The writer behind the 2007 Phillip Seymour Hoffman thriller BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD is back with an innovative take on the end of the world. Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, SNOWPIERCER follows the story of a man named Curtis,an apocalyptic revolutionary from the tail end of the train, pushing his way to the front, where the rich and powerful reside. I was fortunate enough to speak with the screenwriter himself, Kelly Masterson. In in the interview, we discussed the experience of working with director Bong Joon-ho (THE HOST), the layers of social commentary in the film, and the rebellious, revolutionary spirit that Masterson channeled through his latest feature.
As I told you last night, this is just fabulous. The story, the visuals, everything comes together. What was the most challenging aspect of bringing this story to life so it would complement director Bong’s vision?
Kelly Masterson: Well, that is the job I was given. It was to try to get this amazing vision and this amazing director out of his head and onto paper. We worked very well together because he is such a great visionary, he has such wonderful images. He tells stories in pictures, and he describes pictures to me. I tell stories in words, and narrative, and character arcs, so we had different vocabularies and we needed to learn how to talk to one another, so that was a bit challenging, but ultimately very rewarding and very successful, I think. I know that he made me a better writer, I hope that the draft or the script that we came up with together allowed him to create a film, you know, that is a great achievement for him, but I hope that he would feel that that script gave him an opportunity to take his talent to another level.
Was there any issue of translation?
KM: You know, not really, don’t let him fool you, his English is pretty good (laughs). Be careful with him because his English is actually quite good. So there really wasn’t. Sometimes, when he gets excited, and he starts to think a little too fast he tends to switch into Korean, so we always had a translator, but his English is actually quite good. The bigger problem was that we were on two continents. I was in New York and we would skype every Monday morning, that was our routine, 7:00 in New York, 7:00 P.M. in Seoul, Korea, and we talked back and forth, and that’s how we wrote our script. It took us two, three months? Going through drafts, talking every Monday.
What were some of the elements of the source material, the graphic novel that got you excited and you wanted to make sure to weave into what you were doing, and where did you want to completely turn a corner and do something fresh and out of your own imagination?
KM: The idea of revolution. That’s what sang to me out of that graphic novel. Survival, and getting to the front of the train, that’s what’s so strong in that graphic novel, and so brilliantly conceived. When I start writing, I try to forget everything. I try to put that aside. I even try to put aside director Bong’s ideas that he’s given me because I know that when I’m working, I need for it to be real, and for it to be true and to be honest and to be interesting and to be driven. I like to bore into these human characters as much as I can, and there’s some really juicy ones in this. So, I kind of let myself have that freedom. I’ve already done my homework, I’ve soaked in that graphic novel, I’ve soaked in what director Bong is asking for, and telling me, and then I try to get on the train and go.
When there was talk about doing an alternative, shorter cut of the film, were you involved in maybe trying to explain, “No, this scene needs to stay in because…”
KM: No, luckily, I didn’t get to do any of that. I don’t know that I would have enjoyed having to defend some of the scenes, but what I did try to do, director Bong brought me in and asked me to help shape voiceovers that might please the concerns of Harvey Weinstein. Ultimately, they worked it out together, without my help, and you all will get to see director Bong’s vision the way he wants you to see it.
So those voiceovers aren’t in the film?
KM: No, no they aren’t, but boy, they were good.
Now, Kelly, there are so many layers of subtext here, in terms of socioeconomic, class system, the haves, the have-nots, as well as all of the geo-political, and the environmental concerns, that are all layered in here. How did you go about choosing which elements to include in the fabric of this story?
KM: It’s such a good question, and it’s hard for me to put a finger on just what that process is. I know director Bong and I would talk about those kinds of things, but not in real concrete ways. It wouldn’t be like, “Well, let’s set it up in such a way that it means this”. We talked about wanting to write about human nature, and about our condition as humans, and how we treat one another, and how we survive, and how we do divide ourselves into classes. So we talked about that, but once you get into the writing, again, when I get into the writing of the story, I try to not think about that. I just try to think about the story and the characters who are in front of me. We start in the back of the train, we start with the have-nots, so that’s the point of view. That’s my world point of view, too. I’ve been very fortunate that I’m not really a have-not, but at heart, I’m a revolutionary, I’m a fighter, I’m a rebel, or I like to believe that. Look how dangerous I am. I like to believe that I’m all of those things, so I was able to get inside of Curtis, our main character, and tell his story. What I’m doing is telling his story, but of course, it is part of that larger fabric, of the haves, and have-nots, and trying to define yourself and rising up and throwing off your oppressor.
When you’re working on a science-fiction type premise, sometimes those rules of cinema are show rather than tell. You have to tell, because you’ve gotta get people to a point where they understand this world. Tell me about the process on this one, like where you wanna hold back and let the story sort of tell itself, and where you need to communicate information to the audience so they understand the context of this whole premise?
MK: That’s such a good question, and that’s something that you really struggle with when you’re doing it. I tend to write a lot of words, and then director Bong needs to tell me not to write a lot of words. “Let’s find a way to tell the story that don’t require the words”, and he’s brilliant at it. Those fight scenes, they’re ballets, they’re stories, they’re little one-act plays that’s told completely without words. So, there is that struggle. We knew that the characters were so important to us, that they needed to tell you who they were. They show you who they are, too, but there comes a point with the major characters, with Curtis, and with Nam, the Korean character, and with the Ed Harris character, Wilford, at the end, where we really need to understand how they got to be who they are. And they all have very dramatic stories, and I was given generous, tremendous leeway by director Bong to let them tell you who they are, as well as show.
ICONS: I love the motif of body parts that’s carried throughout the film, with the feet, and the head, and wearing the shoe —
MK: You’re a little twisted (laughs). Ah, yes.
ICONS: I just thought that was a really interesting dynamic, and I was wondering if that was mainly your input, or if that was the graphic novel, or how exactly that came to be.
MK: Yeah, I think it was born in the graphic novel, and then I really have to give the credit to director Bong. I think he, too, was obsessed with the idea of the body parts. Oh my god (laughs). But you know, what was interesting for me was when I thought of each scene, I’m over-thinking it. When I thought of each character, I wanted to know physically where on their body we were going to focus. So, there’s a character whose name is Grey, who never speaks because all of his words are written on his body, on his body parts. And then there’s the gestures, there’s the gestures with the hands. So, I was able to give to director Bong a lot of ideas that he could use that would be visual. I know that [with] John Hurt, a lot of the physicality in the character he plays came from director Bong and I trying to figure out his backstory, and why he looks the way he is, and why he’s missing which body parts. It was an interesting process.
Now Kelly, you mentioned describing the characters as very juicy characters. Is there a character that you have a particular affection for, that is one of your favorites in this film?
MK: Yes, because she’s so good in the part. It’s Minister Mason, and Tilda Swinton’s performance is so amazing. I don’t know that it was one of my favorite characters on the page, it certainly is in the movie. I got to write this amazing speech when she talks about how the world works, and what your place is, and what my place is, and it’s a wonderful speech that I got to write, and director Bong was so great in not cutting that speech in any way, and letting me write that. And then, when you give it to an actress like Tilda Swinton, it becomes this operatic, amazing moment. So, that’s sort of become my favorite thing in the movie.
What’s that experience like, to sort of see your words played out on the screen?
MK: It’s always magic. It’s such an amazing thing. Actors are such wonderful creatures and such wonderful instruments, because it’s always different on the page, in my head, and I hear it differently, and I see it differently, and then you give it to an actor and it comes alive in a way that you didn’t expect. I think it’s like having children, you know, you give birth but then they take on lives of their own, and that’s what actors do for characters. It is pretty amazing.
Were there particular things other than Tilda that you were like, “Wow, that is much better than I thought” or “different than I thought”?
MK: I’m so lucky because I really feel that way about so much of this film, it’s so much better than my script, the script that director Bong and I wrote, and it’s because he’s such an amazing director, and he got such a wonderful cast. I really feel that way about a lot of it, and I just have to go back to Tilda, and the moment with the teeth. I don’t want to do any spoilers, but she has a wonderful moment with her teeth that I didn’t write and she came up with and it’s like, “Oh my God that’s so fun!”
Kelly, because you’ve also got KILLING KENNEDY on television, are you finding that the process between writing for a film like SNOWPIERCER or writing something like KILLING KENNEDY?
MK: Well they were very different projects. The work I did on KILLING KENNEDY was very meticulous and actually, in some ways, kind of tedious. It was hard work, because there was so much material and there was so much known about John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald and to try do distill that into a clear narrative that’s interesting and tells two great stories was a real challenge to pull all that in. Opposite with SNOWPIERCER, you know it’s working from there out, you get to invent so much. They’re both very interesting and wonderful and ultimately very rewarding experiences. If I had to choose what my next project would be, I love the creative side, you know, give me an opportunity to work with director Bong, or another visionary director, give me some freedom and let’s go! Let’s do that.
To have written any Sidney Lumet movie would be quite a legacy, but BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD happens to be the last one he ended up directing. How do you feel the legacy of that these years later?
MK: I came to success very late in life,that was my first success, that was my big break, I was fifty years old when it happened. So, I’d been toiling in the garden of writing for a long time and it was such an amazing thing that happened to me because Sidney Lumet pointed his finger at that script and said “That’s the next script I’m going to write”. So, as his career was ending, mine was beginning. Sorry, I’m getting a little emotional about that, um…and I feel his loss. He was a wonderful man and he made such a great movie, and because of that, I have a career.
Well, I’m sorry to make you emotional.
MK: No, I didn’t know that was going to happen.
KILLING KENNEDY, the response to that was amazing, so I imagine you’re getting deluged with offers to do something similar?
The tedious kind of writing, the research heavy…
MK: Deluge is good, because again, because I came to this late in life, it’s wonderful to have some success at it. I have been getting some offers of the more tedious, but also, I should maybe take that word back, because I love the research.
MK: It’s very challenging, is what it is, so I have been quite lucky to get a job for a FX mini-series about John Brown, the raid on Harper’s ferry, 1859, which is a wonderful story, so I just started in the past couple of weeks working on that.
ICONS: So with so many layers of social commentary with the global warming, revolution, class system, what are you hoping people will take away from this film?
MK: “I am me. I have to define myself. I’m going to stand up at the back of the train and I’m going to control my future.” And I think that’s kind of the story of everyone. It’s very dramatic here, I think it’s the story of humankind as well. I think the caveman got up one morning and said, “I am me. I’m going to define who I am”, and that’s the story of Curtis. I hope that when people see this, they’ll relate to that story of revolution, and throwing off anyone who tells you you are not who you’re supposed to be.
So at the end of the process of SNOWPIERCER, you know in the whirlwind, press experience, and all, what have you learned about Kelly through this experience?
MK: I’m twisted (laughs). You know, I am kind of dark. When people meet me, I think they see a happy person, and I am that, but I think it’s because I get to go every morning and turn on my computer, and just live in this very dark, screwed up world and I maybe get all of my demons out of me that way. But, um, I don’t know that I would necessarily related to the ‘body parts’, but I certainly related to that violent, forceful struggle to get to the front of the train. I relate to that.
Were there any real surreal train cars that ended up not making it into the film?
MK: No, not really, although we talked about a lot of things, we didn’t necessarily write them. We talked about, you know, everything in the world has to be on that train. And so, what you see in the film, you see the aquarium, and that’s the aquatic, and you see a butchery where all the hanging meat is. Everything that’s in our world has to be on that train, so we imagined that everything was there and you’ll see a gym, and a spa, and all of those things, but pretty much what we wrote all made it into the film.
Were you a particular fan of the science-fiction genre, because you’ve written across many different types of films.
MK: I know, and I’m really lucky that way. I don’t even know that I go out of my to make sure that happens, but it’s happening, and I like that, but no, I’m not well versed in the science-fiction world. I’m hoping that I’ll get more opportunities because you get to create a new world. It’s funny, because I just said that we took the whole world and put it on a train, but in some ways, it’s creating a new world by doing that, and that’s what science-fiction is all about. It’s fun.
Now, you’ve got GOOD PEOPLE coming out with James Franco, who always creates his own world, no matter what he does. How is that for you as a writer now, because it’s obviously a much lighter script than anything we’ve seen?
MK: Oh no, it’s just as twisted and dark. You’re in for another dark ride. Yeah, whole different story though. It takes place in the real world. A young couple who discover money and what that does to them. The temptation of trying to keep this money, when they really shouldn’t. We know they shouldn’t, they know they shouldn’t, and yet, human nature. It’s the taking the bite of the apple. In some ways, it is a little bit of a lighter story, and it’s also so rooted in our world, in our reality. It’s fun to write.
Is it fun to see James Franco perform your script?
MK: Yes. Can’t lie, it’s pretty cool.
ICONS: So, the action scenes are very intricate, like you were saying before, they’re like a dance, and I thought they were really exciting. I was wondering how much of that was your influence and how much was the director?
MK: Yeah, I’m gonna say ninety percent director Bong. When we first started writing, he would write the action sequences, and then I would say, “Can I edit these? Can I play with this?” And he’d say, “Sure, sure, play with it.” So, I did a little, but I have to tell you, it’s pretty much Bong’s original vision. He kind of knew the way he was going to do it. One would be in all darkness, and what I didn’t know was some of the choreography, some of what I call ballet, the violence, it’s taken to a very artistic level, and that’s truly Bong. The challenge for me in those was to make sure that my characters, our characters, are doing what they would do, so it’s not just violence, for violence’s sakes. It’s violence because this character needs to get to the next car, and this is how they were going to get there.
ICONS: Was it important to you that they were gratuitous, or was it merely that they get to the next car?
MK: It’s usually that they have to get to the next car, and I wouldn’t want anything to be gratuitous, I think it all has to be necessary. Again, what’s amazing about it is, while I feel it’s necessary, when I’m writing it, I don’t think of it as art, and when I see it on the screen, I think of it as art because of the way he constructs that. I think it’s beautiful to watch.
ICONS: They were really beautiful.
ICONS: I enjoyed them.
MK: I’m glad. And the body parts. And the fish (laughs).
Kelly, how precious are you with the words in the script in terms of, if an actor wants to change some of the dialogue, or, you get someone like James Franco, he is a multi-faceted renaissance, “I think it would be better if we do it this way, or that way”? Are you very precious with your words?
MK: I am so precious, you do my words the way I wrote them, damn it! Um, director Bong really insisted that they stick with the words on the page. And part of it I think is the language, he wanted that language, but he gave leeway to certain actors. I think Jamie Bell’s performance, a lot of it is improvised, and quite brilliantly. I’m of course being facetious. When I’ve worked on other projects, I certainly liked the actor to have as much leeway as possible, in the same way that director Bong was generous enough to let me create, you have to let actors do that as well, and let them use the tools they have, and part of that is their own brains, and their own words sometimes.
*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.