Bong Joon-ho’s fifth feature film as a director, Snowpiercer, is also his most ambitious for many reasons. It marks the first time that the Korean filmmaker behind the now-classic 2006 monster movie The Host has worked with an international cast and used English-speaking actors, and is also his first foray into production in another country (the film was shot in 72 days in the Czech Republic). It is the largest scale movie he has made to date, with a budget three times the size of The Host (estimated at around $39 million) and requiring the construction of a 100-meter replica of the title vehicle, built on a special gimbal to simulate movement as it speeds around the globe along its endless tracks.
The Snowpiercer is the last refuge of humanity from a new Ice Age that was accidentally started in 2014 through a disastrous attempt to combat global warming. Now, 17 years later, the poor exist in degraded and near-barbaric conditions in the rear compartments of the train, while the elite and wealthy live in far more luxurious and even decadent surroundings at the front. As the story opens, a fiery young man from the rear compartments named Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) prepares to lead the latest attempt to break out of the train’s tail, reach the front and hijack the engine from the train’s creator and driver, the near-mythical Wilford (Ed Harris).
What happens along the way is terrifying, shocking, violent, surreal and often funny, careening through the unpredictable and energizing shifts in tone and emotion that are a trademark of Bong’s earlier films. The movie is his most visionary and ambitious yet, with the director aided by a strong cast that includes Tilda Swinton (as a loathsome enforcer from the front named Mason), Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer and John Hurt, along with Korean actors Song Kang-ho and Ko Asung, both from The Host. With a translator to help out, Den of Geek sat down with Bong to discuss bringing Snowpiercer to the screen.
Den of Geek: First let me say that I am very happy we are seeing your cut of the film here in the U.S. (Bong won out over Harvey Weinstein, head of the film’s North American distributor The Weinstein Company, in a dispute over the movie’s final U.S. cut and length).
Bong Joon-ho: Yes, me too.
So this came from a graphic novel that you just happened to pick up?
Yes, in 2005. It was a French graphic novel called Le Transperceneige that was first published in 1985 or 1986 (editor’s note: it was first published in 1982). It wasn’t a very mainstream comic book in France although it did win a prize there, the Angouleme. I was very lucky because outside of France, it was only published in South Korea. But now it’s been published in the U.S, because of the film promotion.
Was it easy to adapt the book into a screenplay?
I created a whole new story based on the basic central idea of the last survivors of humanity on the moving train, with the class struggle of the poor riding in the back and the rich in the front. I thought that was a really brilliant idea and a good starting point, but I invented all the characters for the film. Curtis and Mason and Gilliam — you can’t find those characters in the original comic. And things like the protein blocks and the simultaneous translation devices are also all invented for the film.
What made that metaphor — of the poor shoved into the back of the train and the privileged riding up front — relevant and important to you?
The comic book came out 30 years ago, but the concept of capitalism driving the world is still relevant today — it’s a very universal theme. Putting it in a train is kind of like Noah’s ark, but different from a boat or plane. A train is already divided into sections, and that feeling was very key. There’s a character called Nam (Song Kang-ho) who opens gates, and it’s only with great difficulty that they can move from section to section and open up a new world each time. The trick was to differentiate from one world to the next.
Was the train being a microcosm of the whole world a factor in your decision to work with an international cast and use English-speaking actors for the first time?
You couldn’t just shoot it with South and North Koreans, that would have been strange, so just by virtue of the story itself, it lent itself to having characters from different nationalities, speaking different languages, so it very naturally became an international co-production. But the focus wasn’t really about nationalities or ethnicities — it was more about class and the differentiation of class and the class struggle between the haves and the have-nots, the people with power and the people without. So even though this world is full of different ethnicities, it was about showing the class system.
Did you have specific actors like Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton in mind, and once you had them, how was it working for the first time with non-Korean actors?
Actors are very similar everywhere in terms of their ambitions and fears and intangible appeal, so it’s not so different working with actors outside of Korea. In the case of Tilda and John, and also the Korean actor Song Kang-ho, they came aboard before the script was done, so there wasn’t a casting process or official offers. But with Chris and Jamie and Octavia, they came in to meet during the casting process. But in terms of the cast overall, I feel very fortunate. I had a great experience working with this group. Actually, in the very first draft of the script, I did a gender change for the character of Mason — who was originally a middle-aged man — just for Tilda, which I thought was a good decision.
Just in terms of what was different, working with the Screen Actors’ Guild (SAG) was a new experience. In Korea, we don’t have actors’ unions, so all the regulations and rules about hours and so on were different.
Was it interesting to work with Chris just as The Avengers became so successful and he became so recognizable as Captain America?
From prep to completion, this movie took three years. It’s a long process to make a movie and when we first met Chris, he was at a certain point, and now he’s gotten bigger and bigger with his roles in The Avengers and Captain America. So it’s kind of interesting to see the way actors change over time. Octavia, when we first met her, she had made The Help but she hadn’t won her Oscar yet. So it’s interesting to see the development of these actors throughout the process of making one film.
Then there are actors like John Hurt and Ed Harris who are living legends. There’s a real unique excitement to working with people like that. You always just want to take them aside and ask them so many questions about their previous films — “Ed, how was it working on The Hours?” or “John, what do you remember about Alien or The Elephant Man?” But of course, I’m on the set and trying to direct a movie, so I couldn’t just stop and be a movie geek (laughs).
This is your second science fiction film after The Host. With the right material, is this a genre you enjoy and would return to?
Well, I feel like Snowpiercer is much more of a real sci-fi film. The Host has a creature in it, but it’s still set in contemporary Korea. I wanted that experience of making a true sci-fi film. What I like about the genre is that you can take a message and be really direct about it. I wanted to explore humanity and the idea of this system and a rebellion by those who try to destroy the system that’s in place. I would like to do another sci-fi film in the future as well. The reason I make movies is because I want to know about humanity, and for me, sci-fi is not about laser beams and spectacle. It’s really a way to directly address these types of ideas.
Snowpiercer opens in theaters this Friday (June 27).