EXCLUSIVE Interview: Bong Joon-ho On The Weinsteins, Tarantino And SNOWPIERCER (Part 1 of 3)

James Marsh, Asian Editor
One of the best - and for the vast majority of people still hotly-anticipated - films of the year is Bong Joon-ho's fantastic science fiction thriller, Snowpiercer, in which the sole survivors of a nuclear winter reside within a single train, and attempt to overthrow the totalitarian rulers who control its engine.

Last week, Bong made a brief stop-over in Hong Kong, where he gave a few interviews to help market Snowpiercer's debut later this month as the closing film of the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, before it goes on general release on 28 November. Much has been discussed on Twitch perhaps more than anywhere else about the decision made by The Weinstein Company (who will be distributing the film in North America, the UK and much of the English-speaking world) to cut the film ahead of release. 

I was thrilled to secure a whole hour with the director for a one-on-one interview, and was determined to get to the bottom of all the hearsay and gossip. Exactly what do the Weinsteins want to change, how involved will Bong be in that process, and just what was Quentin Tarantino doing at the Busan International Film Festival last month? 

Twitch - As you know we've been writing a lot about SNOWPIERCER already on Twitch, and in particular one aspect that's quite possibly not your favourite subject. But I'd like to ask you about TWC and what's going on regarding recutting the film.

Bong Joon-ho - It's still going on. Some aspects are a little bit exaggerated. Some people misunderstood that there already exists a North American version with 20 minutes cut out. But that kind of version doesn't exist. Officially the negotiation is still going on, and I'm trying my best to keep my own version and also the CJ people (the Korean investors/distributors) are trying to confirm the release date, the marketing plan and many other things they are still negotiating and the funny thing is once there did exist a 20-minute cut-out version, a Weinstein version of Snowpiercer, they had a screening of that version in New Jersey in July. Then CJ did another test screening of my original version in LA with a normal American audience, and with my version the response was much higher than the scores from the Weinstein version.

So there was already a TWC version back in July?

Yes, for test screenings. So we already have one fixed American version with 20 minutes cut out but that's not the final version, we are still going through the process.

And how involved are you in that process?

In the business aspect, everything will happen between these two companies (CJ and TWC). In the case of editing, I was involved, I visited the Weinstein company, they are really nice people and we had a lot of conversations about the tastes of North American audiences, and about which parts we can reduce a little bit. Actually Harvey Weinstein wants to speed up the movie. I'm not that kind of young, innocent film school student who is saying "Nobody can touch my movie!!" I'm not like that, I can negotiate, but I really hope to protect and keep my vision. The unique tone and mood of the movie and I don't want to destroy the details of the characters. So it's still going on.

So in your view, what is the Weinsteins' biggest concern with the film right now?

They want a more speedy tempo. 

What about the more shocking elements of the story? Because the film goes into some pretty dark territory.

Oh they don't care about that. They think of Snowpiercer as an R-rated movie, so the violence and those kinds of matters are not a big issue. But it's all a matter of duration, speed and tempo.

And you're quite open to that kind of discussion...?

[Laughs] Not that wide open, but yeah, maybe if I change...for them, they are always like that.

Oh yes, they have a history of doing it. 

For them, maybe I look very strange, but for me this is the very first time I've experienced this kind of situation. My previous four movies were all released in my director's cut, nobody interfered. For me, this is my first experience. Also for them this kind of very strange director, it's also their first time, so it's a very unique situation, but I hope we can reach a good conclusion.

Of course. If you look at how they worked with Wong Kar Wai recently...

On The Grandmaster? Yeah they have made three or four different versions together, even in Asia there are different versions. Yeah, he's a bit of a different case. For me this is not so familiar. I just hope we reach a good conclusion. I was very happy during the French promotion of the film, because the French distributor, Wildside, they really love the movie and they are very aggressive about it. It opens there this week. Hong Kong also, they are releasing the director's cut here.

There was a lot of talk surrounding Tarantino's visit to Busan and that maybe the Weinsteins had sent him to come and talk to you.

No, no, no he just visited Busan. He won a prize in Macau, and so he was there at the same time as the film festival in Busan. There is a crew member, Jenny Jue, who was the casting director on Inglourious Basterds, she is also the casting director for Snowpiercer, so they flew to Busan together. I met Tarantino for the very first time, I love his movies, he loves my movies, we spent a really wonderful time in Busan, daytime drinking and watching an old Hong Kong movie together.

Which one?

The One Armed Swordsman with Jimmy Wang Yu. Tarantino was screaming. I had seen it before as a kid with my father, that movie was also very popular in Korea when I was a kid. That movie has something nostalgic, to watch that movie on the big screen again, with Tarantino was very special.    

Did you discuss the Weinsteins at all while he was there?

During the second day of drinking. On the first day, during the daytime drinking we didn't talk about Harvey Weinstein. I know very well that Tarantino is a friend of Harvey's, they've had a wonderful partnership for almost 20 years. But we are just filmmakers. As a filmmaker he has a partnership with the Weinsteins, but he's not the man from TWC. He's just an artist. He didn't want to add to the burden or the pressure. 

The second day drinking there was an American film critic with us, who was a jury member at the festival, (that'll be Variety's Scott Foundas, who reviewed Snowpiercer for the trade publication and also mediated the live discussion between Tarantino and Bong Joon-ho at Busan). He suddenly asked "What do you think about...?" so we had a bit of a conversation about the editing situation but it was not that serious and not that awkward. Quentin actually said "Next time you are in New York, just go meet with Harvey, hang out, have a more casual talk." He emphasised "Harvey really loves your movie, but maybe if it was a bit faster he'd love it more." It was just a very brief conversation about that. But there was no specific message from Harvey delivered by Tarantino.

No horse's head in a box...?

[Laughs] No, not that kind of situation. We were just enjoying the festival.

Still to come later this week: Bong discusses the casting of Snowpiercer, including Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton and Ed Harris, as well as other aspects of the production.
Around the Internet:
  • Reina Petersen

    Funny how Quentin talks about speeding up movies when his own are full of longwinded monologues.

  • speaking of One-Armed Swordsman, i've always wished Tsui Hark's remake "The Blade" got a nice remastering & release on DVD/BluRay

  • OneMoreBullet

    Me too! Apparently the owners of it in the US keep a tight grip on it. Shame it's not more well known.

  • Monsiuer Hulot

    They screened the film in Jersey??? Are you sure we're talking about "Snowpiercer" and not "The Toxic Avenger"?

  • softeyes

    I'd love to see an old HK film with Tarantino and geek out together.

  • xiu non

    I'd love to see Bong and Goofy out together also.

  • CHUD

    I was just thinking the same, except I was more envious of Tarantino. I would love to watch an old HK film with Bong and geek out together.

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