Korean director Bong Joon-ho makes his English language debut with the science fiction movie, Snowpiercer. Opening June 27 in the US, the film has broken several records in South Korea and opened the Los Angeles Film Festival. Set aboard a single train in the future, the film stars Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, and John Hurt. Courtesy of the WGA West’s Behind the Screen 2014-affectionately called WriterCon- I talked to screenwriter Kelly Masterson about what drove the train for the movie.
Kelly Masterson:Snowpiercer is based on a graphic novel. It was published in 1983. It’s 18 years in the future, and the only thing that’s left in the world is one single train-a very long train that contains all that’s left of humanity. There’s first class, middle class, and the lower class. And one man rises up in the back of that train. His name’s Curtis, and he’s a revolutionary. And he leads his people from that tail section of that train all the way to the front of the train to take over the train from the evil and oppressive Wilfred.
And the director is Bong Joon-ho who directed The Host and Mother. This wonderful, amazing man called me out of the blue. He had seen another movie I’ve written (the final Sidney Lumet film, 2007’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) and asked me if I’d collaborate. Knowing his work, I immediately jumped at the opportunity.
Like Mother, it’s the darkness, the desperate nature for survival. That need to protect your child as in Mother is in Snowpiercer, but also the humor that he brings to it and then ultimately the hope. It was almost as winning the lottery. My name was drawn, and I’m the lucky one who got to write it.
When you have genre, how do you make sure you have the human element?
I only think about the human element. I’m not normally a genre writer. I came out of the theater so I write grounded human beings especially human beings that are struggling, who are trying to overcome obstacles. So when I’m presented with genre or science fiction-which I’ve never written before-the only way I can do it is to write that character. I almost had to forget that I’m writing in the future. I just had to be very aware that I was writing these particular characters and tell their stories.
Tell me about your characters in your film.
Our main character is played by Chris Evans. He was 17 years old when the world froze. He climbed aboard this train, desperate for survival. He did terrible things in order to survive. He never knew he was heroic and always thought he was a bad person. And he did bad things. Now 17 years later on the train and on earth, he discovers as we discover he really is heroic. He leads his people to freedom, to overthrow the oppressor but ultimately in the end, he’s going to be forced to sacrifice. He’s going to have to become the heroic good person that he never was.
I’m drawn to Father-Son stories. He has two father figures-one is Gilliam (John Hurt) in the back of the train. He’s his mentor, the self-sacrificing man who teaches him to be heroic. He loses Gilliam on the way. The nefarious, darker father figure he meets at the very end is Wilfred (Ed Harris) who runs the train. And Wilfred wants to give him the train because he’s old and dying. And Chris must make a decision to either become Wilfred or remain true to Gilliam.
What is it about your own experiences that informed you about this project?
You have to define who you are, and characters who have to do that are of real interest to me. I think in my life my struggle was to become the writer I needed to become. I came to success very late.
What’s the prospects for Writers of a Certain Age?
Never give up. The true success is in fulfilling what you want to fulfill. That’s easy to say about success now that I have it. I worked in a bank for 20 years, and I would get up every morning at 4AM and write for two hours before I went to work. I did it because I had to keep doing it. I dreamed about success and came so close so many times.
Tell me about those stepping stones.
Along the way I had a show that was Broadway bound that didn’t make it or a film that was optioned that didn’t make it. And you die a little bit with each one of those things you think is going to happen. Persevere and the joy is in the work. At the age of 50, lightning struck. Sidney Lumet chose my script. It was his final film, and it was my first film. That was in 2007, and I have not stopped working. 18 films in now because I persevered and waited around long enough and kept at it long enough.
Was there anyone in your life saying that you should move on?
No. If there were, I must have ignored them or not listened to them because I was going to write anyway. It sounds a bit cliché but there is joy in the work. It’s better if they pay you!
It’s so tempting to imitate other people’s success. What got me there was the long road of developing my own voice. Take the rejection and keep working at it, and hopefully you’ll be lucky as I am. A friend says I was struck by lightning. But you have to stand out in the field and wave that sheet of metal in order to be struck by lightning.