Before the critical praise, the overseas box office success, and the rumored infighting between director Bong Joon-ho and studio head Harvey Weinstein, the film “Snowpiercer” was a graphic novel. Called “La Transperceneige,” it focused on a post-apocalyptic world, one filled with class warfare, political strife, and global warming, all set on a train carrying the last humans on earth.
Bong was interested in the graphic novel's overall message, but more than that, he was intrigued by the setting: a train, split into social classes, with each car representing something new and unique, from the slums of the caboose to the nightclubs and aquariums of the head. Bong wanted to make this film. Last August, nine years after first picking up the novel, his wish came to fruition, as he finally released his interpretation, “Snowpiercer,” in overseas markets.
The film itself represents a series of firsts for the veteran South Korean filmmaker. It’s his first English-language production, his first time working with a large group of Hollywood-based talent (Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer), and his first project with Harvey Weinstein, who’s handling the film’s U.S. distribution. Weinstein, of course, is notorious for chopping up international films in an attempt to make them more palatable to American audiences. When it was rumored that Weinstein planned on cutting 20 minutes from the original version, fans of Bong’s previous work were up in arms, leading to speculation that the director and the mogul were fighting over final cut. However, as Bong states in this interview (and as he has said in the past) that couldn’t be further from the truth. The version U.S. audiences will see when it hits theaters this weekend is Bong’s version, through and through.
I recently sat down with Bong in New York City, where he spoke (via translator) about what it was like finally releasing “Snowpiercer” in the States, the things he wish he could have included in the movie, and whether he’d work with Harvey Weinstein again.
You shot the film two years ago and it was released in Asia last August. How does it feel to finally have your first English-language production out in the States?
Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco. Austin, I’ve been touring these cities showing the film. The film first came out last August, almost a year ago, where it was released in Korea, France, Italy, Germany, Hong Kong, China, all over the world, and I feel like I am finally at the last stop of the train. In the movie, the train goes around the globe once a year. But it’s also really nice to see the movie and show it to an audience where they don’t need subtitles.
The critical reception you had overseas has been terrific. Do you feel pressure to live up to those expectations here in the States? With each country, I think the destiny of the film is slightly different. Mainland China, Korea, France, it was very successful. But for example Japan and Germany, it wasn’t so well received. So the scores are kind of up and down. But across the board it seems like the reviews in all the countries have been pretty good. It’s not possible to predict the box office, but I hope that people appreciate the film and see what great acting there is in this film. I have such great actors like Chris, Tilda, Octavia, John, Ed. Of course, before this film, these actors had done amazing work, but I feel like they all show a new side of themselves in this film and they are all very good. I am very thankful to my cast and I hope people enjoy their performances.
What was it about “La Transperceneige,” the graphic novel the film is based on, that you were attracted to?
Just the idea of the train and being inside the train. For some reason, as a young kid growing up, I always enjoyed being in tight spaces. This claustrophobic aspect of hiding in a closet was just strangely excited. I was terrified but also enjoyed that feeling. And just the idea that the world is frozen outside and you can’t go there and you’re all stuck inside this closed space, had this strange excitement about it.
Did you ride a lot of trains when you were younger?
Yeah, of course, a lot of travel via train when I was in middle school and high school. I have a lot of memories. I also drank a lot on trains. There’s this one course where you go through a mountain range to get to the ocean. It’s about a nine-hour train ride. Then you arrive at the ocean in the early morning. It’s really unforgettable.
Can you talk about the specific sections on the train in the film? They all have their own unique vision and design. Each one almost feels like a short film that’s part of the bigger narrative.
Yeah, I think Tilda also felt that way. On the days she wasn’t shooting a scene, she would walk through different sections of the car and put on her costume and take photos and actually wanted to make a calendar. She really enjoyed every train car. The idea is you open the gate to get to the next car, and that was a key thing. Just the idea of where you are now and where you’re going to be in two seconds. Just in terms of color and texture and even the air. All that had to change drastically and that was the intention, especially after the greenhouse section. Up until then, it’s really kind of similar palates and similar feelings. And it’s sort of, if you will, the staff only section of a luxury hotel.