In 1984, the late French writer Jacques Lob and illustrator Jean-March Rochette came up with a precise, and possibly prescient end-of-the world metaphor. Their graphic novel Le Transperceneige imagined an ice-encrusted world made uninhabitable by a ruinous experiment in climate control. The only human survivors have been traveling the globe non-stop for the past 17 years.
Poor people jammed like cattle into the back of the train subsist on foul-tasting protein bars of mysterious origins. The rich reside in luxurious cars at the front of the train. The mysterious engine controls everyone's fate. South Korea's genre-mashing auteur Bong Joon-ho immediately saw cinematic potential in the dystopic premise when he first came across the graphic novel in 2005. He says, "The graphic novel had this unique and brilliant idea of survivors on a moving train and that's what initially excited me."
Re-working the storyline with co-writer Kelly Masterson, Joon-ho gathered cast members including Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, Octavia Spencer, and South Korean star Song Kang Ho at a huge Czech Republic soundstage. For 72 days they enacted brutal class warfare within the confines of 24 caste-specific train cars.
After breaking box office records in South Korea last year, Snowpiercer will open June 27 in the U.S. in limited release.
Speaking by phone from New York, Bong talks about turning Tilda Swinton into an evil clown, designing the look of an icy apocalypse and explains the film's take on evolution, propaganda, and the bloody cost of freedom.
"The starting point for the movie was this idea of revolution and Spartacus on a train," says Bong. "You've got Chris Evans as the leader of this group trying to move forward and the other group trying to block his progress. I felt that having the two groups collide would bring a certain excitement and energy to the story that would make it a sci-fi action film."
"When I wrote the script," says Bong, "I imagined what it would be like to live on this train and asked my self, 'If I were making this world, what would it look like?' So I designed these ideas of having a pool, a school, an aquarium—I think I could definitely live in that world, maybe not for 17 years, but at least for 17 months."
Each car represented a distinct aspect of post-apocalyptic society, Joon-ho says. "I precisely determined how the cars would be divided because it's so closely related to the narrative structure of Curtis's journey.
The downtrodden masses crowded into the "tail" section of the train needed to be covered in grime and raggedy clothes that telegraphing the characters' extreme deprivation. "We wanted to show the passage of time over 17 years where nothing new was introduced into that space. Clothes are repeatedly worn and on the faces, it wasn't just one layer of dirt—I really tried to express layers and layers of dirt that have been accumulated over a long period of time."
Working with costume designer Catherine George, Bong insisted that even the wealthy passengers' wardrobe betray signs of wear and tear. "in the front section of the train, they're wearing very nice clothes but If you look closely, you'll see see a rip or a hole in their fine garments because they also have to wear the same thing over and over again."
Production designed by Ondrej Nekvasil and shot by cinematographer Hong Kyung Pyo, most of Snowpiercer is rendered in muted tones of brown, grey, green, and blue. But when the rebels arrive at classroom car filled with brainwashed children, they're greeted with a blast of primary colors.
Bong says "Of course this explosion of color is all about the kids but underneath it all, there's this terrifying ideology that's being taught about the idea that Ed Harris's character Wilfred in the engine is God, almost. It's a similar atmosphere to the birthday celebrations for leaders in North Korea, where crowds of people raise up all these colorful placards into the air."
Snowpiercer's most outrageous performance comes from Tilda Swinton, who plays the clueless but dangerous bureaucrat Mason. "The idea was I wanted to create the worst politician ever," Bong says. "Mason is Wilford's clown so the character lent itself to exaggeration. You don't ever see her alone in the film because she's always performing and making speeches in front of the masses."
The British actress had no trouble immersing herself in the caricature, Bong recalls, "Tilde very much enjoyed everything from the dentures and the glasses to the prosthetic nose, the wig. With all of that going on, she was able give so many kinds of expressions to her body and face that it was actually pretty amazing to witness."
Snowpiercer gains plot traction when Chris Evans' Curtis character and his followers come across the prison car. Drug addicts hooked on the crack-like Krolone, are "stored" in stainless steel morgue-like drawers that slide out from the wall. "We first meet Nam and Yona lying inside the drawers. Looking at actual prisons in the outside world, I felt that on a train, with such tight space, the ratio of space to prisoner was actually a natural one," says Bong.
In his acclaimed 2006 sci-fi film The Host, Bong used monster movie spectacle to dramatize environmental pollution themes. Similarly for Snowpiercer, the director orchestrated hyper-violent battle sequences to mirror contemporary realities. "The reason I make sci-fi is to reflect on how we live now," Bong says. "Class divisions between the rich and the poor—that's a a relevant condition for any nation.
"While we were in pre-production," he continues, "The Occupy Wall Street movement was happening and it seemed very pertinent as we started work on the film. I wanted to address that issue in the context of science fiction."
While the black-masked solders on the Snowpiercer train bear unsettling resemblance to ISIS fighters waging war in Iraq and Syria, Bong notes, "This film is not just about places like North Korea or the Middle East. It's more about wanting to ask questions about being inside the system. Some characters in the story want to maintain the system as it exists, some want to change it, and going one step further, there's one character who wants to destroy the system."