Train in Vain: How 'Snowpiercer' Became the Summer's Coolest Movie

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's sci-fi epic fought its way to American screens — and beats Hollywood blockbusters at their own adrenaline-rush game

chris evans Snowpiercer
Courtesy of The Weinstein Company
Chris Evans as Curtis in 'Snowpiercer'
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What would happen if, thanks to an attempt to stop global warming that went awry, our big blue marble were plunged into a new ice age? The result would be pretty much what you would expect: Humanity's survivors would find themselves trapped on a perpetually moving supertrain divided by strict us-vs.-them barriers (plebians in the back, patricians in the front), and the huddled masses would have to fight their way to the front, one bloody siege at a time.

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That's the central idea behind Snowpiercer, the new film from South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho and a strong contender for the most exciting, visually striking and smartest action movie of the season. Several years in the making, this bespoke blockbuster for the international art-house crowd had been a labor of love for the director. Its origins, however, were modest: While working on his epochal 2006 eco-horror/giant-monster movie hit The Host (the highest grossing South Korean film to date), Bong happened to wander into his favorite comic book store in Seoul. By chance, he picked up the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, about an express train barreling through a postapocalyptic wasteland — and according to the director, "finished the whole thing standing there in the shop.”

"I decided right then and there to make a film out of it," he says, via a translator. But rather than simply adapt the graphic novel, Bong chose to reinvent it, cherry-picking the concept of the futuristic train filled with the rich being in the front and the poor in the back, then leaving the rest of the comic's elements on the side of the tracks. "The key idea behind the film is the way people are to each other,” he says. "It's really a movie about class differences. I wanted to make an exciting movie about the class struggle."

Luckily, Bong's friend and fellow director Park Chan-wook, riding high on the phenomenal international success of his 2005 thriller Oldboy, had just created a production company. He agreed to purchase the rights for Bong, who started writing the early drafts of the script and enlisting American playwright and screenwriter Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) to work on the English dialogue. (Although it's a Korean adaptation of a French comic book, most of the film is in English.) "These are the last survivors of humanity," Bong says. "It would have been weird if they were all Korean." But the director also wanted actors like Song Kang-ho (a staple of Bong's movies, dating back to 2003's Memories of Murder) speaking their own language. "I hate it when I see a movie like Memoirs of a Geisha and you've got Chinese actresses speaking English and playing Japanese characters," the filmmaker laments. To get around the issue of language, the characters in Snowpiercer sometimes use devices that simultaneously translate their words. "We already have iPad apps that do this, only slower," says Bong. "It seemed like a natural solution."

The rest of his cast reads like an international who's-who of  working actors, ranging from world-cinema stalwarts to Marvelverse superstars. Captain America himself, Chris Evans, plays the proletariat rebellion's leader, Curtis; Bong says he initially thought of The Avengers performer only as a Hollywood hero type, but changed his mind after seeing Evans in the 2011 drug-addiction drama Puncture. Tilda Swinton – who plays a shrill functionary taken hostage by the rebels – adored The Host and sought the director out at Cannes. She was so eager to work with him that Bong changed the character to suit her.  "Mason is described in every draft of the script as 'a mild-mannered man in a suit,'" Swinton recalls. John Hurt had been a fan of the director's offbeat 2010 psychological drama Mother, and happily took on the role of Curtis' mentor. A director himself, Ed Harris (who plays the train's inventor and strongman, Wilford) was also impressed with Bong's discipline as a filmmaker: "Every shot is posted on a bulletin board before the day's shooting," he muses.

Preparation was indeed key. The director and his crew had nearly a year of pre-production to imagine this scorched ‚ or rather, freezer-burned — earth and the film's movable social microcosm in all its details. Much of the train was designed by three young Korean conceptual artists taking time off from their day jobs in gaming. Production designer Ondrej Nekvasil, in turn, used their basic designs to build the sets at the Barrandov studios outside of Prague, in the Czech Republic. The train's back compartments are grimy, cramped, and cluttered with steampunk detritus; think of a Hooverville encampment by way of Terry Gilliam. The aristocratic front cars are dotted with lush greenhouses, impressively stocked aquariums, neo-future bathhouses and one very chic nightclub. (There are CGI effects, but they're largely confined to exterior shots of the train.) "I wanted the audience to feel stuck inside this space, and to really feel this environment – like they could reach out and touch this metal and glass," Bong says. "So, I felt I had to create that physical reality as much as possible."

That sense of occupied space also extended to the film's remarkably visceral fight sequences. In what might be Snowpiercer's single most unforgettable action scene, a group of ragtag rebels wielding pipes, hammers, knives, and assorted made-up weapons faces off against a small army of masked soldiers wielding axes. (Bullets, you see, appear to be extinct.) The ensuing melee is intense, brutal, and unbelievably chaotic — and that's before everything switches to darkness, night-vision goggles and flung torches. "Director Bong had storyboards and specific shots he wanted of actors cutting, slicing, thrashing," explains stunt coordinator Julian Spencer.  "But we didn't want it to look premeditated, because then it becomes like a dance." Thankfully, Spencer excels at this type of "fresh, raw, real" fighting; he was responsible for the famous sauna fight in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, which involved a very naked Viggo Mortensen and some Russian thugs wielding very sharp implements. "What I like to do is to teach actors how to fight stuntmen – how to hit them, kick them, punch them. Then, I let them run wild."

Still, despite an all-star cast and audience-pleasing action sequences, Snowpiercer almost hit a major roadblock as it made its way to American shores. Late last summer, reports emerged that the Weinstein Company, the film's U.S distributor, wanted 20 minutes cut, to up the tempo of the film – even as the movie was a critical and financial hit across Asia and Europe. The ensuing fan uproar was helped along by some in the cast: Last September, Swinton told reporters at the Deauville Film Festival that "there's no question that all English speaking audiences deserve to see director Bong's cut," pointedly adding that the film works better at "two hours, not one hour and 40 minutes."

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Bong now downplays the controversy: "These kinds of things happen, and they're not unique to my film," he says. That may be because he won: The version opening on U.S. screens is the two-hour director's cut, which reportedly tested better with American test screening audiences than the shortened version. The film will be opening in limited release and expanding, but Tom Quinn, president of Radius-TWC, Weinstein's specialty arm, sounds excited about it. "This is our tentpole for the Summer," Quinn says. "We see this as a movie that could play on a thousand-plus screens."

One wants to believe him: As a Senior VP with Magnolia Pictures, Quinn oversaw the releases of three earlier Bong films, including The Host. It would be great to see Snowpiercer became as big an international hit as that earlier film, which also blended cutting social commentary, blockbuster set pieces and the sort of thrills you rarely get out of contemporary marketed-to-death multiplex fare. Regardless, its creators can take pride in the fact that they've beaten Hollywood at its own sci-fi epic/action-flick blockbuster game — and come up with a piece of counterprogramming that's hands down the coolest movie of the summer.

From The Archives Issue 1212: July 3, 2014