The directors behind The Host and Oldboy open up about turning their new sci-fi adaptation into the most expensive Korean movie ever made, while actors Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton and John Hurt tell why Bong is so exceptional.
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21 Jul 2014 - 2:48 PM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2015 - 10:28 AM

Fresh-faced actor Chris Evans seems made to embody Captain America. Yet in between saving the world with his star-spangled shield, the 32-year-old hunk has been dressing down, going incognito with a beard and beanie and showing his penchant for the dark side.

First he played serial killer Mr. Freezy alongside Michael Shannon’s real-life psycho, Richard Kuklinski, in The Iceman (2012). “Bad guys don’t know they are bad guys. It’s not like you come to set saying I’m villainous and vile,” he says of his role in the exceptional, though tough movie, which incredibly never received a theatrical release here. He did it to work with Shannon.
 
In his non-studio projects Evans has largely gone for the director, with the aim of directing one day himself. He surprised no one by recently making his directing debut with 1:30 Train, where he appears alongside Alice Eve from Star Trek Into Darkness. And yes, Eve gets lost in the New York underbelly at night.
 
After completing The Iceman, Evans went all grimy and grungy to star as the revolutionary Curtis in the post-apocalyptic actioner Snowpiercer. He’d sought out the role as he wanted to work with the film’s Korean director, Joon-ho Bong (Mother, The Host), who makes his English-language debut. Snowpiercer is the most expensive Korean film ever (US$40 million) and Bong needed a bankable star (or two).  
 
Loosely based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, the film, shot in the Czech Republic, follows the Earth’s remaining inhabitants as they circle the planet on a highspeed train which is stratified into the Haves and the Have-Nothings. After 18 years on board, Curtis, who is at the deprived end of the train, stages an uprising, and as he hurls towards the engine, he gets to see what he has been missing for all those years.
 
“It’s an allegory on class warfare and Curtis leads a revolt,” Evans explains. “There’s a lot of dirt and make-up and everything that happens in that environment takes place on a gimbal, rocking from side to side. Director Bong brought together some top creative people and living legends like Tilda Swinton and John Hurt, who had a willingness to collaborate and were inspiring with their broad transformations.”
 
Snowpiercer has taken some time getting here, following an attempted derailment of the original version by Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein, who wanted to cut 15 minutes for the US release. Ultimately, the Koreans held fast and the film arrives fully in tact. By the time it reached the Berlin Film Festival last February there was an understandable sense of relief for the filmmakers as well as for audiences who queued around the block.
 
So what did the Americans want to cut? “They weren’t so crazy about the quirky, grotesque stuff that I like, particularly when Tilda takes out her dentures or when Chris says, ‘Babies taste best’,” notes Bong. “Basically, they wanted little cuts here and there.”


He’d read the French graphic novel a decade ago and it took a long time to make into the film because he was already busy on The Host and had another commitment to make Mother. The fact that Bong came across the graphic novel in a comic book shop was fateful because in Korea it’s rarely the case where a French graphic novel is translated into Korean. Even in France it’s not well known. It’s never been translated into English. Initially, he’d envisaged Snowpiercer as a 12-part miniseries for “someone like HBO because there are so many layers to the story”. With all the stars on board, however, he was able to make a big splash with an action-packed feature film.
 
“I started with the violence and people crammed together in a small narrow space, so the fighting could be very close range and the violence very primitive, with bodies clashing against each other,” he explains enthusiastically.
 
He’d already cast two Korean actors from The Host, Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko, in 2009. “Then I read Tilda was a big fan of The Host and I’m also a fan of hers so she was the first English-language actor to be cast. I met John Hurt in 2011 basically as a film fan and we spoke about his previous films. Ed Harris was the last to be cast. He's a living legend too. Just the idea of having him at the front of the train and John Hurt at the back—to have them bookmark the train is exciting.”
 
Hurt, who starred in the movie version of George Orwell’s 1984, knows a lot about dystopian futures on screen. He was impressed by Bong’s ability to plan everything so accurately.
 
“When Tilda and I had finished the film we said we don’t want to work for anyone else partly because he only shoots what he wants to see on screen. There is no, ‘Let’s do a two-shot or a close-up’. He knows it’s going to be a close-up and that’s what he shoots. So it’s constantly fresh.”
 
“It’s borderline genius,” concedes Evans. “It’s like building a house and instead of needing a bag of nails, it is like saying, ‘I need 53 nails.’ You just completely commit to his vision and trust that he knows exactly what he is doing because he does.”
 
Hurt, who is known to call a spade a spade, says Evans was more like a European actor on set. “There’s no great ego or huge entourage. Chris just turns up on his own and gets on with it and mixes with everybody, which was greatly appreciated.”
 
The film’s producer, Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy, Thirst), was impressed too. “Chris knew all of director Bong’s films and really wanted to work with him. I hadn’t seen Captain America, though I’d seen The Avengers and liked it. But it was Puncture, a very small film, that impressed us,” he says of the 2011 movie where Evans played a drug-addicted lawyer. “We knew we were right from his very first day on the Snowpiercer shoot.”
 
Swinton’s buck-toothed despot sporting large glasses and an exaggerated British accent has been the film’s big scene-stealer, though. She clearly based her character on Maggie Thatcher, a figure who loomed large in Swinton’s earlier career when she was making provocative movies with Derek Jarman. It’s no coincidence that the same person made the prosthetics for Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady.

“The character and the accent were entirely Tilda’s ideas, but the dialogue came from the screenplay by director Bong and Kelly Masterson,” notes Park.
 
When they were first talking about the sidekick role played by Korean superstar Song, they imagined him as Hans Solo in Star Wars to Evans’ Luke Skywalker. “He’s not a lead character but not quite the support role either. He’s something exquisitely in-between,” notes Park. They also decided that a reference for the action taking place in a closed-off, narrow space was Alien, while Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior was an influence “in terms of its linear structure and action rushing forward”.
 
Ultimately, the $40 million film, which has taken $80 million at the box office (almost $60 million in South Korea and $11 million in China) is significantly different from the graphic novel, in part to suit Korean audiences who like happy endings.

“It’s better to have source material which leaves a potential to stimulate inspiration,” notes Park. “Thirst may have been inspired by Émile Zola’s novel, Thérèse Raquin, but the resulting film is completely different. For the entire duration of Snowpiercer you are looking at people who are suffocating and downtrodden in this small space and there’s a constant series of violent scenes on screen. So at least in the ending, we wanted to see a much more open space in nature and to give the audience that small thread of hope.”