Interviewed by Lesley Coffin
The interview was previously published in 2014, during the theatrical release of Snowpiercer
After years working as a playwright with a day job, Kelly Masterson found his first film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead directed by legendary director Sidney Lumet (the Oscar winner’s final film) and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei and Albert Finney. His sophomore feature film, Snowpiercer, marks his first time as a co-writer, collaborating with Korean director Bong Joon-Ho. The film also marks the latter’s English language debut; a sci-fi action set entirely on a train and featuring an all-star international cast which includes Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Ed Harris, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, and Allison Pill. Kelly found time between the LA Film Festival and New York premiere to discuss his work on the film.
How did the premiere in LA go?
It was terrific. As a writer, you have some distance so to get a chance to see [the film] on the big screen with an audience and hear and see the reaction first hand is its own kind of experience. It was almost an out of body experience for me and very fun. And I’m really looking forward to doing it again in New York, for both of them [BAM and Lincoln Center].
Well, I have to say that I was pretty much blown away by the movie. It really is one of the best of the year.
Thank you so much. I am really proud of it myself. And I don’t know how familiar you and your readers are with the films of director Bong but he is a genius and I just hope this film will bring him the kind of international attention he deserves. A lot of people will realize that after Snowpiercer. I think he really has the potential of being called one of the greatest directors, worldwide, of his generation. This film particularly is so accessible and global in its appeal, 90% is in English so it will appeal to a completely different audience that might not have seen his other films. And while all his films are a little different, he certainly has a signature in terms of quality, and I’m just so glad that I got a chance to collaborate on this one.
I understand that he actually approached you after seeing your other film Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and asked you to work on it with him.
Yeah, and it was completely out of the blue. We had never met, but he had seen Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, was a fan of it, and asked me to collaborate with him. And that never happens. To get a job, any job, you usually have to go through several interviews and meetings before you ever even meet the director. And then you have to meet with the studio and star, and get all their approvals. But in this case, it was just between director Bong and myself; he said he wanted me for this, and I jumped at the opportunity.
Did he ever indicate to you what it was about Before the Devil… that made him think of you for this specific film?
He never exactly enumerated that to me specifically. But having worked with him on this, I think I can say two things about him. He likes really dark, desperate characters who are pushed to the brink. And while on a smaller level in Before the Devil…, those are the kinds of characters I think I also specialize in, so I think that spoke to him in that film. And he also tends to have a very dark, twisted sense of humor in his films, and he was one of the few people to take note of that in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Which was refreshing for me, because most people don’t think the movie is all that funny, even though I wrote it to have some dark humor.
There are elements in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and his films, like Mother and Memories of Murder, about everyday people who go to places they never thought they were capable of going, during the narrative of those films.
You’re right, and I think that was a commonality we shared; we liked the idea of going to places, taking people to their deepest, darkest bottom and exploring that part of their psyche. But unlike me, director Bong is a true visionary because he thinks in terms of the visuals he wants to put on screen and he knows how to express them and bring them to life. And when we wrote, he talked about pictures and the visuals he had for the film, and when I talk, I talked about dialogue and character and feelings, because words are what come to my mind first. So it was a remarkably good marriage between two writers who had two different approaches to how we told stories. And I think we worked very well together.
Did it feel like a real partnership?
Well, I’d never collaborated before and didn’t know what to expect and I don’t know if I’ll every have this experience again. I don’t know if I could say we were equal partners, because this really was director Bong’s vision. He found the French graphic novel and it is his story. So I knew that my job was to help him tell the story he wanted to tell; make the story work and write the characters, specifically the English-language characters. So I have to give him most of the credit. But he is also incredibly generous and gave me the opportunity to write the interesting characters and long monologues, which most directors would hate to have had to film, but he encouraged me to include them. And some of the characters he more or less handed over to me. I don’t want to take too much credit, but Curtis is a character I had a lot of involvement in developing, and [who] has a lot of my voice.
What were the biggest challenges in adapting a graphic novel like this, especially given source material is written in French and from some time ago?
As a writer, I rarely struggle with adapting works, because I am able to focus in on the characters and find, or think of, who they are and what they want. And in this film, the characters are so driven, that their goals are very clear…they are stuck in the back of the train and they want to get to the engine at the front. It was clear, and everything they do, moves them in that direction. And that was very clear in the graphic novel. The bigger challenge for me was writing in a way that gave director Bong what he needed spatially, because I’m not an action writer. Fortunately, he didn’t need or expect me to be an action writer, because that is where he really excels. But when you’re writing those scenes, you have to be aware of how to create the world in the very specific amount of space we would have, specifically in this film where we were limited by the physical train cars. And also, keep in mind how we would keep moving forward. And that was a challenge to me, because I’d never written a genre film with the kind of rules this film has.
For a movie which is very dense and required some serious world building, you avoid the typical exposition dumps, where characters take time out to explain the science of the train. You kept it simple and let the audience figure things out for themselves.
That was really the way director Bong works, and he did that in The Host as well, where he sets things up rather simply and has enough faith that the audience will follow him on this journey. He doesn’t think people need to be convinced to believe as much as some other directors might. And all the exposition really is just at the beginning, with that audio during the credits. But once the audience knows the world is frozen, and all that lives is on the train, the movie can just kind of race. One of the only scenes where we give exposition is the backstory of who Wilfred is, but we made an effort to have a little fun when we explained how the train came to be, and that was really fun to write. We wanted the film to give information without it feeling like exposition, and have director Bong’s signature sense of humor because it is quite bizarre.
I know there were actors in this film that director Bong has said he always wanted to work with. Did you have to write with specific actors in mind?
The only part I really wrote for a specific actor was Allison Pill, and it’s a role so bizarre that it really is a departure for her. He would talk about actors, but I tried not to let that influence how I wrote the characters, because I wanted them to exist on the page first, before these great actors inhabited them. I had no idea that Tilda Swinton would have a role in the film, and when I wrote Mason, I wrote it as a man. But she wanted that role and plays it as a woman, without changing a word. Some of the characters even call her sir. I would have never imagined that role being played that way, but Tilda is an absolute revelation in the movie. And that is one of the great surprises as a writer, when an actor interprets your words in a way you never imagined possible and you’re blown away.
Were there performances by actors in the film who played or interpreted the roles differently from how you imagined them when writing?
Well, Tilda of course. And Jamie Bell is very impish and mischievous as Edgar, which I didn’t predict from his character. That might just be Jamie. John Hurt is so brilliant, and I kind of knew it would be a good character when I wrote it, but he plays Gilliam so brilliantly and it’s such a joy to watch an actor like John bring that character to life. I think he’s just amazing.
One of the scenes I wanted to ask about is Tilda’s long political monologue which is ridiculous but not as ridiculous when you think of all the metaphors politicians throw around in their political chatter.
Thank you for mentioning that speech. It is my favorite speech, and for director Bong to let me write such a long speech was remarkably generous. He loved it and never let me cut it down. But I got the idea from a strange direction he had written, that she puts the shoe on his head, and then we had to go backwards and find a reason why she would do that. We had to find the illustrative point Minister Mason wants to make, and it also explains what the train is really all about.
The audience also comes down on the side of the people at the back of the train definitively in that scene, because we, like them, are being forced to listen to her give that speech during a moment of torture.
That scene is also an amazing juxtaposition that director Bong and I were able to create. Because it is this horrible moment to watch, a man in pain, but we’re also laughing. But that is kind of what director Bong’s films are all about.
Having just re-watched Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, it struck me that you are great at writing characters who are experiencing a full breakdown. I’m thinking of that incredible scene of Philip Seymour Hoffman and here, with Chris Evans‘s Curtis. We see scenes go so wrong in other movies, getting too melodramatic or over the top. How did you write those so that they fit into the film and characters?
Well, it certainly is a balancing act, because like you said, if you try too hard, it does seem melodramatic. But one of the things I’ve always been aware of was the fact that when people are in that state of mind, they are not as articulate as they might otherwise be. So I write shorter sentences for them and refrain from giving lucid thoughts, because that isn’t how they are thinking at that moment. It should be emotional talk. And then you have to have great actors who can make that work and not overplay the scene. Of course, Philip Seymour Hoffman was perhaps the greatest actor of his generation, so if you give him something like that, he was able to just run with it. There was another scene in Before the Devil… where he knew exactly what to do and I did not. I had written a scene where he destroys his apartment, and instead of this big scene, he just dumps out this jar of shells very slowly, and it gets the same emotions across in a far more realistic way. Chris Evans’ performance I think will open a lot of people’s eyes about how good an actor he is. Again, he isn’t over the top and very contained, but we really feel everything he is feeling in those scenes, the horror and the guilt he lives with, and that scene has a sense of a person being overwhelmed by emotion as they are about to fulfill their destiny.
And in that scene, you could easily have had a flashback. Many films would have done that, but you choose to have a monologue, which is unexpected. Was it part of your rules in telling this story that the film would only be told in a linear way?
Yes, this film had to be told linear. We didn’t want to break the story and go backwards just to give explanations, particularly because this movie does take place on a train and is always moving forward, just the way our characters are always moving forward. Which is ironic because I am somewhat known for having flashbacks. But this is an unusual narrative for a film in Hollywood, which is perhaps why it is a Korean film, to have a character say everything he’s feeling towards the end of a film. We rarely see actors remembering in that way. And I was nervous because we had this long speech from Curtis, and then a long speech by Wilfred, and I got nervous that we would have to cut them, but director Bong liked them and wanted to keep them in the movie. I think those speeches are riveting and emotional to watch, and I hope others will think so too, but maybe it won’t work for some people who are only looking for action. But personally, I wanted those scenes when we find out exactly how a character is feeling.
Did you and director Bong discuss the character’s backstory?
We talked about that in terms of their age and what life was like before they arrived on the train. But we never wanted that information to be explicit or in the screenplay. And I don’t even know if director Bong discussed that with the actors, although I would think the actors would want to know or create their own backstories. But we always wanted to keep in mind that the world was the train.
I’ve read that you’re fascinated by actors who have fatal flaws which bring them down. Did you take that approach here with the characters?
That’s an interesting question. I think that Gilliam and Wilfred are deeply flawed characters. But Curtis is kind of the opposite of that kind of character. He has already known his fatal flaws, but what he doesn’t know about himself is that he can also be heroic. He’s almost the reverse of a classic Shakespearean character…a man with fatal flaws who has to find hope within himself. And we, the audience, and he, don’t know if he has that within himself because he’s so flawed. So he is actually the inverse of a tragic character. And that light in Curtis is what Gilliam sees that the audience might not until the end.
Speaking of, one of the great pieces of poetic dialogue in the film is Curtis’s line to Gilliam – “How can I lead if I have two good arms?” – Which is just beautiful and fits so naturally. Are there lines in the film which you are particularly proud of?
Well, that line is something director Bong thought of himself and I agree, it is a perfect piece of dialogue. So I have to give all the credit there to director Bong. Arms actually have a lot of symbolism in the film, and we know how far we would take that symbolism, so we have that line, we have the sign the children make in the classroom and motion Wilfred and Mason make. And we wanted to lay that ground work throughout, but we didn’t want to be too precious about it or too heavy handed.
Did you have to take into account the nationality of the characters?
The idea we started with was, the train is very much like Noah’s Arc, so there had to be at least two of everything. And that included nationalities. But I don’t think we wrote characters as specific nationalities and we didn’t have specific traits which were dictated by their nationalities. But we did want to write in different ethnicities. But just by the nature of the film, being director Bong’s first English language film and the marriage of us, we knew there would be English language characters and Korean language characters.
Having studied theology, did that knowledge inform how you wrote the metaphor of the train as an arc?
Maybe. I was always influenced by religious and Biblical stories because they are very elemental. And they resonate with people, and a broad number of people, because they are strong, basic stories that are easy to understand. So that might have had an influence when writing it. We also have a Christ figure in the film…actually we have a couple of characters with connections to Bible figures. But I’m also very drawn to and influenced by Shakespeare’s stories because they focus on questions of human nature. Good stories are just good stories, and you find and use them where you can, so long as they resonate for audiences.
Sci-fi presents an opportunity for a writer to address big issues head-on because you are within a world of your own creation. Was that something you enjoyed exploring as a writer that you might not have had the opportunity in a more realistic, contemporary drama?
Certainly. We talked about those ideas at the beginning of the writing process. We talked about the haves and haves nots, and what part of human nature creates class systems. And we didn’t have to stretch too far, because it was all there in the graphic novel. The difficulty was to make sure the film didn’t seem too simplistic or too obvious. But I was thinking, when writing it, of the Arab Spring, the uprising going on at the time we were writing. I was thinking about revolution and uprisings and ideas of freedom and how it’s existed since the cavemen. So I was aware that we were working with a lot of metaphors, but we were also very aware that it had to be grounded by the characters and you can’t make everything symbolic or let it get too heavy handed. Yes, it reflects universal issues of human nature, but it is also the story of one man.
I understand there was a time when they wanted you to add voiceover, which, while watching it, I’m glad wasn’t included. It isn’t needed.
I agree, and thankfully, director Bong agreed and stood up for his film. That was when the distributors wanted to cut it considerably, and I think they wanted the voiceover to fill in the gaps. When that issue came up, Harvey Weinstein wanted a shorter film and one with more action, because he thought it would play better with American audiences. And it isn’t necessarily a movie American audiences are used to seeing. I think Americans will be able to understand the film, even if they don’t recognize it. But there was the thought that if we lost 20 minutes, it would play better. But ultimately, and thank Harvey Weinstein for making this decision, they agreed to release director Bong’s cut that was so successful in Korea.
When it comes to structure, like flashback, sometimes there is a laziness or it seems like it’s there only to fix something. Do you like voiceover as a device?
I don’t think I’ve ever used it and for the most part, I’m not a fan of it. I come from the theater, where all your information is given on stage. This opinion isn’t a rule, because sometimes it is very effective. I think the voice over in Forrest Gump is excellent. But I’m not a big fan and I haven’t used it my work.
What are the biggest differences in writing screenplays compared to writing for the theater?
Pace is very different, much faster. And you have so much more freedom with a film, because you can cut from one scene to the other. You can have a hundred people battling in one scene, as we have in Snowpiercer. But I think where my strength as a playwright comes in handy in writing films is I can write characters who can express emotions through words, while still using subtext. I am also too wordy, most directors want to cut, although director Bong didn’t and in some scenes said he wanted long pieces of dialogue, which was great for me.
Was it hard to go from theater, where the playwright has considerable say, to films, where the director is king?
It is hard, because I, like most writers, take great pride and ownership of my work, but there comes a time when you have to give that up to a director who can make changes you have no control over. I’ve been very lucky with the screenplays I’ve had made into films. To have Sidney Lumet direct your first movie and Bong Joon-Ho collaborate on the next is remarkable and they were very good to me and very good to my scripts. I’ve had collaborative relationships with the director of Killing Kennedy as well, although that was TV which is a little different in terms of the role of the writer.
Do you like being on film sets during production?
I do, but I don’t get to do it often. I was on set and collaborating a lot on Killing Kennedy. Sidney Lumet didn’t like having me on set, but that’s okay because look at the movie he made. And they shot Snowpiercer in the Czech Republic and I was working on another project at the time so I couldn’t go. But I love being on sets and seeing the films being made.
Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website lesleycoffin.com)