‘Snowpiercer’ Director James Hawes on Making the Series Unique

Welcome to Snowpiercer Explained, the next in a long line of explainer columns about our favorite shows. With TNT dropping a new show into the Snowpiercer universe, we’re riding along to help you keep up with the mythology and filmmaking of this post-apocalyptic freight train. This entry features an interview with Snowpiercer director James Hawes.


TNT’s Snowpiercer series faced the challenges of following up Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 film of the same name. The premise of a class war that takes place on a train remains intact. But the show’s longer form allows the creators to delve deeper into the world and present the themes it’s out to address from different angles. It’s compelling television, and it also doesn’t hurt that there’s plenty of action, excitement, and a dash of cannibalism thrown in for good measure.

In the following interview, Snowpiercer director James Hawes (S1E1: “First, the Weather Changed”) discusses the challenges of delivering a show that honors what came before while delivering something fresh. Even though Snowpiercer has a fantastical premise, Hawes explains why it was important to add some realism to the proceedings. However, some of the show’s realistic elements are purely coincidental, as it reflects the state of the modern world.

I think the show has done a great job of differentiating itself from the movie, but some viewers may have come into the show with pre-existing ideas of what it should entail. That must put extra pressure on you.

We took a few hits earlier on in comparison to the movie. Obviously, the movie is a much more linear beast just by its nature. We had to go off in different directions and go much deeper into character. We owe a huge debt to the movie, and it’s lovely to think that we’ve done something that builds on that inspiration.

We had to absorb the world of the graphic novel and movie and say, “What can we take from this that’s brilliant and give longer life to? And what do we reimagine completely?” A big thing was creating different worlds. If we’re going to be there for two seasons and twenty hours of television, the carts have to be varied. We put things up to more examination and scrutiny, and the idea was, however far-fetched, there would be some basis of underlying science. Some sort of TESLA, Elon Musk extension of what was possible under everything. From what people ate to what they scavenged to the crises they faced. And also things like just engineering ways for characters to meet.

Obviously, you’ve got a train that’s one-thousand-and-one cars long. If you’ve got somebody to meet halfway up the train, it’s going to take a while to walk through all the other cars. So inventing things like the sub-train were crucial narrative sections and not just design innovations.

You mention the train cars. The show is restricted by the fact that it takes place in such a singular setting, but each part of the train does have its own distinct flavor. What were some of the challenges you faced when it came to diversifying the sets?

We all have an appetite, the network included, for variety. If you sell a show as being set in one place, it can immediately be a turn-off. I was really driven by the fact that it needed to feel like you were on a train throughout, that the confines of each space would be a part of. Instead of being a problem, it became an asset. It’s a pressure cooker for the emotion. It drives some of the visual shooting styles — there’s no such thing as a conventional wide shot or crowd extra. No one is ever so far back that they’re not in the shot.

Then we wanted different functions for every space. How was space being used? We wanted different levels of luxury, and lack of. So you really felt the grunge of the Tail in contrast to First Class to the Sushi Bar to the Night Car. We wanted the cars to have a sense of tech. The one that took the longest to design was the Marketplace. The way that was originally written and sketched was like a car boot sale, where people had a few items on tabletops and were trading.

The designer and I decided that was too two-dimensional, flat, and not exciting. The scenes that were written to take place in the market are aspirational. This is a sexy place to escape to, with dodgy goings-on, and where the rebels plan their attacks. It had to have much more of a soul.

That’s a really good example of us thinking, “How can one of the cars feel different?” We came up with the idea of shipping containers that have been cut about and repurposed in one of the two-level cars to create that very Blade Runner-like, improvised, machination, cafe kind of space. I think that worked out really well and allowed people to imagine spaces differently, to have a sense of underground about it.

And then you look at something more scientific like the Greenhouse car. That’s obviously in the original novel and the movie. And in the movie, it’s a place of some whimsy. Our showrunner, Graham [Manson], was very keen on exploring the scientific route, so we wanted this to feel like a place where food could be produced. Like an agricultural space, and not a Botanical Garden. But we wanted it to be interesting, so we took the idea of the cherry tree to give it a bit of whimsy. All of the fruits and flowers that are planted together create cross-pollination. And we used aeroponic grow lights to give it science. So even if you end up with something visually fascinating, you know in the back of your mind that it makes scientific sense.

There is also a sense of realism when you consider how topical the show is. The social commentary regarding class division is obviously relevant, but there are episodes that reflect the current COVID-19 situation and other social problems. You couldn’t have predicted these happening while you were making the show, but it feels like the episodes are being produced on a weekly basis.

That’s both exciting and utterly terrifying. Somebody sent me this article about a joint working group between Harvard and Yale, who were trying to brainstorm ways to combat global warming. They came up with a scheme where they would launch sulfate into the stratosphere to dim the heat of the sun. I have no idea if they were reading the comic books, but that’s similar to the premise.

I spoke to Graham just before the launch of the series, and he said, “Just you wait until they get to the episode where Miles gets sick and has to put on a mask. People are going to think we made it last week.” When we were making it, we were looking backward, at Nazi Germany and dehumanizing inspection of human beings as slaves and experiments. We were vaguely aware of things like SARS and swine flu. How could we have imagined what was just around the corner?

It does feel like something that has resonance. And obviously socially, in the way it shows up the divides between the privileged one percent in First Class and the affected masses in the back.

While the show takes place in a divided world, Melanie and Layton aren’t all that different. They both have similar end goals for building a better world, but their methods and ideologies are different. It’s not a clear-cut good versus evil scenario.

The idea is that leadership is incredibly difficult. I am living in a world where I feel many of our leaders have let us down extremely badly. With Melanie, here is someone who is using the argument for the need of order and authority, and is right at that point of how much authority is too much. It would have been extremely boring to play the extremely boring dictator and keeper of order. It’s far more intriguing to dig deeper into her psyche, into her past, and into the stress that she’s under in trying to keep what is the last of humanity alive.

I think Melanie also reflects the show’s complex perspective. No single person has all of the right answers. To co-exist, people on different sides of the social and political spectrum need to find some common ground in order to make true progress. Would you say that the show’s message is one of finding unity?

Of course. What I think it demonstrates is that we’re one great ecosystem. To think that we exist outside of our environment — whether that is society or our natural environment — is just dumb and ignorant. I think the world is waking up to that very quickly. If you work in opposition to each other, there are going to be times of destructive conflict that hurt both sides.

Kieran Fisher: Kieran is a Daily Curator for the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.