Snowpiercer finally premiered on May 17 after a very long development. Scott Derrickson directed a pilot for creator Josh Friedman, but TNT asked for revisions, neither returned. Graeme Manson redeveloped the series based on Bong Joon-Ho’s 2013 film, which was itself based on a French graphic novel.
The plot of the series will be familiar to anyone who saw the film. After an experiment to combat global warming inadvertently freezes the earth, the last survivors of humanity live on the Snowpiercer train. It continuously revolves round the earth, with the people inside divided into a caste system, with the wealthy at the front and the poor in the tail. In the series, Snowpiercer engineer Melanie Cavill asks tailee Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) to help her solve a murder in return for some privileges.
Manson spoke with /Film by phone this week ahead of the next episode of the series, which airs this Sunday.
Are the Snowpiercer sets designed to look like the same train as the movie?
I think there were things about the feeling of the train, their train, that we really did want to call back to. Certainly, the tail, the claustrophobia of the tail. We talked a lot and I talked a lot, looked a lot with Barry Robison, our production designer and James Hawes, our director, to get the right perspective in the cars so that when you’re standing at one end of a corridor on the train and you point the camera down it, you’re going to see the ceiling too. There were things that we wanted about it to make sure that it felt like a train. I know our construction methods were different. We ended up taking shipping containers and building a number of cars on those, and then putting them on wheels so that we could wheel them around and connect them together. We had interconnecting sets. We could put five train cars in a row, and then on the rubber wheels, if you put big grips on the outside, burly guys shaking the train, the actors can walk down five cars of a moving train. I don’t think Director Bong had that luxury. When director Bong came to set, he loved our sets because I think they built one car, maybe two and redressed it continuously. Whereas when he came and saw the sets that we had, a number of these ones on wheels that can be interconnected and then some of our larger sets built on the floor, airbags so they can move too. A bit of a luxury I think compared to the feature.
That’s cool he came to visit.
Yeah, he came a couple times. He’s not a creatively involved EP but he came to give his blessing and I got to have lunch with him. He read the pilot script, maybe a couple episodes so that was great to him. It was really exciting for everyone and this is of course pre-Oscar, but I’m a huge fan of Director Bong’s movies. He’s really tall and he’s super funny. That’s what I got from him. He’s a very funny guy. I love that.
So these five cars on wheels could also be redressed and mixed and matched?
Yes. They generally played as the tail cars or sort of a utility car, these sort of cars with all the batteries in them and stuff. Then sets like the night car or first class dining, those are a couple story sets. They’re double high and it was fun to design not only that end of the car, what we’re seeing on camera inside, but then working with Geoff Scott, our VFX producer, to create the outside of the train to match and making sure that everybody was talking to each other.
Was any train set already built for the previous pilot that you inherited?
We didn’t use them.
Do you still have to build new cars for each episode?
There’s an episodic budget per episode where we might build a new car that we haven’t seen before or adapt something within a car whether that is going into someone’s cabin for the first time. So yes, there’s the opportunity to do something new certainly every episode and we work really hard at the beginning of the year to say, “Okay, what sets are going to surprise?” I think that’s something that the producers and the network are really into too. They love that sense that really comes from the movie of it’s all about the door, but when you get a door open, you’re never sure what’s going to be on the others side.
Was the murder mystery Layton is investigating your new take to bring Snowpiercer to episodic television?
No, that was an existing element that I think people really liked, myself too. In a season that’s really about revolution, I thought that Layton as a homicide detective was a good trope to lean on in the beginning to get an audience into this world. What Layton is really doing, as we realize, is he’s not just solving the crime. He’s creating alliances and gathering information to mount a revolution. That’s the real story of Snowpiercer.
Was it important the Snowpiercer be a very diverse train? There’s LGBTQ characters, Daveed, Sheila Vand and more.
Yeah, it is important, both because it’s a microcosm of our diverse world and also people board the train with the same problems our world had with its diversity. I think it’s very important to be inclusive for this. I also think it’s one of the great things we can do in sci-fi. If we’re going to reimagine a world, however far into the future it is, 100% believe we should be imagining a better one. That’s a better world that is more inclusive and more diverse and where privilege is not for the minority, for the mini-minority.
It’s also a very passionate world on the train. There are lots of love scenes that are both artful and rather explicit by cable standards. Was TNT really pushing the limits?
No. I think we were probably the ones doing the pushing to see where we could find the limits. I just think if you can show real emotion and real physical contact, it’s good to see on screen, to see intimacy and diverse intimacy. How that plays out this year with COVID and as we get back to production, how many people can put in our sets and how intimate can they be, we may not have much sex on television for a while. Better get it while we can.
If you resume sooner than later, you probably have extra restrictions with all the confined sets.
That may be an issue but on the other hand, Snowpiercer is entirely within one studio and we never go on location. So it’s much easier to monitor your crew and production. But yes, you’re right. We’ll get 150 extras on a day and jam them into tiny train cars. I don’t know that we’ll be able to do that again when we start up again, but I don’t expect us to start Season 3 until probably December. Actually, they’ve got to give us a Season 3 first so I better not speak about it at all.
Don’t you have to finish Season 2 also?
We had to shut down with about a week to 10 days to go in the shoot. So when we do come back, we have a season to finish, but we have eight of 10 in the can.
Seven years after the movie, have you been able to explore the social issues in different ways than Bong did?
Well, it’s interesting, the issue of the graphic novel, the incident that created the end of the world is talked about as being loosely a war, a nuclear apocalypse. It was Director Bong that turned it into climate change. I felt it was really important to do that as well. Climate change has only gotten more acute. In exhibiting the class divide, it’s the poor and underprivileged that pay the highest price for climate change, just as it’s the poor and underprivileged that are paying the highest price right now during COVID.
You couldn’t have even anticipated that being so relevant when you started.
No, but it goes to show you that these themes are really timeless in sci-fi for sure. That’s what sci-fi does best is look at us and create hopefully a better future.
It’s 1001 cars long. Did you have to decide what each of those cars were at the beginning? Is there a big white board somewhere with a blueprint of Snowpiercer?
Working with the art department and then figuring out the geography of the train and how we could move up and down it, how long it would take, those kinds of things and just the general geographic layout, we ended up with a train map that sort of stretched all the way around the writers room that went from the engine to the tail and would go through sections. Sort of summarizing 20 cars of X here. Then it would be third class and then a market and then dining and then more third class. We’d break it down in groups of cars but it did stretch around two walls of the writers room.
Any science fiction show has its own set of rules. You did one with clones. Has there been any similarity in devising Snowpiercer or is it a completely different set of rules and needs?
It’s quite different. It is a spaceship sort of based sci-fi. Orphan Black was really the real world and the sci-fi, the future ideas of sci-fi encroached on the real world. This is more futuristic than that and we are isolated on this ark which I always find to be a super interesting story. It also feels contemporary. The characters feel contemporary because it’s only seven years into the future. We were very definite that the world that they left behind was our world and this world in 2020. The things that they’re mourning and the things that they lost are our things. I think that keeps it anchored a bit. And then I think in terms of Melanie’s character, scientists vs. engineers is something we discussed in Orphan Black.Genetic engineering vs. the science of genetics vs. discovery vs. manipulation. Those kinds of distinctions are interesting subjects here as well.
You did mention Season 3, so if you get it, do you already have ideas?
Yeah, we’re in this position of actually having season 2 in the can or just about before season 1 even airs. So yeah, we’ve been in it for two years and that cast even longer than myself. Now, we’re quite a collaborative collective. It’s at the point where the actors really inhabit these characters now and they really have deep stories to pull on.There’s lots of material for season 3.