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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

An Interview with Kelly Masterson

Source: Angela Weiss/Getty Images North America
By Joshua Handler

Screenwriter Kelly Masterson started as a banker.  He wrote on the side, but never really had much success until his first screenplay got turned into a film.  That screenplay was Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, the highly acclaimed final film by Sidney Lumet.  His second screenplay (co-written with director Bong Joon-ho) is now the movie Snowpiercer, one of this year's most spectacular achievements.

Masterson and Director Bong (as Bong Joon-ho is so affectionately called) met by chance.  "It was totally like being struck by lightening," said Masterson.  "I had never met Director Bong.  He had never met me.  He saw a movie that I wrote called Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, picked up the phone, called me."

"I never talked to a producer, I never talked to money people, I never talked to stars...the only person I ever talked to, begin to end, was Director Bong," said Masterson.  "There was one vision: his, one person to please: him, and it was just a terrific experience to work with him."

I asked Kelly what the draw of working on this film was.  "[I]t really was Director Bong. I had seen Mother.  I had not seen his other films.  I just wanted to work with him.  What appealed to me about the story is it's so linear.  Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is the least linear thing in the world. This [Snowpiercer] is so linear it is in a straight line.  I like dark, twisted, fucked-up people.  I don't know that I like them, I wouldn't want them in my life.  I like them in my mind, I like them in my computer.  Those are the kind of characters I love to write and this had them even more so than the graphic novel.  When we started inventing what we needed for our film, those were meaty kinds of characters that I like..."

Masterson explained that the graphic novel and the film are very different.  "Certainly the premise and the idea [are the same]," he said.  "But that's really pretty much [all] Director Bong wanted from that. But he wanted to create his own characters."  So, Director Bong brought Masterson in to flesh out the characters and to write dialogue since Kelly is a native English-speaker.  Masterson added, "I always say that the vision is 80%, maybe even 90 % Director Bong.  The writing I think we're pretty equal."

One thing that amazed me about Snowpiercer is how brilliantly crafted its screenplay is.  Every piece fits into the narrative puzzle beautifully, and I asked Kelly how one goes about planning out a screenplay like that.  He replied, referencing a scene in which protein blocks are used to show people what the train looks like, "At our very first meeting, Director Bong and I were having breakfast at a hotel in Beverly Hills and he took potatoes off of his plate and lined them up like the train.  It was like the building blocks of the film and you see that scene...and what's interesting too to me is all the potato pieces looked alike and then when you see it in the movie, all of the protein bars look alike because they [the people revolting] don't know, they don't know what each car is going to look like.  They don't know that each one's going to be different, that each one's going to be a whole new world that all looks like just piece of potato to them until they start that journey.  And you open those doors and you're in a whole new world.  [T]he real building blocks of writing that script was knowing that each one was going to be different."

When I asked him about how a sci-fi film like Snowpiercer came about in the middle of two crime films, Masterson said, "As I was writing it [Snowpiercer], I wasn't thinking genre, I wasn't thinking sci-fi, I was just thinking about the characters, but what a great opportunity for me to get to do that. That's going to be on my resume for the rest of my life!"

When I asked whether the film was close to Kelly's original vision in the screenplay, he told me, "It's greater.  My mind was limited, Director Bong's wasn't limited."

Masterson obviously has an enormous respect for the two directors he's worked with: Bong Joon-ho and Sidney Lumet: "The other thing that's wonderful, and Sidney Lumet was the same way, was we worked really hard on the script and we made sure the script was exactly what he [Director Bong] wanted, what he needed, so he then shot that script, he didn't do a lot of invention on set.  Visually he did things that blew my mind, but in terms of what the building blocks are, he shot his script.  I'm really lucky as a writer because...I say this about my two major movies, that the directors actually made better movies than the scripts.  The scripts were good...but the movies are even better."

Kelly and I discussed his career as a writer and he said the following about his work: "I stopped writing myself, and that's when I knew I was a real writer because I realized it wasn't ego, it was really stories I wanted to tell, it was characters I wanted to bring to life.

"I always want my characters to make sense to themselves, maybe not to others, but they have to make sense to themselves, and I really like to love them.  I wrote Killing Kennedy and I had to write Lee Harvey Oswald, who was a man who I absolutely hated...for 50 years, and I had to find something in him that I loved so I could write him so that I could feel for him and that he would make sense to me..."

My personal favorite story that Kelly told me was about how Tilda Swinton was cast: "Do you know the Tilda Swinton story?" Kelly asked.  "Do you know how she got cast? We wrote it [the role] as a man...and she wanted to do something with director Bong, and he said, 'Well i don't have anything in this movie for you.'  And so she said, 'Can I read the script?'  She read the script, and she said, 'I want to play that part,' and he went 'Okay.'  That's as simple as it was.  We wrote it and we didn't change the pronouns...other people call her 'sir', so we didn't change anything. She just played it."

Throughout this interview, Masterson kept reiterating how thrilled he was to have worked with Bong Joon-ho on a project like Snowpiercer.  This speaks to what a phenomenal director Bong Joon-ho is and to how humble Masterson is.  "To have in your whole filmography films like these two that I'm so proud of, that's pretty great."

SNOWPIERCER is now in theaters and on VOD.  It's one of the best films of the year.

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