Snowpiercer, Gender Fluidity, and a Giant Pig: Tilda Swinton and Bong Joon Ho in Conversation at the BFI

BFI

When Tilda Swinton comes onto the stage at the BFI, she has to wait a good thirty seconds to the applause to die down. She looks almost embarrassed, but definitely proud, and instantly you can see the genuine master of her craft who is being awarded the prestigious BFI Fellowship later this month. This was the first event of Tilda Season, running throughout March at BFI Southbank to celebrate the award, featuring Q&As with her collaborators Sally Potter, Wes Anderson, Lynne Ramsey, and this evening’s “dish of the day,” as Tilda puts it, Bong Joon Ho and his film Snowpiercer (2013).

Despite initially not having a part for Tilda to play, Bong “wrote to me a few weeks later and said, ‘there’s this part. This minister, this politician. It’s written like a mild-mannered man in a suit. What do you think?’” The audience chuckles at the massive still of Tilda’s character in full prim suit, bottle glasses and cropped orange bob right behind her, impossible not to take notice of. “And that’s where we went with that.”

Snowpiercer is a gritty, dystopian thriller following the last survivors of mankind, trapped on a train that travels through the frozen wasteland that has become of Earth. In the front, the rich live in luxury, but in the tail end, the poor are destitute and suffering, at the mercy of Tilda’s androgynous Minister Mason and her soldiers. One man (Chris Evans) leads a rebellion to reach the front of the train, but chaos comes from breaking the system. Based on a French graphic novel, Bong read it from start to finish standing in the bookshop, but “unfortunately, I didn’t have enough money on me to buy it at the time,” he mentions during the Q&A.

A group of people sitting posing for the camera

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(L-R) Jonathan Romney, Bong Joon ho, Tilda Swinton, She Hyun Rho
BFI

Having recently taken the film industry by storm with Parasite (2019), winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes, four Oscars including Best Director and Best Film, and introducing thousands of cinema-goers to the world of Korean cinema, it’s by thunderous applause that Director Bong takes to the stage alongside Tilda after the film. “There was a lot of concern from everyone else into how you make this into a film, but I thought it was possible,” Bong begins with the help of his translator for the night, She Hyun Rho. “I think I could only make it because of Tilda.” The audience ‘awws’, “I mean it, honestly.”

This warmth and honesty that Bong radiates, that social media’s #BongHive has latched onto various memes and plenty of adoration, is tangible in the room. We’re barely a question in before Bong pauses Jonathan Romney, BFI critic and host of the event, and politely asks to introduce some of the other creatives behind Snowpiercer who sit in the audience. He and Tilda point out the costume designer, Catherine George; Doo Ho Choi, the co-producer; as well as co-producer of Okja, Sandro Kopp, grinning as the audience gives them the recognition they deserve. “Actually, he was in the movie,” Bong adds in English of Kopp. “He’s a tail sectioner. Please watch the movie again,” he jokes. “Find him.”

Back on Tilda’s Minister Mason, the director points out how Tilda often “transcends gender” (much to her amusement), so really the role was always hers. Tilda points out that the sci-fi nature of the film opened up freedom for her interpretation character. “You can go any which way with it. And you don’t have to go very far – remember this was a pretty long time ago. There’s all sorts of examples that we didn’t have then,” Tilda explains, referring to a certain American president. “There is a tendency in society to find these dictators rather funny and amusing. Like clowns. And those dictators can play up to that, and we thought we’d work with that.”

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BFI

At its heart, Snowpiercer is intrinsically concerned with its class themes, in classic Bong style. “It’s a very strange idea: all the survivors remain on the train and also the rich people in the front, the poor people in the tail section…” Bong switches into Korean halfway through his sentence – articulating what English cannot. “It’s a story from the mid-80s and it had such universal and eternal themes as long as we lived in a capitalist society,” Rho finishes translating.

Tilda nods. “I’ve tried for years, ever since I started working with Bong, to explain why it is that this precision of his – that is really formidable – gives us, all of us, costume designers, producers, this feeling of freedom,” Tilda says. Bong is known for using intricate storyboards as well as having an editor on set. Tilda explains that the actors can be shown “up until the point where Bong puts his hand in his pocket.” Beside her, Bong pulls his hand out of his pocket like a caught child.

“The next bit we want is to the time when he storms out.” Tilda plays off the audience’s laughter. “ But that in the middle is free space. You can fill it. And it gives you this feeling of real license and collaboration. Because, of course, your aim is to amuse him. That’s the point of every day. And he welcomes it and enjoys it.”

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BFI

“I remember, in the very early days when we first knew each other, we very quickly hit on favourite films. And I remember we talked a lot about Miyazaki Hayao [of Studio Ghibli], and in particular, My Neighbor Totoro,” Tilda recalls. “And he handed me this little image – you’re going to find it now, I can tell.” Surely enough, Bong is on his phone, flicking his finger down and down and down. “It was this picture of a little girl,” Tilda explains for the rest of us. “A little girl and a giant pig.”

This was the beginning of Okja (2017), in which Tilda co-produced, involved in the film from the very beginning. Concerned with animal rights and the environment, Okja is the story of a little girl and the giant pig-hippo-hybrid taken away from her by a massive corporation. “It did feel like it had a beautiful reverence for My Neighbor Totoro,” Tilda elaborates.

Romney asks the pair where they actually first met. In English, Bong recalls, “we first meet in 2011 Cannes Film Festival. I was one of the jury members, and she was there with Lynne Ramsey film (We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) and we very naturally met, and we had breakfast.” Bong thinks and switches back to Korean. “For me, of course, from a long time I was a fan of hers. I remember, in Seoul in a very small cinema, seeing Orlando.”

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BFI

Tilda jumps in. “I remember very specifically; I was waiting to have breakfast with someone in New York. I was waiting for this little loo to be open, and there was a copy of The New Yorker sitting there. And I read the review – I always went to the back of the film reviews, as we all do – and there was I think Anthony Lane’s review of The Host. And there was something about that great review – which is something about great critical writing – that made me know I had to see the film.”

As for advice for young filmmakers, Bong answers pretty quickly; “Go to bed early. Don’t stay up late to watch lots of films.” Tilda’s advice is just as good: “I would say stick with your friends. Stick with people – it doesn’t matter what skills they have – stick with people who make you feel like you can have the nerve,” she says. “If you come anywhere near anybody that goes uhmm, then steer clear. Only be with people who make you feel good.”

In the relationship between a director and their actor, that’s key, and Bong has this electric connection with actors. You see it with Song Kang Ho, another recurring collaborator. They have this palpable trust in him, a respect that’s returned playfully and humbly. “He’s truly one of my favourite people on the planet,” Tilda states. “One of the masters who are working in cinema today.” It’s fitting that, as one of the very best actors we have working today, Tilda is such a close collaborator of his. As for Tilda’s advice, clearly, she and Director Bong have taken it to heart, especially since they’re working together again very soon.

Tilda Swinton season continues at BFI Southbank until the 18th March.

by Daisy Leigh Phippard

Daisy (she/her) studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s LabyrinthThe HandmaidenFrida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on TwitterLetterboxd and Instagram.

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