One of the first questions I asked director Bong Joon-Ho ended up being a spoiler. His film, Snowpiercer, runs 126 minutes, but Harvey Weinstein of the American distributor Radius-TWC had toyed with an 100 minute cut of the film. I wanted to know which scenes Weinstein would have cut, thinking I could vaguely mention the scenes in question. Bong gave me a specific line that was almost cut, and it is a major spoiler. However, it’s also a line I’ve seen written about a lot online, so I will leave it in, hidden by a spoiler warning, for those who are interested.
[Snowpiercer](movie:35044) is a sci-fi action thriller about a train that houses the last survivors of humanity. After the world has frozen over, the train is only habitable place remaining. Curtis (Chris Evans) leads a rebellion from the rear of the train to overtake the front. The further the rebels get, the weirder and weirder the train gets. Tilda Swinton also stars as the politician Minister Mason, trying to keep the rear dwellers in check. Swinton has told the press that her character was originally written as a man.
Bong speaks some English but mainly speaks Korean. He understood my questions but a translator translated his answers for me. That essentially cut our interview in half so I had to make all the questions count. American audiences finally get to see Snowpiercer in theaters this Friday.
I’m glad we got to see your cut of Snowpiercer. Which scenes did Harvey want to cut for the shorter version?
He tried out different things, but it wasn’t like he took out scenes, blocks of the movie. He trimmed here and there. Like pieces of dialogue from John Hurt’s long speeches or Ed Harris's. Really the important thing is the result. The Weinstein Company decided to keep the director’s cut and I’m very thankful and grateful for that. I’m happy, and I respect that decision.
I thought he might want to talk Curtis’s big speech at the end. Was that ever up for debate?
“Babies taste the best.” The moment where Tilda Swinton pulls out her dentures also. That was just the process. We tried out different things but the result is what’s important.
When you choreograph each scene with forward momentum, did it give you interesting restrictions to work within? You can only go back to front?
Actually, this is a movie about movement. The train is moving and Chris Evans is moving on the moving train. It’s a dual movement, the camera moves, and so many movements. In the movie, it was a very simple discipline between me and the cinematographer. On the screen, the left side is the tail section, the back of the train. The right side is the front, so Chris Evans always moves from left to right. It was important to keep that principal, left and right. Left was the back and right was the front of the train. There was only one instance where I broke that rule, but that was the guiding principle. It was important for the audience to feel the energy that comes from moving in that direction. Even though when you go through the train cars, the production design changes and the decoration changes, really the space itself is a narrow and long space, a rectangle. It’s the same. So there are some restrictions that come with it in terms of the camera angels, so I tried to create as much variety with movement and camera placement.
Tilda Swinton said that Minister Mason was originally a male character. Were you inspired by the story of Alien, where Ripley was changed from a male to a female character for Sigourney Weaver?
I actually didn’t know that about Alien. I just was a fan of Tilda and really wanted to work with her. When we first met at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011, we realized we were both fans of each other’s work. I was writing the script at the time and didn’t really have a role for Tilda. Then suddenly the idea of Mason and Tilda came up and it really sparked my imagination. It wasn’t like I wanted to try a gender change. So Ripley was originally a man? Wow, I didn’t know.
Did you get Chris Evans before he was Captain America? Did you see he had great heroism and stardom in his future?
Actually, when I first met Chris, he had already shot and Captain America had been released when we were casting. I just saw the potential after seeing movies like Danny Boyle’s Sunshine where he plays more of a darker character, I felt that was similar to the character of Curtis. So it’s not really about is he famous or not or how can we put a more well known actor in? I just weighed the potential and the possibility of this actor embodying the character.
How many physical train cars did you have, and how many were redressed over and over?
There’s a total of 26 train cars, but the frame, the structure of the sets, we did reuse them. Like we’d have four standing at once and then on the other stage we’d be building the other ones. Then we’d shoot it out and break down this set to build the other one while we’re on the stage.
So you still built 26 unique cars?
26 different unique cars were built, and if you did connect them it would’ve been about 500 meters long, the size of an actual train. We never had to connect them like that, but if you did, that’s how long it was.
Were there any interesting types of cars that didn’t make it into the final film?
It’s not like there were cars inside the script that I didn’t shoot. Everything was preplanned, so everything that was in the script I did shoot. There was a car I had imagined that never made it into the script, a zoo train car. I did imagine at one point having a giraffe with his long neck unable to stand up right, just having his head be lowered to fit. During the writing process I took it out because I felt, it’s a slight spoiler, but at the end of the movie we see a living animal and I felt that that should be the focus and not to show anything living inside the train.