‘Snowpiercer’ Showrunner Graeme Manson on Keeping the Trains Running Amid COVID, Dealing with Super Fans … and Tilda Swinton

TNT sci-fi series 'Snowpiercer'
(Image credit: WarnerMedia)

The French graphic novel Le Transperceneige is about a futuristic train, which perpetually circles an utterly barren, frozen planet Earth, its occupants not so neatly divided by class—the bourgeoisie in the warm, cozy front cars, the proletariat in the frigid rear, subsiding on some sort of Soylent Green-like nutrient. 

'Snowpiercer' co-showrunner Graeme Manson

(Image credit: WarnerMedia)

Oscar-winning Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho adapted this little allegorical masterpiece into a 2013 motion picture, which became a cult hit. And last year, WarnerMedia fashioned it into a TNT sci-fi drama series. Consider Snowpiercer, which stars Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs, as a kind locomotive in WarnerMedia’s futuristic universe, transversing the cold, harsh cross-platform media planet, the fates of the conglomerate’s flagship linear cable network and its more pampered direct-to-consumer HBO Max streaming service all riding on Snowpiercer’s ability to stay on the tracks. 

WarnerMedia has certainly punched its ticket for the series, which averaged 3.2 million viewers on TNT in its first season, while also streaming on HBO Max at a time when the service desperately needs original shows—season 2 debuted Jan. 25, and season 3 is already in the works.

We recently caught up to the conductor himself, veteran Canadian film and TV producer Graeme Manson, who along with Josh Friedman serves as co-showrunner and executive producer of Snowpiercer.

When did you first see Bong Joon Ho's film version of "Snowpiercer," and what did you think of it?
I saw the film in the theater (remember theaters??) in Toronto when it was released there, maybe mid-2014. A lot of friends with good and twisted taste were talking about it. I loved the train itself -- the sets and the look and the outlandish surprises behind every door. It was, and still is, one of the craziest action movies I've ever seen. A relentlessly paced, existential, allegorical, sci-fi action movie set on a frozen train. Plus Tilda Swinton. What's not to love!!??

Why did you think it would work as a series?
At the time, I idly wondered how it could be a series. I think that was mostly because it was self-contained and claustrophobic, which I always like in films, but wasn't sure if the small screen and its gatekeepers could handle. When I heard that Tomorrow Studios was adapting it, I got a chance to pitch. I went back to the graphic novels and found a quote from Jean-Marc Rochette, the artist of all the books, who I think was also involved in director Bong's concepts and design for the film. He felt Snowpiercer still had more to say, and described the political and emotional elements of what made a good Snowpiercer story.  How it should critique contemporary society through characters "damned" by their survival, but also offer the hope of a better future, and that at its core, it was a high impact action-adventure tale. That sounded to me like it could find an audience on TV, and be faithful to the franchise, and thankfully, Tomorrow Studios and TNT agreed.

Is there fan pressure to keep it true to the original graphic novels?
I'm not feeling that, but I can't let myself go too far into the commentary on social media, mostly because time is very tight now prepping season 3. And as our writer's room is all Zoom now, I need to turn screens off when I can. But the writers go back to the books at the start of each season to find threads of philosophic and thematic inspiration. The graphics and the tone remain a real inspiration for the writer's room. Plus we bookend every season with an animated homage to the books. I love giving the books to people who may know the movie or our show, but haven't read the originals.

How has the pandemic affected your production?
COVID shut down our season 2 in the final block, with just a couple of weeks left to shoot. There was a big adjustment in post production, but our post and VFX teams kept that moving admirably. We had to return to finish up, so we rewrote a bunch of the remaining scenes to be a little more COVID friendly -- less crowded, etc. We shoot in Vancouver, so the actors from outside Canada with work remaining all returned and had to quarantine, some for only a day or two of shooting. Shout out to Roberto Urbina and Katie McGuinness who had to come all the way from Columbia and the U.K. respectively. We wrapped up shooting safely in October -- just enough time for that overworked post and VFX team to finish the final episodes for the upcoming broadcasts.

Why are we hearing more about Snowpiercer as a linear series on TNT as opposed to a streaming show on HBO Max? What makes it such a good pay TV series?
I think that's a question for Broadcast & Cable! But personally, I like watching old school and waiting for the next episodes. If that ain't your bag, you can save up and binge on HBO Max!

The Bonus Five

What shows are you binge-watching right now?
I chewed through The Great. So witty and so much fun. I loved David Simon's The Plot Against America so much recently that it threw me into a rewatch of The Wire. I'm in season 2 now, with McNulty just washed up on harbor patrol. I'm also back rewatching The Leftovers because ya, it's The Leftovers. So much there I didn't pull out first time around.

What’s technology that you use every do you like the best (hardware or software)? 
I'm really ambivalent about my phone, and my eyes hate Zoom. So I'd have to say it's my Bialetti stovetop espresso maker. Basic science and perfectly applied technology since the 1930's. That shit will surely outlast Zoom.

What book are you reading now and what's it about?
Not a lot of reading outside of endless Snowpiercer drafts, but I've been slowly savoring The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin. I'm definitely late to the party on this epic, but it's a multi-dimensional story of alien contact running through recent Chinese political history. The next two books in the trilogy are waiting patiently on the shelf.  

How about that Super Bowl?
Yeah, I was super disappointed. There was no hockey at all that day.

How many times have you left the house this week?
Umm ... three? I went for a couple morning walks anyway. Wait, I haven't left the house for 48 hours at least.  What day is it?

Daniel Frankel

Daniel Frankel is the managing editor of Next TV, an internet publishing vertical focused on the business of video streaming. A Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has covered the media and technology industries for more than two decades, Daniel has worked on staff for publications including E! Online, Electronic Media, Mediaweek, Variety, paidContent and GigaOm. You can start living a healthier life with greater wealth and prosperity by following Daniel on Twitter today!