Showrunner Graeme Manson on ‘Snowpiercer’ and How the Show Could Evolve in Season 2
From show creator Graeme Manson (Orphan Black) and inspired by both the graphic novels and the original film from director Bong Joon Ho, the TNT drama Snowpiercer is set more than seven years after the world as we knew it became a frozen wasteland and those that were left stepped onto a perpetually moving train with 1,001 cars that circles the globe. Even though there is a very clear and strict class and social division between passengers, when a grisly murder threatens to ignite an already tenuous structure, the powerful head of hospitality, Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly), turns to Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs), the world’s only surviving homicide detective, to keep the balance.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, showrunner/writer/executive producer Graeme Manson talked about his approach to telling this story, the challenges in making a show like Snowpiercer and how that compares to the challenges he had in making Orphan Black, creating the look for the train cars, his own personal favorite train car in the first season, the unusual journey this show has taken in finally getting onto the screen, having an early Season 2 pick-up, playing with the duality of the characters, and how the story could continue to evolve, in the future.
Collider: I loved this movie, and anytime there’s a great film, you feel nervous about what a TV show is going to do with that material, but this is definitely a different take on it.
GRAEME MANSON: I wanted it to really add to the canon and to the franchise ‘cause I was a huge fan of director Bong’s film, as well. Subsequently, I discovered the graphic novels and I thought that a TV series could live really well alongside it, taking a little bit of a little bit from each of those things. Depending on a character drama that was a stratified, class-based character drama, on this crazy, existential, perpetual motion machine.
What was it that originally led you to watch the movie? Had you been a fan of director Bong’s previous work, or did you watch it by chance?
MANSON: Yeah, I had seen a couple of director Bong’s films. I wouldn’t say I was a huge fan. It was Snowpiercer that blew me out of the water. I just thought it was the weirdest, wildest, funniest action film that I’d ever seen. It was funny, in a very dark humor way. There were just elements that I loved about it. The film is so linear. It starts in the tail, and it’s just, “Take the engine.” They moved from left to right, across the screen, all the way to the engine. You can’t do that in a television series. I think the biggest choice was to make sure that we introduce the classes together, so that we understand the stratified society and you know a group of people in the tail, you know a group of workers, and you know the people from first class. Spending equal time in building those characters flushes out a world that can then survive on its own and will create its own ecosystem of drama that can get to be a dramatic television series and, most importantly, an action adventure, and something that’s really edge of your seat and keeps some of the wildness of the movie and the graphic novels.
Have you had an experience like that before, where you’ve watched a movie and said, “This could make a TV show and I could do this,” or was this the first time that you’ve had something like that happen?
MANSON: I did think, after seeing the film, “I wonder if that could be a serialized TV story,” but I was in the middle of Orphan Black, so I never really thought about it again, until I finished Orphan Black. I was actually looking to take a little break from TV work and try to get some future work, when I heard that they were making Snowpiercer into a series. That’s when I put my brain into overdrive to try to pitch my take on that.
When you came off of a show like Orphan Black, that seemed so tremendously challenging, did you have a sense that everything would have to be easier when you don’t have your lead actor playing a dozen different characters, or does a show like this just have its own set of challenges?
MANSON: Nothing is more challenging, production wise, than having your number one through five, or possibly 13, on the call sheet be the same person. That’s a special kind of hell, for everyone involved. But the biggest thing for me is that this is, by far, the biggest production that I’ve ever been involved in with the biggest cast. It’s a huge cast, so it’s hard to keep all of those balls in the air, dramatically, and give everyone there due, but I really enjoyed doing that. They’re a tremendous cast, and they’re a very close cast. They’ve spent a long time together, working on this, already. They put a lot of trust in me, especially some of the actors who had new parts from the previous pilot. The sheer scale of it and the challenge of the train cars was a massive Season 1 challenge, and kudos to (production designer) Barry [Robison] and the suffering art department, who were up for the challenge. First seasons are really hard. They have a lot of approvals and a lot of cooks trying to get the look right. I had James Hawes as a producing director, who was fantastic. He shot the first two episodes and really established feel. We had a great working relationship. A challenge for this one is that it’s more CG than I’ve ever done. Geoff Scott did all of our visual effects on Orphan Black, as well. Before, he had to make his effects invisible, and now he’s making them very visible, for all to see. It’s a big technical show with a lot of practical sets that move and interlock. When you stick a big cast in that, it’s a scheduling nightmare, as well.
How did the decision come about to actually move and shake the train cars, and what’s it like to have the actors adjust to working with that?
MANSON: Part of our real design, that I came up with, with James Hawes and with Barry, was to make sure that large parts of the train could be claustrophobic, and that you would feel that you were in the tail and imprisoned back there, with 400 other people. But then, as you move up the train, especially with Layton coming out of the tail, as the audience’s eyes, every room he steps into is brand new. There’s that sense of discovery, as you’re moving up the train, and the possibilities that open up on this train that’s 1,001 cars long. Hopefully, we can open those doors on weird, wonderful cars, for five or six seasons.
Do you have a personal favorite train car set?
MANSON: Yeah, I would have to say that the night car is my Season 1 favorite set. We do a lot in there, and we had some very memorable performances from Lena Hall and some great musical numbers, as well as some great emotional moments. Without giving too much away, we also have some good fighting.
Every project obviously takes some time, from when it’s green lit, and goes on a journey in getting to the screen, but this is a series that’s been on a more unusual journey. It’s had two showrunners, two pilot directors, it’s jumped back and forth to different network, and it’s even gotten an early Season 2 renewal, which has been a bit of a roller coaster. What’s it like to already be deep into a second season of the show?
MANSON: For me, it’s an over two-year journey to get to this point, and for the cast, it’s three years. Really, I’m just happy for the cast, that they finally get to launch this, but it’s also a little tempered, in this time, with the lockdown. We’re not going to New York to launch, or going to the TCAs again. We didn’t go to Comic-Con, and we didn’t go to Austin. So, I feel for the actors. They’ve waited a long time for the big in-person launch, and we had to do it in a different way. But I do think that the show is gonna land, in this time, and that the cast will feel good about it and vindicated that they had to wait this long. They just deserve to have everybody see their long, hard work, these last three years.
When you pitched your vision for this show, how far ahead had you thought about the story? How many seasons did you lay out for that pitch, and is Season 2 looking like what you thought it would look like?
MANSON: You have a loose concept of three seasons, and an end point. I pitched what an end point could be, and I pitched it as three very loose seasons. But as with Orphan Black, the middle can expand. You can keep the same end points and have it turn into five acts, or five seasons. It’s mostly about having an end point in mind, as well as an end point for the first season, and then who knows how long the middle will be. You just try to build up these characters, so that when you come back in the second season, they’re carrying it themselves. The world now exists on its own, too.
What was it like to already be deep into the second season of the show, before it had ever aired? Does it feel different, as a showrunner, to be so far ahead with the series without yet getting any feedback from audiences?
MANSON: Yeah, definitely. It does. It’s very different for the cast, too. It’s strange. Maybe to our benefit, we were able to put our heads down and make this in a bubble. Coming out of that now, it’ll be interesting. I think it’s really made for a strong cast and crew. We’ve showed episodes to the crew, and everybody on the show knows what we’re doing and we’re all proud of it. That’s just exciting.
These characters are so interesting because they have the life that they’re living, and then they have the life that they project. Is it fun to play with characters that have that duality?
MANSON: Yeah, I love doing that. I find, and actors often find, that the most interesting thing about characters are their contradictions, so we love to play that. We always knew that it would have to be a character drama, to keep coming back to this wildly outlandish existential premise for the show. You’ve gotta create your own world in this train, and the thing that connects each of these characters is that they all have this terrible sense grief and they’ve all been traumatized by the end of the world. They all, in effect, should be us, here in our world, with climate change upon us. The world that they left behind, seven years ago, is our world, completely. The audience should feel that, and it’s a good grounding thing for all of the characters to be me sharing. We also did this thing, through the two seasons, where a different character will have the opening monologue of the show. That character may not be super heavily involved in the plot, but whatever that character is going through, thematically, is a big thematic root for that episode. We do that to get closer to these characters and to discover the shared grief. They’re all handling the trauma of losing everything, and the grief and the guilt of losing everything, together but in different ways, whether they’re hiding it, trying to express it, turning to religion, turning away from religion, creating new social spheres to live in, or trying to fight for a better life. At the end of the day, you just hope that all of the struggles are recognizable and thematically connected to our world, with the themes of incarceration, immigration, detention, and privilege.
There’s such an interesting dynamic between the characters that Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly play, especially with everything that they’re hiding from each other. What do you enjoy about that relationship dynamic, and what can we expect to see continue to evolve between them?
MANSON: It was very much a cornerstone already, when I came onto the show, with the detective from the tail and the woman from first-class keeping a secret. It’s a great place to start. Daveed coming out as the audience’s eyes on the train, he gets a quick introduction to the underbelly of the train, as he tries to solve this murder, being the last detective on Earth. But Layton has another agenda. He’s a revolutionary. That’s the real story of Season 1. It really heats up between Jennifer and Daveed, as they begin to play each other, and he begins to glean her secrets. It’s was very interesting for us, as writers, to present Jennifer as a villain, and then to humanize her, and then also to take Daveed as humanized, at the beginning, and press him into places where that humanity is tested. How far will you go in survival, at the end? They’ve all challenged themselves with that once and bore the trauma of it, from saying goodbye to the world and getting on this train. Those two characters represent the class divide on the train. Whether or not it’s those characters exploring it, it’s the fabric of every episode.
Because this is a cast that was already in place when you came onto the show, what have you enjoyed about watching what they bring to these roles and writing toward that?
MANSON: When I came on, there were 13 cast deals and 13 cast members in place. With Jennifer and Daveed, their characters changed. Their social strata and where their character comes from on the train did not change, but the world changed completely, so the characters had to change completely. So, they were essentially in place, but had to slip on a new skin. And then, many of the other cast, like Alison Wright and Lena Hall, I had to go to them and present them with new roles, and talk through this world and convince them that they should come back and play an entirely different character. That took a lot of trust. This cast is cohesive, and they love new combination. When we got into Season 2, we were like, “Well, we’ve never put these two characters together.” I love that kind of exercise for the writers’ room, and the writers love that, too. It’s fun to put two opposites together and see what you can find with them. We have quite an exploration with the cast, too. If the writers are struggling with or mining something that we really like about the character, we’ll go to the cast and have open discussions on how that fits with their vision of the character. It’s collaborative, that way. And my relationship with Jennifer was very hands on. She’s so meticulous. Before we started shooting, we would spend every episode and almost every day, sitting with the script and looking at things, and reissuing pages and going through the details. It was all about staying in step. It was a great first season.
You said that you had a loose idea of what three seasons could be. Now that you’ve gotten a good portion of the way through shooting the second season, does it feel the ideas for that third season are more solidified now?
MANSON: It depends on whether we get a Season 3. The general sense or shape is holding up. It’s very malleable, I would say. I think we have a good sense of what our Season 3 could be. It would be more about figuring out a Season 3 ending, whether it’s a cliffhanger to come back again, or not. I’m not sure. The end point, that flagpole that we put up, hopefully moves down the road with more seasons. Or you stick to that end point and figure out a reboot of the characters and the train. I’m not sure what that would look like. There are as many Snowpiercer stories as there are, trains that you can imagine. I think it’s a franchise that you could reboot, in a different time, on a different train, or with a different cast. With this cast, let’s hope that we’re looking at five or six seasons.
Snowpiercer airs on Sunday nights on TNT.
Source : Christina Radish Link