Adapting Snowpiercer: giant trains, ‘cli-fi’ and Orphan Black alums

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Graeme Manson, Marty Adelstein and the team behind the TNT series told the story of bringing the property to TV as BANFF's virtual festivities got underway.

When Tomorrow Studios’ principal Marty Adelstein finished watching Bong Joon Ho’s feature Snowpiercer (2013) on Netflix, he turned to his wife and said what production executives often say as the credits roll on a great movie: “I’m gonna make a TV series out of this.”

It wasn’t just bluster though. The film made a lasting impression on Adelstein, who continued to pursue the rights to adapt it for the small screen. Eventually, Tomorrow Studios and CJ Entertainment (the Korean company who produced the film) were able to make an offer for the TV rights that the Weinstein Company (which had released Joon Ho’s film) “did not want to match,” according to Adelstein, speaking at the Snowpiercer master class which served as a kickoff for Banff World Media Festival’s virtual festivities.

Also speaking on the panel was showrunner Graeme Manson, Netflix VP of Content Larry Tanz and cast members Jennifer Connelly, Daveed Diggs and Alison Wright.

BANFF has unveiled a virtual replacement for its annual conference and marketplace cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Rockie Awards on June 15 and Banff Day on June 16 will anchor a four-month season of programming. Most of the program is free for those who register for a virtual pass at banffmediafestival.com. A $250 networking pass is also available for purchase.

The TV adaptation follows the passengers on the Snowpiercer, an enormous train that perpetually circles the globe carrying the remnants of humanity seven years after the world becomes a frozen wasteland, with Adelstein noting he wanted to retain some of the “cli-fi” (sci-fi content concerned with climate change) present in Bong Joon Ho’s version.

It launched on TNT in the U.S. on May 17, with Netflix releasing new episodes weekly internationally.

After navigating some early showrunner changes, the project, which had by then been ordered by TNT for a 10-episode first season, recruited Orphan Black creator and Canadian sci-fi royalty Graeme Manson to helm the TV adaptation.

Well before auditioning for the showrunner position, Manson said he too had seen the movie, loved it and “idly thought there might be a TV series in here.”

After seeing the film, Manson also dove back into the source material – the iconic 1982 sci-property Le Transperceneige, a French graphic novel upon which the film is based. “When I looked at [the graphic novel and the film adaptation] together, I really felt there was the opportunity that a TV series could exist in this canon,” said Manson. “That it could live alongside it – it could take some of those elements that are so great about both the movie and the graphic novel – and it could really stand on its own two feet. That’s what I set out to do.”

While the series was commissioned by U.S. networks and produced by international production companies, it has more than a little Canadian flavour to it aside from Manson’s involvement.

He also brought long-time Orphan Black creatives Aubrey Nealon, MacKenzie Donaldson and Cosima Herter to help establish the writers’ room. The latter, a well-known writer and science consultant, helped establish and tackle some of the “big ideas” early in the process, noted Manson.

“The scripts go from blurb to outlines to scripts and each physical pass goes through both Tomorrow Studios and the network, so there’s a lot of eyes on it. But it begins with the six or seven writers, and the people like Casima and MacKenzie, who are helping us with big ideas and communicating these first things to production,” he said.

Another Canadian aspect of the series, which received an early season-two renewal, is that it was filmed in Vancouver, where the project’s production design team set about creating the train which – in the world of the show – is 16 kilometres long and consists of 1,001 carriages.

“That was a complex thing to do, and certainly, building the set and achieving what we wanted to do was one of the biggest challenges of the first season,” said Manson of how the production design team built the train cars on adapted shipping container frames.

Elsewhere, Adelstein said the team had completed shooting on eight episodes of the second season before the COVID-19 pandemic forced productions across North America to abruptly close down. The hope, he says, is to go back into production on the remaining two episodes of the season in August or September and shoot them at the same time as the third season (which has not officially been greenlit as of press time).