A few months after he played Captain America for the second time in The Avengers, and a few months before he’d play Captain America for the third time in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Chris Evans went to Prague in the spring of 2012 to film Snowpiercer (rated R, out now). For Bong Joon-ho, a South Korean phenom shooting his first English-language feature, this presented a supersize challenge. You see, Evans’ character, who leads a ragtag, rag-wearing lower-class community in a full-blown revolt against their decadent overseers, is supposed to be malnourished. “The only difficult aspect of shooting Chris was hiding all his muscle mass,” says Bong. “We did a lot of things with costumes to make him look unhealthy.”
That’s Snowpiercer in a nutshell: a blockbuster in disguise. The film, which has already earned $80 million overseas, may be the most gonzo movie to hit U.S. theaters this summer. The postapocalyptic allegory, set entirely on a train, is an international movie in every sense—based on a French graphic novel, filmed in Eastern Europe, and directed by a South Korean who co-wrote the screenplay with an American. In addition to a hatchet-wielding Evans, the film stars Oscar winners Octavia Spencer (The Help), who’d always wanted to do an action movie, and Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton), who wears false teeth and a fake nose throughout. (In the script, Swinton’s character is described as “a mild-mannered man in a suit.”)
The project began with Le Transperceneige, a 1982 graphic novel by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette that envisions a new ice age. The last humans live on a train eternally circling the earth, for reasons that make perfect sense if you don’t mind a bit of sci-fi dream logic. Class warfare ensues, with poor folk near the caboose confronting the wealthy up front.
In 2005, Bong found a copy of Le Transperceneige in a comic-book store that he frequents in Seoul. “I was very fortunate,” he says. “Outside of France, it was only published in Korea.” (The comic was finally published in English earlier this year.) By that time, he had made two movies, the dark comedy Barking Dogs Never Bite and the serial-killer drama Memories of Murder. Then came The Host, the 2006 film about an amphibious creature that attacks Seoul, which became the top-grossing South Korean movie of all time, won Best Film at the Asian Film Awards, and reached cult status in the U.S. (where it grossed $2.2 million).
Bong joined the front ranks of a generation of Korean directors, including Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) and Kim Jee-woon (The Good, the Bad, the Weird), who began planning their American invasion. Park made last year’s low-budget melodrama Stoker; Kim, the Arnold Schwarzenegger non-comeback The Last Stand.
Bong, meanwhile, bought the rights to Le Transperceneige and started developing a script with Kelly Masterson, who had written Sidney Lumet’s final film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Living on different continents, Bong and Masterson Skyped every Monday. Although the graphic novel was nearly three decades old, the two saw contemporary resonance in the story: Bong mentions Occupy Wall Street, while Masterson cites the Arab Spring.
Rather than seek funding in Hollywood, Bong secured a $40 million budget from Korean entertainment giant CJ E&M (a record price tag for the country). Bong had always imagined Snowpiercer with a cast reflecting the film’s world-in-microcosm vision. Still, he did things his way. When there wasn’t a role for Swinton, who had met the director at Cannes several years ago and badly wanted to work with him, Bong simply gender-flipped one of the key front-of-the-train despots. “We didn’t change any pronouns,” Masterson says, laughing. “Everyone calls her ‘sir’!”
According to Bong, Evans was chosen less for his status as the only actor alive to play two different Marvel superheroes (don’t forget about the Human Torch!) than for his work as a druggie lawyer in the 2011 indie Puncture. (Bong is the kind of director who claims he was influenced by George Lucas but specifically refers to THX 1138.)
The cast became a veritable United Nations of talent. As Swinton notes, “Korean, Czech, English, Scottish, American, Icelandic, Romanian, Croatian passengers were on our train.” That led to challenges in on-set communication. “We had a Korean crew and a Czech crew, but the assistant director spoke English,” says Spencer.
Bong was undaunted by the logistics of the shoot. After mapping out the visuals with hand-drawn storyboards, he shot in a non-Hollywood way that left little room for error. “Instead of doing typical coverage where you run the entire scene from every angle and edit your choices later, Bong shoots his edit,” says Evans. “You could take all his footage, give it to 30 different editors, and it would be exactly the same movie.” Even more unusual: Snowpiercer was shot almost entirely on a series of train-car sets, beginning at the gulag-like back. “This wasn’t a movie that took place on a giant soundstage with a lot of green screen,” says Evans. “The sets were on a gimbal. Every set would shake and vibrate as if we were on a train.” (Click here to see an exclusive clip of Evans talking about Snowpiercer.)
The filmmakers didn’t try to replicate all 1,001 cars in Le Transperceneige, however. “Bong drew us a virtual train at the beginning of production,” says production designer Ondrej Nekvasil (The Illusionist). “In his mind, the train had 60 cars.” Bong was excited by the visual possibilities of filming in what was essentially one long corridor. “The idea of the train had its own limitations,” the director says. “When there are those limitations, you can be more creative.” They wound up building 26 train-car sets, but Bong notes, “You never see the tail and the front of the train in one shot.” (One idea that never made it off the page: a zoo car featuring a giraffe with its neck perpetually hunched.)
While the film opened in South Korea last August, The Weinstein Company, which had acquired the rights to all English-speaking territories in 2012, pushed off a U.S. release date. One issue: The studio wanted to trim 20 minutes from the two-hour-plus film. “There was, at one point, a 20-minute-shorter version that existed,” admits Bong. Masterson says he was called in to write some voice-overs—an idea that conjures up Harrison Ford’s horrific over explanatory narration in the original theatrical release of Blade Runner.
Ultimately the studio agreed to Bong’s original cut, albeit in a limited release through its boutique label RADiUS—and opposite Transformers: Age of Extinction, a megabudget Hollywood action tentpole. The irony of Bong’s scrappy underdog of a film confronting a bigger, better-funded opponent is not lost on Swinton. “I am not a great believer in the pressures put on opening-weekend figures, or even on a film’s preliminary release,” she says. “A film like Snowpiercer is one for the ages.”