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.
Do you have a favorite part of the train?
My favorite is the swimming pool section. I just imagine what it would be like to go through a snowy landscape looking out the window, and swimming inside of a moving train. Actually, in the graphic novel there’s a movie theater section and they’re watching “Casablanca” and a lot of couples are kissing and having sex. So if that existed, I would have [included that]. And actually, in South Korea, there is a train called the cinema train. It’s not the whole train, but one section, they show the movie inside the train from Seoul to Paju. The funny thing is, I was in the cinema train and I saw the movie “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” And in the beginning of the movie, there’s a subtitle [that said] “This movie has been re-edited for the train’s duration.” So, for the length of the train ride, they cut it down. They should have just found a shorter movie. I was really pissed off. [laughs]
Were there any plans to include a cinema train, or any other sections of the train that didn’t make it into the final version?
As far as anything that was in the final script, I shot, and all the stuff I shot is in the film. But just imagining it in the writing process, because the budget was so limited, I willingly thought about it and took things out and added things and really tried to figure out what was absolutely necessary. There is a section in the comic book that I thought about using but then didn’t shoot. It’s a lookout tower section and it’s like a rounded top where you can see through the glass outside.
There was a zoo section that I thought about shooting, but for various reasons, it was difficult and I ended up shooting the section where you see the meat hanging on the hooks. Just shooting a zoo with real animals or visual effects animals would just be so costly. I thought about elephants and lions and giraffes could be in the section. But in the end, I just felt like it was too much like Noah’s Ark. And of course the film ends on a polar bear, and I didn’t want to show a living animal beforehand.
A lot has been made about the negotiations between you and Mr. Weinstein on the final cut of the film. Going in, did you realize what kind of discussions would be involved in terms of the release of the film in the U.S.? Were you aware of his reputation?
Of course I heard and knew that he changes a lot of films before they’re released. But it’s actually not just TWC. For example, Park Chan-wook made a film [“Stoker”] with Fox Searchlight and Kim Jee-woon made [“The Last Stand”] with Lionsgate, and during the editing process they had many, many comments. It’s just sort of a reality of the U.S. film industry where a director getting final cut is such a hard and rare thing. Just the process, though, it was released in Korea and I was on promotion in different territories, so this process with the company that was based in the U.S. just took a long time. And it’s true that a 20-minute shorter version was tested, but it was just sort of a slow and long period because there were other things going on with the release in other countries. A lot of these stories are exaggerated, like we were physically fighting or things were just really acrimonious, which is just not true. In the end though, it’s the director’s cut so I am very happy that the same version is going to be released all over the world and that was a decision that the Weinstein Company made, because I didn’t have final cut, so I am very thankful about that.
There was a plan for a wider release in the States originally, right?
So as far as the business stuff, how big or small the release was, I wasn’t really involved with those discussions. That was between CG Entertainment and The Weinstein Company. I was mostly involved with the editing process. But it all resolved itself and I feel like releasing the movie the way I wanted it to be seen, that’s the great thing and I am happy with the situation.
Would you work with Mr. Weinstein again?
Of course. Even from when I was young, I admired the films that he produced and released, like “Pulp Fiction” and recently “The Master.” So if there was ever a chance for a story to come up, I would jump at the chance.
You mentioned working with a limited budget on this film, though compared to your earlier works, it is large. Not only that, it’s the most expensive South Korean production ever. Did you find that you had more freedom with this film to play around than your previous work?
Yeah, of course if you look at it from that point of view, it is the biggest budget in South Korea. But the film kind of has two identities. For example, when Chris Evans appears on TV, he says “I am working on a small but very unique sci-fi movie,” and he’s right from his point of view. But just having to shoot this particular story where the world is frozen outside and people are stuck on this train and they’re fighting on this train and they are the last survivors of humanity, was it enough money? It was very, very limited. If you take $10 million and you’re going to shoot an action movie or a romantic comedy, it’s a totally different thing. So I had to really meticulously plan it out in advance with the script and the storyboards. I was able to shoot and execute my vision, but I also had to think how to be as cost-effective as possible. Of course, every director is like this, like If I only had $100,000 more or $1 million more. Of course I had those thoughts, but I accepted those limitations and just worked within them.
Was it logistically difficult to film the scenes since it was such a narrow and enclosed space?
So that was the challenge, that was the excitement, to shoot inside a train for the entire movie, and I felt like yeah, I am going to make the best train movie ever and had all this anticipation. But right before the shoot started, I got really scared. Just the idea of shooting in a narrow and long moving space, something that’s living with the light and tunnels was very excited initially. But a few weeks before shooting me and my DP just got really scared. One of the reasons is the pre-production offices was located inside the Barrandov Studios at the top floor. And there’s a long hallway on that floor, like an 80-meter long hallway, and the DP nudged me and said “Oh, are we shooting a hallway movie? How are we going to do this for two hours?” But we tried to overcome it with the camera and the various movements and just the actors moving within the space. There’s just so many characters in the film, so many different types of characters, so we tried everything to make it as alive as possible.
Alex Suskind writes about culture for Vulture, Esquire, VanityFair.com, and The Daily Beast. You can reach out to him on Twitter.