In the third and final part of our epic interview with Snowpiercer director Bong Joon-ho we discuss the incredible crew he assembled behind the scenes, the influences behind the film's stunning production design and the input of fellow Korean Park Chan-wook, who served as a producer.
BEWARE, one conceit of Snowpiercer's narrative is that different carriages in the train are revealed only as characters encounter them. During this interview we discuss the design of many of these rooms, which may be considered spoilers by sensitive readers, though no real plot points are revealed. Later, one signifcant plot spoiler is discussed in detail, which I have marked accordingly.
ScreenAnarchy - Behind the camera you pulled together so many different talents. You brought in a lot of different people you hadn't worked with before...are you just making it difficult for yourself on purpose?
Bong Joon-ho - Fortunately I had quite a long pre-production period, enough time to discuss and prepare. My cinematographer was the same guy who shot Mother and the production designer is a Czech guy, who did The Illusionist with Edward Norton, as well as many domestic movies in the Czech Republic.
How long was pre-production?
Very long. Almost a year. The production period was quite short, a little bit less than three months, because of the complicated schedules of all the actors, but pre-production was quite long. We prepared many things, so yeah, many new guys, but it was an exciting experience. The costume designer, Catherine George, she worked with Tilda Swinton on We Need To Talk About Kevin. That movie of course is not a sci-fi movie, but I loved her way with characters. Very simple colour and design, but the costumes express the characters, I think, when you're watching the film.
Also, Marco Beltrami. I love the soundtrack in 3:10 to Yuma, the James Mangold remake. That music was very impressive and actually it was Marco Beltrami's agent who first tried to contact us. Marco really loved Mother, my previous film, and so we met in L.A.. He's a very shy guy but such a nice man.
And our stunt coordinator was a British guy called Julian Spencer (a favourite of Danny Boyle and Nicolas Winding Refn's), who choreographed the fight sequence in the David Cronenberg film Eastern Promises.
The naked fight?
Yeah. He is the man who did that. You remember the sauna fight sequence is very physical, no weapons, almost body to body.
Well that's one thing in SNOWPIERCER, due to the confined space you're working in, the fighting is very close quarters. It just feels so vicious.
Yeah it was a great experience working with Julian.
I think one of the most striking things in the film is the production design. I love the fact that we don't see any of the train until Curtis and the other rebels see it. They are trying to get through the next door and so are we, and we have no idea what's behind it.
Right, only the characters come from the front, like Mason and the strange yellow girl, but the audience can't see the front part. If we did some crosscutting of the tail section and the front part I think it would be very stupid.
It also means everything we see in the trailers for the film - this dirty, metallic environment - is really just from the first half of the movie.
But after Curtis and the others pass through the water supply section and the greenhouse, everything changes, extremely different colours and moods.
How much of the train's design is taken from the original graphic novel, and how much is you saying, "I want this scene to look like THE MATRIX and this scene to look like SILENT RUNNING"?
Actually the original French graphic novel that came out in the 1980s is all in black and white.
Really? Because there is so much colour in your film. Eventually.
Yeah, the most extreme colours are in the classroom section.
That's exactly what I'm thinking of.
That section is really crazy. It's very bright and peaceful and full of children, but it's a section of madness. Crazy brainwashing, a pregnant lady with a machine gun. Alison Pill, she's so cute. She was amazing.
Visually that scene reminded me of Park Chan-wook's I'M A CYBORG BUT THAT'S OK.
Really? A very bright situation, but insane.
So if the graphic novel was all in black and white, many of these choices clearly didn't come from there. Were you looking at any specific visions of science-fiction, in movies or anime perhaps, for inspiration?
Some small elements of the train were inspired by the graphic novel, for example the greenhouse. There is a similar section in the novel, where they grow fruit and vegetables. Another part from the graphic novel was the prison, that looks like a very long drawer - like in a morgue. That was a brilliant idea, because the train is a very small space. In the real world a prison cell is a relatively small room, but on a train it's even smaller, just like a morgue. Those two things were inspired from the graphic novel but the other sections we created.
We hired three young Korean conceptual artists during the early stages of pre-production. One of them is the guy who designed the creature from The Host. They are very talented young guys and they work for a gaming company in South Korea. So during the day they're designing computer games, and in the night time we took them. Again and again they created designs for us, the very basic conceptual design of the movie. We made 26 different train sections - the swimming pool section, the aquarium - but we focused really strongly on the engine section. It was our most difficult mission. It was very important and it looks like something eternal.
Also, by this stage we've seen every other carriage on the train. This is your last card, so to speak, and needs to trump everything else.
Right. It was the guy who designed The Host who gave us the very first idea of the engine room - the concept of - we are not watching the engine as a thing in that space. We are inside the engine, that concept, like you are inside a whale. Then Ondrej (Nekvasil) our production designer developed many things from their basic artwork.
I saw the movie in Seoul and I was concerned beforehand that they would have no subtitles for Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung's Korean dialogue, but then you introduce a really smart way of getting round that into the story.
I don't want Song Kang-ho to speak English dialogue. He hates English. But that kind of translation tool already exists in the real world. In your iPhone you can find that kind of app. You speak the Korean word and it will answer with the English word, or Czech or French, Cantonese and everything. That kind of app already exists.
I also don't like the movie - of course it's a beautiful movie but - I really hate Memoirs of a Geisha, with Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li, where they all speak English. They sometimes say "Sayonara" or "Arigato"...but, having Chinese actresses playing Japanese characters speaking English dialogue...that movie was terrible.
Who came up with the idea for the protein bars?
Me. In Korea and Japan there is some sweet bar like that, that looks very similar, but it's very popular, very traditional, made of sweet beans. That's not in the original graphic novel but the cheapest way of feeding the tail section people is cockroaches. Maybe it was Mason's idea or Wilford's. We can keep them alive, with just some cockroaches. I think this is actually a very good idea, to feed a lot of people.
I think it's disgusting.
[Laughs] Fucking disgusting!
And what can they do? When it's revealed, the immediate reaction is to spit it out, but it doesn't matter. These people have been eating these bars their entire lives.
The reaction from Curtis in that moment is interesting, I think. When they discover it was cockroaches and he closes the machine lid, he decides to keep it a secret from the people, because for the last 17 years they have been eating that. He just wants to hide the reality from them. It's very ironic. In that moment he's doing something similar to Wilford, who always hides the reality.
It's great. You're not making them polar opposites. This isn't good vs evil, black vs white. Some of Wilford's ideas are good, or they work.
But for Curtis, maybe he has no choice. It's a matter of dignity, I think it's quite a sad moment.
Park Chan-wook was a producer on Snowpiercer. How involved was he?
It was 2004. After the big success of Oldboy he founded his own production company and suggested to me, "Director Bong, let's make a movie in our company. You will always be welcome." "Thank you! Why not?" I know him very well. For many many years he is one of my best senior friends in Korea, so I know him very well.
Then in 2005 I discovered the original graphic novel in a book shop, and I just devoured that book. I showed it to Park Chan-wook and said "What do you think about this?" and he said "Good! Sci-fi! Let's try that." That's all. But at the time I was in pre-production on The Host and I had already made a promise to make Mother with that main actress Kim Hye-ja.
So I spent three or four years making those two movies, and then I started to prepare for Snowpiercer, and yeah, Park Chan-wook is a producer here, but of course normally he is a director. So he really tried his best to protect my vision, because he understands my mind and my vision. The ironic thing is that during the production of Snowpiercer, he was in Nashville shooting Stoker. I heard he suffered from Fox Searchlight. He was tortured by them with so many notes from the studio about his production. But for Snowpiercer, I was tortured by nobody. No interference. He totally protected me, I was very lucky, working under his protection.
Do you have any desire after Snowpiercer to continue working in English?
Actually no. For example, Guillermo del Toro he made English language movies like Pacific Rim or Hellboy, but at the same time he made Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone in Spanish. I hope to make a movie in Korea and Japan, and the States and many other countries. It depends on the story, what kind of story. But of course in the States, in Hollywood, the producer and the studio has such a huge amount of power, I'm a little bit of a control freak. So if I cannot control the whole movie - writing, casting, shooting and editing - it makes me crazy. So, maybe I'm not such a good director as a Hollywood director.
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