This year at Comic-Con International in San Diego, "Snowpiercer" star Chris Evans and producer Dooho Choi took time to speak to the press about their post-apocalyptic tale of literal class warfare aboard the last train on Earth. Assembled by visionary Korean director Bong Joon-Ho, "Snowpiercer" is currently in a limited US theatrical run while also being available in homes through VOD (Video On Demand). Evans portrays Curtis, the film's protagonist and leader of the tail section of refuges who begin a bloody uprising against the tyrannical front section of the train.
Evans began by saying that although "Snowpiercer" was based on a 1982 French graphic novel by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, there's much more to the film than that. "I wouldn't have done the movie if I didn't have confidence in Bong finding deeper layers than just some sort of interpretation of a graphic novel," Evans said. "That's what Bong is phenomenal at. In all his movies there's a lot more than meets the eye."
Asked if he researched being crammed into a train like cattle for the film, Evans said he used the sets they built. "I tried to spend some time on the sets," said Evans. "The first day I went down and saw where we were filming and it was so beautiful. I tried to say to everyone, 'Listen, is there a way for me to carve out some time and just come and stay here for a while by myself for a few hours?' So there were a few days where I went through a couple cars and just hung out by myself. You get a sense of imagining what it would be like. I mean it's impossible to imagine spending 17 years there but you get comfortable with the environment and understanding what that sensation would be."
Evans' favorite train car to hang out in? "The tail section. For me, I think that's Curtis. The tail section is who he is," said the actor. "It's hard, grimy, dirty, rough, real. So that's where I had the most fun."
Although the tail section was just one of 60 cars, Choi said only about half of those were actually constructed. He also revealed Bong's initial desire for an on-board zoo. "It's a 60-car train and we see 26 cars. That's how many we built. There are definitely a lot of cars that we don't see in the film. We just shot what was in the script," said Choi. "Whatever filled the narrative needs of whatever particular section we shot. They asked Bong a bunch of times if there were any cars that he imagined that he didn't shoot and one of them was a zoo section with animals crammed in and a giraffe with his head down to fit inside. That was ultimately abandoned because he wanted to show life at the end. He didn't want to have living animals inside."
However, the amazing train design isn't the only reason "Snowpiercer" has been gaining attention, as the film's producers have decided to release the sci-fi film in theaters and on VOD simultaneously -- an unprecedented move for a film this size. Evans chose his words carefully when commenting on the decision. "You know, I'm just learning about this," said Evans. "The movie has done phenomenally well but this is all pretty new to me. Being an actor for X amount of years, you don't concern yourself with how they're released or when they're released. This is all brand new to me. I just directed [his first film, 'Before We Go'] last year and even the process of that had so many elements of post-production and how a film is handled that I'm still learning. It seems like this is a pretty pioneering film in how VOD has kind of been accepted in the market. So it's all new to me but it sounds like this is doing pretty well in the capacity that it was released. It's stuff that makes you realize how green you are. I'm learning with everybody else. So I can't give my opinion, it wouldn't be worth it."
Evans did, however, have a strong opinion on whether movie-watchers should choose the cinema or VOD when seeing the film. "I absolutely think a movie should be seen on a big screen," said Evans. "But I read something where somebody from [producing company] Radius said a screen is a screen is a screen. There's a couple different ways to interpret that. Personally, I like going to movies. I like buying my ticket and sitting in a theatre. And that's still available. It would be a shame if you lost that opportunity. So I hope it doesn't tip the scales too far one way. But on the same token, I've had a lot of people contact me and say they saw the movie not in a theatre but still had positive things to say. It's a gray area in terms of what's the best way to do this."
Before its release, "Snowpiercer" also courted a bit of controversy over U.S. distributor The Weinstein Company's attempt to cut 20 minutes from the film, with Bong's original cut ultimately being released. "I think they just wanted to make it a shorter film and make it more of a commercial type of film," Choi said of the proposed edits. "I think at one point they just realized that what makes this film unique is all of the things that Bong is great at and that's why we finally decided -- all of us -- that it was best to just keep it intact."
However, Choi revealed the shorter cut does exist and was screened at one point. "There were some tests that we've done," said Choi. "There was a version that we tested that was 20 minutes shorter. Bong has talked about that and it didn't test as well as his version."
Asked whether there was any truth to the rumor the Weinsteins were specifically uncomfortable with a scene featuring gunfire in a classroom, Choi responded, "I think there was some concern initially because the shooting in Connecticut had happened not too long [before that]. But by the time we released the movie it wasn't really an issue and I think people that saw the film realized it was not a contemporary setting. It was in its own unique world in the future. So it went away. It wasn't an issue.
Part of the reason it was so believable the Weinsteins would want to cut the film is because of how strange it is. One scene features soldiers gutting a fish before a battle with absolutely no reason or context given as to why. "There may not have been a discussion but I was thinking [this is weird.] That's the thing about this whole movie, there's so many parts of this movie where you're just like, 'What is going on?' When they bring the fish out and cut it you're like, 'What are they doing?'" said Evans of his own take on the film. "But it's what makes this movie so cool and unique and special and artistic and powerful. It really is so out of left field and unique. It feels so Bong in a way. It just kind of makes sense. There were a lot of moments you question if it's going to make sense. Even the script itself, you read it and question whether certain things will make sense. But there's a trust you just have to have with certain filmmakers and storytellers that you just know have an artistic eye. That you just know will make sense to a willing audience. A lot of times you just hand over your trust to the director.
"I read a couple reviews and one of the big things I had in the beginning of the movie was I wanted more explanation," Evans continued. "How did this happen? I just wanted more info. What was the experience? Where was this train? Was it in one spot? Did everybody just clamor on at once? I just wanted my rational mind to have more clarity. But you bring it up to Bong and it's almost like it's not necessary. He saw a bigger picture. Something broader. Something more beautiful and artistic than my mind could grasp on paper and ultimately it did make sense. I've read the most phenomenal reviews of people who just went on the ride. Movies like 'Blade Runner' where you just accept certain things. You're reading words on a page and your mind desperately wants to make sense of things. It's hard to realize you're going to have this artistic vision quarterbacking these scenes. So initially there were a lot of scenes where I said, 'Well wait a minute!' There were a lot of questions I had but if the movie is done right you go for the ride."
Evans, who plans to director more in the future, said he learned a lot from watching Bong on set. "Bong does things very differently as a director. It's unbelievable. It would just blow my mind," said Evans. "Typically when you shoot a scene you would shoot in a master and then you'd get us together in a two-shot and then you'd do the whole scene on your single and the whole scene on my single and we would have a lot of options in the editing room to cut the scene together as you so choose. Bong would shoot the edit in his mind. You'd have storyboards and if he saw the scene between you and I, and in the first three lines he shot me, and the next two lines were on you, and the next two were on me, then that's what he shoots. He literally shoots and cuts. There's plenty of dialogue I have in the movie that is not on film. There is no footage of me saying certain dialogue. He shoots the movie according to what he sees in his brain. It's the most bold, terrifying thing I've ever seen any director ever do, but it obviously worked out. I would never be that confident. But it worked out. It's one of those amazing things you can do when you're that powerful of a filmmaker."
Choi added to Evans' comments, revealing that Bong not only shoots only the angles he needs, but he also edits them the same day. "[Bong] has an on-set editor on the set who's cutting the scene as we're shooting. At the end of the day we watch a scene," said Choi.
Evans added, "Yeah, we shoot a scene and at the end of that day you watch that scene. It's unbelievable! That doesn't happen in movies! I've never been a part of anything like it."
Evans said Bong is also extremely good at giving notes and getting the most out of actors he works with. "You always spend as much time as you can trying to get into the skin of your character and the collaboration with your director is enormously important. But every actor is different. As a director it's not just setting shots and it's not just communicating with every department. It's about being able to know your actor and know what they need and want. Some actors, to get them where they need to go, you need to pull them aside and have a 20-minute discussion about whether their mom hugged them enough and some actors are the other way.
"It's an art unto itself, how to engage your actor and get what you need," Evans continued. "I couldn't have asked for a better experience with Bong. He's among the best directors I've ever worked with. Even with the slight language barrier he knew how to pick very unique words. He'd give you such a simple note and you'd be like, I got it. I know exactly what you want. That's a trait unique unto him."
Because of Bong's connection to Evans, it allowed the actor to takes certain risks in his portrayal of Curtis. "It's terrifying because you give a performance and you hand your performance over," said Evans. "I've seen a lot of times where you do certain things in movies and then you see the final product and it may not be what you want it to be. So it's only scary if you don't trust your director. If you trust your director it's beyond exciting. There's a beautiful cradle that a director can provide that lets you explore and take risks. If you don't trust your director it really handicaps your risk. You try to stick to what you feel is safe. If you feel confident your director is going to massage the performance into something that works in the final product than you feel a lot more willing to take chances and roll the dice. With Bong there were a lot of different takes where you try a lot of different things and you just feel confident that it's going to work out in the end."
However, one technique Bong didn't employ was keeping actors separated off-screen who aren't meant to be seen together on-screen. "I'll actually say that on this movie there was a real sense of unity regardless of whether you were in the front or the tail," said Evans. "It's such a unique film. It's a different way of filming and a different script. You're shooting in a foreign location where nobody really knows each other. The sense of camaraderie was very strong on this movie. So no, we never felt the need to avoid the front sectioners."
Finally, asked if "Snowpiercer" ultimately presents a bleak or hopeful view of humanity, Choi said, "I think it's a bleak journey to a happy ending. A hopeful ending."
"I say hopeful, as well," Evans agreed.
"Snowpiecer" is in theaters and VOD now.