Snowpiercer_Chris Evans hat_Image credit Radius TWC © 2014 Lord Christopher Laverty. All rights reserved.

Snowpiercer: Q&A with Costume Designer Catherine George

Chances are you have not seen Snowpiercer yet due to its limited availability and release fiasco. If so, skip this interview and watch the film first. Go in clean, because Snowpiercer really is as good as everyone’s telling you. Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, it is essentially a dark (often literally) sci-fi thriller about a perpetual motion train carrying the last remnants of society after a global ice age. Themes of cruelty, disparity and sacrifice abound, and strong, sometimes horrific visual references bombard the screen. The exceptional costume design by Catherine George ties all this together in a way that is readable and indicative, yet never threatens to take over the film.

Catherine George, however unintentionally, seems to specialise in this form of costume design; you only need to watch We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) to gather this. This is not to say her work is showy in any way. Try Rampart (2011) or The Messenger (2009) and you will see subtle, intricately put together costumes that quietly reflect the tone and mood of the narrative. Hopefully Snowpiercer, when it finally gets the worldwide recognition it deserves, will bring Catherine George’s work to an even greater audience. We interviewed Ms George about her intentions and inspiration for Snowpiercer, which was actually made three years ago, and, of course, why Tilda Swinton looks like a certain British prime minster. Also we have several mood boards and some early sketches for costume construction to enjoy, so please do:

Chris Evans as Curtis Everett and Minister Mason. Catherine George’s costume department was based in Prague (where Snowpiercer was shot). Fabric ager, and Ms George’s friend, Katalina Iturralde, worked with a local team of trained painters and artists to distress the film’s costumes.
Chris Evans as Curtis Everett and Minister Mason. Catherine George’s costume department was based in Prague (where Snowpiercer was shot). Fabric ager, and Ms George’s friend, Katalina Iturralde, worked with a local team of mostly trained painters and artists to distress the film’s costumes.

Clothes on Film, Christopher: Where did your main influences come from? How involved was director Bong Joon-ho?

Catherine George: Director Bong was very involved; he had been working on the concept on and off for 7 years. He found the original French graphic novel in 2005 and he worked with some conceptual artists in Korea on some of the set details and exterior visuals. I was free to develop the characters’ wardrobe but at the same time we did collaborate closely, which was a joy as he has such a wickedly dark and funny imagination. My influences were different for each character; the tail section originated from a practical angle while also trying to encompass the global aspect of the train. Gilliam (John Hurt) and the group of martyr’s clothes were a mix up of eastern and western, I looked at photos of Gandhi and I found an image of an Indian street beggar who was wearing an old tweed sports jacket and a sarong, I love that combination of traditional with western contemporary in one outfit.

I looked at a lot of utilitarian clothes for Nam (Kang-ho Song) as he had worked as a train engineer before he was imprisoned, and I was inspired by photographs of old train engineers from an early industrial period and vintage French railway jackets. I have always loved how Japanese Boro fabric is patched and combined and I used that idea in some of the tail section costumes, particularly Nam’s. Edgar’s outfit was inspired by Mike Brodie’s (aka the Polaroid Kid) beautiful portraits of contemporary young train hobos, who jump freight trains in the US living off the grid. They have an anti-authority feel to them.

Mood board for Gilliam.
Mood board for Gilliam. Note the begger in the tweed jacket.

CoF: How did you manage to give the passengers in the tail section of the train a sense of individuality?

CG: We wanted Curtis to be somewhat anonymous, the common man leader but at the same time he had to be recognisable in the crowd. The hat helped mark him out and it’s not what we are accustomed to seeing Chris Evans wearing. We wanted to steer away from the all American look that he has in Captain America. We had to hide his physique and the oversized long coat helps us recognise him but also hides his muscular frame. We had to cut out the sleeves of his under layers to help him look leaner.

Most of the design of the tail section costume had to come from that practical place, The Painter character’s poncho was built from an old packing blanket and his helmet has a light on it so that he can draw at night in his sleep station; we imagine it’s a left over from a repair track worker. The tail section clothing was pieced together from different garments and repairs were made on top of that. They had to improvise with any materials that were left on the train.

Minister Mason and uniformed train guard Fuyu (Steve Park). Although it can appear as though most of the train guards were Asian, race did not play any part with the elites. In Ms George’s words it was just “survival of the fittest”.
Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) and uniformed train guard Fuyu (Steve Park). Although it can appear that most of the train guards were Asian, race does not play any part with the elites. In Ms George’s words it was just “survival of the fittest”.

CoF: Claude’s (Emma Levie) yellow coat and dress intrigues me. She is the first burst of colour in the whole film; what were the intended connotations for that particular shade of yellow?

CG: We knew that Claude’s costume was going to be the first burst of colour in the tail section and yellow is the most luminous of the spectrum. It’s the colour that captures our attention more than any other and in colour psychology yellow is non-emotional and lacking compassion.

We camera tested before deciding on final colours for Claude and the other characters to see how they would look in the lighting of the tail section, and against the back drop of the other darker aged costumes.

Mood board for Namgoong.
Mood board for Namgoong.

CoF: Was it your intention to make Franco the Elder and Franco the Younger (Vlad Ivanov and Adnan Haskovic?) look like the Guido brothers? I assume in his former life Franco the Elder was definitely an enforcer.

CG: Yes I imagine that he was some kind of enforcer or hit man. He certainly takes a long time to die. I had actually started looking at the images of assassins and brothers and looked at the Kray twins with their history of violence and their style. Director Bong really liked the idea of that violence and style coupled with love for his brother.

Early costume sketch for Minister Mason signed by Catherine George.
Early costume sketch for Minister Mason signed by Catherine George.

CoF: So, tell me about Tilda Swinton as Minister Mason.

CG: Mason was inspired initially by a Smithsonian photograph that our production designer Ondrej Nekvasil had found for a set. There was an older lady in the picture amongst a room full of dead birds at the Museum of Natural History.

I went from there and found images of women from the from late 60’s/early 70’s, a certain type that I remembered growing up who would wear their fur to go into town and scoff at people who were less better off, a bit of a Margaret Thatcher type, really. The suit was a typical conservative politician shape and style – the purple has the royal quality and it pops with the colour of the fur.

CoF: Did you ever think, “We’ve gone too far” with Tilda’s look and have to pull back?

CG: We had a lot of fun with Mason and at one point during Tilda’s fitting we also gave her a bit of a hump like one of our reference pictures, but with the false teeth, the glasses, wig and sagging breasts, the hump had to go.

Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov) with Minister Mason. Tilda Swinton’s long fur coat was a collaboration with fur designer Giuliana Teso.
Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov) with Minister Mason. Tilda Swinton’s long fur coat was a collaboration with fur designer Giuliana Teso.

CoF: During the ‘I am hat, you are shoe’ scene, how important was the choice of Andrew’s shoe? It struck me as a smart, albeit very worn, well dressed man’s shoe – a brogue. Was this a subtle way of intimating just how far removed he is from his former life?

CG: Yes, Andrew’s shoe was supposed to indicate how far he’d come and I thought it would be nice to have something that had been well crafted but had seen better days, and I do love a brogue.

Early costume sketches for Gilliam and Tanya (Octavia Spencer).
Early costume sketches for Gilliam and Tanya (Octavia Spencer).

CoF: What was your intention behind the armed guards in balaclavas and oilskins? Pure intimidation?

CG: Yes, partly. We wanted it to be intimidating and something that could have been resurrected from a previous battle where they maybe lost a few in the fight and as you say hastily replaced them with an improvised military uniform. The thinking behind the oilskin was that the blood would be easily washed off for the next revolt and the balaclavas were actually a replacement for a helmet that we decided was too surreal and not threatening enough.

Mood board for Minister Mason.
Mood board for Minister Mason.

CoF: How about Mason’s white military inspired costume with medals? Is she going into battle as someone that has never actually seen any real combat?

CG: Yes, she has other people do the dirty work for her and also the white worked really well on camera in the darkness of that scene. I had seen many dictators wearing elaborate uniforms and crazy hand-made medals. There is a great photo of Col Gaddafi visiting Italy in a white uniform and he’s wearing a handmade medal. There’s also a shot of him wearing the medal with his white pyjamas. Some of Mason’s medals were crafted from odd bits of hardware found on the train.

Mood board for Minister Mason's second ensemble.
Mood board for Minister Mason’s first and second ensembles. Note the medals.

CoF: Alison Pill’s costume is wonderful; the absolute cliché of a Sunday school teacher. Presumably this comes from Wilford’s (Ed Harris) idealised view of what constitutes a utopia society?

CG: I sketched out a very traditional maternity shape and then had to find a fabric that worked in the very colourful classroom and also embodied Wilford’s idea of the perfect teacher for his new generation of followers.

Alison Pill as Teacher. There is a short moment when a tailor is seen making clothes for the elites, a gentleman. Ms George considers that there would be preserved clothes (fashions) aboard the train, while others would be copied and remade.
Alison Pill as Teacher. There is a short moment when a tailor is seen making clothes for the elites, a gentleman. Ms George considers that there would be preserved clothes (fashions) aboard the train, while others would be copied and remade.

CoF: The partygoers seem to encompass everything from 90’s ravers to contemporary Russian and Berlin nightclubs. Is the suggestion they created their own fashion as an amalgamation of everything they could find?

CG: It is an amalgamation and also for a lot of them a recreation of what they’ve been heard from others. They are not recreating their own experience, so it’s kind of a mish mash of hedonism from different countries.

Mood board for the Franco brothers.
Mood board for the Franco brothers. The Kray twins feature in the top left hand corner.

CoF: Finally, tell me about Wilford’s silk pyjamas and dressing gown.

CG: I had the idea for the pyjamas and showed director Bong an image of the artist Julian Schnabel which had the right mood for Wilford. For me, yes – who wouldn’t want to swan around in silk pyjamas all day? I’m in mine right now!

With thanks to Catherine George.

© 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.