From director Bong Joon-ho and adapted from the French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige,” Snowpiercer tells the story of what happens after Earth has been frozen for 17 years, making the planet uninhabitable, and the few who are still alive are separated by class and now live aboard a train that perpetually circles the world. When a young leader (Chris Evans) from the slum-like tail section decides to start a riot, his fellow passengers charge toward the engine located at the front of the train, where they seek to gain absolute authority.
At the film’s press day, screenwriter Kelly Masterson spoke at a roundtable interview about the challenges in bringing this story to life, the elements of the source material that stood out for him, his process for working with director Bong Joon-ho, what he enjoys about the science fiction genre, which character he has an affinity for, and what he’s hoping people take away from the film. He also talked about the experience of writing Killing Kennedy, writing Sidney Lumet’s last film as a director, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, writing the twisted and dark Good People, starring James Franco, and working on a mini-series about John Brown and the raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 for FX. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
KELLY MASTERSON: The job that I was given was to try to get this amazing vision of 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 described those images to me, so that I could tell his stories in words and narrative and character arcs. We had different vocabularies and had to learn how to talk to each other, which was very challenging, but ultimately very rewarding and very successful. I know that he made me a better writer. I hope that the draft of the script that we came up with together allowed him to create a film that is a great achievement for him, and I hope that he feels the script gave him an opportunity to take his talent to another level.
Were there any issues with the translation?
MASTERSON: You know, not really. Don’t let him fool you, his English is pretty 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. It was 7 am in New York, and 7 pm in Seoul, Korea. We’d talk back and forth, and that’s how we wrote our script. It took us two or three months, going through drafts and talking, every Monday.
What were some elements of the source material of the graphic novel that got you excited and that you wanted to make sure to weave into what you were doing, and where did you want to turn a corner and do something completely fresh and out of your own imagination?
MASTERSON: The idea of revolution and survival is what sang to me out of that graphic novel, and getting to the front of the train. That’s what’s so strong in that graphic novel, and so brilliantly conceived. When I started writing, I tried to forget everything. I tried to put that aside. I even tried to put aside director Bong’s ideas that he had given me because when I’m working, I need for it to be real and true, and to be honest and interesting and 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 let myself have that freedom. I’d already done my homework. I soaked in that graphic novel, and I soaked in what director Bong was asking for, and then I tried to get on that train and go.
There are so many layers of subtext here, in terms of socio-economics and the class system, as all the geopolitical and environmental concerns that are layered in. How did you go about choosing all of the elements that are in the fabric of this story?
MASTERSON: That’s such a good question, but it’s hard for me to put a finger on just what that process is. Director Bong and I would talk about those things, but not in such a concrete way as, “Let’s set it up in such a way that it means this.” We talked about wanting to write about human nature and our condition as humans, how we treat one another and how we survive, and how we divide ourselves into classes. But once I got into the writing, I tried to not think about that. I tried to think about the stories of the characters who were in front of me. We started in the back of the train with the have-nots. That’s the point of view, so that was my point of view, too. I’ve been really fortunate, in that I’m not really a have-not, but at heart, I’m a revolutionary, a fighter, and a rebel, or I like to believe that I’m all of those things. I was able to get inside of Curtis, our main character, and tell his story, but it is part of that larger fabric of the haves and have-nots, trying to define themselves, and rising up and throwing off their oppressor.
When you have a science fiction premise, sometimes those rules of show rather than tell go away because you have to get the audience to a point where they understand the world. How did you go about deciding where you wanted to hold back and let the story tell itself, and where you had to tell the audience, so they could understand the context of this whole premise?
MASTERSON: It’s such a good question, and something you really struggle with when you’re doing it. I tend to write a lot of words, and then director Bong had to tell me not to write a lot of words. He’s brilliant at telling a story that doesn’t require words. Some of those fight scenes are ballet. They’re little one-act plays within a movie, that are told completely without words. We knew that the characters were so important to us that they needed to tell you who they were, and they show you who they are, too. There comes a point, with major characters, where we really need to understand how they got to be who they are, and they all have very dramatic stories. I was given tremendous, generous lee-way by director Bong to let them tell you who they are, as well as show you.
Are you a fan of the science fiction genre?
MASTERSON: I’m not well-versed in the science fiction world. I’m hoping that I’ll get more opportunities in it because you get to create a new world. It’s funny because I just said we took the whole world and put it on a train, but in some ways we also created a new world by doing that. That’s what science fiction’s all about. It’s fun.
Is there a character that you have a particular affinity for?
MASTERSON: Yes, Minister Mason. Tilda Swinton’s performance is one of my favorites, as is her performance in the movie. I got to write this amazing speech about how the world works and what your place is. Director Bong was so great in not cutting that speech, in any way. He just let me write that. And then, when you give it to an actress like Tilda Swinton, it becomes this operatic, amazing moment. That’ my favorite thing in the movie.
MASTERSON: It’s always magic. It’s such an amazing thing. Actors are such wonderful creatures and such wonderful instruments. It’s always different on the page, or in my head. I hear it differently. I see it differently. And then, you give it to an actor and it comes alive, in a way that you didn’t expect. It’s like having children. You give birth, but then they take on a life of their own. That’s what actors do for characters. It’s pretty amazing.
What are you hoping people will take away from this film?
MASTERSON: “I am me. I have to define myself. I’m going to stand up at the back of the train and take control of my future.” That’s the story of everyone. It’s very dramatic. It’s the story of humankind. 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 that you are not who you are supposed to be.
Do you find a difference in the process for writing something like Snowpiercer compared to something like Killing Kennedy?
MASTERSON: Well, they were very different projects. The work I did on Killing Kennedy was very meticulous and, in some ways, actually tedious. It was hard work because there is so much known about John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald. To try to distill that into a clear narrative that’s interesting and tells two great stories was a real challenge. It was the opposite with Snowpiercer. I got 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. Give me the opportunity to work with a director Bong, or another great, visionary director, and give me some freedom, and let’s do that.
How precious are you with the words in the script, in terms of if an actor wants to change some of the dialogue?
MASTERSON: Director Bong really insisted that they stick with the words on the page. I think part of it was the language. He gave lee-way to certain actors. I think that a lot of Jamie Bell’s performance was improvised quite brilliantly. When I’ve worked on other projects, I certainly like the actor to have as much lee-way as possible. In the same way that director Bong was generous enough to let me create, you have to do that for actors, as well, and let them use the tools they have, and part of that is their own brains and their own words.
To have written any Sidney Lumet movie would be quite a legacy, but Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead happened to be the last one that he ended up directing. How do you feel about that experience, these years later?
MASTERSON: I came to success very late in life. That was my first success. That was my big break. I was 50 years old and toiling in the garden of writing, for a long time. It was such an amazing thing that happened to me because Sidney Lumet pointed his finger at me and said, ‘That’s the next script that I’m going to direct.” As s his career was ending, mine was beginning. I feel his loss. He was a wonderful man, and he made such a great movie. Because of that, I have a career.
You’ve got Good People coming out with James Franco, who always creates his own world. How was that for you, as a writer?
MASTERSON: It’s just as twisted and dark. You’re in for another dark ride, but a whole different story. It takes place in the real world, where a young couple discovers money, and it shows what that does to them. It’s about the temptation of trying to keep this money, when they know they shouldn’t and we know they shouldn’t. In some ways, it is a little bit lighter story, and it’s so much more rooted in the real world and in our reality. It was fun to write.
What are you working on now?
MASTERSON: I’ve been quite lucky to get a job writing a mini-series about John Brown and the raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 for FX. That’s a wonderful story. I’ve just started working on that, in the past couple of weeks.
Snowpiercer opens in theaters on June 27th.