Los Angeles - Long before he was the auteur behind some of the most spectacular, extravagant action movies ever made, Luc Besson was a young boy in love with a comic book character.
He first encountered Laureline, the heroine played by Cara Delevingne in his forthcoming sci-fi spectacular Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, when he was 10 and living some 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Paris.
Bored by the tedium of the bucolic life, he would look forward to pilgrimages to his local store, where in 1969 he happened upon the Valerian and Laureline comic strip in a publication called Pilote.
"It was at the time when there was no internet, one TV channel in black and white, and my stepfather didn't have music at home. So life was pretty cold," the French filmmaker, 58, told AFP.
"There wasn't much going on, not much possibility to escape, and then suddenly... I remember the first few pages in Pilote. It was a comic book and suddenly you have a couple travelling in space and time and fighting aliens."
One of the first things he noticed, he told AFP in a recent interview in a Beverly Hills hotel, was an independence of spirit in Laureline that he had not encountered before.
"She was free, she was kicking ass, killing aliens. The first image of this woman was very strong and I was in love right away with her. She was so sexy," he recalled.
It was an image of femininity which was to stay with Besson, informing countless movies in which he featured lethal female protagonists - sisters doing it for themselves, who didn't need men to show them how to hold a gun.
Besson started out in the 1980s with French-language action movies influenced by Hollywood before international success came with The Big Blue, then Nikita, about a female assassin, and Leon: The Professional, about a young girl who becomes the protegee of a contract killer.
Since those days, he has directed a string of movies that have earned mixed reviews, but he has been making big bucks with his motion picture house EuropaCorp as producer of high-octane series The Transporter and Taken.
If Laureline was his first love, the father-of-five did not let the grass grow beneath his feet, going on to marry four times, including a brief union with Milla Jovovich, his star in dystopian cult classic The Fifth Element (1997).
Besson has developed a knack over the years for uncovering female talent, whether introducing Jovovich or extracting Natalie Portman's breath-taking debut performance in Leon (1994) when she was just 13.
"In the 1970s and 80s, the movies were totally on the men's side and it's not fair... The girl is in the back crying, 'When are you coming back?'" Besson told a news conference for Valerian before his interview with AFP.
"That's not my vision of the relationship between men and women. Maybe I was raised a certain way that I was lucky enough to see that they are both very strong."
Besson was known early in his career as a pioneer of the French "cinema du look," which was said to favour style over narrative, but to claim that he doesn't care about substance would be to sell him short.
'THEY CHEAT MILLIONS'
While at heart an effects-laden action movie set in outer space, Valerian explores weighty but earthly concerns like climate change, diversity and the difficulties of life as an immigrant.
It was filmed in Paris last year against a background of political change in Europe and the United States, with the centre increasingly at threat from populists on the fringes.
Besson is reluctant to talk about domestic politics, but is happy to describe Valerian as an allegory for the overweening power of Big Business.
The bad guys in his movie, he contends, could just as easily be real-life executives from scandal-hit Volkswagen, which admitted in 2015 that some 11 million of its diesel cars were fitted with "defeat devices" used to cheat on emissions tests.
"These big, huge companies like Volkswagen - they cheat millions of people by saying 'Our cars are clean.' They cheat, and they go away and they don't want to pay," he bristled.
But while Besson wants his films to have gravitas - to avoid just being "like a cheeseburger" - he warns against filmmakers being too po-faced about their art.
"I love to talk about all these things - about ecology, immigration - with a little smile and having fun at the same time," he says.
"Because I think at the end of the day, you watch the film and you say, 'We had fun, it was incredible' - but something is left."
Watch the trailer here:
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets hits cinemas on Friday, 21 July.
(Photos: Valerian S.A.S - TFI Films)