Snowpiercer: Director Bong Joon-ho on Cute Dictators
Snowpiercer is a dystopian sci-fi actioner with a bona fide Hollywood star front and center: Captain America himself (Chris Evans). Evans is one of a small amount of survivors left alive after the world has frozen into unlivable conditions. Combating climate change, scientists miscalculated the proper response to environmental neglect.
All survivors were loaded onto a train. That train has been circling the world for the past 18 years. Of course it's also been divided up into class sections: the rich and powerful are in the front, with schools, discos, fresh food and entertainment. The "free-loaders" are in the back. In rags. And they are rationed protein blocks. Tilda Swinton plays the mouthpiece for the train's maker, who may or may not still be alive. An attack is planned to get to the front of the train and make their living conditions more human.
For cinephiles, it feels like we've been waiting for this film forever (it's worth it). But it must feel even longer for Bong Joon-ho. The diverse Korean director (The Host, Mother, Memories of Murder) began filming his English-language debut in 2012. It was released in South Korea in August 2013 where it broke box office records that were previously set by Iron Man 3. There's been an ugly back and forth with The Weinstein Company about cutting the film's runtime for the American release (which, ultimately has been unchanged at 126 minutes, but will get a smaller theatrical release, simultaneous with video on demand; again, it's worth every minute). Bong brushed off any ill-will and was especially bouncy and full of laughter when we met to interview him.
CraveOnline: In Snowpiercer it takes one calendar year for the train to loop the globe. You’re finally prepping for the last stage of the release schedule: North America. How are you feeling on your last stop?
Bong Joon-ho: In the movie, once a year the soldiers say, “Merry Christmas!” and “Happy New Year!” But I get that every few months: in Korea, France, Japan, Italy, Germany and now, it’s champagne in the US. It does feel like the last stop and I am glad I can finally see the end of this film’s run around the globe.
Climate change is overly politicized in the US. Part of the problem is that those opposed to regulation latch onto the term “global warming” and trot that out whenever we’re experiencing record low temperatures. Is climate change a political issue in South Korea? Or is it something that people are aware needs to change and citizens don’t get hung up on terminology?
In Korea, in terms of the environment, there’s a lot of talk about China and how China’s environmental issues are affecting South Korea. You hear rumors about how they are trying to control the environment with manmade devices.
In Snowpiercer it’s more about how big business tries to both use and control nature. And how it backfires on them. Nature takes its revenge and sends them back to the ice age. This is an aspect that is different from the graphic novel (by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette). I wanted to make a story change because I felt that climate change is more current of an issue and will continue to be, because it’s not in the interest of big business to change, but to control.
So, in the graphic novel, it wasn’t a late attempt to deal with climate change that froze the world?
No. In the comic, it’s a post-World War III setting. But in warfare they did use weather missiles to attack others and that obviously messed up the environment.
I like how your ideation shifts it to a miscalculation of business, as opposed to another post-World War III film. On the train, Snowpiercer is almost an infographic of class systems, but as an action movie of course. Why is it important for genre films to tackle big issues?
This has always been a genre convention, particularly for sci-fi. If you look back to the 50s – Invasion of the Body Snatchers and It Came From Outer Space – and how aliens were a metaphor for communism and the townspeople for McCarthyism. These larger symbols are inherent to the genre. You can talk about things in a very direct way with sci-fi. Some of these films are intentionally cheap looking and bigger ideas can override that.
Snowpiercer fits into this genre well because it’s about the last survivors in humanity. They all have to share a space on a train, but they’re still divided, even as survivors. The poor are in the back and the rich are in the front. So this created an opportunity to talk about the political ideas involved and really examine human nature and why those systems exist. What would we actually discover if they were taken on? We don’t know because it’s so large and affects billions of people. Having a few survivors is a sci-fi element makes it easier to explore these ideas.
One thing that I love about you as an action director is that you often pause for physical comedy following tense moments. In The Host it was the man in the Hazmat suit who slips and falls while surveying the hospital…
Here, there’s a great moment, where Tilda Swinton prepares to give a menacing speech and she’s noticeably annoyed at the rustling soldiers behind her, detracting from her moment…
Do you script these moments?
In The Host when the yellow guy falls and plays it cool, I wrote it that way. But Tilda Swinton, when she tried to deliver her big speech [in Snowpiercer] it just suddenly happened. Someone was out of place and tried to get to their mark and caused a bit of a disturbance, but Tilda is so great because she gave me a reaction in that take and I loved it. So that’s the one we used.
Those moments are great. I like to plan meticulously and storyboard everything but I still hope for those happy accidents. When it happens, it’s like eating a fish straight out of the ocean instead of ingesting something that’s been refrigerated or on ice for weeks.
[holds up an imaginary fish over his head, mimics eating it whole]
How did you and Tilda create her character? She’s unrecognizable and has a lot of affectations, but she’s a magnificent physical character because she’s menacing yet fragile …
Menacing but fragile. Exactly. She’s a carnivore politician but at the same time Mason is cute. She’s a terrible dictator, but I always describe her as “cute.”
Even in the real world with real dictators who are terrifying and inflict atrocities on the world, they always have something cute or attractive about them. That’s a dangerous aspect to them, because it perhaps allows them to lead the masses because their dangerous aspects are softened by some cute quality they have.
With Mason, her look is a character. It’s a full transformation with the glasses, wigs and teeth. The origin of her character comes from a photograph in a museum in Europe that I can’t remember, but in the photograph, well we directly applied everything about that woman to Mason.
When you say dictators have something cute, our media often focuses on one physical aspect to joke about and for Kim Jong-un it’s his haircut.
[laughs] He looks ridiculous. Sometimes cute. Cute but very dangerous.
I guess taking an interest in Dennis Rodman is – in its own way – cute, as well.
[laughs] Dennis Rodman! [laughs] Again, the hair! Clown to rainbows to gold.
Rodman definitely places Jong-un in my generation and that indeed feels strangely, uh, indentifiable. It seems that it’s been tenuous to get Snowpiercer released as-is in the US. There were proposed cuts that Harvey Weinstein wanted to make the movie mostly an action film. It is being released as the same 120-minute film that did very well in Korea and Europe, but it's also going to play less theaters than imagined here. How was your experience making your first English-language film? Are you leery about possibly making another?
It’s a sci-fi movie concerning the last remaining survivors in the world. So, naturally it lent itself to casting people of multiple nationalities and people from different places on the planet who spoke different languages. It wasn’t like I said, “oh, I’m going to shoot an English-language movie and I want to work with Hollywood actors.” Or that I was actively looking for an English language script to debut: it was the story that appealed to me. And most of the characters speak English, but not all.
That’s been true to all five of my movies, whether it’s my own idea or someone else’s, it’s the right way to tell a story. In this case it’s mostly English. I could set a movie in Japan if necessary, but only if the story dictates that. The extra stuff you mention: it was a multi-country production and I’m glad that it’s being released.
You mention your five films, they’ve all been different genres: monster, crime, mystery, now sci-fi. What are you working on next and which genre do you love that you think might be the most difficult for you?
The thing that’s similar in all my films is obsession, characters with obsession. In Snowpiercer Chris Evans is obsessed with getting to the front of the train: to see if it’s as unequal as they all believe. In Mother she (Hye-ja Kim) is trying to save her son from prison. I like the stories of characters that are on impossible missions. I don’t think that will change because that’s reflective of me as a person. So whether it’s a monster film or a sci-fi film or crime thriller, obsession is what attracts me.
But the genre I would like to return to is crime. I get really excited because if there’s a crime there is an entry point to human nature and how people react to certain distress situations.
The genre that I will never tackle is a musical. Even if someone held a gun to my head, I wouldn’t make one. When people break into song it makes me really uncomfortable [laughs]. It’s embarrassing. My face turns red.
I’d like to go back to climate change and what you mentioned about China. Are you following the current standoff between America and China to see who takes the first steps to regulate amongst the largest polluters?
I’ve been busy writing, so unfortunately, I haven’t been able to pay attention as much as I should to the real world. I hear whispers and since we’re in the middle it’s mostly about China. What I did look into for Snowpiercer was money and how it affects public spaces. In this fast-paced global capitalization moment of time that’s the main criminal of our current environment.
Is it a crime script you’re working on?
I’m writing two scripts simultaneously. One is a crime film. The other is an adventure. They’re both very strange. [laughs]