‘Snowpiercer’ showrunner, production designer: We didn’t want ‘carbon copy’ of movie
After years in development, a change in showrunners, and moving back and forth between cable network homes before it ever aired, the Snowpiercer TV adaptation will finally hit our screens this weekend when its first season debuts on TNT.
The series, starring Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs, is based on the 2013 film of the same name by Bong Joon Ho, as well as its predecessor, 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige. But as showrunner Graeme Manson (Orphan Black) and season one production designer Barry Robison point out, the show has its own strong identity.
Both are fans of the film; Manson admits that “like most people,” it’s how he became familiar with the story. Bong, who has an executive producer credit, even came to the set a couple of times during the first season, Manson says, adding that “he gave his blessing to my rewritten pilot.”
But the graphic novel, which Manson describes as “full of imagination and humor, and flights of fancy and levels of philosophy,” served as a more of a springboard for building the world seen in the series.
“I got a really strong directive from Graeme and [director James Hawes] and TNT and the studio that they didn’t want a carbon copy of the movie. And neither did I,” Robison tells Fortune, adding that in addition to his own “vivid imagination,” he turned to the original source. “What really struck me by going back into the graphic novel was just the robustness of the design itself, and my ability to be able to interpret the postapocalyptic world.”
The TV series takes place seven years after the planet has become a frozen wasteland, while surviving humans ride a nonstop train that travels around the globe. The time frame is compressed compared with the film, which is set 14 years after the devastation of the planet. The show’s timeline “left enough space that everybody would still be grieving, that people would be holding on to the things that mattered in an old society and right at the sort of cusp of casting off some of those things and questioning the way we got on,” Manson explains.
And because this iteration of Snowpiercer is a long-form drama, there are opportunities to explore the characters—who are not the same as those seen in the film—more deeply. The train has a clear class system, from the formally designated first, second, and third classes all the way to the tail—the least desirable, lowest-class section for unticketed passengers.
“Rather than like the movie, beginning on the end of the train with the ‘tailies’ and moving relentlessly forward until we reach the engine, we spend time with all the classes, and we get to know the society of the train equally throughout in all its imbalance,” Manson says.
The distinctions in class are also more clearly illustrated in the set design. To come up with each section’s appearance, Robison mapped out the train, which consists of 1,001 cars. The concept of border cars, hindering movement between different parts of the train, was established. “We wanted it dark and claustrophobic in the tail. We wanted it somewhat neutral and dull in the third class into second,” Robison says, adding that the first class has more of a “heavenly” feeling. “And then throughout these cars where you’ve got no light in the tail, smaller windows in the second class…it’s not unlike a ship, if you really want to think about it.”
There’s also the “night car,” which Manson describes as “the cabaret of the train.”
“It’s sort of a safe space—it’s the exact middle of the train. It’s like a neutral territory,” he says.
It was also Robison’s favorite set because he “was able to bend reality without it being obvious.”
“It’s a very successful design, as is the first-class dining room. There’s a lot of information crammed into those very small sets,” Robison says.
The team had about 10 physical train cars to work with, says Robison, who enjoyed the challenge of designing sets he described as around 12 feet wide by 45 feet long. A few—like the night car—were fixed sets, while others were changed around as the story required.
“We were in four stages in Vancouver that were all linked together, so the cars were constantly moving, almost on a daily basis, as shooting was going,” he says, adding that the effects team helped make it possible to see different train cars moving through doorways.
A lot of research went into making the train and the environment on the show feel realistic. “We contacted Canadian Rail, and needless to say, they loved it. The few pieces of advice I remember them giving us was that the train had to be robust—the exterior absolutely had to be robust and thickly plated,” Robison says.
But the design also had to be TV-friendly.
“There are times when characters go outside the train,” Robison says, adding that the source material had a concept that just wouldn’t work on-screen. “I think in the graphic novel, you’re in a heavy suit, and then you’re, like, in a lead helmet with two round eyes. Well, you can’t see Jennifer Connelly, and that’s no good.”
Manson is excited for the project to finally debut, “particularly for the cast” as “it’s been a long time coming.”
Even though the dystopian tale is premiering during the global coronavirus crisis, which also disrupted work on the second season, he thinks the show will resonate with viewers. “People are watching a lot of sci-fi and postapocalyptic sci-fi,” he says, while pointing out that the story isn’t one-note. Though it tackles deeper themes like inequality, he describes Snowpiercer as “a mashup of tones and styles.”
“It’s got black humor; it’s got musical numbers,” he says. “But above all, it’s an action-adventure.”
Snowpiercer premieres on TNT Sunday, May 17, at 9 p.m. ET.
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