There is so much going on in the cult classic The Fifth Element that it’s hard to reduce it to small blurbs. Its story is simple, yet all over the place. It is iconic, stylish and full of action, but it still embraces the goofiness of its premise and the campiness of its characters. It talks about the end of the world, but it is also colorful and cheerful. It uses well-known clichés, but audiences had never seen anything like it.
Though it was a financial success, the movie did not reach the same heights at the box office as some of its contemporaries. Yet, a movie as unique as The Fifth Element couldn’t stay down, and the early adopters soon grew to become a legion of fans. Despite its flaws, in the twenty years since its release, The Fifth Element has become a new classic of sci-fi.
With big name actors stepping out of their usual comfort zone, a haute couture legend designing costumes, and French comic book artists inspiring the world’s visuals, The Fifth Element is a perfect storm of creativity. Still, there has never been serious talks of a sequel. So what exactly happened to make this film a once-in-a-lifetime epic? We have put together twenty-five little known facts that hopefully capture the innovation and originality that went into making The Fifth Element. So read on to learn more about what went on behind the scene of the ultimate 90s sci-fi classic.
25 I Kinda Feel Like I Wasted My Life Now
The man could have been exaggerating the origin story of The Fifth Element to make it more interesting, but the various people in his life have corroborated his story. Apparently, Luc Besson came up with the story of The Fifth Element when he was 16 years old.
The story started as a novel, but over the years, he turned it into scripts for a series of two or three movies.
Eventually, he condensed everything into a single script, thinking that it would give it a better chance of being produced. By the time the movie was finally released, Besson was 38 years old, meaning that he had spent 22 years of his life, on and off, working on the same story.
24 With An Assist From Leon
When Luc Besson started the actual process of bringing his long-dormant project to the screen, he had only made five movies previously. Most of them had been well-received, but the studios thought that his project was a bit too extravagant for such an inexperienced director. Trying to change everyone’s mind, Besson went back to work, and started writing Leon: The Professional. Eleven months later, the movie had been entirely filmed and edited, and ended up making $45 million on a $16 million budget. Having demonstrated his effectiveness, Besson finally found suitors to finance The Fifth Element. In hindsight, the director has said that he wishes he had waited even longer, as he believes that technology has finally caught up to his vision, which would have made achieving the special effects a lot easier.
23 A More Purple Movie
No matter if you think the character is incredibly funny or annoyingly irritating, Ruby Rhod is a central part of what made The Fifth Element so distinctive. While Chris Tucker perfectly inhabits the character, the role was originally meant for someone else. Confirmed by both Luc Besson and Jean-Paul Gaultier, Ruby Rhod was at first supposed to be played by Prince.
Gaultier, who made all of the movie’s costumes, even made sketches of The Purple One’s proposed outfits.
The reason why it did not happen in the end is unclear. Besson claims that it was a simple scheduling conflict, since Prince was supposedly always late to the meetings and sometimes would not show up for weeks at a time. As for Gaultier, he says that Prince told him the role was too effeminate for his tastes.
22 The Perfect Korben
There is no doubt that Bruce Willis is perfect as Korben Dallas, the movie’s hero. However, like with every other production, the role was offered to a bunch of people before it was given to Willis. Jean Reno and Mel Gibson both passed on the offer, with Gibson actually keeping The Fifth Element’s director waiting for three months before making his decision. Bruce Willis might look like he was the third choice, but Luc Besson has stated that it’s because he thought they could not afford him. Expecting to hire an unknown actor for the role, Besson still met with Willis, who said that they could figure something out for payment if he liked the script. Two hours later, Willis was in, with a percentage of the movie’s revenues making up for his lower-than-usual paycheck.
21 In With The New
Luc Besson’s second wife, Maïwenn Le Besco, saved her husband’s butt during the production of his masterpiece. While filming The Fifth Element, the actress supposed to play the Diva Plavalaguna dropped out at the last second. With no one to turn to, Besson asked his wife, who gladly took the role to help her husband. The scene turned out great and is still one of the most famous in the whole movie.
A few months later, while filming was still underway, Besson would end up divorcing his wife.
In what observers on set called an open secret, Besson fell in love with his movie’s lead actress, Milla Jovovich. Besson and Jovovich even arrived together at the movie’s premiere at the Cannes festival and got married the same year. You might think that it’s an incredibly fast turnaround, and it’s a theme they kept going until the end. Married in 1997, they divorced in early 1999.
20 The Impossible Note
The blue Diva Plavalaguna might have been played by Luc Besson’s then soon-to-be ex-wife, but her performance was entirely lip synced. The Diva’s voice was performed by opera singer Inva Mula, and the recording of her songs was not without pain. The original piece was composed by Éric Serra, who was asked to create something that sounded alien to human ears. When he brought the sheet music to Inva Mula, the singer informed him that his composition was actually impossible for a trained singer to perform. As she explained, the human voice could not change notes as fast as it was written on the sheet. Therefore, the producers had to get her to sing the notes one by one in the studio, before editing everything together for the final version.
19 Gary’s Shame
Gary Oldman has pretty much done it all in the movie industry. With so many roles under his belt, there has to be one of which he isn’t as proud as the others. Despite the movie’s cult status, Oldman has gone on record several times saying that he hates The Fifth Element. As he says it, Besson had helped finance Oldman’s directorial debut, Nil By Mouth.
When Besson asked him to play Zorg in his new movie, Oldman accepted without even looking at the script.
Most fans seem to agree that his performance as Zorg is delightfully over the top, but Oldman just cannot believe that people would look at this movie as a classic. All of this, mind you, is coming from a man who once starred as a man with dwarfism in Tiptoes, despite the fact that Oldman is of regular stature.
18 The Chosen One
Though it would be hard to imagine anyone but her playing Leeloo, Milla Jovovich still had to audition for the role. Depending on who you ask, she won the role after beating 300 to 3000 other actresses who also were considered or at least looked at for the part. Among them was Elizabeth Berkley, who really wanted the role, but who had difficulty getting anyone to audition her ever since her movie Showgirls bombed at the box office a few years before. The fact that Besson agreed to meet her still made Berkley extremely grateful, and she speaks positively about her experience to this day. As for Jovovich, she was not going to get the role as her first audition was not what Besson was looking for. However, a chance encounter in a hotel led to Besson asking her to read again, at which point he was smitten and gave her the part.
17 The Divine Language
When Leeloo first meets Korben in the back of his taxi cab, she does not speak English. She can only communicate in “the Divine Language”, which sounds cool, but seems to be little more than gibberish. That would be underestimating the attention to details of the director:
Luc Besson wrote a dictionary of about 400 words for the language.
He designed it with some help from Milla Jovovich, who herself speaks four different languages in everyday life. To practice it, they would write notes to each other in the Divine Language, and could even have conversations together by the time the movie wrapped up. Being the only two members of the production to speak it must have made it really convenient to hide their then-budding love affair.
16 Unnaturally Orange
Leeloo has few emblematic looks in The Fifth Element, but the one constant signature feature is her bright orange hair. The look was originally achieved by dyeing Jovovich’s naturally brown hair. With her natural color being so dark, getting the right shade of orange required lots of bleach and constant touch-ups. By the halfway point in the filming schedule, Jovovich’s hair was broken and damaged nearly past the point of no return. Fearing that her hair would eventually fall out, it was decided to give her head a break. To continue filming, a wig had to be created for her to use for the rest of the shoot. While the wig looked good enough, keen-eyed viewers can spot which scenes used Jovovich’s natural hair and which ones used the wig.
15 If You Try To Film An Action Movie While Blind, You’re Gonna Have A Bad Time
The Fifth Element is almost all practical effects, which means that most of the movie was made with good old costumes and makeup over the usual CGI. This applies to the Mondoshawans, the big robot-looking aliens that show up in 1914 Egypt at the start of the movie.
The costumes were so big and bulky that it took three hours to dress up an actor.
Once inside, they couldn’t see anything, which is a problem because the aliens move around a lot in that scene. The production had to get creative and rig monitors and headsets into the costumes so that the actors could be guided although they were practically blind. In their headsets, they would literally be told how many steps to take, when to turn, and more importantly, when to stop so they would not fall off the set.
14 Good Job On The Makeup
The Mangalores, unlike the Mondoshawans, had to fight on screen and do a bit more than simply walk around. Therefore, their costumes had to be designed with more flexibility in mind, and more importantly, with holes where the eyes should be. The masks looked great, but they were a pain in the rear to finish with makeup, as color needed to be added around the eyes and contact lenses had to be worn to get the full effect. To save themselves the trouble, the special effects team came up with the simple solution of giving them combat goggles, which were dark glasses which covered the actors’ eyes. They were cheap, looked good, and made everyone spend less time in the make-up chair. That’s what you call a win-win.
13 Practical Effects
As mentioned previously, the movie was mostly made entirely with practical effects, with limited use of CGI for spaceships and to populate the futuristic version of New York City. The production had to get really imaginative with some of its special effects. For example, the entire city of New York is made of miniature buildings, although most of them were still over ten feet tall.
The Fhloston Paradise resort, on the planet of the same name, is a single 500-pound model that took months to finish.
As for the stars, which serve as the background for many spaceship chases, it was just a sheet of black fabric with a bunch of holes poked into it. Sometimes, the simplest things are the most effective.
12 Big Bada Boom
If you thought the explosion at the end of Korben and Leeloo’s visit to Fhloston was impressive, well, you would be right. That is because the explosion was the largest one ever filmed indoor at the time. Sure, there had been bigger ones filmed for other movies, but those were all outdoor. The explosion at Fhloston was entirely filmed on set in a studio, something which had never been attempted on that scale. The very real explosives looked great on camera, but they caused a fire which nearly got out of control. The smoke from that fire was such that it forced the evacuation of the entire building. So it was totally reckless, and probably more than a little insane, but it made for one memorable big bada boom.
11 Stunt Leg
The Fifth Element was Milla Jovovich’s first outing as a martial arts expert who could kick anyone’s butt, and it’s a talent that she rode to stardom over the next few years, particularly with the Resident Evil movie series. She has spent years honing her craft, but a lot of practice is needed before one becomes an expert. When the time came to film her fight against the Mangalores, she wasn't quite there yet.
Despite training for eight hours a day for months before filming started, Jovovich still couldn’t perform a decent high kick.
With time starting to run short, the props department created a fake leg which looked just like hers. Through the use of impeccable timing and creative camera angles, Jovovich would then pretend to kick her leg up while a stagehand would lift the leg from out of frame. The illusion was perfect.
10 The Element Of Surprise
Apparently, Luc Besson is a huge proponent of the element of surprise. Throughout the filming of The Fifth Element, he would use it to get proper and genuine reaction shots out of his actors. For example, while they had met out of character before, Bruce Willis did not see Milla Jovovich in costume until she came crashing into the back of his taxi cab. The same went for the Diva Plavalaguna scene in the opera house. All the actors and extras were seated as if they were going to witness a real concert. No one had seen the opera singer until the curtain was finally lifted, at which point everyone was face to face with the very blue alien with tentacles sticking out from everywhere. The look of surprise on everyone’s face is the real deal.
9 That Guy Is Everywhere
At the start of The Fifth Element, Korben Dallas spends a few minutes chatting over the phone with a man simply referred to as “Finger”. His friend refers to him as “Major”, and his speech is somewhere between cordial and threatening. The two obviously have a history together, and it looks like it’s going to lead somewhere, and yet, we never actually see Finger at any point in the movie. You might think that the man’s voice sounded familiar nonetheless.
This would be because Finger was voiced by none other than Vin Diesel.
Diesel went uncredited for this small role. Though Besson has stated that he does not want to make a sequel, I would be very much in favour of Finger being introduced so we can have Riddick and Korben Dallas kicking butts together on screen.
8 Gaultier’s Obsession
At this point, everyone knows that Jean-Paul Gaultier, the famous designer, made the costumes for the movie. What most don’t realize, however, is how seriously he took his job.
He personally designed 1000 costumes over a period of one year and would oversee the production of each and every one of them.
He even did the final touch-ups by himself, as best exemplified by the scenes which take place at the resort. For the Fhloston sequence, Gaultier would go through the costumes of over 500 extras every morning, just to make sure that everything was perfect. Even the nameless characters that no one could possibly notice in the back of a crowd scene could say that they had been personally approved by Gaultier himself.
7 Maybe A Bit Too On The Nose
Some movies try to hide a certain amount of symbolism in their story or on screen. The Fifth Element is, on the other hand, anything but subtle. Therefore, in accordance with its title, the film is completely obsessed with the number five. For example, Korben Dallas has only five points left on his driver’s licence. The bomb planted by Zorg in the resort is stopped with exactly five seconds left on the timer. When the Mangalores counter him with their own bomb, the timer starts with, once again, five seconds. At one point, talk show host Ruby Rhod complains that “There’s a bomb going off every five minutes”. Similarly, his show goes on the air everyday at 5 pm. Finally, when they are both in the regeneration chamber, the doctor says that Leeloo and Korben need five more minutes.
6 Problems With Time
For a movie with such an attention to details, the interpretation of time in The Fifth Element is incredibly lax. When the Mondoshawans land in Egypt to take the stones for safe-keeping, the year is 1914. They claim that they will be back when the Great Evil arrives, at which point we switch to a screen that says “300 years later”. This would take us to the year 2214, but when Korben Dallas wakes up, he looks at a tiny screen next to his bed that clearly says “18 March 2263” as the day’s date. That is exactly 349 years after the scene in Egypt. Also, in the final moments of the movie, a scientist says that there is exactly one minute left before the planetoid representing the Evil strikes Earth. Then, it takes the heroes nearly two minutes to activate the Fifth Element and get the job done.
5 Missed Connection
The Fifth Element has many things going for it, but chief among them is a perfect cast of heroes and villains. Korben Dallas and Zorg, playing opposites, actually barely share any screen time.
The can be seen together in only a few frames, when Korben is fleeing towards the resort’s hangar while Zorg is making his way back from it.
While they are aware of each other’s existence, they don’t know that they are both looking for the four stones. According to those who were present during the shoot, it wasn’t just a story beat; Bruce Willis finished filming all of his scenes before Gary Oldman ever set foot on the set. Luc Besson said that while a traditional action movie would have had the hero fight the bad guy, he wanted to subvert as many tropes as possible with his script.
4 The Return Of Bruno
Bruce Willis has a second career as a jazz singer. This is a little-known fact in North America, but in the same mold as David Hasselhoff, the man’s singing is incredibly popular in Germany. This is important because, at the end of the shoot on The Fifth Element, Willis threw a party for the cast and crew in the villa he had been renting. There, he played a little bit of jazz for his new friends, probably taking a few numbers from his hit album “The Return of Bruno”. Everyone was happily surprised, especially given Willis’ reputation for being difficult to work with. In fact, the crew had been given special instructions before he arrived on set, such as “Don’t look him in the eye” or “Don’t speak unless spoken to”.
3 Crew Interactions
While researching this article, I was hoping to dig up some dirt on the cast and crew, but other than Luc Besson and his soon-to-be ex-wife, it seems like everyone had a good time on set.
Bruce Willis even called it “a real fun movie to make,” which is high praise from an allegedly grumpy actor.
Demi Moore, who was at that time married to Willis, would sometimes visit him on location. Milla Jovovich would then babysit their kids while Moore and Willis spent some well-deserved time together. Jovovich also got along great with Chris Tucker, as they were both young and very much into partying at the time. They developed a solid friendship while spending time out clubbing in town after the long days of shooting.
2 Last-Minute Save
In an alternate universe, The Fifth Element was filmed to completion, but did not end up being released. The producer of the movie, John Amicarella, has a nerve-wracking story explaining just why. Once the shooting schedule was completed, Amicarella had the negatives flown to Los Angeles for editing. One day, he got a call from the airport asking him to come as soon as possible. Employees of the airport apologized as they showed him a bunch of negatives which had fallen off the plane and were run over by a forklift. A careful examination showed that it was the Diva’s scene which had been hit the hardest, one of the toughest one to film. It looked hopeless, and could have derailed the entire movie, so Amicarella brought the damaged negatives to the editor, who had to work overtime to clean the negatives and salvage the scene.
1 Spared No Expenses
At the time of its release, The Fifth Element was the most expensive movie ever filmed outside of Hollywood. Entirely financed by Gaumont, a French company, the movie had a $90 million budget. This might not sound like much when you compare it to Titanic, which dominated in 1997, but its budget was identical to Men In Black, another contemporary.
The budget was supposed to be significantly smaller, but Besson just couldn’t stop spending in order to bring his vision to life.
Despite the inflated budget, the studio did not interfere, and the final result speaks for itself. In the end, The Fifth Element made $264 million, which was good for ninth place overall that year.