Saturday afternoon at New York Comic-Con brought TNT’s new series Snowpiercer to a fairly-packed Hammerstein Ballroom. It’s the new show loosely based on Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 sci-fi action film, which was also the filmmaker’s first English language film. Orphan Black creator Graeme Manson is the series showrunner and executive producer, so there were a lot of members of the “Clone Club” in attendance.
At the start of the panel, Manson was immediately brought on stage to talk about the series along with some of the cast — Jennifer Connelly, Daveed Diggs, Allison Wright, Mickey Sumner, Lena Hall, Sheila Vand and Steven Ogg.
Like the movie, the show follows the last vestiges of humanity, all crowded onto a 1,001-car train referred to as “Snowpiercer” – yes, you read that number right – that’s plowing through the snow-covered remains of earth after an event referred to as “The Freeze.” Everyone is divided by class with the wealthier upper class in the front of the train and the poorest and most desperate crammed into the “tail” of the train. The head of this operation and “genius” behind it is one Mr. Wilford, who came up with the brilliant idea of using this train to save humanity… or at least the part that was able to board before it began its journey.
There are quite a few differences from the film besides the story and the fact that it takes place roughly seven years since Snowpiercer left the station vs. the fifteen=year gap in Director Bong’s film.
Manson — who was brought in as showrunner after original showrunner Josh Friedman was “exited” – said that he began with the amazing series of graphic novels from Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette that began with the 1982 graphic novel, Le Transperceneige.
“Of course, it started with this amazing series of graphic novels, but I came to Snowpiercer first through Director Bong’s terrific feature film,” Manson told the audience. “Adapting it to the small screen, I think we all took huge inspiration from the tone of his movie. it was such an adrenalin rush and so exciting. The graphic novels are just an amazing sort of inspiration for us. We took a lot of our cues for the train from the graphic novels – characters, situations, concepts. The graphic novels are beautifully heady, so it’s nice to have both those properties to be able to draw on.”
Another major difference between Director Bong’s film and the series is that the former was fairly linear as it followed Chris Evans’ character as he travelled from the tail of the train all the way to the engine. The TNT series will widen the scope to see the entire train and people from every class rather than focusing on the poorer people from the train’s tail.
“I think that’s probably a real difference from the film. We have that same desire to get to the engine, but we bounce around the classes, and we’re telling a really interesting drama, a class story,” Manson stated. “It’s really the basis for Snowpiercer. It’s about class, immigration, detention, climate change, and it’s a beautiful existential tapestry that we get to work with here.”
“We chose to bump it up to make everybody’s experience of losing the world and all of the loved ones and more visceral,” Manson said about setting the series significantly earlier in time (relative to “The Freeze”) than the movie. “It’s a real theme that everybody on this train has suffered amazing trauma and loss, and everybody is going through these psychological things in the midst of this survival story.”
Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly – whose genre cred dates all the way back to 1986’s Labyrinth opposite David Bowie when she was just 16 – talked about playing Melanie Cavill, the head of hospitality on the train. “She is quite literally the voice of the train – makes the daily announcements and is there to make sure things running smoothly and order is maintained and Mr. Wilford’s orders are executed,” Connelly said about the role, which is only partially based on Tilda Swinton’s character in the film. “She’s also someone who is carrying some secrets that are divulged throughout the course of the season. We get to learn that things are more complicated than they may seem at first.”
As far as finding Melanie’s voice and making it the voice of the train, Connelly mentioned, “She says to Ruth at one point, ‘Calm hospitality, kind train’ so she tries to present that image and that kind of calm and just try and keep everyone happy. As the season progresses, you see more and more sides of Melanie. It was really fun for me to have the time to spend with the character and to really unfold the character in that way.”
Diggs is best known for originating the roles of Lafayette and Jefferson in Lin Manuel Miranda’s hit musical “Hamilton” after being part of his group Freestyle Love Supreme, but he plays one of the primary characters in Snowpiercer. He plays Andre Layton, a homicide detective from Chicago, who is in the tail of the train as the series begins, but he’s called out by Mr. Wilford to help solve a grisly murder on the train. “That allows him access to the rest of the train and a much clearer picture of the stark differences between haves and have-nots,” Diggs said about the role. “The thrust of that leads him to come into all sorts of conflicts with everybody else on the train, and who can you trust and who is your real family? These are all the questions Layton is asking himself throughout the season.”
Allison Wright (2nd from right below) from The Americans and Castle Rock plays Ruth, Melanie’s “right hand in the hospitality department.” As she told the Hammerstein audience, “Ruth is responsible for keeping the first-class passengers happy and dealing with any problems they might have. She’s a big fan of Mr. Wilford and the fact he’s been able to keep all these people on the train alive.We’re the only people that have managed to stay alive in the Freeze, and that’s due to Mr. Wilford’s genius and the balance and order that is on the train. She is fighting to make sure that balance and order remains.” It sounds very much like that Wright is okay with all the unfairness on Snowpiercer, but hey, maybe she is as “charming and lovely” as the actor says.
Wright may have a similar accent to Tilda Swinton’s in the movie, but she explained how that character was divided between her character and a few others. “There are a few things that Ruth does that [Tilda’s character] might have done, but for Ruth, life is almost perhaps a little better for her on the train than it was off,” Sumner said about her part of that character. “It’s a new beginning for everybody when Snowpiercer departed the station, but she’s not all bad.”
There was a huge amount of applause for Lena Hall, who might be best known for her musical work on Broadway… or maybe it was her fetching, shiny silver outfit that got those in attendance excited. She plays Miss Audrey, the madame of the train’s “Night Car,” a cabaret space that’s also a “Switzerland area” on the train where everyone comes to meet for help and to “relieve the pain of having lost all their loved ones in the Freeze.”
“I’m there to make everyone’s time on the train enjoyable,” she added. “She is an empath, and she can feel energy so strongly, so she knows the unrest and everything that is going on. She has always been caring for the people in her car, but she is faced with a challenge of who does she want to help more? She does have a deep connection to Mr. Wilford and the train’s beginnings.”
At first, Hall tried to be mysterious about whether she’ll be performing in the show, but Manson later mentioned that they licensed a Frank Ocean song for her to perform. He just wouldn’t say which one. Miss Audrey sounds like an intriguing character and not just due to the amazing outfits that Hall teased.
Vand famously played the lead role in Ana Lily Amirpour’s cult horror film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. In Snowpiercer, she plays Layton’s wife Zara, who boarded the train with her husband but didn’t actually want to be on Snowpiercer or dealing with the consequences of being in the tail of the train. Somehow, she got moved up to work in the Night Car, leaving her family in the tail. “Layton and I have to deal with a lot of our juicy history,” she said intriguingly.
“I’m the juicy history,” joked Steven Ogg (center above), who actually got some of the biggest laughs at the panel. Ogg is essentially a character actor who played Simon on The Walking Deadand Rebus on HBO’ Westworld, so genre television is very much in his blood. He plays Pike, one of the people who had to fight to get into the tail-end of the train. “I guess he’s a bit of shit disturber,” he said about Pike. “He likes to stir the pot, but he believes that there’s the haves and the have-notes, and why can’t the have-nots have more of what’s up there. I think he’s pretty hungry to get a bit of a better life, if not for everyone in the tail than certainly for himself.” He considers his relationship with Layton to be described best as “frenemies.”
Lastly, Mickey Sumner (The Borgias) plays Brakeman Bess Till, essentially a train cop, whose job it is to keep order and be of service to Wilford’s law. “When you meet Till she’s very much part of this machine,” Sumner said. “She’s almost a sheep that goes along with what she’s supposed to do and how she’s supposed to inflict order on people of the train. Layton starts to chip away and shifts her perspective and makes her question what is she a real service to.” Apparently, she will have a “secret relationship” in the series that no one on the panel would rightfully divulge… because it’s a secret.
Talking about the series as a whole, Manson said, “The inciting incident that draws Layton out of the tail is this mysterious and gruesome murder up-train. Really, Layton is using this chance he has to solve this murder to gather intel of what’s up-train and to slowly build towards his revolution. I can say that the thrust and the real heart of the season is about revolution and rebellion and resistance. The murder-mystery is a convenient and gruesome way into the larger story.”
Manson also talked a lot about the train that’s the central location for the series, saying that with 1,001 cars, Snowpiercer is ten miles long, and in the writer’s room, they have a map of the entire train that goes all the way around the room so they can keep track of where everybody is during any given episode. “We decided to make it this big so that we would never run out of new doors to open,” Manson said about Snowpiercer’s vast size. Personally, I wonder who had the foresight to build this train as well as lay tracks down all across the globe before “The Freeze” happened since that must have taken many years in itself.
There was a lot of talk about the differences between the tail-end of the train and why everyone who lives there would want to move up-train.
“It’s pretty shitty. Not dope, man, but really good people, most of us,” Diggs said on that subject. “Anyone who is from a marginalized community or has lived with a lack of resource knows that there’s a togetherness that comes out of necessity. There is a feeling of family and openness and a lack of lying, because you need to all band together. There are some wonderful things about the tail, but no amenities. Life is really hard back there, and they’ve resorted to horrible, horrible things to survive. The future is bleak, and it’s hard to raise children with zero resources. They’re dealing with truly extreme circumstances, so that the idea that there is something to fight for is pretty clear.”
Ogg spoke at length about what being in that environment for seven years does to people psychologically leading to much of the tension and strain among those that live there. This also led a discussion among the cast about what people ate in the tail of the train where there isn’t as many resources – just in case you were wondering about those “cricket protein bars” that were being handed out at NYCC.
“Layton’s allegiances lie pretty solidly with the tail,” Diggs added. “They’re certainly challenged, and his vision of revolution is way more complicated than he imagined it was. It has to do with this version of telling the story is set-up, not being linear. The train is a linear class structure, but the machinations of how power dynamics actually work are bouncing all over the place. Everybody has something to sell or to trade, and that’s where the real power comes from. What Layton learns as he comes out of the tail and actually get to see the rest of this train which he’s never seen. He’s piecing together information as he goes, and he realizes that the machinations of power are much more complicated than just getting to the front of the train.”
Vand also spoke about her struggle to get away from the tail and leaving her family behind. “[Zara] is very existential. I feel like she’s the one who always questions why they’re surviving. She wanted to hang back and die with her loved ones, and she’s wrestling with larger themes than moving up the train. For her, she’s really struggling to find a reason to exist in this world. Everything has changed. Everybody’s spiritual center has been shaken by this new reality. I think she feels bad about it, but I think she’s a survivalist through and through in a really deep-seated way. She’s dealing psychologically with ‘How the hell am I going to keep on going?’”
During the panel, Manson showed some designs of the train by digital concept artist Joe Ito that would be translated by FX guru Geoff Scott and his team. The art showed how the look of was developed directly from the look of Snowpiercer in the graphic novels which is almost like a Soviet train, essentially eight months of design work including the interiors. Most of the cast were gushing about some of the cars on the train including the “third class” class, which is mostly jury-rigged and repurposed from articles brought onto the train. Words like “steampunk” and “Water World” were used to describe it with “window curtains made from soy sauce packets” and other oddities like that.
Due to the access given to their characters in the story, Connelly and Diggs have had a chance to see more of the interior car sets – which often are being jostled during takes, since they’re supposed to be on a moving train the entire show. Ogg said that he had to find his “sea legs” and trying to hold on “like a flight attendant” while walking between the moving sets, because a number of those moving sets are rigged together for scenes that require movement between cars.
“I was kind of stupefied by how expansive it seemed within the confines of the train,” Connelly said about those individual car sets. ”The imagination of the design and execution is really extraordinary. It really is an ark, so it’s really impressive what they managed to capture and how rich that world is.”
“For Layton, every time he sees a new train car, it’s the first time he’s seen anything like it,” Diggs chimed in showing how irritated Layton gets as he sees this new world opening up to him. “There’s a lot of, ‘What the fck? You have silverware? Come on!’ I know what the baseline is for survival, and you are so far beyond that. The fact that luxury exists on this train with the last surviving people on earth and some people still have luxury items? That’s fcked. For there to be a 1%, and there’s only 3,000 of us left!”
Another way that life is different on Snowpiercer is that guns and bullets are in short supply, and Manson explained how that affects the action scenes in the series. “We made a rule early,” Manson said. “It’s not like there are no guns on Snowpiercer, it’s just that they’re very limited. In First Class, their bodyguards and butlers were allowed to keep their weapons for self-defense but the rest of the train is totally medieval. The battle scenes are really gnarly close-quarter stuff with pikes and spears and shields and axes… There’s an elemental aspect to the battles, which I think is pretty cool.”
Most of the cast learned a lot from the stunt crew. “To have to be that close to kill someone is intense, and it gets very real when you’re shooting these things, and the stunt teams are so good. My job is to just swing something and not hit somebody, but the stunt performers are very, very good at making it look like I killed them, and you have to live with the fact you just killed somebody in this horrible, horrible way.”
After explaining the development of the Snowpiercer designs, Manson showed a teaser for the show which is essentially the first few minutes of the pilot directed by Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange), including an animated explanation of how the Freeze happened. (Manson said that the series does include a few animated sequences in the first season.”
As someone who was generally mixed on Director Bong’s film, I’m fairly excited by what they’ve been able to expand upon by making Snowpiercer an ongoing series with more characters. Obviously, TNT is already confident enough in the show’s early reception, even before airing a single episode, they’re starting to film Season 2 of Snowpiercer this month while finishing up the VFX on Season 1.
That first season of Snowpiercer will air on TNT in Spring 2020.