Jun 2016 VOL.62


  • Tilda Swinton, Actress of SNOWPIERCER
  • by KIM Haery / 08.29.2013
  • "Bong's work is always radical, anarchic almost, and perspective feels familiar to my own."
    Photo ⓒCine21
    "A family photo? What a dysfunctional family!" Tilda Swinton good-humoredly exclaims as she poses alongside director BONG Joon-ho and co-stars SONG Kang-ho and Chris Evans to the sound of the camera shutter clicking away for a film magazine cover shoot. The nuance one can sense in her use of ‘family’ doesn’t suggest a notion of exclusive loyalty. To Tilda Swinton, all forms of art including cinema are labors based on love, and film is a collectively creative process that goes beyond kinship, nationality and profession to construct a common vision. It is the second day of her visit to Korea, and despite the fact that she must be tired from her red carpet screening event and that it is well past 1 a.m. in the morning, she is headed to the famous Gangnam district to join the Snowpiercer team’s private party.
    The first time I met Tilda in person was at the 2002 Venice Film Festival where the short documentary Tilda Swinton: The Love Factory by Luca Guadagnino, who went on to direct the feature film starring Tilda I Am Love (2009), was screened. ‘The love factory,’ what a superbly fitting title for this actress as I get to know her. Tilda Swinton is a truly rare international star who has a filmography mostly filled with arthouse works. This ‘Greta Garbo of the avant-garde’ who for the past ten years has involved herself in three low-budget art house films from the funding stage, pushing and pulling the directors along the way, seems quite satisfied with the experience she had on the production of Snowpiercer which was quite different from the Hollywood studio or European art house film production systems.
    - Having seen the final cut, which aspect of the finished Snowpiercer would you say met your expectations and what came as a surprise?
    It completely met my expectations, which were extremely high. The unexpected thing for me was the profound, modern way director BONG looked at leadership. Curtis' character in Chris' hands was already an interesting portrait but I wasn’t quite prepared for this exploration of leadership.  
    - Did the radical politics of Snowpiercer affect your decision to come aboard in any way?
    His work is always radical, anarchic almost, and perspective feels familiar to my own. This was kind of the common ground for us when we first met two years ago in Cannes.
    - Come to think of it, you once did a photo shoot dressed up as Orlando and brought it to Cannes in order to get investors interested. It was also the festival where you and director Erick Zonca got together for Julia (2008) to happen. You must the hardest-working person in Cannes! Is this the usual way you enjoy film festivals?

    I remember reading that the great Chris Marker said that he made films in order to travel: I feel much the same way. The journey into another person's shoes is what every cinema ticket promises us. The great power of film festivals is that they can stretch our travel way beyond the confines of what we might otherwise be able to access, if only dependent on films distributed commercially. For us filmmakers, however, they can offer even more: new conversations, new support systems and the opportunity to find company and FUN!
    - I heard you personally brought many attributes to Mason's character, for instance the Yorkshire accent, false teeth, etc. and there also must have been some discussions on costumes with the designer Catherine George who worked on your film We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) as well. Tell us about fabricating this mask. 
    This whole question of what makes a leader, a public face, is fascinating. Everyday on the front of newspapers, there is another human being dressed and masked in a way in order to be a leader. It is something we live with. Mason is a pretty monstrous construct so we felt we were dealing with extremes, but the truth was that we didn't have to go that far. Look at Hitler with his dyed black hair and Gaddafi with handmade medals stuck on his jacket.
    The Yorkshire accent is a personal thing. There was someone in my early life who had a Yorkshire accent who was an early example of authority. As for the appearance, I always wanted to play a character with a piggy nose because as soon as you make this little gesture (pushing up her nose with a finger), it becomes immediately certain that the character comes from the eyes and the teeth.
    - Watching and listening to you playing Mason, I couldn't help imagining you articulately arguing against her every sentence. How did you enjoy playing this woman almost opposite from yourself?

    Who's to say Mason is a woman? (insinuating smile) They refer to Mason constantly as a man, Sir. Mason's hair is a fake wig. We used to have these fantasies of her cabin on the train. What's behind the door? What does she do when she takes off her wig? She might knit like Miss Marple with Justin Bieber or Cliff Richard on the wall.
    - What kind of relationship did you imagine Mason had with Wilford behind the scenes and how s/he ended up there? 
    Mason is infatuated with Wilford and would like to be in a closer position. This whole question of an imaginary prequel is fascinating. How did people get on to the train? What did they have to do to get on to the train and what was life like before? Because people like Mason are old enough to have had a pretty full life. My sense of Mason is that her life before was not so special. Maybe a librarian, a secretary. Maybe she was quite subservient and then gets her chance for the first time to be in authority but it is not a natural fit. It's assumed.
    I need to think it through but it feels as if the people in the film are roughly divided according to what the Germans call Glaubenssatz (system of belief). There are those who say "I want to kill" and those who say "I want to die" and others saying "I want to live." Interestingly enough, Mason is one who wants to live. To take an extreme point of view "I want to live" is not necessarily the most realistic thing to say because we are all going to die. Min-su (SONG Kang-ho), who wants to die, is the most realistic. Curtis is in this complex predicament where his mission is to kill but there is a part of him so full of shame that he wants to die as well.
    - Though she does mean and violent things, Mason looks occasionally fragile and naive, even pitiful.
    Mason being a clown was very important because it's noticeable how often we take these quite bombastic leaders, particularly the really crazy and cruel ones, and want them to become human so much that sometimes we turn them into clowns. If you look at what Chaplin did with Hitler or the way people were endlessly amused by George Bush's ridiculous sayings, maybe it is our way of finding some sympathy. Director BONG would always say "Ah, Mason is so cute." (laughs) 
    - I guess this is quite a different kind of performance from what you did in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Julia or I Am Love, where you are in almost every frame of film. There is certain blankness in Eva and Emma while Mason is filled with answers. 

    I take your point about the task of being in every frame of a film. But in a way the task of playing Mason was closer to playing Julia in Julia in the sense that both of the characters are liars, performers. I think that blankness you felt in I Am Love and We Need to Talk About Kevin comes from a kind of sincerity both characters have while Mason is a carrier for a program, which is a Wilford myth. Mason is a religious nut, a religious leader and they are always the most dangerous, as we know.
    - I wondered how you made sense of BONG's Mother (2009), since motherhood seems to be your most frequent subject matter from Deep End (2001) to your rather recent motherhood trilogy: Julia, I Am Love and We Need to Talk About Kevin.
    Director BONG and I were thinking recently that We Need to Talk About Kevin and Mother could be exhibited in a sort of complementary/yin-yang double-bill. BONG finds and presents to us something rare in KIM Hye-ja's performance, a mother whose mercurial quality reflects her son.
    As in Kevin, the mother and son are two sides of the same identity; they swivel around each other like wings around a sycamore seed. The most painful part of the predicaments of both of these women is that they see their sons' destinies as their own, they need to fulfill the narrative laid down by the gaps their sons leave: detachment is not an option. The heartbreak comes for both of them when they find within themselves a capacity for darkness mirrored by their children. Terrible, terrible love.
    - Looking at your recent photos from Russia and China on the web, I couldn't help remembering the Section 28 act and your works with Derek Jarman. With the 20th anniversary of his departure coming up are you planning on anything?

    Nothing specific but I hope as ever there will be cause to celebrate his work and remember him and to reignite people's vigilance. It is depressing that nearly 20 years after his death, what's going on in Russia is going on. It's like a bad dream. I never expected 20 years ago that I would have to go to Moscow and that it would be a dangerous thing to hold a rainbow flag in front of a police car. But it was and it is and people are being persecuted now more than 20 years after we fought against Clause 28. Our resistance to Clause 28 along with that of many thousands of people did have a great impact and this particular legislation was not passed. It's very important for young people in Russia to know that there was a precedent when action prevailed. 
    -There was a certain period when you were exploring all sizes of filmmaking, including big studio movies, but then you stopped the journey since The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). What kind of stage are you at in terms of choosing projects including works outside cinema.
    The projects I developed with Luca Guadagnino, Erick Zonca and Lynne Ramsay occupied over 12 years of my life. When I met BONG, I was celebrating a harvest and looking forward to a rest from this particular pattern in the grain of my life: highly original, independent, underfunded films that required all the heart's blood we could all muster to get them made and distributed around the world. This pattern is my habit from the start of my filmmaking life with Derek Jarman in the 80's. I craved a sea change.
    With BONG, I discovered a new filmmaking partnership in which I felt refreshed. The atmosphere of working with him - while it is uncannily harmonious and familiar - feels new and inspiring. I look forward to continuing to follow my nose into further work with him, and to continue development of my own work as an exhibiting artist, a curator and a writer. Meanwhile, my heart is full again and open for surprises.
    By KIM Haery
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