Interview: 'Snowpiercer' Director Bong Joon-ho on Mastering Sci-Fi
by Alex Billington
July 1, 2014
"F*!k the system." Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho has been one of my favorite filmmakers since the very early days of FirstShowing. I fought hard to secure an interview with him four years ago during the release of his fourth film Mother, and had a wonderful time talking in person in Los Angeles. At the end of our interview we discussed plans for his next project, Snowpiercer, a sci-fi/post-apocalyptic adaptation of a graphic novel set entirely on a train. Now, four years later, here we are again and Snowpiercer has finally arrived. I met up with Bong Joon-ho again in New York City this time, as he's touring the US to promote the release, and we chatted about crafting this sci-fi masterpiece. It's a fun discussion, focused on the film itself.
What I love the most about Bong Joon-ho's directing is his nuanced control over the themes, visual style, and camerawork, which all plays intimately into the storytelling. His films are visually extraordinary, yet also deeply engaging on a visceral level. While the interview was conducted in person, his answers were delivered in Korean and translated to English through an interpreter. Bong occasionally jumped in with an English sentence, and I've included those lines as designated with a blue name. The rest of the conversation was translated and repeated back, and all of those answers are designated with a red name. Let's dive in…
When we first sat down, I was discussing meeting him four years ago for an interview for Mother and that I had been waiting ever since for Snowpiercer. I finally saw the film at the Berlin Film Festival and loved it - here's my review. I had so much to ask about making the film and his vision and covered as much as I could.
At the time we actually talked about Snowpiercer. But you were talking about the very first phase of writing the movie and putting it together.
Bong Joon-ho: Four years ago.
Exactly. It's exciting because, personally, I've been waiting for it ever since that day. Part of the reason I was so excited is because I love your work and I was waiting for you to get into sci-fi to see what you could do with sci-fi and how much you could play with that genre.
Bong (translated): Thanks for being patient and waiting. He hopes to shoot faster and make more movies in a shorter amount of time. But he's not sure. He's got a kid that's going to college soon, so…
Bong (himself): I have to hurry. [laughs]
I understand. The more films the better! At this point, four years later, what do you think looking back at the film? Is it everything you wanted it to be or did it change a lot?
Bong: Looking back on it now, there were a lot events. A lot of things happened, a lot of ups and downs. But it feels like he was able to protect his vision. People always ask, so he's going to say it before the question, but just with The Weinstein Company - [in the end] they decided to release the Director's Cut [in theaters nationwide] and he's pleased and thankful to them for that.
But yeah, there were a lot of ups and downs. It feels like he did what he set out to do. But, of course, with all of his previous films, this one included, he's not 100%. There's always little regrets here and there.
How different from the graphic novel [Le Transperceneige] is it? Is it a major departure and was that always your plan?
Bong: Different from the film? Of course. The English version has been published in The States, the original graphic novel. So he definitely recommends you look at it. it has a very different philosophical approach and it's a lot of fun, so you should check it out.
But, of course, everything is different, all the characters - Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Chris Evans, even Tilda Swinton, they're all not in the graphic novel. The idea of revolution is not an idea that's present in the graphic novel. This film is about a group revolt, like Spartacus on train, if you will. All of that is not in the comic book. But the basic setting of the comic book, the idea that the world has ended and people are surviving inside of a moving train and that the inside of the train is divided into classes, that's the concept that he took from the original graphic novel and changed everything else.
What was the hardest part in forming the movie to get right? In Berlin, you mentioned the sequence/layout of the train cars was one of the hardest parts.
Bong: Just the idea of the train, he had to build it all. It's a moving set. It's like a living thing, like a snake that moves. On that set, the actors, crew, and the director have to all be inside and make a two hour movie in that setting. So it was very challenging, of course very costly as well. The whole thing had to feel real, too. So it was very challenging.
This is true of all films, but especially Snowpiercer - the importance of space you can't emphasize enough, just the idea that these people are trapped inside this world. Of course Nam, a slight spoiler, he wants to live outside the train. He wants to escape the train. That's really essentially what this movie is about. The train is one big prison and the system that oppresses the people. That physical reality was very important and he didn't want to use CG for any of that. Of course the environment outside, a lot of that was CG. But inside he really wanted to capture the physicality of being in that space.
How much did you have to change or revise about the ending until you go it right? Or was it always the same concept from the beginning? Spoilers below!
Bong: From the very first draft that he wrote adapting the graphic novels, he always envisioned this ending where they finally escaped to the outside world and it's the start of a new generation. That's not changed. As far as the Polar Bear, that idea came up during the writing process. And he has a slight regret. Maybe he should have shot a deer because people think the bear is going to eat the kids. But, the idea of going outside.
Bong (himself): Some people actually think like that. [laughs]
In terms of writing the script, and presenting the film in English, was it a challenge for you to make that translation? Did you find there were a lot of lines that you could think of that maybe would work in Korean that wouldn't work in English or vice versa?
Bong: Up until the second draft, he worked on the script alone in Korean. He worked out the structure and the characterization. Then that was translated into English. And that draft was given to Kelly Masterson and he worked on all the dialogue changes. Since he's not a native English speaker he needed someone like Kelly. It was a really fun process. Whether it's in France, or Japan, or even Norway, he feels like he can make a film in those countries, in those languages, as long as he has a writer that he connects with and actors that he enjoys working with.
And also, in the case of Snowpiercer, he had a lot of support on set from his actors, just discussions about the nuance of certain things - for example, Tilda Swinton's accent. Even Jamie Bell had a lot of improvisation that was included in the final film.
Did you have Kelly on set to help with dialogue?
Bong: He wasn't on set. He worked through pre-production with director Bong. And then during the shooting it was really with the actors he worked with. But in post-production during the art process, he came in and changed a few things here and there because additional ideas came up.
Actually, in his first draft there was a voiceover that started the movie and ended the movie, and it was Yona's voice. He had recorded that voice and tried it in the edit, taken it out, put it back it, take it out. In that process, he also worked with Kelly a little bit to find the right words for that. But especially with Wilford and Gilliam and all the Mason (Tilda Swinton) speeches, Kelly really upgraded the dialogue. He has heavily influenced those three characters especially.
I want to ask about Chris Evans because I was incredibly impressed by what he does in this movie, more so than anything he's done before. How did you get that much out of him? Was he just committed to it? Did he believe in it and just give it his all? How did that happen?
Bong: Chris Evans, he's actually just a very, very sensitive guy. You don't notice that immediately because he's so muscular and strong. But he's actually very delicate. You have to approach him very carefully and almost protect him as you work.
He's an extremely intelligent guy. And he also looks at a film from the director's point of view. He's also a director. So sometimes he's just very, very focused and into the scene as an actor, especially the monologue where he talks about 17 years ago. The morning that they shot that scene, he just had this very focused feeling and he was just deep into it as he walked onto set. But then other times he'll [step] 10 feet back and see the whole situation as a director and come up with ideas or give his input. So he had this interesting way of going in really, really deep then also being able to step back. Of course, he made a film already, [titled] 1:30 Train [due out sometime in 2014/2015].
But, of course, his action, his physical stuff is just amazing. He's like an action machine. The stunt coordinator was shocked because his timing and precision was just unbeatable.
I need to ask you about sci-fi and what your feelings are on the whole sci-fi genre/world right now. How do you evolve sci-fi from where it is?
Bong: What he loves about sci-fi is he can be a kid and look at the world from innocent, childlike eyes. And you can say something just like a little kid to his dad, like, "Oh, the world should be this way, dad," or, "The world must be just." But as you get older, life gets complicated and you get worn down and you change and you can't really say those things out loud.
But in this movie, for example, he just said, "Fuck the system. I just want to blow up the train." It's just an excuse to express these sort of, perhaps, childish ideas, but more in a direct way and in an honest way.
As far as sci-fi today, with [all of] these big blockbuster visual-effects-driven Hollywood franchises, it's sort of a black hole that all these films are falling into. Duncan Jones' Moon or [Mike Cahill's] Another Earth, those are really interesting small, unique sci-fi films. And he has hopes that there will be more of those films that come out. For example, in Korea there is a micro-budget sci-fi comedy that is very bizarre but really interesting.
Which film is that?
Bong: There's no English title yet, but it's about three Korean nerds sharing a dorm room with aliens.
That sounds cool!
Bong (himself): The director he made his own visual effects via his desktop computer. It's fucking amazing.
A very big thank you to Bong Joon-ho for his time, and Falco Ink for arranging the interview.
Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer is now playing in select US theaters - full list available here. The film already opened around the world, and is also available on Blu-ray in many countries. See it now, then Sound Off.