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Hey y'all, some years ago, at an NYC dinner where the soju flowed freely, Director Bong Joon-ho revealed his plans to adapt the French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige. With an international cast of heavy-hitters and some of his old standbys, SNOWPIERCER, finally saw the light of day. Director Bong, aided and abetted by legendary actor, John Hurt and co-screenwriter, Kelly Masterson, discusses what kept him afloat during the long gestation which included a highly visible butting of heads with renowned movie chopper, Harvey Weinstein.

Dig it!

 

SNOWPIERCER

Bong Joon-ho

 

The Lady Miz Diva:  You first mentioned adapting Le Transperceneige at a dinner for the release of Madeo {Mother} in 2009.  What was it about this story that created such a passion for you to tell?

Bong Joon-ho:  I donít know if youíve read the original graphic novel - itís now available in the US - but in adapting the material, itís very different from the graphic novel; I changed everything.  But of course, the kernel, the original idea, is still there.  Itís about people surviving on a train after the apocalypse, so itís actually kind of a sad story, but theyíre not harmonious, they are actually fighting inside this world and so it kind of shows a dark side of human nature.

 

LMD:  I did read the graphic novel and it centers around one person, while your film is more of an ensemble.  What was your idea behind including all those characters?

BJ-h:  Itís a story from the point of view of a revolution, inside the train; a Spartacus-type story inside of the train.  Of course, itís not one person, itís a group trying to move forward and those who are trying to block this group.  So itís basically two groups colliding and that energy that comes from it.  Once I decided on that key concept, thatís what excited me and made it go to the next stage.

 

LMD:  Youíve worked with both Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung before.  Please tell us about their inclusion in this film?

BJ-h:  In the case of Min {Song} and Yona {Ko}, they actually arenít part of the tail section and theyíre not a part of the rich front section; theyíre sort of outsiders.  They donít belong to the group with Chris Evans, or the group with Tilda Swinton. So, naturally they stood out and I kind of liked that and left them alone and there was that natural separation that way.

They do speak Korean language, but for someone from Finland or Luxembourg, who didnít understand the language of the film, they would just think, ĎOh, those characters are Asian.í  So I wasnít trying to emphasize their nationality or ethnicity.  Yona, in particular, more than her nationality, is more about the idea that she was born on the train and they refer to her as a ďtrain baby.Ē  Itís a different generation than Curtis or Gilliam who were born on the Earth and got on the train.  These train babies, their natural space is the inside of a moving train and that was the key for that character.

 

LMD:  One of the things I love about your films is your sense of humor.  Weíve talked about how I laugh, but then I feel bad.

BJ-h:  {Laughs} Guilty humor.

 

LMD:  Exactly.  As this film was intended to be seen by a broad audience including in the West, did you have any hesitation as to how that humor might come off?

BJ-h:  Even audiences in Korea, they donít like the way I do this.  They feel awkward and they donít like it.  It makes them feel uncomfortable. But itís just my personality, I canít help it.  Itís like a singer can sing different songs, but the way he composes songs cannot change.  Itís something that is second nature and itís unconscious.

 

LMD:  Were you surprised to have such strong support by Tilda Swinton and others in the international cast when it looked like the film might have to be cut?

BJ-h:  When Tilda came out and supported my vision, and also John hurt, and also Ed Harris, who is also a director, of course I was very grateful.  Iím used to having final cut and 100% control of my films; thatís normal for me.  But The Weinstein Company, itís very normal for them to work on different edits and try different things out.  So it was just that difference that was a little difficult to get through, but the results were good and everyoneís happy now.  Itís my vision and for making that decision, Iím thankful to The Weinstein Company.

Itís true that a 20-minute shorter version did exist at one time, and that version was tested, but actually what it was was a lot of the characters details, or what makes these characters unique.  Those things were trimmed out, not the action stuff.  So these details, being able to keep that in was a welcome thing not only for me but also the other actors.

 

LMD:  How was this experience of working with an international production and international actors different for you as a filmmaker?

BJ-h:  So, not on as big a scale as SNOWPIERCER, but on The Host I worked with WETA workshop, which is based in New Zealand, and I used the VFX company, Orphanage, which is based in the US, and they were on set, and I also shot a short in Japan with Japanese actors and crew members called Shaking Tokyo and those were very important experiences to have.  So this time, there was a lot of Americans and Europeans and Asians and Koreans, and it wasnít that difficult to adjust to this multicultural multinational coproduction system.

 

LMD:  I just finished speaking with Mr. John Hurt who says that he and Ms. Swinton donít want to work with anybody else but you.  He was so amazed that you shot what you wanted and not twenty different takes, which was very different for them and they were so impressed by your speed and professionalism.  As things went so fast, did you have more time on this film than you had on a previous Korean productions?

BJ-h:  Actually, the shooting days were shorter on this film than on my other films.  We shot for four months on Mother, five months on the host; this one was about three months Ė two months and four weeks {Laughs}.  99% was on a soundstage, so I wasnít delayed by any kind of weather conditions, but instead I did have a long prep period in which I was able to get everything ready and thatís why I was able to shoot in such a short schedule.

So, just like in my previous films, I meticulously storyboarded and I shoot the storyboards and maybe thatís why I was able to stay on schedule, but a lot of people were surprised:  People like the UK assistant director thought it was so strange that I would shoot exactly as the shots were conceived.  But I think as a director, thatís my job; to figure out exactly how the scene is going to be shot.

 

LMD:  In the past few years, Koreaís biggest directors, Park Chan-wook, Kim Ji-woon and yourself have all made international collaborations.  Do you think working internationally is necessary for Korean cinema to survive and grow?

BJ-h:  I donít think so.  Itís just that the graphic novel lends itself to this type of casting and this type of production because itís about everybody in the world who survived living on this train. My next film is a Korean language film and itís really about the story that Iím chasing and not this notion of working in the Hollywood system.  So not like John Woo or Ang Lee, Iím not actively trying to do something outside of Korea.  And Iím not sure what Directors Park or Kim feel, but perhaps itís a similar thing where theyíre not thinking of emigrating to the US and just basing themselves there.  And also is this good for Korean cinema, I donít know because the Korean market and the Korean industry is so strong and vibrant and domestic audience is so healthy and strong, probably after India and China, Korea is probably next in terms of the healthiest domestic audience numbers.

 

LMD:  Could you tell us more about the next project?

BJ-h:  Iím simultaneously writing two stories.  Theyíre both going to be smaller than SNOWPIERCER and theyíre both Korean language.  Iím still writing, so not really sure how to describe it.  SNOWPIERCER took such a long time that Iím just eager to get back, so next year Iíll be on set.

 

LMD:  Lastly can you please say something about Miss Ko Ah-sung, who debuted in your film The Host when she was thirteen and is now a twenty-one year old woman?

BJ-h:  Sheís very unique and lovable and has a lot of energy.  When I worked with her on The Host, she was a freshman in high school, or her final year in middle school.  She has a new film out besides SNOWPIERCER that people in Korea really love that has been introduced in the West yet {Elegant Lies/Thread of Lies} and she really developed quite a lot since The Host, showing different layers and showing her depth as an actor, and hopefully if anythingís said in 10 or 20 years, sheíll be a big star and an actor that people will remember.

 

John Hurt

 

The Lady Miz Diva:  What is it that brought you to this film?

John Hurt:  Well, heís sitting over there {Points at Bong Joon-ho}.  Heís as cool as they come.  I guess it was done through my agency; a meeting was set up in London and I went along and I met him and I met Doo-ho {Choi, co-producer}, obviously, because heís with him all the time like a devoted slave.  I just fell in love with him.  He was wonderful.  I hadnít seen anything.  I hadnít seen Mother or anything, which I immediately did when I got home.  I went, ďWow, thatís the chap I was talking to.Ē  Thank God instinct has left me completely.  I adored him then, I adored him ever since.

Tilda {Swinton} and I donít want to work with anybody else, ever again, ever.  Thereís a reason for that: He only shoots what he wants to see.  Thatís unbelievable.  We spend most of our lives doing the scene, doing the master, then doing it from that point of view, from that point of view and that point of view. And then they say, ĎWe need it nearer,í so we do it.  They spend a lot of money for that, butÖ and you keep going, and you keep going, and itís called being professional.  Itís just being idiotic, really.  But heíll stop me in the middle of the sentence, heíll say, ďI donít need any more.Ē Tilda and I, being a couple of old pros, say, ďWow! Early lunch!Ē {Laughs}  Itís extraordinary.

Youíve prepared everything, really, your mindís concentrated and clear and sober, and so you put it into the first shot and itís clear as a bell, and something might go wrong so you do it second time, right, or third, or fourth, or fifth.  And then when youíve done that, instead of saying, ĎNow weíll do another scene,í we have to do the same fucking thing all over again.  He says, ďNo, thatís it, I donít need to.Ē  It makes a difference, believe you me.

 

LMD:  So with that different approach, did you feel more pressure to get it right on one?

JH:  No, not at all, you just felt the enjoyment.  It stopped being work.  You just say, ĎRight, Iíll guess weíll do everything we can, letís do it.í And so we went through it with all the people who were involved, like Jamie Bell and Luca Pasqualino  Ė lovely people, really wonderful Ė and you work away and get it as right as you can.

 

LMD:  While youíve worked with filmmakers like Fred ZinnemanÖ

JH:  Well, now, thatís going back a bit.

 

LMD: ÖSam Peckinpah, Steven SpielbergÖ

JH:  I love him {Spielberg}, I think heís very, very nice, but I donít think heís clever as people like Zinneman.

 

LMD:  Youíve also worked with directors just starting or very early in their feature careers like David Lynch and Ridley ScottÖ

JH:  Yeah, well, Ridley, Iím the same generation as Ridley.  Iím the same generation as Alan Parker.  So we kind of grew up together, if you see what I mean.  I did a film in 1973 of Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs; I wanted Alan Parker to do that, but they wouldnít let me.  And I kept him in the back of my mind, and then when in 1977, Midnight Express came up and {producer} David Puttnam rang me up and said, Alan Parker wants you to do a film; I said, ďAccept it.Ē  He said, ďWhat? You havenít seen it yet.Ē  I said, ďI donít give a shit. If itís Alan Parker, I want to do it.Ē These are the marvelous things that are completely generational.

Iím often asked by people, ĎWhat advice would you give to somebody of today how to behave in the business?í And I canít answer.  I canít answer because what I wouldíve done at a particular time like that, I couldnít possibly advise somebody else to do it.  And anyway, itís different today; I mean, I went to the Antarctic and made a film in which five weeks of rushes were never seen - they piled up.  Thereís no way.

 

LMD:  Is there a creative spark that comes from working with directors at that very interesting point in their career, like Director Bong, who is making his most ambitious film to date?

JH:  Thereís no question of him; heís got it.  You might miss a few, but youíll get the right ones.  I mean, I might work with somebody or see somebody who I missed as being somebody who is going to be terrific, but I knew it would be no problem.  I mean, Iím lucky to work with him.

 

LMD:  Your character, Gilliam Ö By the way, I wondered if that was a tribute to Terry GilliamÖ

JH:  {Laughs} I know!  Terry said, ďWhere did they get that name? Nobodyís called Gilliam.Ē  I said, ďWell it was given me, Terry,Ē and Iím hoping to work with him next.

 

LMD:  Iím excited for Don Quixote.

JH:  Well, it hasnít been announced, really.  Itís not official.  Iíve gotta to go back and do a test for the boy.  I suspect heís testing me too, and you know, understandably.  I know Terry very well and itís something I know that I could do and turn it into something really extraordinary.

 

LMD:  Gilliam in this film has a very uneasy relationship that is unknown to Chris Evansí character, Curtis, who idolizes him.  What do you think Gilliam truly believes?

JH:  He believes completely in the status quo.  He knows perfectly well.  He started it with Wilford together.  He knows what happens if you upset the status quo.

 

LMD:  Yet Gilliam encourages Curtis to upset the status quo.

JH:  He tells him, ďI am a shadow of my former shadow.Ē  He tells him, ĎDonít believe me.í  ĎDonít go with me.í  He has to be aware.

 

LMD:  Gilliamís playing God and his sacrifices and the reasons behind his potential deception set up some of the most interesting themes in this film.

JH:  Well, theyíre provocative, thatís the interesting thing.  I mean, itís a comic, for Godís sake.  So therefore, you have to say itís a comic, but itís provocative.  It says, ĎWait a minute, in such a situation, what would we do?í so on and so forth.  It creates argument and thatís a good thing.  Itís a bit like V for Vendetta.  And you have this whole sort of ridiculous situation that you can put this music to, and itís wild and it works.  But when somebody gets too close to the knuckle, you have to say, ĎWell, wait a minute, baby, itís a comic.í This is not Midnight Express, this is not.

 

LMD:  You are one the busiest 74-year-olds Iíve ever met, what is it that keeps you motivated to continue acting?

JH:  As I said before, I am the victim of other peopleís imagination.  If they consider that Iím worth being in the film and they asked me, and I like it, I say yes.  But if, when the day comes, theyíll say, ĎOh, that silly old fuckerís too old,í then Iíll have to say thatís the end of it, you know?  I donít suppose Iíll enjoy that.

 

LMD:  Have you never wanted to direct a film?

JH:  No, itís a different foundation.  Well, itís a different talent Ė totally.

 

LMD:  But you could write a book on acting.

JH:  Oh, I could write a very bad book on acting.

 

LMD:  Have you ever written an autobiography?

JH:  Iíve been asked.  But then, which one do you want to see or read?  Because I will wake up in the morning, like you will wake up in the morning, and you will see yourself one way; you will wake up the next morning and see yourself totally the other way.  Which oneís true?  So what do you write?

 

LMD:  Is it harder to write about the real you?

JH:  I donít know what the real me is.

 

LMD:  I wonder if thatís why youíre such a good actor?

JH:  Iím an amalgam, of course.  I donít do anything clever.  I just pretend to be other people.

 

Kelly Masterson

 

The Lady Miz Diva:  Can you tell us how your collaboration with Director Bong began?

Kelly Masterson:  He called me just out of the blue.  He didnít know me from Adam; I didnít know him.  He had seen a movie Iíd written called Before the Devil Knows Youíre Dead, he called me, and said, ďWould you collaborate with me on this project?Ē  Not, ĎDo you want to take a meeting?í  ĎDo you want to audition?í ĎDo you want to interview?í  It was just that simple.  I knew Mother, so I said yes.  I watched The Host and Memories of Murder, and I said, my God, yes, I have to do this.  But you know, I never talked to anybody else from that day until the day he screened it for me last summer.  I never talked to anybody about it.  No producers, no stars, no money men, no nothing, and itís such an un-Hollywood thing.  I talked to one person, it was Director Bong; it was his vision, he wanted me and that was it.

 

LMD:  How did it work logistically? Did you go to Korea? Did he come to you? Did you exchange emails?

KM:  It was a little bit of email, we mostly Skyped.  We met in LA once we knew we were going to do it and we talked about it for a couple of days; themes, characters, and then he sent me away to New Jersey and I wrote, and weíd get on the phone every Monday.  I was in New Jersey at 7AM and he was in Seoul at 7PM, and he take a stab at a draft, send it back, and it was back and forth for about eight or twelve weeks.  I canít remember exactly, but it was quick, it was fast.

 

LMD:  It seems like in Korea, everything is done quickly; thereís not a lot of time for rewrites.  What was it like for you to work at that speed?

KM:  It didnít ever feel fast.  I donít think we rushed; I just think we knew what we were doing. It was his vision, heís a strong visual director; he knew what story he wanted to tell.  He needed me to help, to flesh it out, to bring my talent to it.  And you know, sometimes things are just meant to be and we wrote a really good script and it went pretty quick.  What I loved about it was the freedom he gave me to explore, find new things and to develop the voices of these characters, and he is so creative himself, he brings such great ideas to the table, so it was a wonderful experience.  That and not second thinking; once we knew we had the story, then he shot it. {Laughs}

 

LMD:  Is this your first time adapting from a graphic novel?

KM:  It is, yeah.

 

LMD:  Did you read the novel beforehand?

KM:  Certainly, yeah, I read it before I met Director Bong, and I met him, then I reread it as I was getting ready to start, and then I put it away.  I put it away and I just let the story pull me through it, mostly Director Bongís version.  Which isnít to say that thereís anything wrong with the graphic novel - itís terrific, it was inspirational - but also we didnít rely very heavily on it.  It was the premise and the inspiration and then we jumped off, or I guess I should say, we jumped on the train and let it pull us.

 

LMD:  In the graphic novel, the action centers mostly around one character.  As a writer, how did you accommodate this filmís ensemble and how did you balance how much time you would spend on each character, because you come to care for them through the course of the film and each could easily have a back story of their own?

KM:  I donít know that you know that as youíre doing it.  It sort of becomes apparent as youíre doing it.  We knew very early Ė Bong knew from day one that it was one personís journey; that it was Curtisí journey.  It certainly involved everyone else, everyone brings something to Curtis because Curtis is the leader, and as Ed Harrisís character says, ďYouíre the only man who has walked the entire train.Ē And so his journey is the entire train.  All the other characters became important for how they gave information or help to Curtis and thatís kind of how we figured out how important they were to the story and how much time you gave to each one of them; what their journey is going to be. 

Thank you so much for saying we care about them, because as a dramatist, as filmmakers, we want to make sure that they feel real to you.  The actors help a lot; you get somebody like Octavia Spencer, you donít have to do a whole lot of work because sheís going to bring so much to it.  But itís very important to me as a dramatist to make sure that all of them are human beings that they feel real, that theyíre not cardboard characters.

 

LMD:  Prevalent in all of Director Bongís films is his sense of humor, which can be a little dark and twisted.

KM:  Yeah!

 

LMD:  There are things like the revelation behind the energy bars, Tilda Swintonís character and the scene in the school room that could have been over the top.  Did you advise as to aspects that might have gone too far for the Western audience?

KM:  {Laughs} You know, I love his dark, twisted sense of humor.  It was one of the things that really drew me to working with him, so of course I would never hold him back.  If he had an idea, letís absolutely try to make it work, because it can be jarring - especially for an American audience it can be quite jarring to have the darkness juxtaposed with the humor.  Thereís a scene where a manís arm is being frozen, and then you see the look on Ewan Bremnerís face, that sort of reaches this moment of serenity when he gives then surrenders to it, and then thereís the sort of look of pleasure, of wonderment.  Thatís Director Bong: darkness and wonderment and violence and humor all together, all sort of mashed up next to one another.  I would never hold him back.  I donít know that I ever really thought that anything was terribly inappropriate, so luckily I never had to.  I love that first Tilda Swinton scene, itís so amazing.  Did you know that we didnít write that for her?  That we wrote it for a man?

 

LMD:  In the graphic novel the character is male.

KM:  Itís a man, thatís right.  So she decided she wants to do it and I was so amazed.  I was so surprised when I heard she was doing it and then I was so amazed by what she did with it; funny, scary, frightening Ė amazing.

 

LMD:  And then suddenly thereís a sort of musical sequence in this brightly colored schoolroom full of baby fascists.  Has anything this bizarre or surreal crossed your path as a screenwriter before?

KM:  Not really, because this is the most unusual thing Iíve ever written.  I got lucky enough to get hired to adapt a Kurt Vonnegut short story at one point, and it had a sort of similar tone to it.  The humor - because Kurt Vonnegut was of that similar sort of mind of very serious things also mixed with a lot of humor - this was a wonderful opportunity for me to get a chance to write that.  I loved writing that scene, I got to write those lyrics.

 

LMD:  What was your feeling when you heard that SNOWPIERCER stood to lose about 20 minutes in its US release?

KM:  Oh, I was upset.  I had already seen Director Bongís cut, so I knew how brilliant it was and how I didnít want to lose a second of it, but then as a writer, of course thatís the way I always feel, ĎDonít touch my words,í but I didnít want anyone to touch his vision and I wanted people to see it.  Itís going to be hard for some American audiences because itís an unusual film, itís different, itís unique, but thatís whatís so wonderful about it.  So, I was upset when I heard that was gonna happen.  Director Bong called me, he showed me the film and asked me if I would help him write some voiceovers so in the event any of it was lost, we would make sure that the story still was clear; the characters and their journeys still were clear.  So we wrote those and luckily we never had to use them Ė thank you Harvey {Weinstein} for being generous enough to let Director Bongís vision - his cut - be seen.

 

LMD:  Director Bong has written all his films and I think people will be curious as to what exactly your role in the script was?  Could you please tell us in your own words?

KM:  Well, the most important thing I did was to bring Director Bongís vision to life, because when we sat down in LA, he knew the movie he wanted to write, but he didnít know how to get there, because 90% of the movie was going to be in English and he certainly needed me for that; but I think the reason he chose me was he needed those characters to be interesting and complex, fucked up and desperate, and he knew I could do that - thatís kind of what I do.  So when you see the movie, you will see an amazing visual experience and you will know that that came out of the mind of Director Bong, but when you hear the words, when you take this journey with these characters, you will know that a lot of me is in that, so youíll see that.

 

LMD:  What has the experience of collaborating with Director Bong brought to you and your work going forward?

KM:  Iíve never gotten to write anything of genre.  Iíve never done a science fiction movie.  Who would ever hire me to do a science fiction movie because of the kind of work Iíve done?  So, itís opened all these new doors I never had before.  I think Iíve been offered three adaptations of comic books within the past two weeks. Career change what it does and it gives you so many more opportunities.  It opens up not just your opportunities, it opens up your mind to what youíre capable of doing.  Four years ago, I would never have dreamed that I would be writing this kind of the movie.

 

LMD:  The science fiction genre allows for almost limitless imagination, doesnít it?

KM:  And you know, itís a wonderful exercise for me because I oftentimes really try to ground everything in reality; which is the important thing to do for the characters Ė all the characters need to feel real Ė but to open up that imagination and think of new things.  If youíre on this train, what does God mean, and in this case, it means the engine, it doesnít mean some other story it means, what is keeping us alive, what is the most important thing, what do we worship? If youíre on the train, how do you get high?  See, thatís the kind of thing that begins to lead you to invention which I would never have known unless I was given the opportunity.

 

LMD:  Director Bongís work often features the premise of the small guy against impossible overwhelming odds.  Does that theme ever get old?

KM:  No, it doesnít.  David and Goliath.  We love the underdog.  We love the little guy.  And the thing thatís interesting to me about this, and I didnít know that I was thinking about it when I was writing it - I know it when I watch it, is that itís not just the little guy against the big guy, which certainly is part of the story and certainly part of all of our stories, we all feel that way Ė but this is a little guy against the machine Ė literally, against the machine.  So itís in a way a very modern take on that David and Goliath story.  Itís a very modern story of man against machine.

 

LMD:  Since weíre getting biblical, thereís a little Adam and Eve thrown in.

KM:  Yes, there is, and throw in a little Noahís Ark on the way, too.  Because Director Bong would always talk about ďthis rattling ark.Ē  Itís what you would call the train, but itís a little bit of people from England, people from the United States, people from Africa, people from Europe, people from Asia, all aboard one train.

 

LMD:  This film ends on a sort of open page and there is a second SNOWPIERCER graphic novel.  Has there been any discussion of a sequel to continue either where the film leaves off, or perhaps to adapt the second book?

KM:  I havenít heard any talk.  I havenít heard anything.  If Director Bong wanted to do it, I would love to.  I would love to jump at it.  I would love to know what happens, too.  So start a rumor! {Laughs} Write ĎSony and Universal are fighting for the rights to the SNOWPIERCER sequel,í please. {Laughs}

 

LMD:  What would you like audiences to take away from SNOWPIERCER?

KM:  Hope - which seems very unlikely - and Iím so glad you asked me, because itís a dark, bleak, violent story, but I think ultimately very hopeful.  The reason we are doing this is to define ourselves, to reinvent humanity, to give humanity a chance to go on and to be successful.  And I think when you reach the end of this movie, hopefully the message you will get is there is hope for all of us.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

June 24th, 2014

 

 

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Photos  

Exclusive Photos by L.M.D.

Stills courtesy of  The Weinstein Company

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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