ScreenCraft’s John Rhodes interviewed screenwriter Kelly Masterson about his recent international hit SNOWPIERCER, directed by Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho and starring Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris and an immensely talented supporting cast. The film is South Korea’s tenth highest-grossing domestic film at the box office. It has been critically acclaimed in the United States where the Weinstein Company gave it a VOD and online release before a limited theatrical run.
JOHN: You have adapted books before; most recently you adapted Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Kennedy” for National Geographic Channel. Is this the first time you’ve adapted a graphic novel and what was that process like?
KELLY: Yes, it’s my first time adapting a graphic novel. I have to say it was also one of the very first times I ever read a graphic novel. It was very surprising to get an offer to write it out of the blue, as I didn’t know director Bong. He had seen “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead” and he called me just out of the blue and asked if I would collaborate. Right away I watched “The Host” and “Mother.” It’s never the case except with this project that the source material actually didn’t matter that much to me; it was just the opportunity to work with him. I’m lucky that I like the graphic novel as much as I did.
It was different to adapt than anything else I’ve done, mostly because of director Bong had a specific vision for what he wanted to do. Often times when you adapt a book you keep going back to that source material, you keep looking at the structure of it, or the events or the characters or whatever might be in there to help you. And in this case Director Bong freed me to write because he was less interested in the specifics of the book than he was in the spirit of the book. So we used it as a kind of jumping off point and then got to play in the sandbox.
JOHN: I would love to hear more about what the co-writing process was like for you. Have you co-written before, and what was your creative process with Director Bong?
KELLY: I haven’t ever written with anyone else before. So it made me a little nervous going in because I didn’t know how much trouble I would have. I have been very lucky — I have been very isolated in my career writing stage plays and the early work of just writing specs to try to get Hollywood to use something of mine. So I always wrote by myself. It turned out to be a really wonderful experience to co-write. I ended up collaborating on a script that I never could have written by myself. Not in 100 years would I be able to write that script unless I worked with someone that had that kind of imagination. So that was a terrific experience.
He took a stab at the first draft and sent it to me. We met in LA for a couple of days and talked about the structure and all the things you think about in writing and then he just let me go. I played around and delivered a draft back to him and then after that we talked on a weekly basis. He was in Korea, I was in New Jersey, so we had a 13 hour time difference. We did Skype back and forth every Monday morning as a routine. And we just kicked ideas back and forth; he would take a stab at part of it, I would take a stab at part of it. We were never in the same room writing, so I don’t know what that experience would be like. But this experience was really terrific because he was very visual, very creative. He would come up with ideas that would thrill me and inspire me and I would go and work at my laptop.
I’m very prolific. I overwrite; I write way too much. I love writing that way so any idea he would give me, I would run with it and sometimes write two or three pages to see if he had a way to make it work and in the end it would be maybe a page and a half. I don’t know if that’s how collaboration is supposed to work, but it certainly was a very joyous experience to work with him.
JOHN: This is a very multicultural collaboration. It’s a Korean director making an English language movie based on a French graphic novel. Could you tell me a little bit about what kind of awareness or thought your had as a screenwriter writing for a very multicultural worldwide audience?
KELLY: Yeah we knew we wanted to do that right away. Director Bong had it in his mind that he wanted it to be predominantly in English because that was the market he wanted to break into and he chose material with a premise that would lend itself to a very global approach. We talked a lot about it being similar to Noah’s Ark, just in terms of gathering two of every kind. We didn’t take it literally in that film, two Americans, two Africans etc. We didn’t really take it quite that literally. We did have that notion — if you put the whole world on one train what would it look like? Well it’s not going to be all white or all Asian. It would be this wonderful mixture of races and religions all sort of thrown together. So we were very aware of what we wanted to do. We both knew that we wanted the lead character Curtis (played by Chris Evans) to be English-speaking. We kind of wrote it for a Brit and then over time it sort of evolved and it became an American.
JOHN: Was there much creative input from a producer during the writing of the film?
KELLY: No not at all. Nothing. I never spoke to any person ever except director Bong.
JOHN: That’s very unusual.
KELLY: It’s very unusual and it’s a glorious experience. I have one similar experience where I had a director very early on in a project and so that was really the only person I listened to. Lots of other people gave me input but I really only listen to the director, whereas in this case I never spoke to anyone. One of the producers came on one of the Skype calls just to say hello. But there was no input whatsoever, he just let director Bong and I completely alone, a wonderful free experience.
JOHN: Let’s talk about Harvey Weinstein. There has been quite a bit of media coverage over the fact that he wanted to cut a lot of it and change the release strategy for the film. How involved were you in those discussions and do you know what part he wanted to cut?
KELLY: I wasn’t involved in any of the discussions at all, because it was the producers and director Bong dealing with Harvey. I got a little call from director Bong. He met me in New York and we talked about writing some voiceovers. We put it in the voice of young Timmy the back boy who survives at the end. I did write some voiceover that luckily we never had to use because obviously Harvey Weinstein changed and agreed to let director Bong’s vision be seen by everyone. I do know that this is a very unusual movie, and it’s the type of thing that American audiences don’t get to see a lot of. It’s bizarre and funny and violent and unusual — in some places absurd and surrealistic. So it’s a lot of things that maybe would be harder for American audiences to see.
JOHN: Did you go to Korea?
KELLY: No. Fortunately or unfortunately I was busy on another project so I didn’t get to go on set when they shot in the Czech Republic either. So when I finally got to see it in New York when director Bong called me and wanted me to come and look at it and consider the voiceover. It was such a pleasant surprise because I had not seen any of it, so it was terrific to see.
JOHN: Much of the storytelling is from the protagonist’s perspective and it’s quite a contrast to your previous feature “Until the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” Did you consider other nonlinear ways of telling the story?
KELLY: No we never did. It was part of the beauty of the graphic novel, very straightforward and just the whole notion of the train moving forward in a straight line. That’s the way we wanted to tell the story. So you are right I normally do love to bend time, it comes from years of writing plays, I did that as well. I like to change perspectives, I like to look at things in different ways from different characters’ points of view. But that certainly wasn’t going to be this story. We knew right away that this was going to be a very straightforward approach.
JOHN: This film is very allegorical. How does a writer balance writing allegory and writing pure entertainment value?
KELLY: I never even thought of it that way. I think the biggest challenge is not to think about it too much. I think if you are really trying to send a message you get in the way. You get in the way of your characters. Clearly it is allegorical, clearly it does talk about human nature which I am always interested in and talks about our society. But once you set that up, once you realize that’s what it is, I think the best thing you can do is forget it. The storytelling is going to be better if it’s organic and comes out of the characters. Certainly Curtis represents something in our society but don’t write him as a representation. Write him as a real person who stands up one day on the back of the train and determines to take over the engine. And then make his story about the journey rather than about the haves and the have nots. Let all the other stuff take care of itself, it probably will. And what is done, when you finish the script and go back and read it out loud after letting it sit for a couple of weeks. I would look at it in terms of what is it saying and see if there’s anything where I’ve overwritten it or underwritten it. I see if there’s any way you can try and tweak it. But during the process of writing I really try to concentrate just on the characters.
JOHN: The film starts out with an emphasis on class warfare but then the hero’s goal shifts at the end. Did that come directly from the graphic novel or is that a creative choice that you made for the ending to kind of shift the protagonist’s goal?
KELLY: I think it came about during the writing. Director Bong and I went back and forth on Curtis’s agenda a few times. Director Bong knew what the ending was but we didn’t know exactly what Curtis wanted at all these points and I just let it come about as we were writing it.
We played for a while with a love story. We thought perhaps he had a girlfriend who was taken or somehow got the opportunity to go to the front and that he might be looking for her. You know, I’ve never talked about that with anyone. In all the interviews I’ve done I’ve never remembered that. But we jettisoned that. You know, we were finding our way as we found Curtis’ way.
And I love the seduction of Curtis; he gets so tempted when Wilford offers him the train and offers him a worldview that Curtis has never ever considered. It’s eye-opening for Curtis and it is seductive. It is ultimately not Curtis’ destiny, it is not the preordained role in his journey. But it certainly is tempting to him and I think that it’s a wonderful human thing that happens to people; when they achieve their goals and they realize that maybe they wanted something else all along. It’s a fascinating moment and so beautifully played by Chris Evans.
JOHN: Oh yeah and Ed Harris too, what a great combination for that scene.
KELLY: Yes I agree, terrific.
JOHN: Curtis seems like a very reluctant hero and I’m curious about how you dove into his characterization. Do you think he is reluctant because he lacks confidence as a leader or is he reluctant because he is ambivalent about the goal of taking over the train?
KELLY: I think he is ambivalent because he thinks he’s a bad person. He believes he is not as great as Gilliam. Gilliam is the greatest man he ever knew and he can’t take Gilliam’s place. And he doesn’t realize that Gilliam has saved him, has groomed him towards this purpose and he comes to realize that. I think that’s the biggest reluctance and I think there is an uncertainty about what to do. If I am the leader and have to get up there and take over the train, then what? It’s very easy for him in the beginning to confuse that because it’s like he’s going to put Gilliam in charge. But when Gilliam releases him halfway up the train and says you go on then he is at a loss. He doesn’t know what his future is, he is flying blind and it’s very difficult for him.
JOHN: How has your writing for the theater influenced the way you approach screenwriting? And what advice would you give to playwrights who are interested in screenwriting?
KELLY: I’m good at dialogue; I’m good at creating characters through dialogue. If you are a successful playwright (I was not a particularly successful playwright) but if you are a good playwright, you have to to get good at that because you don’t have the other tools you need. You don’t have the helicopters and the car chases or even for that matter the close ups and the things that help you reveal characters. In theater, what you have to reveal characters is what they say. So that’s the biggest strength I think playwrights bring to screenwriting is a strong sense of trying to build characters through words.
What advice shall I give to playwrights? Any writer should always try — this is such a trite thing to say but it’s so true — any writer should always try to discover their own voice and not try to imitate others. I spent years trying to break into the film business by imitating what I saw out there. But I wasn’t doing that in the theater world. In the theater world I was experimenting and playing and eventually finding a voice that was Kelly Masterson. And when I stopped imitating in screenwriting and started to listen to that inner voice for writing stories that interested me with characters which interested me, it sort of came out of me. Then I started having some success that I wasn’t having before.
In many ways I think it’s a bit sad to see playwrights go into the screenwriting world. There is so much opportunity for great experimentation to be done in the theater that I think we lose so many opportunities by chasing a screenwriting career. But clearly economically it’s the only choice to make film. I had to work a day job for 20 years although the entire time I was a playwright whereas now I get to write for a living in film and it’s only because of the economics in filmmaking.
But also I would encourage young playwrights to look for exciting and new experimental ways of expressing themselves. In film as well, because good Lord look what’s going on; now you can write a movie and you can make it put it on the Internet. There are wonderful opportunities for writers.
JOHN: What were some things that you did to prepare for writing your first screenplay and trying to get your work out there when you first started?
KELLY: The thing that made the difference for me was adapting a play of mine that had been somewhat successful to a teleplay, and I sold it. So that was really the first break for me. Everything else was sort of just flailing. And I wasn’t being successful at anything. In a way when I look back I was teaching myself the vocabulary of writing for the screen which is a bit different. So I don’t consider it a waste of time. I guess it was just hit and miss until I got a little better and to the point where I could write a script that would get people’s attention. There is no doubt about it, it is a hard hard business to break into. I liken my success to being hit by lightning; I just got really lucky. I wrote a good script that bounced around for a long time and then Sidney Lumet agreed to direct it. If it wasn’t for Sydney I would not have a career. It was just that one stroke of luck that gave me that opportunity to be a writer, a working professional screenwriter.
JOHN: Would you recommend any books on screenwriting or resources that you used when you were learning the craft?
KELLY: Not really. I came out of the theater; I began as an actor and then started writing plays. I just read lots and lots of plays; it was Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams. I just read an awful lot of plays which taught me about structure and character and I think that’s where I learnt most of what I learnt about writing drama. I read Sidney Lumet’s book “Making Movies” and it has been somewhat influential to me because I have such respect for him. I think perhaps your best resource is watch everything. You know watch everything being done on television — good stuff like True Detective. There’s great stuff on television. Go see lots of good movies, go read lots of good plays. That’s how I learnt.