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Snowpiercer the TV show is not Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer's showrunner, Graeme Manson, and its production designer talk about the challenges of setting a show inside a train.

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Daveed Diggs in Snowpiercer.

TNT

Snowpiercer -- airing on TNT in the US, streaming internationally on Netflix -- isn't a remake of the 2013 Bong Joon-ho movie of the same name starring Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton. It's a 10-episode serialized drama with a new argument and different characters.

Both are based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, and they share some similarities: The world is frozen and the human survivors are aboard a train that circles Earth endlessly.

"[The show] examines these big issues that were in the graphic novel and the movie and seem even louder today. Issues of climate change, incarceration and immigration," Snowpiercer showrunner Graeme Manson (Orphan Black) tells me over the phone. "It's a story of class divide in this pressure cooker of a crazy train."

But Manson believes serialized television has an advantage over traditional two-hour movies: Creators have the time to develop characters and produce a different type of drama. That being said, he did want to preserve one part of the movie: its pace. "[The movie] started on the Tail and charged to the engine. I wanted to keep that excitement," he says, adding that Snowpiercer is an action-adventure at its heart.

Academy Award-winning Parasite director Joon-ho serves as executive producer, though he wasn't involved creatively. According to Manson, Joon-ho read a couple of scripts, toured the sets and talked with him about the train being a character in the show.

Close quarters

Someone really happy about Snowpiercer's distinct flavor from its cinematographic version is the show's production designer, Barry Robison (Hacksaw Ridge).

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Jennifer Connelly and Alison Wright.

TNT

"Graeme and [director] James [Hawes] did not want a carbon copy of the movie, they wanted the television show to have its own identity. I was thrilled," he says. Robison was inspired by the strength of Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette's design in the original graphic novel. 

Robison had the added challenge of crafting a set based on train cars only 10 or 12 feet wide and 40 to 60 feet long. "You have to pack a lot of visual interest into a very, very small space," he says. In the show the First Class cars might look much bigger than those in Third or at the Tail, but Robison is adamant they were the same size. He used light to make some of the sets look more spacious than others.

Manson isn't oblivious to the fact that he's launching a postapocalyptic show in the middle of a grim health crisis, but he doesn't see the themes depicted in the show as being uncomfortable to the point people might switch off. 

"Maybe you have some sympathy for these characters in these tiny spaces," the creator says.

The Escape, the first volume of the graphic novel this show is based on, contains a virus storyline, but Snowpiercer's team decided it wasn't a good season 1 story. 

"But people are aware on the train, they're concerned about disease coming out of the Tail. That's a reflection of how we at first viewed this and tried to attach blame for COVID. The parallels are all over the place," reflects Manson.

Long-form storytelling

Daveed Diggs and Academy Award winner Jennifer Connelly are tasked with the assignment of giving voice to all sides of this story. Diggs plays the reluctant hero of the rebellion brewing among the least privileged of the train passengers. She plays the face of order on board Snowpiercer. 

Connelly makes her foray onto the small screen with a character that allows her to show many faces. "Television tells these long-form character dramas," Manson says. "It was probably really fun for her to take a character through all these ups and downs."

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Graeme Manson, Jennifer Connelly, Alison Wright, Mickey Sumner and Daveed Diggs during the promotion of Snowpiercer in January. 

Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images

Long-form storytelling doesn't only mean space for character development. Robison is also happy the format allowed for a more detailed exploration of Snowpiercer's world. 

"A feature is only 140 minutes long, maybe longer, some shorter. What's left on the cutting floor are all those details. They're not left out on long-form television. You might not see them in the first episode, but they're there."

Socially distanced productions

Snowpiercer got a season 2 order a full year ahead of its premiere on TNT. Production for season 2 was already underway at the end of last year in British Columbia. But its team is well aware a few things might change going forward.

"I imagine that we'll do at least a portion of our season 3 writers' room remotely. I haven't tried it yet," says Manson. 

"We are going to go into virtual art departments," Robison tells me when I ask about the challenges the current pandemic is imposing. "I don't believe that a set designer needs to be in a physical office," he adds, explaining how he already uses FaceTime and Skype to communicate with construction teams, painters or even conceptual artists working around the world.

Manson doesn't share the same enthusiasm toward virtual work as Robison. "In the short term, virtual writers' rooms are a starting point. You can make it work, but it's taken advantage of because it's cheaper than bringing writers to a central office space and putting them together for the real sweaty work of sitting there for the long hours. It's easy to log off. It's not easy to walk out of the room."

He doesn't think we should leave technology in the way once we've gotten over this health crisis. "Everybody employed online. Never leave your home. That's a pit of despair. A sci-fi future that nobody wants."