According to Jean Reno, he decided to play Léon as if he were "a little mentally slow" and emotionally repressed. He felt that this would make audiences relax and realize that he wasn't someone who would take advantage of a vulnerable young girl. Reno claims that for Léon, the possibility of a physical relationship with Mathilda is not even conceivable, and as such, during the scenes when such a relationship is discussed, Reno very much allowed Portman to be emotionally in control of the scenes.
The scene in which Stansfield talks about his appreciation of Ludwig van Beethoven to Mathilda's father was completely improvised. The scene was filmed several times, with Gary Oldman giving a different improvised story on each take.
During the scene when Stansfield 'interrogates' Mathilda's father, he smells the father, and gets extremely physically close to him. According to Michael Badalucco, he had no idea that Gary Oldman was going to smell him, nor that he was going to get as close as he did. Badalucco says that in the film, his look of discomfort during the scene is completely genuine, as he felt decidedly intimidated by Oldman, and the physical proximity between the two made him very nervous.
In a 2014 Playboy interview, Gary Oldman said his screaming of the now iconic line 'Bring me everyone!' was improvised to make director Luc 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 yelled take is the one used in the film.
Keith A. Glascoe, who played the enormous Benny, or 3rd Stansfield Man, later became a member of the New York Fire Department, Ladder Company 21 in Hells Kitchen. Courageously he died in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
When the film was first tested in LA, the version that was screened incuded 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. The film received terrible test scores at the screening, and as such, producer Patrice Ledoux and writer/director Luc Besson decided to cut the scene for theatrical release.
In a 2005 interview, Natalie Portman recalled how she had to train herself to "cry on cue" during filming. For her first emotional scene - when Mathilda finds her family dead and goes to Léon's door for help - she was unable to produce the necessary tears. Luc Besson solved the problem by having a crew member spray mint oil into her eyes. Portman said this was so painful that from then on she had no trouble crying real tears on command, just to avoid being subjected to the mint oil again.
Natalie Portman's parents were extremely worried about the smoking scenes in the film, and before they allowed Natalie to appear, they worked out a contract with Luc Besson which had strict mandates as regards the depiction of smoking; there could only be five smoking scenes in the film, Portman would never be seen to inhale or exhale smoke, and Mathilda would give up during the course of the film. If one watches the film closely, one can see that all of these mandates were rigidly adhered to; there are precisely five smoking scenes, Portman is never seen inhaling or drawing on a cigarette, nor is she ever seen exhaling smoke, and Mathilda does indeed give up during the course of the film (in the scene outside the Italian restaurant, when Leon asks her to quit smoking, stop cursing, and not hang out with 'that guy. He looks like a weirdo.').
In the original script, Mathilda (aged 13 or 14) and Léon became lovers. Luc Besson reportedly altered the script to remove this aspect of the story (possibly due to pressure from Natalie Portman's parents).
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 so as to ensure the camera truck didn't encounter any red lights.
According to Patrice Ledoux, Luc Besson planned Léon as filler. At the time, he had already started working on The Fifth Element (1997), but production was delayed due to Bruce Willis's schedule. Rather than dismiss the production team and lose his creative momentum, Besson wrote Léon. It took him only 30 days to write the script, and the shoot lasted only 90 days. As it turned out, Léon is now generally considered to be a far superior film to The Fifth Element.
Mathilda checks herself and Léon in under the name "MacGuffin". "MacGuffin" is a movie term coined by Alfred Hitchcock for a device that interests the films characters - especially the antagonists - and thus drives the plot forward. Its actual nature is not really the subject of the film, and does not really matter to the audience. (Other directors, such as George Lucas, invest more meaning in the nature of the MacGuffin.)
Luc Besson got the idea of doing this movie while working on his previous movie, La Femme Nikita (1990). In that film's third act, Victor the Cleaner appears to deal with the aftermath of Nikita's botched mission. Realizing the potential of the character was underused in that movie, Besson decided to create a story that focused on the activities of such a character. Both Victor and Leon appear dressed in a long wool coat, sunglasses and a knit cap. Both are played by Jean Reno. The film's working title was "The Cleaner".
Natalie Portman stated that the scene in which she dressed up as Marilyn Monroe was inspired by a scene she saw in Wayne's World (1992). She admitted that at the time Léon was filmed she actually had never watched any movie starring Monroe.
The original cut of the film had more scenes with "awkward sexual tension" between Mathilda and Léon. These scenes were later cut out 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 DVD.
According to Luc Besson, the role of Léon was always intended for Jean Reno and no one else. However, according to the Fact Track on the Deluxe Edition DVD, both Mel Gibson and Keanu Reeves were extremely interested in the role.
It has been claimed that Luc Besson has written the script for a sequel, which Olivier Megaton was to direct and in which Natalie Portman would reprise the Mathilda role. Filming was to be delayed until Portman was a bit older. However, in the meantime, Besson left Gaumont Film Company to start his own movie studio, EuropaCorp. Unhappy at Besson's departure, Gaumont Film Company "has held The Professional rights close to the vest - and will not budge". According to Megaton, the sequel will more than likely never happen. Besson used the idea for Colombiana (2011).
Jean Reno and Natalie Portman weren't allowed to rehearse the controversial scene where Mathilda puts on a dress given to her by Leon. As Reno puts it in the film's DVD commentary, it's "the beginning of the perversity." Reno often asked Luc Besson when they would read the part, and Besson would avoid the question. Not being able to read the scene helped Besson and his cast genuinely capture the awkwardness the characters felt at that moment. "[Léon and Mathilda's] relationship was very connected and very strange," Reno concluded.
According to actress Maïwenn Le Besco, part of the film is based on her romantic relationship with director Luc Besson. Le Besco (who plays the blond prostitute in the opening scene) was engaged to writer/director at the time the film was made. Le Besco had met Besson when she was 11, and had fallen in love with him when she was 15 (Besson was 32 at the time).
In the confrontation scene at Tony's restaurant, it is revealed that rogue DEA agent Stansfield commissioned contract killings from Mafioso Tony. Léon was Tony's top hit man and his "clients" were primarily drug dealers. So it's probable that, through Tony, Léon unknowingly did a lot of "work" for Stansfield.
Composer Éric Serra wrote the song "The Experience of Love" for the end of the film. However, the filmmakers decided to use Sting's "The Shape of My Heart" instead. Serra would re-use the song in the end credits of his next project, the James Bond film GoldenEye (1995) and it appears on the film's soundtrack. The basic melody of the song can still be heard in the film and on the soundtrack, via the cue "The Game is Over."
Both Mathilda and Tony refer to Léon as a "cleaner". The front window of the bodega in Léon's apartment building prominently displays various cleaning products such as Brillo pads, bleach, Ajax, and soap.
The character played by Willi One Blood is named only '1st Stansfield Man' in the script, but during the course of the film, Malky calls him 'Willi', and Stansfield calls him 'Blood', different portions of the actor's real name.
French actor Samy Naceri has one of his first roles in this film. He plays a bit part as a SWAT office, and was on the set for only ten days. When Luc Besson wrote the screenplay for the film Taxi (1998), he always wanted Naceri for the lead role, because he was much impressed by the short cooperation with him.
As Stansfield's men search Mathilda's apartment, the thug played by actor Willi One Blood handles a record album by renowned reggae artist Burning Spear and compliments the family's musical taste. This is most likely an Easter egg; aside from being an actor, One Blood is also a well-known reggae singer.
The pistols that Léon uses in the film are Beretta 92FS's with AL-GI-MEC compensators added on. In some scenes, he affixes them with sound suppressor, with threads that extend past the compensator cuts to cancel out the escaping gases that could potentially escape and produce a loud gunshot. In the final firefight, one of Léon's Berettas is seen with a stainless or "Inox" frame.
The code that Léon gives Matilda to knock on the door when she returns from getting more milk is two knocks, then one, then two knocks again. 212 is the telephone area code for Manhattan, which is where the story takes place.
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 is holding up and referring to as "cool" is "Marcus Children" by Burning Spear from 1978.
The film became influential and would influence future action movies that came out years after its release such as Kiss of the Dragon (2001), The Transporter (2002), Unleashed (2005), Hitman (2007), The Assassin Next Door (2009) and Colombiana (2010).
In 2015, K-Pop singer IU and comedian Myung-Soo Park made a song inspired by this movie for a television entertainment program called Infinite Challenge (2005). They named the song 'Léon' and it has explicit lyrics about the plot and characters ( for example: 'Seeming to be looking for someone, the lonely Mathilda', 'The theme is Sting's Shape of my heart/ I'm a man whose actions don't match his age, call me Léon', 'I'm so curious about you, with an unreadable expression, wearing black sunglasses', 'Will you be nicer to me, my Léon?'). They even dressed as Mathilda and Léon on stage.
Léon Gaumont was a French inventor developing cinematographic techniques in the late 19th century alongside with the Lumière brothers. Gaumont is the name of the production company that made this film.
The green and yellow capsules Stansfield takes is Librium, a sedative and hypnotic medication of the benzodiazepine class; it is used to treat anxiety, insomnia and withdrawal symptoms from alcohol and/or drug abuse.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
During the filming involving 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.
Natalie Portman was originally turned down by Todd Thaler (the casting director) due to being too young, but she returned to the auditions and performed the scene where Mathilda laments the loss of her brother. Luc Besson was so impressed with the depth of emotion she summoned during the audition that he gave her the role.
The original script had a much darker ending. After Stansfield shoots Léon, Mathilda performs the grenade ring trick (seen in one of the restored scenes of "Version Integrale") and opens her jacket to reveal the live grenades. It was changed by Luc Besson, fearing that the audience would not accept Mathilda's transformation from innocent girl to crazed juvenile killer. Besson had never intended such a transformation for the character.
Mathilda wants Stansfield dead in order to avenge the death of her brother, which was the only member of her family that she cared about. Although Stansfield kills the rest of Mathilda's family, her brother is actually killed by Stansfield's henchman Willi (you can hear Malky scolding him for it when Mathilda walks by the entrance to the apartment, right after the raid). This means that she is actually present to witness the death of her brother's killer, as she is in the room when Léon shoots him.
In the final scene Mathilda transfers Léon's beloved potted plant to an open field behind the girls' school, believing it will grow roots and be a living symbol of his memory. She doesn't know that that particular plant - a tropical variety called a Chinese Evergreen - cannot survive in cold outdoor climates, and will die in the first winter frost. New York Times critic Janet Maslin noted this in her 1994 review and called the ending "misguided poetry."