Korean director Bong Joon-ho (THE HOST, MOTHER) tackles his first English film with SNOWPIERCER, a unique film that takes place several years after global warming has turned the entire world into a frozen tundra, leaving only a few remaining survivors aboard a train with an immortal engine. While aboard the vessel, a class system develops, causing those in the back of the train to revolt, and fight for their say in the construction of their lives. I was lucky enough to catch up with director Bong, as well as the star of his movie, Tilda Swinton, for a quick interview. Together, we discussed the inspiration behind Swinton’s wacky Minister Mason character, the construction of the impeccable train, and the process of intertwining cultures.
So where do you begin when you create a character, especially one as outrageous as this one?
Tilda Swinton: Well this was really good fun because the script — I knew director Bong anyway and he told me about SNOWPIERCER and then when I read it, I went, “There’s no one! There’s Octavia Spencer, obviously, and the woman with the yellow dress, and there’s nobody else.” And he said, “Yeah, it’s true. Let’s think about something in the future.” And then, a few weeks later he wrote to me and said “You see Minister Mason, who’s described as a mild mannered man in a suit” — and he’s still described that way, we never updated it — “What do you reckon’?” So I thought, “Okay, how much fun can I have with it?” And he said, “Try me”, basically. So we just built up a clown. I wanted to make a clown out of this politician. This really sinister, corrupt individual. Because I mean, apart from the fact that I think there are so many wonderful corrupt clowns in cinema, from DR. STRANGELOVE to THE GREAT DICTATOR. I mean, you switch on the news, and there will be somebody posturing and making an idiot of themselves and people voting them in because they want a soap opera. So, that was really the sort of key. We tried to push it as far as we could.
There’s precedent for that, too. I’m sure you know Ripley in ALIEN was written as a male character until Sigourney Weaver…
TS: Who was it? Was it Preston Sturges who said “If you want to write a good part for a woman, write it for a man.”
Did the science-fiction element of the story kind of loosen up the parameters of how satirical you could be? Would it be harder to play a clown politician in a more straight-forward movie?
TS: No, I think you could play a clown politician and be super documentary with it. (Laughs)
What’s it been like bringing this film to an American audience? My oldest was in South Korea last year and got to catch this in South Korea before I got to catch it and I was very jealous. What’s the experience been like getting it to American audiences?
Bong Joon-ho: The movie came out in France and Korea and Japan and Italy and so many theaters that opening here feels like the last stop on the train.
TS: No, UK is the last.
BJH: Oh, okay. UK, maybe.
Director Bong, I was talking to some of the cast last night, and one of the interesting things you’ve done is you actually had train cars built. This is not all CGI-d, so much of this is practical and you implement the use of the gimbal. How does that impact your performance and your direction when you have the constant movement and structure?
BJH: Sometimes you still feel the constant movement.
TS: Afterwards, for months it was like we’d been in Venice or something.
BJH: You really see the affect of the gimbal in the beginning when you see Tilda making her speech. So when she’s doing the speech, with the shoe, you can see down the tail section of the people, and then you see the people in the other car, the movement. I was on set when they were filming it and I really felt like I was inside of a train. Also, there is no window in ten sections, so gimbal is very important because the sections with the window, we can see the outside environment passing, but in the section like the tail section, there is no window, so especially in the tail section without windows, the gimbal was essential to get that feeling of a train. So on the third day of shooting, that’s when we first use that moving gimbal set and Tilda came in and did her speech and you really felt like in that moment, “Okay, we’re really shooting this movie.”
ICONS: So, I know that this is based on a graphic novel, and I was wondering, aesthetically, how much of that was incorporated into the film, and how much was just your visual style?
BJH: The script is based on the graphic novel, and the key idea is survivors on a moving train, and also visually, there are some things like the greenhouse that was in the original comic book, but in terms of design, and visuals, my concept art team and production design team pretty much created the world of SNOWPIERCER. And you can see, because the comic book has been published here in the U.S., the differences.
Tilda, could you talk about, I know it’s based on the graphic novel, but how much freedom for you to play your character, like the costume, and the talking way?
TS: It’s very interesting to try and analyze how director Bong and I were able to work together because it feels as if we made every decision together, from the very beginning when we first met. We first met, we became friends (snaps) instantly, and we knew we wanted to work together. And then, when we decided to try and make something with Minister Mason, which was director Bong’s idea, it was like a challenge. He put down a glove, he said, “What do you think?” And then, we just, I don’t know…we kind of dared each other. I had these fantasies about this clown, which was based on, originally on one photograph that we found over at Museum Lady, lady from the museum, married with a character that I knew, a real person from my childhood. Then, we kind of mixed in all the crazy clown megalomanic cowardice that the news channels show us everyday. Yeah, we just kept throwing in elements. The wonderful thing is, Dooho and director Bong and our wonderful costume designer came to visit me in Scotland, and I had a pie for lunch. I picked them up from the airport, put the pie in the oven, and I said, “Okay we have twenty minutes before the pie is warm.” We went into the drawing room, and we played. We dressed up, with bits of my childrens’ costumes —
TS: — and ribbons, and we made fake medals, and added some glasses, and we kind of got it in twenty minutes, and then we ate the pie. It took twenty minutes (Laughs). It was so wonderful, because as we were playing, we had these ideas, like, fantastic, pendulous breasts, and we just said that, and then when I arrived in Prague, there they were! They were fabulous. Jamie Bell loved wearing them, of course. We have a picture of him. Our crew picture involves Jamie Bell wearing Mason’s breasts.
Following that, when and where did you guys meet?
TS: We met in the Cannes Film Festival.
BJH: 2011? Her movie WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN and I was a jury member in the new director’s section, in the Golden Camera section. We had breakfast?
BJH: Not lunch, but breakfast.
TS: Brunch. It was a late breakfast.
Now, Tilda, we’ve seen three very distinctive performances from you already this year. GRAND BUDAPEST, ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE —
TS: That’ll be it (laughs). No more!
What is it about these very visually dynamic and chameleonic characters that speaks to you?
TS: You know, for me, it’s all about dressing up and playing. That’s, for me, the fun of it. Which doesn’t mean that it’s not also interesting to work with a finer tooth comb with something more delicate in something like I AM LOVE or even ORLANDO, where I’m using a face that looks more like my own, but I do love working with these shapes; making shapes, it’s kind of what I do. And yeah, it’s such fun. Also, it means that I’ve done my work before we start shooting. I do my work, we start shooting, and then I play.
Did the teeth, beyond being a fun thing, I’m sure for you as an actor to use, was that also sort of a meaning that you wanted to invest with the teeth?
TS: Um, I don’t know, there’s always meaning with teeth, isn’t there? I’m sure that a Freudian will tell us what it all meant. They were just a, uh, again, as with the breasts and the wig that we never glued down, just part of the package. It’s really tricky to work out how this all happened, it just all came about and the teeth were always going to be there. The nose was one of the first things. I think that was almost one of the first things I said to you?
BJH: Yeah. Pig nose.
TS: I said “I always wanted to play a character with a nose like a pig.” When we were waiting for the pie to warm, I got some tape and I taped my nose up like that (pushes her nostrils up with her finger).
BJH: Oh, it’s too much Tilda. Everything is too much (laughs).
Do you have any favorite movies with favorite performances of other actors that you look at for inspiration, or even just appreciation and admiration?
TS: I have to say with great reverence and you know, humility, I thought a lot about Peter Sellers for this character, in general. But in particular, Dr. Strangelove.
TS: LOLITA, yeah.
Director Bong, the visuals are so powerful here, but what really strikes is the underlying social commentary that you create with the different cars in the train. How did you go about designing and deciding which elements of society you would include in your visual design for the various cars?
BJH: We designed and built twenty-six different train cars because we had a limited budget. We had to plan ahead, it’s not like I shot things that I cut out. Everything I shot, I had to use, so from the very writing process, I knew what I would shoot. There are twenty-six cars, but if you look at it on a bigger scale, you can divide the train in two. You can take the greenhouse section or the water supply section, which is in the middle of the train, and divide that into two. If you go to like a fancy hotel or a department store, there are areas where the customers go, and it’s very nicely decorated and luxurious, but then if you turn a corner into a hallway you see where staff only go and it’s just exposed concrete and pipes and it’s dirtier and we wanted to give that feeling in the train. So in the movie, you get to the greenhouse, and after that you see the aquarium and the swimming pool, and you see where all the rich people live. So it’s one train, but you see two different worlds inside. And then at the very front is the engine, so it’s different from the comic book, and it took a long time to get there.
I have a question for both of you guys. You’re working with people from other cultures, what was the most interesting discovery you guys made? Did they have Korean catering and you discovered something? Yummy food?
BJH: When we went to see Tilda in Scotland, playing around with the costumes, I had haggis and it was delicious.
TS: Director Bong is now Scottish. And I am Korean. We were kind of one most really inspired sets. We were in kind of, a nation of cinema, and I think most filmmakers really love that fact that you know, when you’re on a set that’s really kind of hopping, really humming, everybody’s kind of in that nation as it’s kind of nation free. But yes, we had pretty international catering, didn’t we? We were in Prague so we were in the Czech Republic and there were a lot of Czech people around, but there were a fair few Korean people and some Scottish people.
BJH: Czech food is quite heavy and very greasy.
TS: We did have kimchi.
BJH: Yeah, kimchi.
TS: There was a little table with some kimchi on it.
BJH: There were some great Czech beers. Pilsner and non-alcoholic beer they had. Just the same taste, but there is no alcohol so we can drink the shooting.
ICONS: As a follow-up to that, this is your first English film, and I was wondering how you adjusted to that?
BJH: It was not so difficult because we have lots of great translators, many translators on set. Actually, I made a movie in Japan also, in 2007 with Japanese crew members and Japanese actors. Very first time I was a little bit nervous because I cannot understand Japanese language at all. How can I decide this is okay? But very first day of shooting, everything was okay, fine, because me and those Japanese actors, we shared the same emotion. The interpretation of the script was the same, I wrote it, and so, it was pretty smooth. Even shooting a movie in Korea in Korean, sometimes I’m on the set with actors where they don’t get along, or they don’t understand, argue, it’s very tiresome. So, it’s really about the project and the similarity and emotion about a project so really, language is secondary.
What’s next for both of you?
TS: You answer that question.
BJH: I’m writing two scripts based on my original idea. One is Korean, Asian movie, the other is a mixture, international co-production, but those two project are a smaller budget, smaller than SNOWPIERCER. For me, SNOWPIERCER is a big budget movie. In Hollywood, it’s a middle, small-sized movie, but for me, it’s a huge, big budget movie, in Korea, in Asia. I hate big budget movie (laughs). Smaller, smaller, in the future.
ICONS: What about you?
TS: I’ve just been shooting with Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer, funnily enough a film called TRAINWRECK. Yes, that will probably come out next I imagine, but not until next summer. And um, I can’t tell you. I can’t drop that bombshell.
This roundtable interview was conducted by Kalyn Corrigan of Icons of Fright, Laurie Curtis, Debbie Elias, Christina Radish, Fred Topel, Scott Huver, Todd Gilcrest, and Michael Dequina. Bong Joon-ho was assisted by his translator during the interview.