We Talked To Snowpiercer's Production Designer About Building A World Inside A Train
We spoke Ondrej Nekvasil, the production designer behind Bong Joon Ho's critically-acclaimed sci-fi feature, 'Snowpiercer.'
Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer is the rare sort of film whose physical setting is its story; it begins and ends with a futuristic train perpetually circling a post-apocalyptic globe. Through third person limited storytelling, we are introduced into the spectacle of a working-class revolution attempting to overtake the train’s physical and social barriers— as our heroes surge ever closer towards the front of the train, the desolation experienced by those in the back gives way to the ostentatiousness of the increasingly higher classes towards the front. For the audience, who cannot help but feel exhausted by the severed limbs, wan faces, and cockroach jello feasts of the proletariat, this comes as a breath of freshly perfumed air, albeit one that we breathe with the guilty notion that we’re falling into the very trap that led to the train's staggering social-stratification. Even at it's most tawdry, this seduction hints at the easy corruptibility of the senses when faced with beauty.
There’s an ugly part of us that lusts for the front of the train. Putting social structures of past societies on display through its design, Snowpiercer probes the possibility of imagining an egalitarian society; does the future belong to the people, or will it evade us if we can’t anchor it down it with cash? Its visual design is more than mere aesthetics— it is the core of the film’s symbolic life. We interviewed Ondrej Nekvasil, Snowpiercer’s production designer, on the process of conceptualizing and realizing the allegorical look and feel of a film that has been called "unforgettable" by the LA Times:
The Creators Project: You come from a background in theatrical set design— all of the settings for Snowpiercer are self-contained, like sets on-stage. Did the process speak more to your theatre background than your production design work in film?
Ondrej Nekvasil: Not really. Though, regarding a theatrical background, I think if you’re working with the theater, you are not thinking only about the basic story, but always trying to find a background.
Do you mean a historical background, or a metaphorical background?
Mostly a metaphorical background. Obviously you’re concerned with how to make it technologically, but the second level is more about the metaphorical background. So there was the spa car, for example— a fully glass car— it’s technologically and logically ridiculous. And I should say that we spent a lot of time researching different trains, and we started watching movies about trains, and realized that it all looked like nonsense, like tracking shots around the people moving around a train car, where you can see you’re inside a studio, because there’s no wall.
The major decision that we made at the beginning was that the train wasn’t designed by one man in one moment. That was one of the first discussions I had with [director] Bong Joon Ho. If this train were to look like all these bullet trains— like a TGV in France— it’s like the whole thing was designed by one person. The first step was deciding to go with the idea that this train is built from different cars and these cars were built in different periods of Wilford’s life. He invented the train; each car had a different feeling and design.
Were there any overarching influences for the cars, though?
You know, all these old luxury trains, for one. These trains from Paris to Istanbul, these Orient Express types of trains. And that was the first moment where we discussed that the train has to be constructed from different type of cars, and Wilford assembled them to create the long train. And the second thing, which was quite important—Bong was thinking that maybe the train is beyond any logical scale. And I said to him that if he went with the idea that this train is, let’s say, 20 feet wide, it wouldn’t seem like a train anymore – people wouldn’t buy it. So we did research, and it turned out that there was one guy who was thinking about constructing a train that was 20 feet wide: Adolf Hitler [with the Breitspurbahn]. He was thinking that even the distance between the rails would be ten feet.
But we said, if it’s 20 feet wide, it’ll no longer seem like a train. So we went back to the scale of the train, we discussed the sizes and dimensions, and actually we ended up with the size which was slightly bigger than a typical train – a little bit more just to make space for camera movement inside the train. We also needed to figure out how much we could fit on our stages. Because there were some limitations with distance— the biggest stage we had, which was about 300 feet long, was not big enough to fit everything.
How did you set up the cars practically to make way for these highly-choreographed action sequences? How was it at once so visually compelling, and conducive to axe-throwing?
We worked with a UK-based stunt coordinator, and he was able to prepare the action with mock-ups of particular cars made with cardboard boxes, and if he realized they were too small or it could be smaller, he’d tell us, and that’s how we worked. So he did his test, and we applied that test to our design. Especially with the sauna section— the sauna section was very particular because there was a lot of action and fighting, but it was a mystery to figure out how people could hide in that room, because it’s a simple room— it’s a long corridor. So we came up with the zigzag layout for the sauna section.
The second thing was lighting. We had to create lighting that would be lit only by the practical lights, so we created the world which was completely lit by lights that you saw in the picture. These were all fluorescent tubes that were discussed with the DP before, because there was no chance for him to hide any lamps off-camera. There were no film lamps onset— everything we created is seen in the movie. And it was already tough because of the narrow space. So we’d build the mock-ups from the boxes, and measure for the stunt coordinator how they could fight, and discussed with the DP how we could light it without using film lamps. We came up with these lighting fixtures that were Kino Flo tubes with some kind of gel. We were really lucky that the producers were so open to bringing people together— it was really great, because if the producers had said, “Okay, we have these two weeks...”
I wanted to ask a bit about the outside of the train: because just as you were working with the constraint of narrowness within the train, the world outside had to be contained by what the characters could see through the windows— we get a sense of the destruction outside, seen from a place of “order.” How did you create that contrast?
The major discussion was, how much humanity do we want to see? There’s that scene that’s the only moment where you can see the end of the train— when the train does that big loop. I thought, maybe it’s an old mining town, and they had to build that loop to go around the town. And so we had more industrial detail there. Director Bong wanted a bridge that was something completely different and unusual and unrealistic. Because we did research on the different types of railroad bridges, and the different shapes, but at the end we chose the bridge our concept artist proposed, he came with a bridge that was complete nonsense aesthetically. But regarding the landscape, we figured maybe we were somewhere in Asia, and we were moving from the big cities by the sea— Singapore, Hong Kong, and we are moving toward Tibet— so you can see the big cities in the beginning then it becomes hilly, and we’re moving around small mining towns, and after we are just in the endless mountains, like the Himalayas.
One thing that’s really important is that the people in the train all think they’re the last ones, but maybe there are some people somewhere else, who also think they’re the last ones. There’s also the idea that the train is doing a loop, and that the loop is one year. That doesn’t mean a year is 365 days. It’s a year of the train, which could be 200 days, 4,000 days, whatever you want. The New Year is just the loop. Time is the train. We started with the urban world and left it around Tibet— and you can see just the snow and the hills— we wanted that to be where the story ended.
Since the movie is so much about the shortcomings of revolution, did it being filmed in the Czech Republic have symbolic significance to you, or was it merely a place to film a movie?
My involvement started when Director Bong realized he couldn’t make the film in Korea. There were two reasons for that: their stages weren’t big enough to accommodate the four train cars we wanted to put together – and of course if you’re going to have a movie in English, you need European extras and stunt people – and these things are not usually in Korea, of course. The first discussion he and I had— I told him we had a similar childhood, in that our Communist regime here in Europe was a little similar to the military regime in South Korea. I grew up in the world that was behind the Iron Curtain, and I really understand that feeling of not knowing what’s behind the gate.
You’ve probably had a great amount of time to notice people’s reactions, in the two years since the film was completed. Everyone I’ve talked to— especially about the design— was so enrapt by the cars towards the front of train, the luxurious cars; they implicate everyone who’s watching in the same material desire that the film itself critiques. How aware of that paradox were you while making the film?
When we discussed the luxury section with Director Bong, we were thinking that Wilford, the guy who built the train, built it for luxury holidays, or for a luxury trip around the world. So we went back to these luxury cruises— these luxury ocean liners where you can have everything on the boat— because it’s a big hotel.
The second thing which we had in mind was private jets. We didn’t want it to be design-y and practical— we wanted it to be overwrought, because it’s nonsense. All these cars are too heavy, too ornate, too decorated, and the rest of the train has to be lighter because of these cars. There was a metaphor in that for us. We wanted it to have this feeling of, “I have a plane, and I can have a marble bathroom in my plane. But we can afford it, and we can we can afford gold hardware, so we’re going to have gold hardware in our marble bathroom in the plane.”
And that’s the way we stepped out of the logic of contemporary design, and we went more antiquated, or even more along the lines of these luxury hotels in Dubai. The feeling where somebody’s building a tower in the middle of the desert, and inside the tower is a skating rink and a ski slope— that kind of nonsense.
Were there any particular cars that were thematically harder to design?
The car that was the worst and the most difficult for us was the engine, where Wilford lives. The problem was that the rest of the cars had some kind of backstory we’d invented, but this was something different. At the end of the journey, they are passing through a car which has a lot of computers and engineers working, and for us, that was the car that was really driving and controlling the train and the systems and everything.
After that, they pass through the machinery section, which was like the transmission in a car, and finally they have to go to the core. That was the most difficult, because we had conceived a version with the old engines, with the pipe and the steam and everything, and then we had a version that looked like a nuclear submarine. We ended up with the version where there is something going around beneath the surface— and you see that there’s this movement behind all the aluminum pipes— but you can’t touch it or get close to it.
And then there’s Wilford’s space, and it came from that little documentary; you can see young Wilford sitting on the floor with the train cars. He’s inside a luxury mansion from the 19th Century, with the inlaid flooring, and what he has in the middle of the engine is that same thing, with the inlaid wooden flooring. It doesn’t make any sense logically, but it makes a lot of sense to us, because that was his mansion; that was his childhood, and that childhood was something very important for him all his life. That was something that helped us create this sense of this guy not being just a crazy guy; he had some ideas, but he lost his connection with the world. Designing that engine was the most difficult part for us— I’d never done so many concepts before.