Some ideas are just ahead of their time.
The science fiction action movie “Snowpiercer” gets its name from its background: a gargantuan train that has become mankind’s last refuge after an unsuccessful attempt to reverse climate change makes the earth otherwise unlivable. As it crosses the frozen remnants of our planet, this giant of 1,001 cars harbors a brutal dystopia where class divisions are strictly enforced and where resources – as well as justice and equality – are scarce.
Directed by Bong Joon Ho, who wrote the film with Kelly Masterson, “Snowpiercer” was a cult success critically acclaimed when it was released (in 2013 in South Korea, and the following year in the United States) – a dark and imaginative parable that seemed to be unfolding safely in the distant future.
“Snowpiercer” is back: on May 17, it made its debut as a TNT drama series, adapted from the film and the series of French graphic novels that inspired it, ” The Transperceneige. “
The “Snowpiercer” series is an important, ambitious and costly undertaking for TNT, with a cast that includes stars like Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs and with an elaborate production design that aspires to match or exceed the film. Before the network aired a single episode, he had already committed to two seasons – and scrapped a pilot and a creative team that he said had failed to materialize his vision.
But the world in which this “Snowpiercer” arrives is one that has gradually approached the catastrophe that the series anticipates. Although the themes of the show may be more resonant now, the people who made “Snowpiercer” cannot be sure if it will be more convincing or terrifying to the public.
The power of good science fiction, said Diggs, is a universality that extends beyond the time it was created. “No matter what time we live, it allows us to reflect on ourselves through a particular lens,” he said. “We certainly didn’t know that this would be the goal through which we would watch our own show. “
Graeme Manson, the “Snowpiercer” showrunner, admitted that it was difficult to strike the right balance under any circumstances. He didn’t want the series to be viewed only as dark fiction, but he also didn’t want it to give up on its moral mission.
“I think he has a duty to warn but also a duty to entertain,” said Manson. “I am an optimistic person, but how do you balance optimism and activism? “
Manson is one of many who have struggled with these issues during the show’s five-year development process. Snowpiercer television rights were acquired in 2015 by Tomorrow Studios, which hired Josh Friedman, the creator of Fox’s “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” and screenwriter of the upcoming “Avatar 2”, to write the pilot and direct the series.
TNT chose the project as pilot next year, hoping that “Snowpiercer” will follow the successful trajectory of her other post-apocalyptic dramas like “Falling Skies”, a series of extraterrestrial invasions that she aired from 2011 to 2015, and “The Last Ship” , a pandemic survival thriller that aired from 2014 to 2018.
Actors who signed up included Connelly (Academy Award winner for “A Beautiful Mind”, playing her first television role in 20 years) and Diggs (Tony Award winner for “Hamilton”), as well as Alison Wright (“The Americans”) and Mickey Sumner (“Frances Ha”). Film director Scott Derrickson (“Doctor Strange”) was hired to direct the pilot episode.
But in early 2018, with the driver finished, Friedman was dropped from the project and replaced by Manson, a co-creator of “Orphan Black”. Derrickson left soon after, write on Twitter that Friedman’s screenplay was “the best I’ve ever read” and that the pilot he led “could be my best job”. (Derrickson declined to comment on this article; a Friedman agent did not respond to a request for comment.)
Marty Adelstein, the managing director of Tomorrow Studios, said that the original pilot of “Snowpiercer” “had many nice things” but “he was too long and did not describe the story. Brett Weitz, general manager of TNT, TBS and TruTV, said that “Snowpiercer” should be “premium, populist content” and the previous pilot “just wasn’t that. “
Manson continued to work with the cast who had been hired for Friedman’s incarnation of the show and met with several actors individually to chart a course.
Diggs, who plays the lead role – an oppressed third class passenger named Andre Layton, who is offered the opportunity to investigate a murder in the opulent first class section of the train – said he had been allowed to participate to this review process more than he had anticipated.
“When things started to change direction, I said to myself, is it now the same project I signed up for? Said Diggs. “But we were consulted a lot, in a way that is probably quite rare. He said that Layton’s character has retained its basic attributes, in particular “his belief in the need for a revolution.”
Connelly, who plays Melanie Cavill, the head of train services, said that with her role, “the bare bones have stayed the same: her personality, a bit of her story. But in the redesigned version of the show, Connelly said, “The rotation on it was different – it’s definitely an iteration different from it. “
Beneath Cavill’s great exterior, said Connelly, the character’s journey, like the show itself, offered “a very human story about love and loss, pain and recovery. “
As he reworked “Snowpiercer,” Manson wanted to place the show in the tradition of what he called “existential science fiction,” he said, signifying genre fiction that seeks “to address the social realities in what is actually quite a preposterous premise. “
Although elements of “Snowpiercer” may be patently, scientifically unreliable, Manson said that the show’s commentary on climate change and other resolvable environmental crises was expressly aimed at a current audience.
The people of Snowpiercer are “so close to the end of the world and riddled with guilt for losing the planet by their own actions,” he said. “It is also our current guilt, for what we do to the earth and what we do to each other. “
James Hawes, a seasoned director of genre shows such as “Black Mirror,” “Penny Dreadful,” and “Doctor Who,” was brought in to direct the new pilot. Hawes (who is also executive producer of “Snowpiercer” and directed later episodes of the series) said the sets have been reconstructed to move and spin like real train cars, and to give each section of Snowpiercer a distinct identity: sumptuous first class cars for its elite passengers near the head of the train; small industrial compartments for its subclasses, residents of rear cars, called “tailies”; aquariums and greenhouses for the fish and flora it conserves.
Hawes said he, Manson and their art department worked to provide Snowpiercer with technological innovations that its passengers would have developed during their stay on the train.
“After seven and a half years around the world, what have you managed to invent, to improvise, from what surrounds you? ” he said.
Bong, now three times Oscar winner for “Parasite”, is an executive producer of the “Snowpiercer” series and visited his set in Vancouver, British Columbia. Manson and Hawes said they were admirers of and inspired by his movie “Snowpiercer”, but also said that they were not required to follow it as a plan.
“We wanted to be aware of it and exploit it, but never be limited,” said Hawes. “You need a lot more history to continue 10 episodes, not to mention multiple seasons. (A representative from Bong said the director “focused on his family during this time” and was not available to comment.)
No one can predict how viewers will react to a program like “Snowpiercer”, with its austere depictions of life and death issues, during this period. As debut draws near – TNT has moved its premiere date two weeks ahead in a growing appetite for new content while audiences take cover – its cast and creators understand that the coronavirus pandemic will be at the forefront in the minds of viewers, even if the parallels are not entirely intentional.
“All of the passengers on this train have been separated from their communities, from the lives they have lived, from the places they love,” said Connelly. “We never imagined that once this show came out, we would all live a version of it. “
Manson, the showrunner “Snowpiercer,” said that it was inevitable that real-world events would gradually approach the disastrous predictions of science fiction. “I am not surprised,” he said. ” I expected that. “
Manson describes himself as having grown up during the Cold War “with a sense of fatalism” and as a fan of authors like William Gibson, who wrote a speculative fiction in which “there is no wool in your eyes”. When your sensitivity is shaped by this kind of work, Manson said, “There’s something in your gut that tells you, don’t be complacent. “
He was skeptical that his narrative could prevent the types of disasters she predicted. “What does a television series really do?” Said Manson. “You hope to open your eyes. I have doubts and questions about its effectiveness in changing. But he added that “if reality and fiction can line up when something is broadcast, it can have an impact and make you think.”
Connelly said she didn’t see “Snowpiercer” as “just dark and dystopian”. The series, she said, “poses pertinent questions about the use and abuse of resources and the choices made by those who have the power to distribute them. It can lead to change and something really positive. “
“Snowpiercer” is also, said Connelly, “a hopeful spectacle” – reminding the audience that champions can emerge even under the most difficult circumstances. One who finds hope in the efforts of his characters to stay alive.
“They are struggling to find meaning in their existence,” she said. “The show says, ‘This is what they’re going through – how are they going to react? How are they going to continue? “Meanwhile, there is humor, as there is in life. And even in the darkest moments, there is joy and love, and sadness and beauty. ”