In 1994, Columbia Pictures and writer/director Luc Besson brought a hitman romance to America. It starred the noted French actor Jean Reno and a young upstart: 12-year-old Natalie Portman, who was making her film debut. The movie was called Léon in France, but it would be renamed The Professional for American audiences and marketed as a pure action thriller. It was a thriller to be certain, but it was much much more.
Léon wasn't exactly groundbreaking when it debuted on September 14, 1994. But it contained three remarkable performances that would quickly make it one of the most-talked about films of the year. The first belonged to Portman. Proving mature beyond her years, the little actress was a force onscreen. She displays the full range of emotions as Mathilda, a young girl who watches as her family is murdered by corrupt New York City cops. Alone and desperate, Mathilda turns to the quiet man down the hall, Léon (Reno), who takes her in. The two form an unlikely friendship and then business partnership as Mathilda learns her neighbor is actually a professional killer and becomes his apprentice.
Reno is quietly mesmerizing as Léon, offering everything he has to take care of this orphaned girl who quickly wins his heart. But he must also protect her from her parents' killer, Stansfield (the ballistic Gary Oldman), a psychotic with a badge who wants to tie up loose ends.
Twenty years later, Léon is just as impressive as it was in 1994. Portman's performance still stands as one of the great modern roles by a child actor. It's a testament to her talent and ferocity that Mathilda was so memorable, and it's no surprise she's still one of the best actresses working today. It's funny to think it all started with a controversial French film that was written in a month. So let's remember Léon for the great movie it is with 20 things you may not know about the film or its production. It's quietly become a classic modern action film, but remains a timeless tale.
2. Léon boasts Academy Award winner Natalie Portman's motion picture debut. She was 11-years-old when she was cast from a group of more than 2000 girls. Portman was originally turned down by casting director Todd Thaler because she was so young, but she was called back when the search expanded. She performed the scene where Mathilda laments the loss of her brother. Besson was so impressed (Mathilda breaks down during the scene), he gave her the role.
3. Portman's parents were worried about the smoking scenes in the film. Before they allowed their daughter to sign, they worked out a contract with Besson which had strict mandates on young Natalie's smoking scenes. There could only be five of them; Mathilda couldn't be shown inhaling or exhaling smoke; and the character would quit during the course of the film. All these mandates were followed if you watch the film closely. Mathilda has five smoking scenes, never inhales or exhales, and she stops smoking in the scene outside the Italian restaurant when Leon asks her to: "quit smoking, stop cursing" and don't hang out with "That guy. He looks like a weirdo."
4. Liv Tyler was considered for the part of Mathilda but, at age 15, was deemed too old.
5. In the original draft, Mathilda (aged 13 or 14) and Léon become lovers. Besson reportedly altered the script to remove this aspect of the story (possibly due to pressure from Portman's parents). The initial cut of the film had more scenes with "awkward sexual tension" between Mathilda and Léon. These scenes were later removed for the American release, dubbed The Professional, but were included in the 1996 European release, as well as in the deleted scenes of the special edition DVD. They were reintegrated back into the film for the "International Cut," which is now available on Blu-ray/DVD. When the film was first tested in Los Angeles, the movie included a short scene where Mathilda asks Léon to be her lover. However, the audience became extremely uncomfortable and began to laugh nervously, completely destroying the tone of the film. Because of this, the movie received terrible test scores and Besson and producer Patrice Ledoux decided to cut the scene for the American theatrical release.
6. According to Reno, he decided to portray Léon as slightly mentally slow and emotionally repressed. He felt this would encourage audiences to realize he wasn't someone who would take advantage of a vulnerable young girl. Reno claimed that, for Léon, the possibility of a physical relationship with Mathilda is not even conceivable and during the sequences when such a relationship is discussed, Reno allowed Portman to control the scenes emotionally.
7. Besson got the idea for Léon while working on his previous movie, La Femme Nikita. In that film's third act, Victor the Cleaner (played by Reno) appears to deal with the aftermath of Nikita's botched mission. Realizing the character was underused in the movie, Besson decided to create a story that focused on the activities of such a man. Both Victor and Léon appear dressed in a long wool coat, sunglasses, and a knit cap. The Professional's working title was The Cleaner.
8. According to Ledoux, Besson planned Léon as a filler project. At the time, the director had already started working on The Fifth Element (also starring Gary Oldman), but production was delayed due to lead actor Bruce Willis' schedule. Rather than dismiss the production team and lose his creative momentum, Besson wrote Léon. It took him 30 days to write and the shoot lasted 90 days.
9. During the scene with all of the police cars on the street, a man ran from a store he had just robbed. When he encountered the movie set by accident, he saw all of the "police" and gave himself up to a bunch of uniformed extras.
10. The second shot (a tracking shot traveling down a New York street without stopping) could only be accomplished after carefully studying the pattern of the traffic signals to insure the camera truck didn't encounter any red lights.
11. The scene in which Stansfield (Gary Oldman's psycho cop) talks about his appreciation of Beethoven to Mathilda's father was completely improvised by Oldman. It was filmed several times with the British actor giving a different improvised story on each take. Not ironically, Oldman would appear as Beethoven in Immortal Beloved the same year (1994). His expertise was likely the result of his work on that film.
12. During the scene when Stansfield interrogates Mathilda's father (Michael Badalucco), he smells him and gets extremely close to the father's face. According to Badalucco, he had no idea Oldman was going to do that and his look of discomfort during the scene is completely genuine. He felt decidedly intimidated by Oldman and the physical proximity between the two made him very nervous.
13. In a 2014 Playboy interview, Oldman said his screaming of the now iconic line "Bring me EVERYONE!" was improvised to make Besson laugh. "In previous takes, I'd just gone, 'Bring me everyone,' in a regular voice. But then I cued the sound guy to slip off his headphones and I shouted as loud as I could." The loud take is, obviously, the one used in the film.
14. Mathilda checks herself and Léon into a hotel under the name "MacGuffin." Film buffs are well-aware this term was coined by Alfred Hitchcock, who said it was a shorthand to explain a trivial plot element that serves no other purpose than to move the story forward.
15. At one point, Stansfield says he and his goons will show up at noon. In León's apartment, a clock reads 11:58. The following sequence takes exactly two minutes, making Stansfield quite punctual.
16. All of the Léon apartment interiors were shot in Paris. All of the shots of the outside corridor were shot six weeks earlier in New York. This helps explain Besson's unique vision of New York City. If some parts feel like Paris, well that's because it is.
17. Portman has said the scene where she dresses up as Marilyn Monroe was inspired by something she saw in Wayne's World. She admitted that, at the time, she had never actually watched a Monroe movie.
18. When the villains are turning Mathilda's home upside down, the crook with the dreadlocks finds a reggae album in the record collection. The record he holds up and calls "cool" is "Marcus Children" by Winston Rodney (aka Burning Spear).
19. The music in the American trailer is "The Dark Side of Time," the theme from La Femme Nikita, also about a girl training to be an assassin.
20. The potted plant Léon nurtures and Mathilda replants at the end of the movie is an Aglaonema, or Chinese evergreen.