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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”