be able to create a whole word, like with The Fifth Element. I wrote 400 pages to describe and imagine different details of everyday life. Food, the way they went to work – I had fun just imagining people eating their meals. World-building, full of fun and color, is what drives me. I was a huge fan of Star Wars.”

Considering his entire body of work, Besson notes two themes that encapsulate every piece, ‘working harder to make a better tomorrow’ and ‘pain is what connects us.’ He asserts, “The question is how we move forward and escape our agonies. How can we share the pain together? Give relief to each other? Douglas carries the essence of all the characters I’ve created over the last 20 years.”

Continuing, Besson quotes Wordsworth’s expression of joyful youth in the poem My Heart Leaps Up noting, “’The child is the father of the man.’ I understand why grown-ups become cynical about the dreams they once had. All we know we learned in childhood, so if we can see that children are the parents [before pain and cynicism enter], shouldn’t we listen to them more? This philosophy is the foundation of my films.”

Check out the Dogman review hereFor more stories from the Busan International Film Festival, click here. For interviews, click here.

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