Bong Joon-ho on Bringing His Tilda Swinton and Chris Evans Led Epic ‘Snowpiercer’ To America

Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer

Following the success of films The Host and Mother, most thought it was only a matter of time before Bong Joon-ho’s slick style would be snatched up by the Hollywood system. But unlike his fellow South Korean directing peers Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon who recently jumped into American produced films Stoker and Last Stand, respectively, Bong’s sci-fi thriller, Snowpiercer—his A-list talent infused English language debut—was actually produced in the comfort of his home country. Though that didn’t mean he was immune to American scrutiny.

Bought by The Weinstein Company for its U.S. release, Snowpiercer—which is an adaptation of the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob—was touted as one of their big summer releases. However, when the film was completed Harvey Weinstein wanted to cut 20 minutes from the film’s 129-minute running time and include a narrative voiceover. After a year of back and forth, which in that time the Bong-approved cut was released in South Korean and other parts of the world to high acclaim, the Bong/Weinstein stalemate finally ended with the film going forward without any Weinstein tweaks, but would now receive a limited run through its specialty arm, Radius-TWC (opening this Friday).

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Snowpiercer is that sophisticated action/sci-fi thriller that rarely shows up in the summertime. With incredible Blade Runner-like production design and Bong’s patented mixture of action and dark comedy, it’s a triumph in genre filmmaking. And like all great sci-fi it’s the emotional tug—in this case a focus on social class issues—that makes it stand out.

In the film we are thrust to 2031, global warming has caused an ice age with the lone survivors aboard Snowpiercer, a massive train in which its occupants are divided into a class system. The privileged reside in the front of the train, with all amenities you can imagine, while the poor stay in the tail, sleeping in drawers and constantly harassed by armed forces. Curtis (Chris Evans) begins the revolt to get to the front, leading to a bloody journey through the massive train filled with outlandish characters (Tilda Swinton almost unrecognizable as the villainous Minister and Allison Pill as a deranged teacher) and surprising admissions, even by our hero.

To celebrate a unique title like this, the folks at Radius decided to get creative. This past weekend, through their relationship with the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, they presented the film, with Bong in tow, as part of Drafthouse’s “Rolling Roadshows.” Guests were put on a train in Austin and traveled by rail to Burnet for an outdoor screening. And in typical Drafthouse style, there were many surprises, including as a snack the black, jello-like bars the rear of the train devour in the movie while the front of the train dined on sushi (yes, just like the movie). There was also a disco train, and if you were in the right place you could see Nicolas Winding Refn (who was in town shooting a commercial) chewing on sushi while chatting it up with Bong then lounging on a lawn chair among the rest of the crowd during the movie.

On the ride back, in a quiet section of the train and trying to take in his first visit to Texas, Bong chatted with us about brining the graphic novel to life, what he learned from battling with Weinstein and if he’ll ever succumb to Hollywood.

What were the things that grabbed you about the graphic novel?

The idea of a two-hour movie all on a train is such a unique and cinematic space; that just really excited me. But I wasn’t going to go and make a documentary about trains. This movie is about people. Outside the world is frozen over, inside the idea of the rich being in the front and the poor in the back, that was a stimulating concept. They are all human but they are all fighting each other.

Did the visuals in the graphic novel inspire the cinematic style you decided on?

Of course the drawings are really important for comic book fans, so the first thing you look at are the drawings and the illustrations. The way Jacques Lob created the images was really progressive. As far as comparing the visual inspiration from the graphic novel to the film, the way the tail section is conceived, the poor are stuck in drawers in the back of the train; that was inspired greatly from the graphic novel. And the sauna section and the design of the train engine, that’s all the work of our production designers and the conceptual arts team.

The line that stays in my head is when Curtis admits to cannibalism and that “babies taste best.” Talk about how that scene came about, it was a shocking revelation.

I personally like those kinds of scenes, where there isn’t a lot of cuts and it’s just one person telling a story. So it’s a story within a story. Like in The Host the father does it and in Mother there’s a scene like that. When I was young I saw Jaws and was really fascinated by the scene where Robert Shaw talks about everyone getting killed by sharks and since I’ve always wanted to do a scene like that. In this scene with Chris I promised him that I wouldn’t cut away to any flashbacks or even the other character he’s talking to, I wanted to keep it very simple and classic, just Chris talking. And one of the producers, Park Chan-wook, suggested that perhaps I do some flashbacks but I ended up not wanting to do that. I plotted out the scene and figured out the flow of the dialogue and then [co-screenwriter] Kelly Masterson came in and really worked on getting the dialogue right, and that line, “babies taste best,” came from him. On the day I shot the scene with Chris he was very calm and focused, almost like a monk inside a temple, and he came up to me and said, “Shoot as many takes as you want, 10 or 20, whatever angle you want.” He really made me comfortable in that scene. 

How many takes did you end up doing?

Not that many takes were needed because Chris was so prepared, maybe five or six takes. 

What’s more satisfying, pulling off the effects-heavy action sequences or a scene like that?

I like to focus on the characters and with dialogue it reveals the characters more than with an action sequence. Even with the axe battle scene we went to slow motion and it wasn’t to try to make it stylish but to show how lonely the character Curtis is even among all these people. 

There were so many reports on the back and forth between you and Harvey Weinstein in regards to the final running time of the film for the U.S. release. What did you learn from that experience?

From the production side it wasn’t that hard because I had prior training. In the short Tokyo! I shot that with Japanese actors and crew and with The Host there were a few American actors and we worked with special effects companies from Australia to San Francisco, so it was quite easy to work in that system. But once The Weinstein Company came on board it took a year to get to this point. The process was a bit strange, it was my first experience encountering this, but I felt prepared and I knew The Weinstein Company has a way of doing things and I tried to respect that and work with them. But the previous films I’ve made I’ve had 100 percent control in making them so it wasn’t easy to go through this. But the results are good. The worldwide version of the film is the same version that’s going to play here in the U.S. But if this kind of thing happens in my next film I’ll encounter it with more experience. I did struggle with going through it this time around. 

Your peers, Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon, also had challenging experiences making American movies, what have you three talked about going through this?

We were all shooting at the same time. While I was in Prague, Park was in Nashville shooting Stoker and Kim was in post production. So everything overlapped. There wasn’t a lot of time to talk. But we would text each other and talk about how hard our situations were and how we missed Korean food and wanted to go home. Cheesy texts like that. 

What do you want to do next?

I’m preparing two projects. Two ideas. One is much smaller than Snowpiercer budget wise and they are Korean language films. But the bigger of the two films is a mixture of actors Korean and American, locations in Korea and the U.S. But it is a Korean movie, not a Hollywood studio movie. 

Would you want to do something through the Hollywood system one day?

Following the 2006 screenings of The Host in Cannes and Toronto I got a Hollywood agent right away. So since then he’s sent me scripts, sometimes the script is very stupid and sometimes they are excellent, but I’m a writer and director and am accustomed to write for myself. So even though I read a great script I feel, “Wow this is a great script, I want to see this movie in the theater next year,” but it’s hard to find something that I feel in my gut to make that I haven’t written. Last year of all of the scripts that I read there was one that was based on a sci-fi short that I took very seriously and had several meetings with the producer, but I wanted to rewrite the story and they had already been in development with a script so it was hard to work it all out. But one day I do want to try to take on a Hollywood script. 

Before tonight’s screening you said that this is a Korean film with American actors, is that your preferred comfort for making films, keeping it Korean but taking in American elements?

Whether it’s Japan or Europe or American it doesn’t really matter, the mechanism of making films is the same everywhere, that is the way I describe this film but it’s really about how good the story is.

Interview translated by Dooho Choi 

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