Bong Snowpiercer

After some protracted disagreements with the Weinstein Company, Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer will finally hit theaters this weekend in the form that Bong intended. I’ve been a huge fan of Bong Joon-Ho since I saw Memories of Murder on DVD years ago. I find that he’s able to deftly balance wildly divergent tones in his films, from the zany to the serious, from the fantastical to the relatable.

While I had a few issues with Snowpiercer’s script (particularly some of its third-act exposition), it’s a singular film that’s like nothing else out in theaters right now. If you are lucky enough to have this film playing in a theater near you, definitely check it out.

I had the chance to chat with Bong Joon-Ho when he was here in Seattle hosting a Q&A for the film. We spoke through a translator and discussed the use of violence in Snowpiercer, his script-writing process with Kelly Masterson, and his struggles to get final cut. This interview has been edited for length and clarity, and to eliminate spoilers.

Why Snowpiercer, why now, and why in English?

In 2005, I discovered the graphic novel and was very taken with the concept about survivors after the apocalypse, living and surviving inside a running train. It’s about humanity, humans living in a system. It felt very universal, and I wanted to make a sci-fi film. It wasn’t about, “Let’s try to do an English language film.” Just by the nature of the story, with all these different types of people on the train, it lent itself to casting people from various countries. It would’ve been rather strange if we’d just had Koreans — South Koreans and North Koreans — in this environment. So, it became a 70-80% English language project, with other languages mixed in there as well.

What was it like to write the script with Kelly Masterson? Does he speak Korean? What was your working style?

Kelly doesn’t speak Korean. We spoke through translators. I had written the first draft, and afterwards gave the script to Kelly and he worked out the dialogue. As far as the structure and the scene order, that was all worked out in the first draft, so working with Kelly was actually pretty easy because we had that common draft to work off of. There were slight revisions with Kelly, but it was mostly the dialogue that he worked on.

I got to know Kelly and was impressed by Sidney Lumet’s last film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. It has strong characters and really good dialogue that’s to-the-point. It’s a different genre. It’s not a sci-fi film. But just the strong male characters, and the depth in the simple dialogue was very appropriate for Snowpiercer.

People have been saying that Snowpiercer has some strong political messages. It involves people failing to prevent global warming and oppressed people rising up against their oppressors. Did you have a specific political message in mind when you made this movie?

This movie is really about a system. If you take the train as the frame or the context of this world, it’s really about how people are trapped within the system and how people try to escape the system or change the system…The political ideas are kind of mixed into that idea.

It seems to me that the train is a mirror for society, where there’s abundance in the front sections of the train, and in the back sections there’s people who can’t get enough at all to survive. Is social justice something you’re personally passionate about?

I don’t feel like I’m someone who can fight for social justice. I’m just someone who tries to create interesting images and make films. But as you get into the different characters in a story, you can’t ignore the social context or position of those characters. Really it’s about showing visually how these characters fit inside the society of the story. Unless you’re making a movie on a deserted island, you really have to position these characters in this type of context.

I don’t really consider myself an activist. Just a storyteller.

This movie is your most violent movie. In your past movies, you always used violence very rarely, and when you used it, it was very shocking. This movie, people die more often. What was your approach to using violence in this film, and how did it differ?

The space itself, the long and narrow corridor of the train. It’s overcrowded with people. Everything is close-range. You can’t avoid each other. Everyone is sort of entangled in this one space. That was definitely the idea. Just hit, stab, and punch at close-range. I wanted more of a primitive approach, instead of a fancy laser-gun battle or martial arts choreographed fight sequences.

It’s a straight line – the long and narrow corridors of the train. So it’s really about people trying to get to the front and move forward, and those who are trying to block that forward progress. It’s really just a head-to-head encounter. There are no detours, or places you can avoid that direct confrontation. You really get a sense of that during [a long fight scene] in the middle of the film.

The degree of violence is perhaps intensified just because while I was preparing the film and shooting the film, I was under a lot of stress. I wanted to kill somebody [Laughs]

There’s been a lot of online discussion about The Weinstein Company, how they tried to ask you to cut down the film and add a voiceover. Did you ever consider agreeing to their requests?

Throughout this long process, if you look at it from their point of view, it’s quite normal. It’s not that Snowpiercer was a special case for them. They do this kind of editing and reworking with other films and it’s a common practice. So, I understand.

But thankfully now in the U.S., as with all the other territories, it’s the Director’s Cut that’s going out, and I’m happy about that, and thankful. There was a 20-minute shortened version with just things here and there trimmed, and the results weren’t very good. So finally, The Weinstein Company accepted my cut of the film and granted it a limited release. But it’s a theatrical one, and the results are good.

As far as the voiceover, there was a voiceover in the original script, at the beginning and at the end. But during the shooting and editing process, I removed the voiceover because I felt that it was unnecessary and it didn’t really work. But of course, The Weinstein Company, they did suggest putting that back and also adding to it, just because the post-apocalyptic subject matter and the actual setup of the story were so unique that they felt that they needed more of an explanation for the audience, and also with the ending as well. But I never went ahead and did that.

This is one of the most successful films in South Korean history. What is it about this movie that you think has resonated so much with audiences worldwide?

Firstly, the setup is quite unique. Just the idea of the last survivors of humanity existing on a moving train where the rich and the poor are divided, and each car is a different world. So I think the setup is fresh. But at the same time, the other reason is perhaps that even though it is a unique story, it’s still very classical and universal. The original graphic novel came out in the ’80s, and all this time later it’s still something that’s relevant in terms of this system and the rich vs. the poor, the powerful vs. the powerless. It’s a unique setup, but it’s also very classical at the same time.

***

Snowpiercer is out in limited release this weekend.

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