Getting “Snowpiercer” to movie screens hasn’t been an easy road; or train track, if you prefer. The South Korean film, which features an international cast including Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton and Jamie Bell has played to acclaim and enormous box office overseas. But when it came time for the American release, producer Harvey Weinstein insisted on dubbing the non-American dialogue rather than using subtitles; and cutting 20 minutes out of the movie to make it more palatable to middle-American audiences.
And he may have a point. The bizarre premise may play out on screen like a high-octane action thriller, but the story isn’t your typical blockbuster fare. After nuclear war plunges most of the Earth into eternal winter, the survivors of the human race load into a train thousands of cars long. The train circumnavigates the Earth, never stopping because of the cold… Until a class war between the back of the train, where the poor live, and the front of the train, where the rich reside, may cause the total extinction of humanity.
With the movie once again getting great critical acclaim at the Berlin International Film Festival, a compromise was reached: the film will be released in its original form in the United States, but in a greatly reduced number of theatres.
All that, though, pales in comparison to what it took to get the original graphic novel released in France; and the story translated to film in the first place. To find out more about the book, its 30-year-long journey to movie screens, and its first ever English translation, we talked over e-mail with creators Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette:
[Note: This interview took place before the deal to release “Snowpiercer” in America was announced, and the release was still in doubt.]
MTV News: What’s it like to finally have Snowpiercer released in English? And how did this edition come about?
Benjamin Legrand: It’s marvellous! I translated so many great American and English novels… It’s such a pleasure to be translated into English!
Jean-Marc Rochette: Of course, I am very proud about this, because there are very few French comics in English. But without any doubt, the main reason is thanks to the film. Many people want read these unknown comics, which have become a Korean blockbuster. How such a miracle was possible, and why…
MTV: Can you talk a bit about the original genesis of the idea? Where did it come from?
JMR: At the beginning in 1976, there was another artist, Alexis, one of the best French artists: a pure virtuoso. The first version was not so pessimistic, more poetic, almost like a fairy tale. In 1977, after 17 pages, Alexis died. He was only 31. Over four years, Jacques Lob tried to find another artist and he finally thought that the new story was for me. Now the story was a real dystopia; humanity in the night. I was very young, only 24 and almost a beginner… Without any experience of realistic drawings. Why me? I don’t know. Sometimes I think its destiny…
BL: The original idea was Jacques Lob’s. Being younger than him, and beginning in comics scripts by the time he made “Le Transperceneige” with Jean-Marc, I always considered Jacques as some kind of a master in comics. One of the greatest storytellers we’ve had…
MTV: Jean Marc, as an artist, you chose to make the majority of the panels very claustrophobic, which I imagine was a specific choice given the setting. Can you talk about your approach?
JMR: The main difficulty in drawing this story, was the space. It’s a very narrow space: a train… How not to be boring for the audience and of course control the quality of the story. But I had to find a specific pace, and also find a good balance between the claustrophobic feeling, the emotions, fear, love etc… And the action, I was so young and without any experience. This was only instinct, I had no time to think. I had to draw for a monthly magazine and it was like a fight. Finally when I look at my work 30 years later, it’s not so bad for a young fellow…
MTV: This was followed by the new volumes of Snowpiercer. Why did you decide to continue the story, and how did it evolve from the original?
BL: Jean-Marc (with whom I made three other SF comics after the first “Transperceneige”) called me a few years after Jacques death. He wanted to make a sequel to “Le Transperceneige” so that Jacques’ masterpiece could have a second life. But at the end of Jacques’ story, the whole population on Earth has disappeared… I told Jean-Marc: How do we deal with this fact? He answered: You’re a script writer and a novelist. Find a solution!
JMR: At first I thought that there shouldn’t be a sequel to the first volume. The “Transperceneige” was over. But after many years and after the death of Jacques Lob in 1990, the first volume was almost forgotten. The book had lost its audience. I could see that it would fall into oblivion, which was a pity.
I knew that my friend Benjamin Legrand worked on a first adaptation of “Le Transperceneige” for a movie, and I called him in order to do a sequel. For a long time I felt doubt like it was treason. But it was a good choice. Without this decision, the book would not have been translated in Korean and Bong Joon Ho would not read it…End of the story.
But I did it, and the film was born… Benjamin and I tried to stay in the same universe, as a complete dystopia. But in the second volume the main theme was not the inequality of the classes, but the power to govern with fear and lies…
MTV: While Volume 1 is a pretty clear nuclear allegory, 2 and 3 open the story up quite a bit, and almost change the rules of the world. Why take the story in that direction?
BL: The idea was to show a more modern world, in a more modern train, where all the people live in the fear of crashing into the older train, still running on the same tracks, somewhere… There are still classes, but what very few people know, is that they’re being cheated all the way… It’s a tale about lies, about the way we are manipulated, about the way we are brainwashed…
JMR: The gap between the first volume and the second was almost 18 years. The cold war was over, but Benjamin and I could feel a new manner to govern the people, to repeat the same news of fear. Because a society that has fear, tends to better obey. I think that this was the main issue covered in the second volume.
MTV: You also, to reference the earlier question, played much more with snowy landscapes and negative space in 2 and 3. Why was this important?
BL: It was important, not only on the graphic level, but also to get out of that long long steel snake for a while, and show the desolation on Earth. Not only on the inhabitants of the train… I love the scene when Puig sees a very pale sun behind a curtain of clouds…
JMR: This is pretty simple. I painted many landscapes over 18 years, and I improved my ability to share emotion in front of a minimalist landscape such as a frozen sea. I observed many Chinese artists, Zhu Da for example. I looked at them and I learned how to try to make a living from a very simple drawing. I think the emotion of silence and solitude in frozen nature has a strong influence on the reader. The white death is palpable.
MTV: At what point did you become involved in the film?
BL: I met Bong Joon-ho in Cannes, when he came to present The Host. He’d just taken the option on the books. Then he came to Paris where he met Jean-Marc, and as years passed by, we became real friends with our “director Bong,” like we call him! He came to France several more times, for the première of Mother, and we went to Seoul in 2008. There, he was already beginning to present Snowpiercer!
Then a few years later, he sent us the screenplay to read. I really loved it. And in 2012 he called us to come to Praha, in the studios, for the shooting. Jean-Marc was really involved in the shooting, doing lots of amazing drawings. I just made a cameo appearance with him, as a man from the tail of the train!
JMR: Bong Joon Ho asked me to produce the drawings of the painter of the poor, in the tail section. There is a painter in the movie, who paints all that he sees. He is like the historian of Snowpiercer. It was a great experience for me, because I am a big fan of Goya, and I had to draw in his style. Joon Ho asked me to create wild and dirty drawings. I tried to do my best and we can see them a little bit on the screen.
MTV: What was it like seeing the story change from comic to film? Clearly there are some large differences.
BL: It’s like seeing an alchemist’s transmutation… It’s not the comics, but it’s really faithful to them. It’s not the same train, but it really looks like it. How can I tell you… Director Bong took everything he liked in the comics, mostly in part one, but also pieces of parts two and three, and he arranged them the way he wanted. Adaptation doesn’t mean: do a perfect copy! And his adaptation is so great… It makes me think that his movie could become a Sci-Fi classic… Like Blade Runner…
JMR: I saw the film five times, and there are many differences for sure, but for the best. Bong Joon Ho knows that a comic and a film are very different, He has kept the spirit of the book and he found his own way. This was the best choice.
MTV: It’s fascinating that this was such an international production, from a French graphic novel, to a Korean film with American and British actors. How does that affect the scope of the story? And what is it that leads to the global appeal?
BL: It makes me think that this story about social classes is really international! The tale that Jacques Lob wrote is still “on air”… What we wrote is still accurate. Just look around you, look at the news coming from all over the world…
JMR: Snowpiercer is a modern Ark of Noah. It was absolutely normal that many countries worked together on this project…this makes sense.
MTV: Clearly this has ran into some trouble with the American release. Why is that? And is there any progress on that front?
BL: It seems Mr. Weinstein wanted to cut 20 minutes from this movie. I don’t know why or for what reasons… I heard that there have been test screenings in L.A. and that the test audiences liked Bong Joon-Ho’s version better that Weinstein’s. This movie is successful everywhere on Earth, because it talks to the entire world. It would really be too bad that the Americans, English, Australians, Canadians etc. should see an amputated version.
JMR: Hmmm, I am just the artist of the comics, so I have no idea what happened. But I can say, that for me the film of Bong Joon Ho is a masterpiece, and I don’t understand the issue. I think that the American audience is capable of appreciating Snowpiercer as it is, like director Bong made it.
MTV: Any thoughts for American audiences encountering the story for the first time?
BL: Be ready for a hell of a trip!
“Snowpiercer: Volume 1” is currently on sale from Titan Comics, while Volume 2 will hit stores on February 25. The movie doesn’t currently have a release date.