How the Snowpiercer TV series got back on track
The TNT science-fiction saga stars Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly and is partly based on the Chris Evans-starring film.
“This is a show about what happens after the world’s gone wrong.” So Snowpiercer showrunner Graeme Manson said in October 2018 when EW visited the vast Vancouver studio complex where he was overseeing the new TNT show, which premieres this Sunday at 9 p.m. Of course, since then, a lot has gone wrong with the real world, but not as badly as it does on the sci-fi series (at least at the time of this writing).
Set more than seven years after an attempt to reverse climate change resulted in a cataclysmic global freeze, the show takes place almost entirely on a huge continents-traversing train called Snowpiercer. In the vehicle’s 1,001 cars, a tiny slice of the world’s population, rigidly split into different classes, survives the existential threat posed by the subzero conditions outside. “This show takes place seven years after humanity makes a desperate attempt to correct climate change,” says Manson (Orphan Black). “They attempt to cool the planet and that goes desperately wrong. One Elon Musk-type character predicts that this will fail and and begins to build an ark, a train where approximately 4,000 people go around and around the world. Unfortunately, what is brought onto the train is class structure, and that is what the show is about.”
The show stars Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind) as Melanie Cavill, head of hospitality, who caters to the whims of the rich passengers (front-of-the-train occupants), and Hamilton actor Daveed Diggs as Andre Layton, an ex–homicide cop and resident of the impoverished tail who Cavill recruits to solve a murder. “The classes are stacked in this very neat fashion,” says Diggs. “Wealth in the front, poverty in the back. Layton is a resident of the tail, which is the lowest class all the way at the back of the train. They’re not privy to most of the social services of the train. But they live in exchange for work. He's struggling back there with everybody but he becomes useful for people uptrain. In his past he was a detective, so that becomes something that allows him to travel a little bit more.”
Other cast members include Mickey Sumner (Frances Ha), Broadway star Lena Hall (Kinky Boots), and Alison Wright (The Americans), who plays Ruth Wardle, Cavill’s second-in-command. “I see it as a story about the struggle of the class system and being kept down by the powers that be,” says Wright. So, totally divorced from real life, then. “Yeah, nothing to do with it,” she adds, sarcastically. “Because climate change doesn’t exist either, right? So, yeah, this is a fantasy.”
The show is based on both a series of French graphic novels and Parasite director Bong Joon Ho’s 2014 film of the same name. Manson reveals that director Bong has checked in to see the progress of the small screen Snowpiercer. "He came to set at least a couple of times," says Manson. "But really he’s kind of hands off. But the film of Snowpiercer is a constant touchstone for myself." At the start of his career Manson cowrote the 1998 horror movie Cube, about a group of people trying to escape a series of identical rooms. What is it with him and confined places? "Yeah, I feel like an idiot," he says with a chuckle. "I’m like, Cube wasn't bad enough? Now you had to put it in a tube?"
Snowpiercer has taken a long time to arrive at the premiere-date station. It was three years ago that Diggs and Connelly were announced as the leads of the show. That pilot was directed by Doctor Strange filmmaker Scott Derrickson and written by the show’s original executive producer, Josh Friedman, creator of Fox’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. In January 2018, TNT announced it had picked up the show to series, but later that month Friedman exited the project, reportedly over “creative differences.” A month later, TNT revealed that he had been replaced by Manson, one of the creators of Orphan Black. The same day, Friedman wrote on Twitter that he had been “removed” from his position because the network didn’t think he would be “compliant.” In May, Friedman seemed to take aim at Manson in a series of tweets. “If you’re asked to rewrite someone or take over their show, it seems like good sense and good karma to reach out to that person first,” he wrote. “Put another way: If you were to take over a show I’d originated and worked on for two years and didn’t reach out to me before taking the job, you’re either an idiot, a coward, or a vichy motherf---er. In theory.” In June, Derrickson tweeted that the pilot he had shot from Friedman’s script “may be my best work” and he was “forgoing my option to direct the extreme reshoots.” The reshoots, directed by James Hawes (Black Mirror), were certainly extensive. Hawes and Manson essentially started all over again with the same stars. “I loved doing it the first time, and I’ve loved doing it now,” says Connelly. “But everything was different.” As for Friedman’s tweets about him, Manson told EW, “I see no reason to respond. I mean, I understand. It sucks getting fired.”
The good news? In May of last year, it was announced that Snowpiercer was being picked up for season 2. Manson had almost wrapped shooting that second run of shows this March when the COVID-19 crisis caused the production to halt, as the majority of the population began self-isolating. When EW caught up with the EP in April, Manson admitted to fears that viewers trapped at home may not rush to watch a show in which characters are trapped on a train. However, he also said that he was reassured by the success of Cube. “People in Japan loved that film because it was claustrophobic,” explains Manson. “People in France loved it because it was superexistential. So, let’s get existential, North America!”