nobody movie_How The Fifth Element changed the action star’s career

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Milla Jovovich, Bruce Willis and Ian Holm will be there The fifth Element. (Photo: © Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Sometimes a professional transformation requires a personal transformation as well. 25 years ago, Bruce Willis – who recently “retired” from acting after his family publicly announced his aphasia diagnosis – took a big professional risk by joining the gonzo gallic sci-fi movie, The fifth Element, directed by French action maestro Luc Besson. And the first thing the Die Hard Stern debuted a new head of hair in preparation for the role of futuristic soldier-turned-flying-taxi driver, Korben Dallas.

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

Theatrical release on May 9, 1997, The fifth Element catapults Willis to the distant year 2263, where he accidentally rescues a mysterious alien named Leeloo (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 the sci-fi world after Terry Gilliam Twelve Monkeysand it came at a time when Willis was getting choosier in his action vehicles, having seemingly wrapped that up Die Hard Franchised with 1995 Die hard with all your might and find recognition in smaller films like pulp fiction and don’t pretend.

“People in the media try to identify me and say, ‘He’s such an actor’ or ‘He’s this superstar’ or whatever label they give me.” he noted in an interview. “I’m still learning how to act. It would be very easy for me and also very boring for me to do action movies all the time. I’m fed up, so I try to find other things to challenge myself with.”

It’s worth noting that Willis wasn’t Besson’s first choice to basket. In a 2017 Reddit AMA, the director revealed that he originally pitched the project to Mel Gibson, who just dropped out brave heart and hostage. “I first asked Mel Gibson because he had his office at Warner Brothers next door to mine,” Besson said. “He would look 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 getting out and saying it exactly, it sounds like Willis wasn’t quite sold The fifth Element when Besson showed him the screenplay and some of his polished concept art for 23rd Century Earth. The actor called the film’s aesthetic ‘very strange’ in a preliminary interview. And the character of Korben must navigate this strange landscape, quickly adapting to the bizarre creatures and places he encounters – moments almost destined to push Willis out of his comfort zone. But it was a challenge he was committed to. “I like to do films that I’m not entirely sure I’m going to succeed in, so there’s always a risk of failure,” he noted.

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

Willis went blonde The fifth Element, which is modeled after the film’s director, Luc Besson. (Photo: Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Willis showed his commitment to The fifth Element by showing up to the set with his blonde dyeing job and earning himself a thumbs up from Besson. But he had other ideas that the director wasn’t too keen on. In a 2017 interview with screen rant, Besson said that Willis’s assistant approached him early on in the shoot and outlined the star’s preferred work schedule, one that would minimize the time he would have to spend on set between camera setups for the next take. “[The assistant] said, ‘Okay, I’ll tell you how it works,'” the filmmaker recalled before going on set.'”

This approach clashed with Besson’s own rapid-fire directing process, which required actors to stay on set and be ready at shorter intervals. “I said, ‘I take a shot every four minutes. Are you kidding?’ And he said, ‘What do you mean you take a shot every four minutes?’ I take the shot and then I turn the camera around 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’re sitting on the box next to me by the camera and we’re shooting like crazy and he said okay! Act! So he was like 10 feet from the camera on a box the whole set and he was so happy. Because he liked it shorter and tighter.”

Speak with EW, Willis discussed the impact of his shift to a four-day workweek. “We had long days, and we just had to work and work and push it fast,” the actor said. “Luc does a lot of takes. But that’s part of the movie business and I had no problem with it.” But Fifth Element Co-author Robert Kamen has a different recollection of Willis’ hiring. “[Bruce] was very difficult and Luc mastered it”, he said Uproxx in 2021. “But Luc wasn’t used to it. After he did that, he came to me and said, ‘We have to create our own movie stars.’ And so we did it The transporter. We created Jason [Statham].”

French director Luc Besson (R) leans against US actor Bruce Willis (L) during a photocall for their film. French director Luc Besson (R) leans against US actor Bruce Willis (L) during a photocall for their film.

Luc Besson (right) and Willis at a Cannes Film Festival screening The fifth Element in 1997. (Photo: Reuters)

In the end, Willis was probably right in his guess The fifth Element was a little too weird for American audiences. 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 globally, hitting the $200 million mark and placing it in the top 10 best-selling actor’s celebrity vehicles alongside the Die Hard sequels, Armageddon and The sixth Sense.

Willis increasingly focused on international fame in the early 2000s, and his leading roles gradually gave way to supporting roles. Both from his later period Die Hard Sequels – 2007 Live free or die hard and 2013 A good day to die – grossed a lot more abroad than in the US, as did Action G.I. Joe – Billing and REDwhere he was one of several world famous faces on the poster.

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

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

Willis with a horde of aliens inside The fifth Element. (Photo: Columbia Pictures/Courtesy: Everett Collection)

In the wake of The fifth ElementInternational success – and before Willis’s health began to deteriorate – Besson hoped to make a second adventure for Korben and Leeloo from the extra 180 pages of equally odd material he pinned to 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,” reveals Kamen Uproxx. “It was huge in the rest of the world and it’s a classic, but it only grossed $75 million or $80 million here.” (In 2018, Several women came forward to accuse Besson of sexual misconduct; The director hasn’t made a film that’s barely been seen since 2019 ann.)

For his part, Willis has indicated that he is doing well The fifth Element remained a one-off experiment, even if the film helped shape the second half of his career. “I haven’t talked about the film since we finished,” he said EW in 2017. “It was a great cast and a great film. I just don’t really dissect the work we do every day.”

The fifth Element is currently streaming on Paramount+

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