Snowpiercer, South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s liberal adaptation of the French comic book of the same name, looks at the survivors of a population-decimating crisis trapped in the title train by fierce sub-Arctic temperatures. Two of them, Curtis and Nam (Chris Evans and Song Kang-Ho) lead the impoverished tail section in revolt against the oppressive front cars’ aristocracy. With the help of translator Dooho Choi, Vulture talked to Bong about class warfare and Snowpiercer’s ending. Spoilers follow.
You prefer complex camera movements because you feel they’re more cinematic. But you had a limited spaced to work in since the film has one location: the train. Did you know that there were certain complex setups you wanted to try but were unsure of how to do so?
Of course I meticulously storyboard, and talk a lot with my [director of photography] in advance about what equipment we’re using each day, what shot we’re using. How we’re going to make the camera fly within this limited space. And you can’t do that without talking to your production designer in advance. You can’t just have that kind of space and figure it out [as you go]. There are times where you have to pull the wall out, or pull the floor out, or the ceiling. All of that had to be discussed ahead of time.
For instance, in the battering ram sequence, when they plow forward from the tail section, there’s a low-angle shot. That was actually shot under the floor. We had to determine where that shot would be, where me and the DP would be underneath the floor, looking up. Conversely, when you see the character Grey running across the Pike, that shot was achieved with something called a Doggicam. That camera is put on a railing on the ceiling of the set, and you can just run with the character.
But really, the most important thing about shooting the film was a simple principle: Within the frame, me and the DP shot the film so that left would be the tail section of the train in the back, and right would be the engine at the front of the train. So you always get the feeling of going from left to right. Whenever you see Curtis (Chris Evans) moving to the front of the train, you’re almost always seeing that principle in effect. I wanted to maintain that energy, and give the audience a sense that whichever way the shot is moving, that’s where the characters are going. That was a very important discipline.
You mentioned your storyboards. For a film like The Host, you strictly storyboarded any shots with the monster or involving visual effects. But you left room for improvisation with your storyboards for everything else. Is the same true for Snowpiercer? Were there scenes that changed a lot as you shot them compared to how you originally visualized them?
The framing is set, but the actors within the frame … as long as the shot isn’t overly complicated, I give as much freedom as possible to my actors to improvise dialogue, or expressions. I expect, and hope, and stimulate that. For example, Tilda Swinton’s speech in the beginning of the film: She says “This is so disappointing,” and her cronies repeat her speech in several different languages. That’s all in the script and storyboards, but when they go to sit down, a tray falls on the ground, and makes a sound. That wasn’t planned, and Tilda instinctively picked up on this, and reacted. I used that take because it was so alive. That’s really the fun of shooting.
You’ve described the characters in The Host as “a relay race of the weak.” That could easily describe the way you transformed Snowpiercer’s narrative. Your version is more about a community’s interaction with each other rather than a bunch of alienated individuals, which is what the comics are about. How did you set out to write the story you wanted to write after reading the comics? Were there key themes or images you knew you wanted to keep?
I wanted to emphasize the idea of the train, the physical train, as an iron box, or metallic prison. That’s really a symbol of the system that exists inside the train. There are so many characters, but they’re all stuck inside. They say they want to move to the front, and they fight to get there. But they’re still ultimately inside the train.
On the action side of the film, there’s a main idea that’s not in the graphic novel. In the graphic novel, you have no idea where the train is headed while in the film, the train’s on a circular track. It takes a year to go around the world once. So it’s like a giant calendar, or clock. When they get to a certain station, they know it’s Halloween, or Christmas. In the middle of a fight, they know it’s New Year’s because they know when they come to a bridge, it’s the first of the year. So from this idea came the idea that they know what’s coming based on where they are. It creates more suspense, but it also has thematic connotations as well.
The concept of revolt though … well, the film’s new ending is basically more hopeful than the the comics. But at the same time, you pretty much slammed on civilization’s reset button. There … there probably aren’t very many people left alive after that! That ending … How did you balance how bleak it is with how hopeful it’s trying to be?
I thought the ending might be a little harsh, maybe I should show some survivors. [Without translator] But actually: I killed them all! [Laughs] Except for two kids.
That’s what’s so scary! And it takes so long for the train to blow up! There is … nobody left!
I don’t think Nam is an anarchist though. He just wanted to blow up one train car. It’s the avalanche that kills everyone else. It’s the revenge of nature, if you will. Also, avalanches are most prevalent in March or April, when the snow is slightly softer, just like in Nam’s dialogue. That’s when avalanches happen, usually. Yes, they’re all dead, and that’s a bit harsh. But it’s a sci-fi film: If you can’t say these things, or have these ideas in a sci-fi film, where can you?
The idea of there being multiple generations of people on this train is a key one. There’s an expression in the film: “train baby.” Those are the two kids that survive, the ones that only knew life on the train. Someone like Curtis or Nam, they lived on Earth, then boarded the train. These kids have never known what it was like to step on the earth. So it’s almost like Neil Armstrong touching down on the Moon when they leave the train for the first time. They have no memory of what it’s like to be on the Earth. For them to procreate, it’s going to take a little time. [Without translator] So, for me, it’s a very hopeful ending. But of course there are so many deaths, and so many sacrifices … it’s not so sweet. But those two kids will spread the human race.
When asked about the vilification of American and Korean soldiers in The Host, you said “the crude but yet direct political satire is a convention of [monster movies].” That’s also true of science fiction: Like you said, it was “nature’s revenge.” But even within the context of science fiction, do you think these characters deserve that kind of harsh fate, what’s essentially a forced restart?
I don’t really feel everyone must die. I hope there were other survivors who lived through the avalanche, I just didn’t have the means to shoot that. As for the revenge of nature: Inside the train, kids are taught that if you go outside, you’re going to die. But this idea of eternity, or the Eternal Engine … the opposite is actually true. You realize later on that the kids are the ones keeping this engine going, and this machinery intact. The engine is itself is on its way to extinction along with cigarettes, and other goods. “Extinction” is a repeated word throughout the film. But outside the train, life is actually returning. It’s nature that’s eternal, and not the train or the engine, as you see with the polar bear at the end.