For director Bong Joon-ho’s dizzying science fiction spectacle “Snowpiercer,” chameleon-like British actress Tilda Swinton disappears behind some massive false teeth, garish glasses and a truly unfortunate side-part to play Mason, an embodiment of bureaucratic evil tasked with keeping the lower classes in line as what’s left of humanity waits out a second ice age on a perpetually moving train. Luckily, she had some childhood experiences from which to draw.
I was joking to a friend that you can tell this is science fiction because it features Tilda Swinton with a Yorkshire accent.
[Laughs] That’s fantastic. Yes, thank you very much. It’s actually a private joke — which is now no longer private at all — for my brothers because they are the three people on the planet who are going to be most amused by Mason for a very particular reason, which is that we knew somebody who spoke exactly like that when we were little. The first year I was able to vote, Margaret Thatcher came into power, so my generation of people from the U.K. have had it up to here with what we call that nanny state. And she definitely went for that look, that condescending “you don’t know what you want so I’d better whip you into shape” — which I, having been brought up largely by a Yorkshire woman, I know is a sort of cultural trope from that part of the world.
She does have a fair amount of Thatcher in her, doesn’t she?
Ah, that’s another interesting thing, Ned, and this is a little wordplay association thing. A mason is somebody who plays an important part in building a house, and another person who plays an important part in building a house is a Thatcher. [It’s Thatcher] mixed in with all the rest of the gang — with Silvio Berlusconi, with Gaddafi, with Adolf Hitler, with people in North Korea and maybe even a little bit of bombast from the United States. That sort of feeling of people given to putting out a slightly dictatorial vibe while being kind of clowns as well — or rather us wanting to see them as clowns. However sinister or truly cruel a dictator is, there seems to be this tendency to look for what Director Bong would call “the cute.” So however ridiculous the things are that are spouted by — for instance — the President of the United States at some point, maybe one wants to believe that there’s a slight stand-up comedian in there somewhere. I don’t know, it’s a strange thing. That’s a way that the psyche tries to protect us from feeling like we’re being shafted.
Maybe it’s a misplaced charisma.
I think you’re absolutely right. It’s certainly charisma, and I do believe that we have a tendency to vote for people who have that charisma for the reasons that they will produce the most amusing soap opera while they’re in power — which is not necessarily the right way to go, but I do think it’s a tendency.
How much were you keeping abreast of the arguments over the final edit of the film for the U.S. market between Bong Joon-ho and the Weinstein Company?
We’re a pretty close team, and I was hoping all along that the English-speaking world would get to see Director Bong’s cut. And I am so thrilled, of course, that they are. I’m not a huge maniac for first weekends anyway. I think that films find their audience, and I’m a very patient person. I think that films can bleed out over decades, and they do. They always end up finding their audience, so I think it’s all good, as they say.
In this film, we’re dealing with familiar themes and genre tropes, but they’re presented in such an original way.
He’s such a sophisticated filmmaker and such a unique voice, but he’s so educated and he’s so cine-literate. He is, I would suggest, the most consciously constructive formalist filmmaker, in a way, since someone like Hitchcock or Kubrick. He has that scope, he has that knowledge, he’s got that command. For me, the film is as much about cinema as it is about anything else. Every carriage [of the train] is a different cinematic atmosphere. You have your Fellini carriage and your ’80s Derek Jarman carriage, and then you have your Antonioni carriage. People will start this film who haven’t seen his work before and they will get used to the tail section and they will think, “OK, we’re going to be here. We’ve seen ‘Alien’ and John Hurt’s in it, so whatever.” And then you move through. We don’t want to spoil anything, but I think that’s so masterly and he’s so in control of that. He’s so sophisticated that he knows how to play with all of that reference. I think if you feel a reference, you’re right. He knows exactly what he’s doing.
Well, then there’s the obvious “Dr. Zhivago” reference.
[Laughs] Oh, that’s fantastic. But of course also “Brazil.” OK, here we go. That proves my point about his consciousness. He not only takes us into that territory, but he calls John Hurt’s character Gilliam. He shows his heart on his sleeve.
Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter @nedrick