Combustible Celluloid

Interview with David R. Ellis

'Snake' Oil

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Snakes on a Plane is something that has never existed before; it's the world's most popular cult film that no one has seen.

"Not even me," says snake wrangler Jules Sylvester, 55, who handles onscreen animals ranging from wolves to spiders. Snakes on a Plane is his 337th film. "I'm going to the premiere. I have to stand on the red carpet with a snake."

The movie began life when one writer who had reportedly worked on the screenplay started a humorous blog about his experience. The blog caught on and led to other internet sites, such as The internet community may have even influenced certain aspects of the movie, though director David R. Ellis, 53, insists that these elements were planned all along.

Ellis, who began working as an actor, moved up to stunt man, then second assistant director, and finally director, thinks it's a great idea to keep the movie under wraps. "The critics are assuming that we're afraid of the movie and that we're hiding it," he said in a recent phone conversation. "We just felt that it had become such a fan based movie. Everyone's going to see it at once."

So how many snakes are we talking about here? "At any one time, I used about 60 or 70," says Sylvester. "I took 450 snakes up to Canada, and I borrowed 50 more. They asked for 200 but I always bring extra, so I can give my snakes a break. But they were so relaxed they started popping out eggs!"

Sylvester rattles off a laundry list of breeds that appear in the film, including certain types of harmless snakes that double for deadly snakes. "The Coastal Taipan snake from Australia, which is the deadliest snake in the world, looks a lot like a harmless yellow rat snake from Florida."

Snakes aren't very smart, Sylvester says, so they can't be trained. "It's more snake management," he says. "The director asks, 'what snake do you have that will crawl across the floor and into a bag?' So you use what the snake likes to do."

He says that the movie does use computer-generated and Animatronic snakes from time to time. "We can make my snakes do normal things, but they don't fly at people's throats," he says.

Ellis reveals that audiences will not have to wait long to see the slimy reptiles. "There's a couple of action sequences in the beginning that are non-snake related," he says. The first snakes make their appearance by about the 12-minute mark.

The director also reveals why the plane doesn't just land: "The snakes are released halfway between L.A. and Hawaii and also the snakes have shorted out the avionics panel, which is all their radar. So they're stuck at a certain altitude, and they're stuck in a huge storm," he says.

"And the pilot gets killed," he adds.

"This movie's going to surprise a lot of people," he continues. "They're not expecting a whole lot from it, but I think they're going to be really surprised."

August 18, 2006

Movies Unlimtied