How ‘The Fifth Element’ Changed the Action Star’s Career

Milla Jovovich, Willis and Ian Holm in The Fifth Element.  (Photo: ©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Milla Jovovich, Bruce Willis and Ian Holm in The fifth element† (Photo: © Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Sometimes a career makeover calls for a personal makeover as well. Twenty-five years ago, Bruce Willis — who recently “resigned” from acting after his family made public his diagnosis of aphasia — took a big professional risk by getting attached to the gonzo Gallic sci-fi movie, The fifth element, directed by French action maestro Luc Besson. And the first thing the die hard star did to prepare for the role of the futuristic soldier turned flying taxi driver, Korben Dallas debuted with a new head of hair.

“Luc had his hair dyed blonde for some reason,” Willis revealed to… Weekly entertainment in 2017. “And I said, ‘You know what? I should dye my hair blonde, have a wig on my head.’ That was a contribution of mine, and he liked it.”

Released in theaters on May 9, 1997, The fifth element Willis catapulted into the distant year 2263, where he accidentally rescues a mysterious alien named Leelo (Milla Jovovich) – the living embodiment of the “fifth element” essential to saving the world from an approaching evil. It was the star’s second foray into sci-fi after Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeysand it came at a time when Willis became more picky about his action vehicles after seemingly seeing the die hard franchise with 1995’s Die hard with a vengeance, and finding acclaim in smaller films like Pulp Fiction and nobody is crazy

“People in the media try to identify me and say, ‘He’s this kind of actor’ or ‘He’s this superstar’ or whatever label they put on me,” he noted in an interview. learn to act. It would be very easy for me and also very boring for me to make action movies all the time. I’m tired of it, so I’m trying to find other things to challenge myself.”

It’s worth noting that Willis was not Besson’s first choice to play Korben. In a 2017 Reddit AMA, the director revealed that he originally pitched the project to Mel Gibson. brave heart and Ransom† “I first asked Mel Gibson because he had his office next to mine at Warner Brothers,” Besson said. “He peeked into my office every morning to tell me he was thinking about it. After three months, he died. Bruce was the only other choice I had in mind.”

Without coming out exactly and saying it, it sounds like Willis wasn’t quite sold The fifth element when Besson presented him with the script and some of his extensive concept art for 23rd century Earth. The actor called the film’s aesthetic “very strange” in a pre-release interview. And Korben’s character must navigate that strange landscape by quickly adapting to the bizarre creatures and places he encounters — moments that were almost meant to push Willis out of his comfort zone. But that was a challenge he had to take on. “I like to make movies that I’m not quite sure I’ll succeed in, so there’s always a risk of failure,” he noted.

Bruce Willis goes blonde in Luc Besson's 1997 science fiction favorite, The Fifth Element.  (Photo: Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Willis turned blonde The fifth element, modeling himself after the film’s director, Luc Besson. (Photo: Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Willis showed his dedication: The fifth element showing up with his blonde paint job and getting a thumbs up from Besson. But he had other ideas that the director wasn’t too keen on. In a 2017 interview with screen frenzy, Besson said Willis’ assistant approached him early in the shoot and outlined the star’s favorite work schedule, a schedule that minimizes the amount of time he would have to spend on set between camera settings for the next shot. . †[The assistant] said, ‘Okay, I’m going to tell you how it works,'” recalls the filmmaker. “We need a pre-call at 30 minutes, then a pre-call at 15 minutes, then a pre-call at 5 minutes before he goes on set.'”

That approach clashed with Besson’s own fast-paced directing process, requiring the actors to stay on set and be ready at faster intervals. “I said, ‘I take a shot every four minutes. Are you kidding?’ And he said, ‘What do you mean, you do a shot every four minutes?’ I’ll take the shot and then I’ll flip the camera and take another shot, so I can’t warn you 30 minutes before the shot.”

After some direct negotiations with Willis, Besson came to a compromise that would keep Willis on set but give him extra long weekends. “I said [to Bruce] ‘How about instead of working 5 days… you work four days a week? Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, but you sit on the box next to me by the camera and we shoot like crazy, and he said okay! Agreement! So he was standing on a box about 10 feet from the camera for the whole set and he was so happy. Because he preferred it shorter and more tense.”

Speak with EW, Willis discussed the effects of his shift to a four-day work week. “We had long days and we should just work and work and keep it moving fast,” the actor said. “Luc shoots a lot. But that’s part of the film business, and I had no problem with it.” But fifth element co-writer, Robert Kamen, has a different memory of Willis’ attitude. †[Bruce] was very difficult, and Luc worked around it,” he said uproxx in 2021. “But Luc wasn’t used to it. After he did, he came up to me and said, ‘We need to make our own movie stars.’ And that’s what we did with it The transporter† We made Jason [Statham]†

French director Luc Besson (R) leans against American actor Bruce Willis (L) during a photo call for their film

Luc Besson (right) and Willis at a screening of the Cannes Film Festival of The fifth element in 1997. (Image: Reuters)

In the end, Willis was probably right when he suspected that The fifth element was a bit too strange for the American public. The film had mixed critical and commercial success in the United States, earning just over $60 million during its run. But it tripled those numbers worldwide, hitting the $200 million mark and placing it in the actor’s top 10 most profitable star vehicles alongside the die hard follow-up, Armageddon and The Sixth Sense

Willis would increasingly rely on his international stardom as he entered the 2000s and his leading roles gradually gave way to supporting appearances. are both last days die hard continue — from 2007 Live free or die hard and 2013 A good day to die hard – earned much more abroad than in the US, just like action GI Joe: Retaliation and REDwhere he was one of the many globally recognized faces on the poster.

That set the stage for Willis’s most recent pre-retirement career as a regular presence in low-budget films that were internationally financed and sold based on his popularity abroad. A son The fifth element, the actor had a shorter work week for those roles, mainly because the consequences of his illness became more pronounced. Following his family’s statement in March about his aphasia diagnosis, Los Angeles Times reported that on set time, Willis was often limited to two days, and he was paid $2 million for each film. The story also noted that several directors and cast members who worked with Willis on those films were concerned about his health and whether or not the actor’s representatives wanted the best for him.

Willis with a bunch of aliens in The Fifth Element (Photo: Columbia Pictures/Courtesy: Everett Collection)

Willis with a bunch of aliens in The fifth element† (Photo: Columbia Pictures/Courtesy: Everett Collection)

In the wake of The fifth element‘s international success – and before Willis’s health deteriorated – Besson hoped to make a second adventure for Korben and Leeloo from the extra 180 pages of equally strange material he pasted onto the original script. “We wanted to do it as a sequel, but it didn’t make sense, and The fifth element wasn’t big enough here,” Kamen revealed to uproxx† “It was huge in the rest of the world, and it’s a classic, but it only brought in $75 million or $80 million here.” (In 2018, multiple women came forward to accuse Besson of sexual misconduct; the director hasn’t made a film since the little-seen 2019 film. Anna

For his part, Willis has indicated that he was okay with it The fifth element it remained a one-off experiment, even if the film helped shape the second half of his career. “I haven’t talked about the movie since we finished,” he said EW in 2017. “It was a great cast and a great movie. I just don’t really dissect the work we do on a daily basis.”

The fifth element is currently streaming on Paramount+

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