MAY 25, 2020
Over the last week, the television show Snowpiercer (which premiered Sunday 5/17 on TNT) has received a wide variety of critical responses. Among less enthusiastic reviews, the most common complaints are the following:
- It’s not a film and Bong Joon-Ho isn’t the director.
- There’s no Chris Evans fighting his way to the front.
- It’s not HBO, so it’s really only for basic-cable audiences.
Recently I’ve had the privilege of watching the show’s first season and talking at length with showrunner Graeme Manson, whom I knew from our discussions of Orphan Black (2013-17). I want to preface the following interview by responding to some of the above objections.
To begin with, we are living in a period of overlapping, mutually exacerbating crises. Even as the current U.S. administration decimates the rights of immigrants, respect for journalists, and the possibility of a civil public sphere, it is partnering with many of our world’s wealthiest individuals in knowingly destroying humanity’s only viable habitat. Of late, America has been living a fast-forwarded version of this economic and ecological devastation because of COVID-19. We have seen our leaders repeatedly choose avoidance and propaganda over any awareness we are interdependent beings, that in very real ways the health of one is the health of all.
Into the midst of this chaos, a television series like Snowpiercer appears that of course is not Bong Joon-Ho’s feature-length adaptation of the original French comics, that of course lacks a ginormous premium-cable budget, and that of course must be narratively accessible to reach its broader primary audience, with relatively clear beginnings and endings and at least some positive energy around a main character or two. And too many early reviews are dismissing it. Is this really a matter of its quality? Or is it evidence of a category error, a failure to grant a new work the freedom to be itself?
I think we need to value works of art distinctly according to their media, genres, and intended audiences. In a period when so many fellow Americans — and even plenty of Graeme Manson’s fellow Canadians — are confused about whether humanity is causing long-term climate devastation and about how costly the effects are for our present, not to mention future generations, perhaps we ought to pay extra attention to a series that builds its entire drama around that awareness.
The following conversation is wide-ranging and bidirectional. For those who don’t know him from Orphan Black — a five-season science fiction epic starring Tatiana Maslany as more clones than you can count — Manson took over as Snowpiercer’s showrunner after an extremely rough developmental and early production process. I have mostly left aside questions about that evolution here, focusing primarily on the series’ potential impact among a rapidly expanding body of fictional narratives that confront human-caused climate destruction. Indeed, my experience discussing climate storytelling with my Midwestern students plays a major role in the questions I ask, but there is also much here for those interested in practical elements of contemporary television production, unique challenges of cross-media adaptations, the politics of revolution and social control, the psychology of loss and grieving, and ongoing cultural responses to COVID-19.
EVERETT HAMNER: Take me back to the end of your time in Toronto as co-creator of Orphan Black (2013-17) and the period when you went looking for new opportunities. What attracted you to Snowpiercer?
GRAEME MANSON: I’d been in Toronto for about twelve years and I was ready to get back to the West Coast. And it felt like a good time to really take my first foray into L.A. in terms of living there for a little while rather than just going for a week of business. I was entirely ready to give T.V. a break. I pitched for some pretty cool feature films and was kind of giving it six months, but I wasn’t getting anything. Then my manager told me about Snowpiercer, like, “I know you don’t want to do TV, but …” and I said, “Are you joking?”
So you already knew it — the comics or the film?
I came at it through the film. I saw it when it first came out in the theater and loved it and watched it multiple times. I’d seen the graphic novels, or at least the first one, and when I heard they were making a television series, I went back to the graphic novels. And I started thinking about pitching something at TV for the first time since Orphan Black. You know, I actually had an inkling when watching the movie that there could be a cool television series in there, but I’d never thought much beyond that.
I had also made a commitment with some of my Orphan Black team to keep working together, namely producing partner Mackenzie Donaldson and creative producer Cosima Herter. We began to talk about the bigger themes of Snowpiercer and my idea of what a pilot structure would be, which I had fairly early in the process. We worked with Cosima to dig into some of the deeper themes: the politics of climate change and some of the things we’d considered in Orphan Black, like the parallels and distinctions between science and engineering. So as we did in the past, big ideas and themes emerged with the writers in a multifaceted conversation with Cosima, with Mackenzie keeping a close ear on that discussion for production purposes.
And there was a certain amount of comfort and confidence that came with this team, because I hadn’t been looking to get back into showrunning so quickly. We also brought on board Aubrey Nieland, who had written for several Orphan Black seasons, as the number two, as well as Semi Chellas, an old writer friend and brilliant mind, to consult with an eye to structure. I also again relied on Geoff Scott for visual effects, which was great for him because Orphan Black was a show where the quality of the VFX was judged by how invisible they were, with lots of Technodolly work and scenes with three to five clones at once, whereas Snowpiercer is more of a traditional VFX world-building environment with blue-screens.
As you’ve said, this was also a completely different opportunity to take a narrative that’s very linear — a rush from the back of the train to the front in the film’s case — and pause and change directions a few times. Contra journalists who’ve asked, “wait, isn’t this going to get stale after a year or two, aren’t we going to feel stuck on the train?”, I see the opposite possibility.
Yeah, I like those kinds of challenges. I don’t shy away from claustrophobic stuff, even on television or film, because I find it so visceral and great for tension. It’s the kind of viewing I like to do: I like to be sitting on the edge of my chair and reacting, and feel myself sitting up straight or crouching, sitting down, doing this [mimes cowering]. It’s one of those things I find delicious, one of those sensations film can create. And to use all the tricks of forced perspective and tiny sets. We even considered building some Escher sets. It’s one of the coolest things for incoming directors, to enter our set’s hallways and go, “how do I shoot this differently than the last person?” As we roll through in our second season, a really interesting language has grown. [While season one is just now launching, the show is already in post-production for season two.]
Since we started with the film, I’m guessing your favorite scenes there include the moment when the teacher whips a machine gun out of the basket, and maybe some of the zany humor too?
Yeah, I love those surprises in the movie. What the movie did so well is it anchored you in the Chris Evans character. From the very beginning, it’s break out of the tail and take the engine, and it just never relents. I really wanted that linear sense of coming out of the tail and the audience’s attention to be on the main character. But you could only hold off meeting first class uptrain for so long. TV wants faster worldbuilding, so the first episode needed to introduce the world of the train and follow the A story of Layton [Daveed Diggs]. That was pretty first and foremost on the network’s and the producers’ list of things they needed.
Makes sense. One thing I think really distinguishes the show, though, at least based on the first season, is the detailed spectrum between the haves and have-nots. I just went back and rewatched the movie, which I enjoy too, but one thing it can’t create is an in-depth sense of second- or third-class passengers, a real transitional set of spaces and characters between the front and the tail. That’s one of the strengths here: a chance to see how the same fears of falling back among the first class exist among the third-class passengers.
With the broader canvas, you need that. I think the graphic novels had first class-second class-third class-tail, but I’m not sure it was as distinctly delineated. We definitely said there’s three classes and then there’s a prison class. Those are the rules of worldbuilding, which I like: you have to put fences around things. That kind of rule is a structuring thing, and it’s what I loved about the movie as a sci-fi concept. It has that elemental class structure built into it. A train is the perfect place to set a story about class.
So if those boundaries are so valuable as a storyteller, what happens when there’s a revolution and they dissolve? That’s the terrain where people don’t tend to go in many of our stories about revolution — what happens afterward? We often don’t know what to do with that. In fact, this happens repeatedly: people overthrow a system that was pretty bad, but it creates a vacuum and something even worse takes over, because they weren’t really ready to make something new.
Yeah, I’m a little disappointed we didn’t get to spend a little more time in the exercise of democracy-building in season one, but there’s a charge, and while we have more time than a movie, it’s still a genre show with a relatively impatient, charging narrative. Democracy-building just gets interrupted quickly because somehow it’s not the most natural or exciting drama. And I find it a little bit interesting that just like in our world now, the hard work of creating policy and writing law and interpreting constitutions — all the gritty jobs that make our infrastructure run — are fictionally hard to get over the wall. It’s not only difficult for the writers to make riveting drama out of these processes within the confines of the show; it’s also not exactly easy to sell to the network. Though we do get back to it a bit in season two!
Anyway, sometimes you play with broad political concepts more than specific ones: Melanie [Jennifer Connelly] the authoritarian figure, Wilford the Big Brother, representatives of the bourgeois and the working class. As in Orphan Black, I like a little pulp. There’s a set of graphic novels, and Director Bong’s crazy-ass movie, and this needed to be tethered a little more to reality, but I also really wanted it to remain crazy — as crazy as it can be on TNT.
I was actually positively surprised at how much you were able to get away with.
It’s interesting how in the film, because the characters are such ciphers and the story is an allegory in itself, you project your own politics onto it. And the politics aren’t very specific in the film, either, it’s all conceptual. In TV, you have to hang your hat on things a little more. You try and define it and sometimes it ends up being a thing with a label stuck on it, because of the size of the cast and the difficulty of communicating bigger ideas. So that’s why embracing a little pulp is good, because you can smuggle some big ideas into the entertainment. They may not work all the time but they can work in key scenes and for key characters, and those moments can really land. We talked about that all the time with Cosima on Orphan Black too. It was like a mission statement.
Let’s talk about some of those key characters. What were some of the easy labels getting slapped on Andre Layton and Melanie Cavill that you worked to complicate?
Well, there’s an easy label, a TV trope off the top, of the detective handed Chinatown, and that’s one I love. It was also one of the set-in-stone parts of the story I stepped into. And I was like, you know, that’s a fine and fair way to introduce a character, it’s a smart way to do it.
You’re talking about that early story arc where it’s like, this is a detective story, and you don’t have the burden of the whole plot or backstory yet; you just get to know characters and setting.
Right, but the whole time, what I was selling was, “this is not a detective story, we’re just using this as a way in.” It was a challenge to keep this part good but let you know this isn’t yet the real story.
It may help you get an audience hooked that wouldn’t have come otherwise.
Yeah, you can imagine TNT loving that! For me, it was always a show about revolution, but we had this element that everyone liked and that worked and we went with it. It gave us time for the challenge of making Daveed’s character open his eyes to the terrible weight of the crown and the horrible things you have to do to rule. That realization that maybe authoritarianism is a lot easier than this.
And then there’s Melanie’s journey in struggling with her conscience, because she’s never been comfortable with her secret, with what she’s done. She’s an engineer who’s had an amazing, almost limitless opportunity to build something like a perpetual motion machine. There’s a certain amount of selling your soul to do that — it’s like making a TV series. And then to be in it and realize your morals are being compromised; to do something about that and then to find that the system that’s in place is not only extremely hard to change but makes things run easier, makes survival easier? You begin to — and I’ve always wanted to — question her motives, and how she came to be in possession of Wilford’s train. In seven years, some of the worst things she feared Wilford doing haven’t come to pass, but lots of the vestiges of Wilford rule remain because they’re easier and it’s hard to get people off them without upsetting the order, such as it is. Once an order is established, its deterioration can be slow. But the way that story unfolds: that was a really good journey to take with Jennifer [Connelly], who’s a very precise actor. She’s great, eh?
Absolutely. Personally, with the first episode, I was still on the fence until she appeared on screen with Daveed Diggs the first time. There’s lightning in the contrast between her polished hospitality rhetoric and his very clear, “I’m an inner-city black dude who’s heard this white neoliberal crap my entire life, and I’m not buying it for a second.” And of course that comes to a head by the end of the season. But without getting spoiler-ish, what would you hope people might be able to feel or imagine differently through watching these confrontations?
Well, I don’t really know. But maybe if there’s a feeling of optimism to be had here, it’s that in these divisive times … maybe it takes a crisis like COVID to bring us close enough together to see how aligned our interests actually are? There’s so much misinformation out there, and Snowpiercer also deals with the lies and Big Brother stuff. To me, there’s an antagonistic character journey, even war, but they come to understand one another’s positions and what it takes to survive. Is there a way we can survive and not suffer? It kind of sounds like a “no” to Layton.
I definitely found myself hoping that some viewers who aren’t especially into political theory or intellectual discussions of American or Canadian or Western history can look at Melanie and start feeling the sort of impulse that could drive an intelligent conservatism: that things are this desperate, there’s no time to decide, and I’m going to take these extreme steps even if it makes me puke and I hate myself. And then simultaneously that they might see someone like Layton, who’s an idealistic progressive type, have to look directly at the costs of his revolution. Your camera lingers over those bodies in a way the film didn’t — the cost of bloodshed is far more inescapable. I think that’s really welcome and could do some good, too, partly because this isn’t an HBO production that’s already going to be preaching to a relatively sophisticated crowd.
Yeah, I think it comes back to the fact that it’s a big mainstream show. Orphan Black managed to smuggle some high concepts and some actual science in. I think we’re doing a bit of that here too, but it’s also a broader spectrum show.
Yeah, since you raise science, let’s talk climate. Of course this isn’t a fictionalized version of An Inconvenient Truth, nor should it be, but in what ways was climate change on the back of people’s minds as your team wrote and acted and cut scenes?
It certainly was there when we designed the virtual world outside the windows. We did climate research on a lot of things we’re planning for deeper into the series. But practically it started with the actors in trying to get a grip on their characters. The thing they all shared was this terrible trauma of losing the world and everyone they ever loved. And that shared trauma is something we talked about a lot, and that’s a space the Night Car explores. That guilt they all carry, that they couldn’t save the world, is very recognizable. For all of us who feel like we’re not doing enough about climate change personally, and that we couldn’t do enough no matter what. It feels too big, which shouldn’t be the case.
You know, I’ve been teaching about climate and pop culture and the history of American and global responses for the last seven years now, and one of the things my students and I need to wrestle with again and again, is that this individual guilt is something the fossil fuel corporations who are most responsible for our situation want us to feel. They want us to think in terms of, “did I make the decision to recycle that item or did I buy that energy-efficient car?” And this masks the fact that climate devastation’s causes are mostly far more massive in scale and require similarly large, structural attention. That’s not to say that personal decisions don’t matter; they have symbolic weight and they help us psychologically to move forward.
But authoritarianism and the resurgent fascist brand will never solve climate change.
Right. Nor will moralism and guilt-tripping. And that raises one other thing I appreciated about the show’s integration of climate science: it doesn’t just matter outside the train’s windows, but it’s also built into the question of what you do if life exists only in a closed, finite system. A Spaceship Earth, a Biosphere 2 reality in which everything has to be used. Whether it’s methane and cattle or disease and strawberries, this sense of interconnection is critical. What would you say about how a sense of closedness and finiteness shaped the story?
Well, we looked at the Biosphere 2 project and John Allen. A lot of it wasn’t really germane, but it was interesting. They were a theater troupe originally, and they built a ship and sailed around the world putting on plays before they started their biosphere — it was a true collective.
I didn’t know that part; I’m getting flashes of Station Eleven. (HBO Max is adapting that novel too, I think with its own troupe of former Shakespearian actors running around giving plays along the eastern edge of Lake Michigan after an apocalypse via pandemic.)
Kind of like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, love it.
But anyway, it is a “spaceship,” but one of the things that kept it anchored for me is that we’re only seven years from the end of the world, and everybody still feels connected to what they lost. It’s that time when you’re trying to cut ties with the past … or holding onto it even tighter.
And thus the need for a space for lament … the Night Car? Tell me more about why it’s there.
Well, I mean it’s there to dazzle. It’s that element from the movie where you open the door to the night club and you’re like, “how does this exist on this train?” It’s a place for performance, for the arts. It’s kind of old school, a bit of a cabaret run by Lena Hall as Miss Audrey. It’s a place people go to share their secrets, a Switzerland, the geographic center of the train. So there’s intrigue there, but also healing, and sensuality, and arts and dancing and letting loose. They take people on a sensory journey that lets them reconnect with the end of the world and try to find ways to heal. It’s abstract, a way to do some flashback to earlier times without being prescriptive narratively. It’s not “normal” when we go there, it’s more dreamlike.
When you think about that need for lament and fantasy, can you connect that with how you feel living in the year 2020, with increasing evidence that we’re ruining our only home? And that in countries like mine, our leaders seem incapable of a responsible, collective response even to something like COVID-19, which comparatively isn’t that difficult?
I mean, I sure think we deal with a lot of things via distraction, with whatever form of virtuality you choose to drink. The Snowpiercer graphic novels have this virtual reality escapist component where people compose other lives so they can get away from the tedium of the train.
Right, kinda Westworld-ish.
Yeah, a bit Westworld-y. So it’s interesting that the experience that Miss Audrey creates is not an escapist one; it’s an internal reckoning with what she believes we all share, this collective guilt and grief. Maybe that’s a hopeful or positive way to look at it.
Huh, I didn’t think about it that way: that the escapism is opposed to the inward demon-facing?
The Night Car does both for sure.
Do they enable each other?
In a way, you could say that the show itself is a Night Car for its viewers, right? That it’s offering itself to us as a Night Car?
I think the television is the Night Car. You just turn on the Night Car. [laughs, mimes using remote control]
Ha! Then your show is like Miss Audrey, who shows up to perform and yet also to dig out these places that sometimes we don’t want to go for a long time, that we put off going to.
You know, with my students I talk about two pitfalls for facing climate change. On one side, there’s “cruel hope.” It’s this vapid, blithe, neoliberal message that “you know, everything’s gonna be OK.” There will be some kind of massive techno-solution, whether it’s for COVID-19 or climate devastation. And we’re sold that kind of superficial optimism on a regular basis, and it keeps us from acting urgently, from thinking about revolution of any sort.
But so does the other pitfall, which is “cruel despair.” The first time I taught a class about climate, I looked up halfway through the semester and realized just about every head in the room was hanging. I’d helped my students to glimpse the science and the historical factors that have put us on this path — and it’s going to take an awful lot to significantly improve the situation. But suddenly I wasn’t sure I was doing a lot of good. There can be a real cruelty to excessive realism, especially when you don’t offer enough potential solutions.
So one thing I look for now in pop culture is help for people in confronting reality, but not despairing, because falling into either pitfall means you do nothing differently. Instead people need a “rational hope” or “sober optimism” or even “angry optimism” that faces where we are, but doesn’t succumb to cynicism.
That’s really interesting. There’s lots of things about season two this raises that we can’t talk about yet — and more in season three too — but I like the two pitfalls.
Maybe this is related to one of my last questions, which is about the influence of your mom. I noticed another of her picture books popped up in a scene in Snowpiercer, kind of like the moment in Orphan Black when Cosima reads aloud from A Dog Came, Too. Are there parallels you feel between the aims of her storytelling and your own? Maybe even between your audiences and media?
For sure, she’s a huge influence. We’re three boys in my family and my dad, and those three are scientists, then me and my mom are writers. She started when we were all little kids, writing in the newspaper, an education page. There was a lot of history and grade school-aged stuff; then she started writing some stories from the research she was doing. She was telling us stories when we were kids and trying to write them down. She has a dozen or thirteen titles now. The last one was self-published because that industry has been gutted so much, but she still works and meets with her group of children’s writers. It’s great having that ally in the family.
Yeah, I have a parallel in that my mom is now retired but ran a preschool for twenty years. She did a lot of character voice reading with me as a young child, so that’s part of what made me ask. A lot of time people poo-pooh early childhood stuff, including picture books, and there’s a snobbery that sometimes says, “Ah, that’s not literature.”
It’s crucial! Kids’ books are often overlooked for their cultural value.
And it strikes me that in some ways a television show aimed at a mass audience isn’t all that different. It can get unfairly dismissed. But you’re not going to end either your show or a picture book with, “Then the train was blown apart and two kids emerge and find themselves staring at a polar bear (wondering if they’ll get eaten today or tomorrow),” right? Of course that’s just one way of reading the film’s ending, but the key is that it’s engaging a different genre and medium and audience.
[Laughing] Yeah … but I still hope there’s some carnage!
No doubt! But that’s the challenge, yes? To tell a story that meets the expectations of a group of TNT producers and executives for broad digestibility and accessibility — and to do lots of subversive, subtle, thought-provoking work on the way.
Yeah, I think that’s Snowpiercer at its core. There’s a quote I go to a lot in the afterword of the third graphic novel, where Jean-Marc Rochette explains his vision for that volume and says what makes a good Snowpiercer story. Here it is: “The fleeting joy of survivors who think they’ve finally managed to escape their fate, only to find that they’ve fallen into the very worst possibilities today’s world could produce. But with a happy ending of a new model of society. Underlying criticism of contemporary society: migration, detention centers, nuclear power, the dangers of eugenics and transhumanism. Don’t lose sight of what’s at its heart: a hard-hitting action adventure.”
It’s a charge to tell incisive stories of politics and the threats of our day, but at the same time to never lose track of the fact that it’s an action-adventure story that holds out hope for a better future for humanity. So, you know, you really can take a fairly dark journey along the way if that’s the ending, and you can take a mass audience on that dark journey if that’s where you’re going — at least if you can convince the network! In fact, I hope there will be other Snowpiercer tales in the future with people telling the stories their own ways. The train can handle it!
But if this TV series isn’t dark enough for you or as bleak as the film or some elements of the graphic novel, let’s remember that the graphic novel ends with a blade of grass and that Bong Joon-Ho’s movie ends with a polar bear, and that both of those things signify hope. They fulfill the charge from Rochette that we’re to look for a better future. And if that kind of hope is a little more mainstream via our show, I’m extremely happy.
One last thought: it’s interesting that in a lot of the press I’m doing, everybody — literally everybody — is asking, “Oh, could you have ever expected Snowpiercer to be so resonant as it is now with COVID-19?” But … it was supposed to be resonant with climate change! The current coronavirus crisis is only a few months old, but climate is still the biggest threat facing humanity. Ultimately, though, COVID-19 and climate change are connected … because it’s all us.
Everett Hamner is a professor of English at Western Illinois University. His book Editing the Soul: Science and Fiction in the Genome Age (Penn State, 2017) includes a section on Orphan Black, and he has a forthcoming chapter in The Palgrave Handbook of Literature and Science on climate disaster and restoration in Kim Stanley Robinson’s work.