Is That Snaggletoothed Bureaucrat Really Tilda Swinton?
"Snowpiercer," Bong Joon-Ho's English-language dystopian epic, is set aboard a train years after the earth has frozen over. The train, which circles the world once a year, is the only habitable place left on earth - a sustained environment that speeds through the snow and ice like some modern-day Noah's Ark. As it happens, it is also a microcosm of the 21st century class divide with the poor relegated to the rear of the train, and the wealthy enjoying the high life in front. Joon-Ho's film chronicles an uprising by the have-nots, rag-tag rebels led by Chris Evans, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer and Korean star Song Kang-ho. They face formidable opposition in the powerful forces of the Wilford Corporation, whose spokesperson Minister Mason is played by a virtually unrecognizable Tilda Swinton in a chilling evocation that suggests Margaret Thatcher by way of Mr. Bean.
In describing Swinton's performance in New York Magazine, critic David Edelstein put it this way: "But the sole note of transcendence is struck by (a barely recognizable) Tilda Swinton as a snaggletoothed quasi-headmistress with high airs and middle-class nasality. Bong shoots her like an Eisenstein counter-revolutionary - a Fascist duck. Swinton and the character deserve their own movie. She's a one-woman dystopia."
The film arrives in the U.S. after a delay caused when Harvey Weinstein (whose Radius-TWC is distributing the film) wanted 26-minutes cut from the release. Director Joon-Ho prevailed and the film is shown in the States as it was overseas. This means that Swinton's remarkable performance is kept intact.
Another outrageous character
Minister Mason is another outrageous character in Swinton’s oeuvre. She sports a crooked wig, fake teeth, prosthetic nose and other costume accouterments to play Mason. It turns out, just the fact that Mason as a woman was an invention of Swinton and Bong’s.
But when she first read the script, she didn’t see anyone she could play. Joon-Ho told her that was true, but they should " ’think about something in the future,’" she recalled. "And then a few weeks later he wrote to me and said, ’You see Minister Mason, who is described as a mild-mannered man in a suit.’ He is still described that way. We never updated it. ’What do you reckon?’ And so I thought, ’Okay how much fun can I have with it?’’ ’Try me,’ he said."
There is great precedent in science fiction for gender switching. For instance, Sigourney Weaver’s character in "Alien," famously, was written as a man before she was named Ellen Ripley.
"It is very interesting to analyze how Director Bong and I were able to work together, because it feels as if we made every decision together from when we first met," Swinton recalled. "We became friends instantly, and we knew we wanted to work together. Then when we decided to try to make something with Minister Mason, which was Director Bong’s idea. It was like a challenge. He put down a glove. He said what do you think? And then we just, I don’t know, we kind of dared each other."
Crazy clown megalomania
Bong and Swinton met at the Cannes Film Festival when "We Need to Talk About Kevin" played and Bong was a juror in the Camera d’Or section. Swinton, Bong, producer Dooho Choi and costume designer Catherine George later met up to brainstorm the costume for Minister Mason.
"The wonderful thing is that Dooho and Director Bong and our wonderful costume designer came to visit me in Scotland, and I had a pie for lunch. I picked them up at the airport, put the pie in the oven and said, ’Okay, we have twenty minutes before the pie is warm.’ We went into the drawing room and we played. We dressed up with bits of children’s costumes and ribbons and we made fake medals and had some glasses and we kind of got it in twenty minutes. And then we ate the pie. So it took twenty minutes really."
Perhaps the wardrobe session flowed so smoothly because Swinton had such a clear idea about who Minister Mason would be. "I had these fantasies about this clown, which was based originally on one photograph of a character that I knew... a real person from my childhood. And then we kind mixed in all the crazy clown megalomaniac cowards that the news channels show us every day. We just kept throwing in elements. So we just built up a clown. I wanted to make a clown out of this politician, this really sinister corrupt individual. Apart from the fact that I think there are so many wonderful corrupt clowns in cinema, from ’Dr Strangelove’ to ’The Great Dictator.’ In life you switch on the news and there will be somebody posturing and making an idiot of themselves. And people voting them in because they want a soap opera. So that was really sort of the key, we tried to push it as far as we could. "
Her nose, teeth & breasts
Some of Swinton’s costars may have been a tad jealous that their costumes were more basic. The folks in the rear of the train just wore rags basically, including Evans and his costar Jamie Bell. Bell in particular liked to play with Swinton’s costume.
"As we were playing we had these ideas, like fantastic pendulous breast," Swinton said. "We just said that, and when I arrived in Prague there they were. And Jamie Bell loved wearing them of course. We have a picture of him. Our crew picture involves Jamie Bell wearing Mason’s breasts."
The teeth are noticeable every time Swinton is featured in closeup, but she could not single out the inspirations for each individual piece of Minister Mason. She could only think of the whole.
"Again, as with the breasts and the wig that we never glued down, they were just part of the package. It is really tricky to work out how this all happened. It just all came about and the teeth were always going to be there. The nose was one of the first things, I think that was almost the first thing I said to [Bong]. I always wanted to play a character with a nose. When we were waiting for the pie to warm, I went and got some cello tape and we cellophane taped my nose up like that."
An international production
With a Korean director and stars from England, America and around the world, "Snowpiercer" is a truly international production. "We were, as on most really inspired sets, in the nation of cinema. I think most filmmakers really love that fact that when you are on a set that is really humming (like this one) everybody is kind of in that place as it’s kind of nation free. But yes we had pretty international catering, didn’t we? Because we were in Prague, so we were in the Czech Republic. And there were a lot of Czech people around, but there were fair few Korean people and some Scottish people. But we did have kimchi. There was a little table with some kimchi in the catering."
2014 has been quite a showcase for Swinton’s work with the release of "Only Lovers Left Alive" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel" as well. Audiences can see three different Tilda Swintons, but of course there are dozens in Swinton’s oeuvre.
"For me it is all about dressing up and playing. That’s, for me that is the fun of it, which does not mean that it is not interesting to work with a finer tooth comb with something more delicate in something like ’I Am Love’ or even ’Orlando,’ where I am using a face that looks more like my own. But I do love working with these shapes, making shapes is kind of what I do. It is such fun. Also it means I have done my work before we start shooting. If I do my work, we start shooting, and then I play."
"Snowpiercer" is in limited release.