Chris Evans plays a man with a tortured past who must lead a gang of underdogs on their quest through a harrowing vision of the future aboard a train that circles the frozen, postapocalyptic wasteland that has become Earth. That sounds like the plot of a $150-million studio movie, and it is opening in select cities this Friday against Transformers 4, but we're not talking about a major Hollywood movie. We're talking about Snowpiercer, the first English-language movie from famed Korean director Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host).
It may star Captain America, but this is the kind of small-scale, high-concept sci-fi movie that Hollywood doesn't really make anymore. If it did, it would no doubt feature a mandatory romance plot for Chris Evans, and probably some robots and laser guns. It's got none of that, though. It does have an incredible cast (Evans is joined by Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Kang-ho Song, Ewen Bremner and Ed Harris) that it uses to do what all masterful sci-fi does: explore deeper issues of humanity.
We recently attended a very unique event for Snowpiercer where the Alamo Drafthouse loaded up over 400 fans on a train to ride through the Texas hill country to watch the movie outdoors, and were fortunate enough to interview Bong Joon-ho along the way. We talked about Bong's films past and present, what links them, how making a movie like Snowpiercer has changed him as a filmmaker, and why it may be the biggest movie he ever makes.
Movies.com: What do you think thematically links all your films?
Bong Joon-ho: Stories about people with obsessions that are in a situation that's hard to surmount but they're obsessed and have to do it. A very stupid cop trying to catch a genius psycho killer, a really overbearing mother trying to solve a crime to save her son. And, of course, in this movie Chris Evans' character Curtis is similar in this regard.
Movies.com: What interests you so much with making movies about blue-collar characters?
Bong: There are lots of different kinds of films in Korea, but for me it's really about characters without a lot of education or power, which are the last things you'd think of in terms of a hero. They have a huge mission that's almost impossible to overcome. It's about how to create drama, like if Captain America's big mission in the movie was to chastise a high school student living next door, it would be a five-minute film.
Movies.com: Was the casting of Chris Evans particularly interesting to you because he is Captain America in audience's eyes? Did you want that to skew expectations?
Bong: It actually started the opposite way. My casting director worked on a lot of David Lynch's movies, and Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds with Quentin Tarantino, and they recommended Chris not because of Captain America but because of an indie film he did called Puncture. They explained that between these big Marvel movies he does these smaller indie movies that are more intimate character portrayals. And I watched the Danny Boyle movie Sunshine, he was a supporting role, but it's quite different for his movies. He's quite dark and looks very anxious and vulnerable, which was quite interesting.
Looking back on it, I'm very fortunate that at the time Chris was also looking at these projects, heard about this and actively sought a meeting. In effect, we were both searching for each other, and it worked out perfectly because it has all the action-hero moments with the fighting on the train, but he's also stuck in the past of what happened on the train 17 years ago, and he can capture both of those as an actor. I had a wonderful experience working with Chris, but our costume designer had a really hard time.
Movies.com: Why is that?
Bong: She had to find a way to hide all of his muscle mass. He's got huge muscles, but he's a tail-section guy in the movie and shouldn't be that built, so it was very difficult to hide all of that in the movie.
Movies.com: When it came to the international cast, did you have anyone in mind or did you have to rely entirely on casting directors?
Bong: The basic story from the graphic novel is about just human survivors on the train, so I initially just imagined it as all South Korean and North Korean guys and ladies. But the casting ended up being a little bit of both. With the case of Tilda [Swinton], we had met previously and really wanted to work together. John [Hurt] was someone I'd also thought of, but with Octavia Spencer and Jamie Bell, they were both the recommendation of the casting director.
Movies.com: Most Americans may not realize how utterly massive Seoul is as a city. Is the sheer overwhelming size of it also what attracts you to making smaller scale stories? Aside from The Host, you seem to only ever explore stories that would take place in the side streets.
Bong: Seoul is enormous. It has over 11 million people. It has hit total mass and is just a crazy city. I think it's just my taste to always focus on a small world that represents the larger world outside it. If I were making an alien-invasion movie, I wouldn't do the Independence Day route, I'd do the M. Night Shyamalan Signs route and focus on Mel Gibson's family. Actually, that movie was very inspirational during the making of The Host. As I saw Signs, I realized I should focus on the family even though it was a monster movie. Instead of killing the president or some scientists, just focus on one family.
Movies.com: Was your original plan to focus on the institutional side?
Bong: Yes, actually. The very, very first draft of The Host script was quite different. It had many characters. It was like a typical '70s disaster movie like The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno with many different groups of characters.
Movies.com: Have you noticed any distinct change the increasing presence of Hollywood blockbusters in overseas markets like South Korea has had on the types of movies you can get made?
Bong: In Korea, Hollywood movies were really successful in the '90s, but now the domestic movies take up about 55% of the entire film market so it's actually a unique situation. Interestingly, now a lot of big corporations finance and coproduce films and have their own distribution channels by owning theaters. In the U.S., studios aren't allowed to own their own theaters, but in Korea that's not the case. In terms of making big, glossy productions, it's become better and easier, but for the young generation of filmmakers with unique voices, it's actually harder for them to make films.
Movies.com: Are there any lessons you learned from this production that you're going to integrate into whatever you're doing next? Has it motivated you to do a certain kind of project you may not have done before this movie?
Bong: I'm now no longer worried about working with English or non-Asian actors. I feel like I could make a movie in France or Japan because I'm comfortable working with crew members from all over. But in terms of the size of the budget, that's a different story. I feel like this may be the biggest budget film I ever make. I'm half kidding when I say that, but me and big budgets don't really mesh. Of course, this is a small budget by American standards, but by Korean standards this is a huge movie.
Movies.com: So have you already had the stage in your career where you were courted by major studios but have already passed on projects because you weren't interested in doing movies on the Hollywood scale?
Bong: In 2006, when I showed The Host at Cannes and Toronto I got an agent who has been sending me scripts ever since. Some of them were big action or superhero movies with budgets over $100 million, and some actually were really good scripts, but I thought "These are great, but why should I do it?" I ended up, for whatever reason, passing on all of those projects. I just prefer to be a writer-director making my own films. I have a little bit of apprehension because I'm so used to working in Korea with 100% creative control, and if you work on a studio movie, it just isn't that way.
Snowpiercer is in select cities starting June 27, 2014. If it's playing near you, we highly, highly recommend you see it.
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