Tag Archives: Snowpiercer

Off the rails

Orphan Black co-creator Graeme Manson brings DQ aboard his latest project, Snowpiercer, in which humanity’s last survivors live on a train that continually travels around a frozen planet Earth.

While Korean director Bong Joon-ho and his black comedy film Parasite have enjoyed a triumphant 12 months, from winning the Palme d’Or in Cannes to claiming Best Picture at the Oscars, a television adaptation of one of his earlier movies has been picking up steam.

Three-and-a-half years after TNT first ordered a pilot for a series based on Bong’s 2013 film Snowpiercer, the 10-part first season of the show of the same name is set to launch on the US cable network and around the world on Netflix. A second season has already been commissioned and is close to completion.

Set seven years after the world has become a frozen wasteland, Snowpiercer finds the last 3,000 survivors on Earth living on the titular perpetually moving train, which endlessly circles the globe. Inside its 1,001 cars unfold class warfare, social injustice and the politics of survival.

While viewers isolating at home amid the coronavirus pandemic might identify with the feeling of claustrophobia that is shared among some of the train’s passengers, the devastation of the Earth and its permanent, man-made winter plays into fears about real-world climate change and how the planet is changing. It’s certainly a theme that showrunner Graeme Manson was keen to highlight, long before Covid-19 put society under lockdown.

Graeme Manson

“We are in a climate crisis and that is the fabric of the show. The backdrop is we destroyed the world with our own avarice and the last survivors of that world have gotten on this perpetually moving, existential train that can’t stop or we all perish,” he tells DQ from Vancouver, his home town and also where the series is filmed.

“Within the backdrop of climate change that underlies everything, there are also deep stories of migration, immigration, detention and class structure, the have-nots, political deception and the lies of a 1% holding on to all the power and the leverage of production and sustenance.”

The rules of the world of Snowpiercer are easily identifiable by the structure of the train, with the wealthy elite inhabiting the front end – dining-room discussions are punctured by complaints about faulty saunas – while an underclass has been created at the ‘tail,’ a series of cars at the rear that has become home to the swathes of people who fought their way onto the train just as it was starting its journey.

It’s in the tail that we first meet Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs), a leader and a revolutionary who is also the last homicide detective on Earth. When a murder takes place on board the train, the formidable head of hospitality Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly) persuades him to leave the tail and solve the case.

Produced by Tomorrow Studios and CJ Entertainment, which was behind the original film, the show’s cast includes Alison Wright, Mickey Sumner, Susan Park, Iddo Goldberg, Katie McGuinness, Lena Hall, Annalise Basso, Sam Otto, Roberto Urbina, Sheila Vand and Jaylin Fletcher. Bong is among the executive producers of the series, which is distributed internationally by ITV Studios.

It is Andre’s voice the audience hears first, as he narrates the opening section of episode one, a beautifully animated sequence that depicts the riots that accompanied Snowpiercer’s launch before segueing into live-action footage. The opening narration is a tool shared by different characters through the series, with each episode loosely following that individual.

“We have a very big cast so it’s hard to really feature a character, but the character that speaks in the beginning has something to say during the episode,” Manson explains. “That can be a first-class character or third-class character, or someone from the tail. It adds social perspective to the class structure on the train and is something we continued through the series. It turned out to be a pretty neat device.”

Snowpiercer stars Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly

Manson, best known for co-creating award-winning Canadian sci-fi thriller Orphan Black, admits to being a big fan of the original film, which mixes action and political allegory in a post-apocalyptic world. But when he pitched to run the series, taking over from initial showrunner Josh Friedman in February 2018, Manson returned to Le Transperceneige, the French graphic novel series that inspired the movie.

“They’re filled with philosophy, existentialism and bizarre and funny situations, with leaps of imagination,” he says. “More than anything, I thought the series should be very politically charged and it should, at its core, be an action-adventure story. That’s what we did – we tried to lean into the visual flair, the themes and the action of the movie and some of the wilderness and conceptual leaps of the graphic novels and combine those.

“One of the greatest things about the film was the sense of, ‘What the hell is this train?’ Whatever door you open, you were never sure what was on the other side. We kept the graphic novel idea that the train was 1,001 cars long so we could constantly open up doors on new cars and be amazed by what we found inside.”

Joining mid-development – Friedman developed the project and wrote the original pilot that was produced but later remade – Manson took the series in a new direction, stating he had a “very strong sense of what the show should be.” But his late arrival posed a challenge when he had to find a balance between what was already in place and how he wanted to take Snowpiercer forward.

With 13 casting deals secured, he had to figure out which characters to retain, before “a lot of phone calls and in-person meetings to convince at least half of them to take on new roles in the new world.” Manson then received a vote of confidence when he was given approval to rebuild the sets that would present the vision he shared with producing director James Hawes.

Diggs plays Andre Layton, a leader and a revolutionary who is also the world’s last homicide detective

As a showrunner, Manson says he feels most comfortable in the writers room. Working in LA for the first time, he brought with him some key members of his Orphan Black team, notably producing partner Mackenzie Donaldson and his “second in command” Aubrey Nealon.

“My process begins with doing a lot of research on the world. We did a lot of research on climate science, climate change; we talked to NASA climate scientists about what would the world do if it froze and went to -117 degrees,” he says, also noting the challenge of creating the “eternal engine” that powers the train. “A perpetual-motion machine doesn’t exist but here it is on screen, so it’s about how you talk around it or when you decide to delve into the science of what might make it run.

“We peeled back the science of how the engine works slowly over the course of a couple of seasons, but the advantage of showing your cards at that pace is our VFX team, our physical effects team and our production design and art departments all have ideas about how it might really work, and those ideas came into a collective model we could work towards. I’m not saying we solved perpetual motion, but our explanation might hold water.”

Orphan Black, a science-fiction series about a woman who discovers she is a clone, was similarly rooted in science. Manson says this keeps the series grounded and the characters realistic, until you take one step forward into imagination.

“For Snowpiercer, the world the characters left behind was this world, here and now in 2020. So although we’re then taken seven years into the future, their concerns are about the world they left behind,” he continues. “After seven years, they are at the point where some people would be casting off the ways of the old world, while some people would be holding on tighter to their religion or whatever it is that keeps them moving. Moving seven years into the future also keeps everybody’s grief very raw, and that emotion and undercurrent of loss is a big character driver on Snowpiercer.”

Connelly is Melanie Cavill, the train’s head of hospitality

To create the sets of the train and numerous carriages on a studio lot in Vancouver, season one production designer Barry Robison and his team partnered with outside engineers and designers to build a modular system that would allow them to build sections of the train on modified shipping containers, which could then be linked and moved around.

“We can put five or six cars together and you can walk a character down the train from one car to another,” Manson reveals. “They’re on rubber wheels or air bags, and there are grips outside every time the train is rolling along, making it bounce and weave, so you get this kinetic feeling inside the sets. Nobody’s faking a lurch – they’re real, because they do bounce, roll and move.

“One of the real joys is the idea you never know what’s on the other side of the door. As Layton moves up the train, his eyes just grow wider at what they have up there. We have this amazing set called the Nightcar, which is the exact geographic centre of the train, and it’s essentially the train cabaret and brothel, run by Lena Hall’s character Miss Audrey, who gets to have fabulous musical numbers in this very exotic lounge car.”

One idea retained from the original pilot is known as the sub-train, a small cable car that sits beneath the carriages in-between the wheels and allows people – usually train employees – to travel quickly up and down Snowpiercer without having to pass through its hundreds of cars.

“It’s a narrative necessity,” Manson admits. “With 1,001 cars, the train is approximately 10 miles long. It’s something we talked about a lot and, when things are cut together, you begin to understand what is forgivable in terms of train geography. The more important thing is that the class geography and the design tells you where you are. The tail is like a jail, third class is like turn-of-the-century working-class tenements, second class is a little academia and a bit professional and then first class is like a Roman court or Las Vegas.”

The 1,001-carriage train encompasses the various classes of society

With the show filmed entirely in studios, VFX has been added to create the hazardous world beyond the train, particularly on the few occasions passengers do venture outside. Blue-screen technology is otherwise limited to windows and long shots of train corridors.

The coronavirus pandemic shut down post-production on season two in March with just a week left to go, but having long since wrapped on season one, the show is finally set to debut on TNT this Sunday before the first two episodes drop on Netflix on May 25. Each episode will then arrive on the streamer the day after its US premiere.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Manson says. “I’ve never been in a situation where you’re this deep into something you’ve spent two years on and it’s yet to air. But it’s even longer for the actors.

“It’s a very different world [from Orphan Black]. It’s a darker world by a shade, but one thing it does have in common is there’s a lot of heart in the show. It doesn’t actually take itself too seriously. We’re a perpetually moving train that’s 1,001 cars long. I like shows where you can be put through the wringer and on the edge of your seat through a drama and then go, ‘Wait a minute!’ A slightly ludicrous and existential premise are the most satisfying to make real and visceral.”

And as for what is coming down the line in season two, Manson jokes: “We’re definitely a train show. We’re on that train. We open up a little bit, but it’s still very much a train show.”

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Series to Watch: May 2020

DQ checks out the upcoming schedules to pick out 10 new dramas to watch this May, from American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy’s love letter to Tinseltown to the eagerly awaited sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer.

We Got This!
From: Sweden
Original broadcaster: SVT and SVT Play
Starring: Schiff Musarra, Olle Sarri, Alexander Karim, Anki Bengtsson, Sandra Andreis
Air date: May 1 (SVT Play), May 3 (SVT1)
Described as The Big Lebowski meets true crime, We Got This! stars creator Musarra as George English, an American living in Sweden who finds a way to pay off his tax debt: claim a SEK50m  (US$4.98m) reward to solve the 1986 murder of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme. He is unaware of evil forces lurking in the dark – but are they ready to meet him?

Hollywood
From: US
Original broadcaster: Netflix
Starring: David Corenswet, Darren Criss, Jeremy Pope, Laura Harrier, Samara Weaving, Dylan McDermott, Holland Taylor, Patti LuPone, Jim Parsons, Jake Picking, Joe Mantello, Maude Apatow
Air date: May 1
Co-created by Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story) and Ian Brennan, Hollywood follows a group of aspiring actors and filmmakers in post-Second World War Hollywood as they try to make it in Tinseltown, no matter the cost. Each character offers a glimpse behind the gilded curtain of Hollywood’s Golden Age, spotlighting the unfair systems and biases across race, gender and sexuality that continue to this day.

Isolation Stories
From: UK
Original broadcaster: ITV
Starring: Sheridan Smith, Robert Glenister, Tom Glenister, Darren Boyd, Angela Griffin, David Threlfall, Eddie Marsan
Air date: May 4
A series of four short dramas depicting life in lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic, produced by Jeff Pope (Little Boy Blue). Smith is Mel: alone, heavily pregnant and fed up with life, she faces having to go through birth without the married father of her child – who has chosen to stay with his wife and family – and without her own family, who have given her the cold shoulder. Father and son Robert and Tom Glenister play Ron & Russell. The former is ill with the virus and is confused about where he is and what’s happening to him, while Russell is trapped and isolating with him.
Boyd and Griffin star in the third story, Mike & Rochelle, in which the worst fears of paranoid, self-absorbed hypochondriac Mike have come true and his psychiatrist Rochelle must try to talk him down from the precipice. Finally, Karen sees a grandad (Threlfall) resolves to bring his broken family together, passing by his son-in-law’s house on the way to the grocery store and stopping outside their window to lark about and make his grandkids smile. But his son-in-law (Marsan), still suffering after being left by his wife Karen, doesn’t welcome these daily visits.

The Eddy
From: US
Original broadcaster: Netflix
Starring: André Holland, Joanna Kulig, Tahar Rahim, Leïla Bekhti, Amandla Stenberg
Air date: May 8
The eight-episode drama takes place in the vibrant multicultural neighbourhoods of modern-day Paris, where a once celebrated New York jazz pianist, Elliot Udo (Holland), is now the co-owner of struggling club The Eddy. From the club, he manages the house band, fronted by lead singer and Elliot’s on-again-off-again girlfriend Maja (Kulig). As Elliot learns that his business partner Farid (Rahim) may be involved in some questionable practices at the club, secrets begin to come to light that have also been concealed from Farid’s wife Amira (Bekhti). And when Elliot’s troubled teenage daughter Julie (Amandla Stenberg) suddenly arrives in Paris to live with him, his personal and professional worlds quickly start to unravel as he confronts his past, fighting to save the club and protect those closest to him.

The Undoing
From: US
Original broadcaster: HBO
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant
Air date: May 10
Grace and Jonathan Fraser (Kidman and Grant) are living the only life they ever wanted for themselves until, overnight, a chasm opens in their existence, with a violent death and a chain of terrible revelations. Left behind in the wake of a spreading and very public disaster and horrified by the ways in which she has failed to heed her own advice, Grace must dismantle one life and create another for her child (Noah Jupe) and her family. Created by David E Kelley (Big Little Lies), The Undoing is directed by Susanne Bier (The Night Manager).

I Know This Much is True
From: US
Original broadcaster: HBO
Starring: Mark Ruffalo
Air date: May 10
Why have one Mark Ruffalo when you can have two? This six-part limited series sees the actor play identical twins Dominick and Thomas Birdsey in a family saga that follows their parallel lives in an epic story of betrayal, sacrifice and forgiveness. I Know This Much is True
is based on Wally Lamb’s novel of the same name and comes from writer and director Derek Cianfrance.

White Lines
From: Spain/UK
Original broadcaster: Netflix
Starring: Laura Haddock, Marta Milans, Juan Diego Botto, Nuno Lopes, Daniel Mays, Laurence Fox, Angela Griffin
Air date: May 15
When the body of a legendary Manchester DJ is discovered 20 years after his mysterious disappearance from Ibiza, his sister returns to the beautiful Spanish island to find out what happened. The quest leads her through a thrilling world of dance clubs, lies and cover-ups, forcing her to confront the darker sides of her own character in a place where people live life on the edge. The series is a collaboration between La Casa de Papel (Money Heist) creator Álex Pina and The Crown producer Left Bank Pictures.

Snowpiercer
From: US
Original broadcaster: TNT
Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Daveed Diggs
Air date: May 17
The highly anticipated sci-fi thriller, based on the French graphic novel series and Parasite director Bong Joon Ho’s 2013 film, is set seven years after the world has become a frozen wasteland, with the remnants of humanity inhabiting a perpetually moving train that circles the globe. Against a background of simmering class warfare, social injustice and survival politics, former detective Andre Layton (Diggs) is called upon by the train’s head of hospitality, Melanie Cavill (Connelly), to solve a murder. The show has already been renewed for a second season.

Hightown
From: US
Original broadcaster: Starz
Starring: Monica Raymund, James Badge Dale
Air date: May 17
From executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer and writer Rebecca Cutter, Hightown is a crime drama set in beautiful but bleak Cape Cod that follows one woman’s journey to sobriety, overshadowed by a murder investigation. Jackie Quiñones (Raymund), a hard-partying National Marine Fisheries Service agent, has her free-wheeling life thrown into disarray when she discovers a body on the beach and becomes convinced it’s up to her to solve the murder.

Stargirl
From: US
Original broadcaster: DC Universe, The CW
Starring: Brec Bassinger, Luke Wilson, Amy Smart
Air date: May 19
The latest series inspired by DC comics, Stargirl follows high-school sophomore Courtney Whitmore (Bassinger) as she inspires an unlikely group of young heroes to stop the villains of the past. It reimagines Stargirl and the very first superhero team, the Justice Society of America, and is based on the character created by showrunner and comic book writer Geoff Johns in 1999, inspired by the death of his sister in a 1996 plane crash.

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Writing shows with mass audience appeal

Peter Lenkov
Peter Lenkov

In this golden age of TV, it’s easy to fixate on the high-end limited series that dominate cable and SVoD schedules. But spare a thought for the mainstream scripted series that deliver huge ratings and ad revenues week after week for networks.

A good example is CBS crime procedural Hawaii Five-0, which is currently dominating Friday nights at 21.00 in the US with an audience of approximately 10 million, compared with the meagre 1.7 million that Fox’s The Exorcist is currently attracting – and the 500,000 that prefer to watch The CW series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

A reboot of the classic 1960s/1970s series, the new Hawaii Five-0 has performed consistently well for CBS since it launched in 2010, usually averaging around 11-12 million viewers a season. At time of writing it is up to 150 episodes, which just goes to show the immense commercial value of the franchise. Keep in mind that it has also been licensed around the world to the likes of AXN Asia, Cuatro in Spain and Rai Due in Italy. It also performs a key role in handing over a big audience to 22.00 drama Blue Bloods.

The first episode of CBS's Macgyver reboot picked up almost 11 million viewers
The first episode of CBS’s Macgyver reboot picked up almost 11 million viewers

With around 25 episodes a year, the show sucks in a lot of writing talent. All told, more than 50 scribes have been involved in writing episodes since the start. One name, however, is ever-present – Peter Lenkov. Lenkov wrote the season one pilot and still writes the first and last episodes of every new season, usually in tandem with another writer such as Eric Guggenheim or Matt Wheeler.

Canadian Lenkov’s credits prior to Hawaii Five-0 included TV series 24 and CSI: NY, plus films RIPD and Demolition Man. He’s also played a central role in the reboot of MacGyver on CBS this year. Although the show hasn’t received a good response from critics, it has rated well enough to secure a full-season order of 22 episodes. If it can keep its ratings at the 7.5-8 million mark then it stands a good chance of getting a second season.

Another writer who has reason to feel pleased with himself this week is Stuart Urban, whose four-part drama The Secret for ITV has just been named best drama at the Royal Television Society NI Programme Awards. The show, which stars James Nesbitt, tells the story of a real-life murderous pact between a dentist and his mistress. Produced by Hat Trick, it is based on Deric Henderson’s non-fiction account of the story, Let This Be Our Secret.

James Nesbitt in The Secret
James Nesbitt in The Secret

Now 58, Urban’s career dates back to Bergerac in the 1980s. He subsequently won a Bafta for An Ungentlemanly Act, his dramatisation of the first 36 hours of The Falklands War. In 1993, Urban created his own production company, Cyclops Vision, under which he produced a range of feature films and documentaries including the black-comedy movie May I Kill U?.

Still on the awards front, it has also been a good week for Anna and Joerg Winger, whose German-language series Deutschland 83 has just been named best drama at the International Emmy Awards in New York. We featured the Wingers in our focus on German writers last week.

The winner of the TV movie/miniseries category was the Kudos/BBC1 production Capital. Based on John Lanchester’s novel Capital, this three-parter was written by Peter Bowker, who has since gone on to have a hit with The A Word, a BBC drama based on an Israeli show.

Walcyr Carrasco
Walcyr Carrasco

Best telenovela went to Globo’s Hidden Truths, written by Walcyr Carrasco and directed by Mauro Mendonça Filho. The show, which aired last year, explores the fashion underworld. Carrasco has been writing telenovelas since the late 1980s. Among his more recent titles was an adaptation of the Jorge Amado novel Gabriela and 2016’s popular Eta Mundo Bom!.

This week has also seen US pay TV channel BBC America greenlight a second season of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, a series based on the books by Douglas Adams. The show has been adapted for TV by Max Landis, an American multi-hyphenate who has written several movie screenplays including Chronicle, American Ultra and Victor Frankenstein. He is also an executive producer of SyFy’s horror anthology series Channel Zero.

Landis is currently writing Bright, a supernatural cop thriller starring Will Smith that has received US$90m backing from Netflix.

Elsewhere, cable network TNT is piloting Snowpiercer, a futuristic thriller based on the 2013 film about a huge train that travels around a post-apocalyptic frozen world with the remnants of humanity on board. The TV version will be written by Josh Friedman, whose credits include Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and War of the Worlds.

Frog Stone
Frog Stone

“Snowpiercer has one of the most original concepts to hit the screen in the last decade, and it’s one that offers numerous opportunities for deeper exploration in a series format,” explained Sarah Aubrey, exec VP of original programming at TNT.

At the other end of the budgetary scale, BBC4 in the UK has ordered a bittersweet comedy about a reserved schoolteacher who agrees to go on a road trip with her mother when she learns that the latter is dying. Entitled Bucket, the show is written by Frog Stone, who will also star alongside Miriam Margolyes. Stone began writing comedy with the Footlights at Cambridge University and has honed her craft writing comedy sketches for Radio 4.

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