What can a “Snowpiercer” TV series show us that we haven’t seen in Bong Joon-ho’s beloved film? Plenty, as it turns out.
For starters, while the movie’s plot happens 17 years after a global catastrophe, the series kicks off just seven years after. It’s an entirely different story with characters you haven’t seen before.
The premise is the same, of course. The world as we knew it had ended and what was left of humanity was aboard a 1,001-car train called the Snowpiercer. As Snowpiercer perpetually circles what is now a frozen earth, the people inside it grapple with a class system where the rich live extravagantly and the poor live in squalor in the back of the train.
“I love the sense of how the movie just charged forward from the tail to the engine. Everything was a discovery. That was something we really wanted to preserve for the series,” said “Snowpiercer” showrunner Graeme Manson.
With 10 episodes in the first season, you get to spend a lot more time aboard “Snowpiercer”—and it is an intriguing place. Manson said, “You get to explore the different classes more and the life of the train and the backstory. You just have time to unfold these stories more on television. You know, there’s 1,001 cars to discover.”
Grammy- and Tony-award winning actor and singer Daveed Diggs (“Hamilton,” “Blindspotting”) stars as Andre Layton, a former detective who is brought out of Snowpiercer’s tail to solve a mystery. All the way in first class is Jennifer Connelly (“A Beautiful Mind,” “Requiem for a Dream”) who plays Melanie Cavill, the Voice of the Train.
The first two episodes started streaming on Netflix on May 25, with a new one coming out every Monday since.
We talked to Manson, Diggs and Cavill about working on the show, what they love about the world of “Snowpiercer” and what it was like to release it during the pandemic.
SHOWRUNNER GRAEME MANSON
How strange is it to finally release “Snowpiercer” in the middle of a pandemic? Do you think that the show would resonate more with people because of that?
I hope it isn’t too much for claustrophobics. You know, at its core, the show deals with inequality, and in a time like Covid-19 (new coronavirus disease), or in any crisis, it’s the least fortunate that pay the heaviest price. So, yeah, it should land, I think.
I read that you were a fan of the movie and the graphic novels. How did you choose what to show in the series? Why start the story seven years after the people boarded the train?
Seven years after seemed like a good starting point because it’s seven years from today, and it makes the characters contemporary not futuristic. The story of season one is the story of a slow revolution. It’s a season of resistance and I think that that’s something that’s going to resonate at this time as well, too.
As a showrunner you’re essentially Snowpiercer’s Mr. Wilford, but if the train actually existed which part of the train would you be most at home in?
I think I like the community in the tail and I like what they’re fighting for. And I like that group of actors that we’ve got back there and we put them through so much hell. Since we put them back there for this much time, jostling them in those tiny sets, I think it’s only fitting that I become a tailee and not Mr. Wilford.
Is it true that the second season is in postproduction now? Does that mean we don’t have to worry about the pandemic getting in the way of shooting?
Well the lockdown shut us down at the very end so we didn’t quite complete it but yeah, we have a vast majority of the season in the can already so we are working on it.
I loved what you said about being careful when it comes to saying yes to TV shows, that you have to be OK with hanging out in that world for a few years… What is it about the world of “Snowpiercer” that makes you okay with hanging out in it for a few years?
I think there are enough characters and enough complications and stories to be told that I just didn’t think I would get bored. I think that there were interesting directions that the showrunners, and the writers could go in. There’s a good balance of potential for action but also potential for real character development at storytelling.
What was it about this story that appealed to you?
I like the ways that it allows us to examine class structure. I’m obsessed with the actual production department, the sets are so much fun to work on and it’s so beautifully done. I feel very lucky to get to play around on the things they built.
What was the atmosphere like on set?
It’s a super fun set, not just the cast but the whole crew, too. We’ve been in it together for a long time so everybody has gotten to know each other pretty well. It’s a really open atmosphere for ideas. Graeme and all of the producing directors we’ve had have been really open to having conversations about the directions of scenes and the technical side of things. It’s very collaborative. It’s just fun. The story gets kind of dark sometimes so every time they yell “cut,” we just tell jokes and eat too much food.
Do you think that the pandemic and the life we’re living right now would make this show resonate with audiences more?
I don’t know if it’s more but it’s different. It felt relevant four years ago when I read it the first time and it feels very relevant now. The differences in the way that each of the classes live and the fact that they’re sort of unable to move from those confines is highlighted now because we’re all stuck wherever we live. Everybody on the train is sort of longing for a time that is past. Everybody misses something about the world . . . that feels very relevant right now even though that was always in the show.
What have you learned from working on the show that’s had an impact on your life?
The biggest impact on my life is that I don’t eat grilled cheese sandwiches anymore. (Laughs) But I’ve learned so many things from working on the series. I’ve never been sort of high up on the call sheet of a TV show. I’ve learned a lot about how to take a little more responsibility for the atmosphere that everybody is working in because you just get a little bit more say in that when you’re there all the time.
If Snowpiercer existed, which part of the train would you like to be in? Which role would you like to play in the running of the train?
I think I’d just like to work in the third class area, like the noodle bar. I would be someone who lived in the chains or worked in the market down there. In terms of food that you would have to eat sometimes on set, they have the best food.
Is it true that you only watched “Snowpiercer” the movie after being cast? Was there was there nervousness going into it knowing that the film is such a beloved film by so many?
Yeah, I didn’t watch it until I read the script for the show. And I wasn’t nervous about that, I think, because the TV show felt so different to me. We weren’t telling the same story, we’re kind of adding a new set of stories that happen to take place in the same world. I think I would have been more nervous if this was actually the same characters that were in director Bong’s film or if they were the same characters that appeared in the graphic novels. But it’s just a different story.
What’s the best and the worst thing about being a tailee?
The best, I would have to say is it’s a big family. Because you struggled to survive together and are forced to live in very close quarters, you know everybody really well. There’s not much room back there for secrets. The worst is kind of the same thing, there’s no room for secrets. The way that tailees fight with each other is the way that you fight with your family . . . it can be the most vicious because they know you the best. There’s such a lack of privacy down there and you don’t have anything that’s really only yours.
In a parallel world, if you were Mr. Wilford, how would you lead the train?
I don’t know . . . I have no desire to be Mr. Wilford, that job is not for me. I think it’s a really tough question. And it is kind the main question that the show is asking, ultimately: How do you create an equal society?
Do you think the show’s themes would resonate with audiences more because of what the world is going through now?
The themes of the show always felt relevant and seemed to reflect things that we as a society and as people were going through. I think there’s some additional themes now that are particularly topical because of the pandemic particularly the confinement and loss that people are experiencing because of that confinement. Everyone who’s on Snowpiercer has been separated from their communities, from the lives that they had lived before and and places that they loved visiting and you know we’re all experiencing a version of that. I think that aspect of it was unforeseen and particularly topical.
What was the most challenging thing about playing Melanie?
I thought she was a surprising character. She’s contradictory, she’s a lot of things at once. I think that she fights for things that she really believes in, but along the way she does things that are really very morally questionable and sometimes just downright reprehensible. That was kind of an interesting challenge to take on board.
How do you feel coming back to television? What was it about “Snowpiercer” that made you want to give it a chance?
I think there’s some really interesting work being done in television now. I think the way that we watch movies has changed and the way we watch television has changed. I had been interested in and curious about doing a show. I really enjoyed the experience of working on it. I enjoyed the community, I enjoyed the process, I enjoyed the pace of it.
If Snowpiercer were real, would you be a firstie or a tailee? What part of the train would you feel most at home in?
That’s a really difficult question. One of the most important things is family and community. So wherever that was the strongest, I suppose, wherever my family could be with me.
What is the one trait of Melanie that you wish you had also?
I think she’s very selfless, I admire that. I admire the depth of her commitment to what she believes in. She’s someone who works really hard. She really is thinking about the overall good of society and working hard and doing the best that she can do in every moment.
Would you say you have these traits?
I don’t know, I probably get more distracted than her. (laughs)
What was it like working with Daveed?
Daveed’s great. He’s very open and generous as an actor and a performer and he’s very kind as a person and gentle and lovely to be around. Our characters are set up as these kind of polar opposites at the beginning of the show. And then over time, we come to realize that they may have more in common than they thought. I found that process of the development of their characters really fun to work on together with him. He’s a really smart person and a really good performer so I really enjoyed my time with him.
Can you talk about what it’s like being on set? Seeing the different trains is such a visual treat?
I thought the sets were spectacular. I was really impressed by what they built. It was really a treat to go wander around and explore. I was particularly taken by everything in the third class cars. I thought they were particularly inventive and I had a lot of a lot of fun exploring them.
What can you tell us about season two?
My character has some really interesting challenges in season two. I really enjoyed the work. It was very different. My character finds herself in very different circumstances than she did and for most of season one. And, yeah, it was great, I loved doing it. I had potentially even more fun on season two. And I actually had finished my work on the season so before production had to shut down.