South Korean director Bong Joon-ho makes his mostly English-language debut with the dystopian thriller "Snowpiercer." Credit: Getty Images
In 2006, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho did the Hollywood-style monster movie back to itself with “The Host,” the nation's highest-ever grossing homegrown hit. After the drama “Mother,” he’s back at it again with “Snowpiercer,” a dystopian thriller set aboard a train containing what’s left of humanity. And he did it with many familiar Western stars, including Tilda Swinton, Olivia Spencer and Chris Evans, who plays an impoverished hero who leads a revolt against the rich in the other cars.
The comics came out in 1982. It’s amazing no one thought to adapt it into a movie till now.
I was quite lucky. The only company that published the graphic novel outside France was in South Korea. It’s now being published in American and Germany, but before then it was just South Korea. I found it in my regular [comics] shop.
The film is very angry about class gaps and climate change. Are these things that preoccupy your mind?
Sci-fi is a genre where you can make fantastic worlds, but they’re really about how we live now. The environment and nature, those are ideas you see in “The Host.” It’s my ambition to be more like Hayao Miyazaki, who tries to connect life and ecology in his films.
This isn’t a Hollywood film but it has American, English, even Romanian stars. What was the reason for a mostly English-language film?
The story dictated that. If you just had Korean actors in a story about the last survivors of mankind, it would be a little strange. It became a 70 percent English-language film. It couldn’t be like “Babel,” where it’s 10 to 15 languages. I still feel it’s a Korean film because it was financed there.
Was it difficult getting so many Western actors into a South Korean production?
I felt very fortunate because John [Hurt] and Tilda [Swinton] were the first to join on. I read an interview in 2009 with Tilda where she said she was a big fan of “The Host.” We met at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and decided to do something together. With Tilda and John onboard, that attracted others, because they’re actors other actors admire and respect.
Chris Evans is a big star now, but it’s hard to imagine a Hollywood film letting him do that big, shocking monologue [which we won’t spoil] he does late in.
Chris does those big Marvel movies, he’s Captain America, but between franchise films he actively searches for small indie films. “Snowpiercer” was one of those. That long monologue was a big challenge. We talked about it a lot, from the very beginning, and were waiting for the day to shoot it. Chris is a real film buff as well. We talked a lot about other movies, and we watched that scene in John Ford’s “Drums Along the Mohawk” where Henry Fonda talks about what he did during the war.
Chris Evans and Go Ah-sung trek through a dangerous train in "Snowpiercer." Credit: RADiUS-TWC
Was shooting in cramped locations part of the appeal?
I normally like to shoot on location and adjust to different weather patterns and be outside to smell the clean air. This one was 99 percent inside, on sets. I was nervous at first, because of the claustrophobia, but that was the challenge. I talked with the cinematographer [Hong Kyung-pyo] about making the shots dynamic. We talked about movement. Our train it not just a corridor. It’s a moving train. It’s something alive. It’s bending and shaking. We wanted the camera to move, move, move.
In America “Snowpiercer” has gotten a lot of press due to your clashes with Harvey Weinstein, who at one point wanted to release a cut here that was 20 minutes shorter. Did you get to see it?
We tested it in New Jersey. But not only [The Weinstein Company] play with making other cuts. Other distributors do that. It’s not an unusual thing. It’s just that the story got out and people talked about it on the Internet, like it was a really big fight and very acrimonious. But all that was very exaggerated.
Not that Hollywood should be the goal of any filmmaker, but do you see yourself going Hollywood at some point?
It’s all about the story and what excites me at the moment. This time it happened to be an English-language film. I’ve shot a film in Japan in Japanese before [his short for the omnibus film “Tokyo!”]. I have a Hollywood agent and I get a lot of Hollywood scripts, and if the right opportunity comes along, sure, I’ll do it. But I’m going to keep living in Korea, eating Korean food. I have no plans to emigrate. I have too many great drinking places in Korea I cannot give up.
You also tend to shift genres. “Mother,” your last film, was a drama. What else would you like to do?
I’d do anything except musicals.
Why not musicals?
They’re just really awkward. It embarrasses me when people break into song. My face turns red.