Interview : David R.Ellis

The director of “Snakes on a Plane”


Seasoned stunt co-ordinator (he did some of that amazing godbuggery in “The Matrix Reloaded”) turned directing wiz (you’ll have seen his craftsmanship on “Cellular” or the slightly-more entertaining, “Final Destination 2”), and now New Line stable mate, David R.Ellis, had a blast making his latest film, “Snakes on a Plane”. And why not? The film’s already achieved cult status, before it was even transported to cinemas in cans. Sure to fatten up his wallet – if it hasn’t already. CLINT MORRIS caught up with the director in San Diego.

You must be rapt with the response?
Are you kidding? It’s fucking awesome! When I took this picture I had no freaking clue. They sent me a script, Ronny Yu had just dropped off, Sam was interested in doing the picture. They said, it’s called Snakes on a Plane. I go, “Okay, yeah right. What’s it really called?” They said “No, that’s what it’s really called, we want you to read it and see if you want to do it.” So I called my wife and said “I just got an offer from New Line to do my third film in a row with them.” The only other guy who did three in a row with them was Peter Jackson, so that’s kinda cool, good company. So she said “What’s it called?” So we’re looking at the name, and we’re looking at this huge stack of bills, and I said “I’ll do it.” [laughs] So I looked at the script and there was some potential in it. It needed some work. And I knew that Sam was interested in doing it, which was awesome, I’d worked with Sam as second unit director on four different films. So the opportunity to work with Sam on a high-concept picture, with snakes and planes and people’s phobias, would be cool. But I had no clue that it’d ever turn into what it’s turned into. And the best part about the whole thing about the buzz on the internet and all the posters and merchandise and all that stuff…

But are you worried that the movie won’t live up to the hype?
There are two kinds of hype out there. There’s the fans who can’t wait to see Sam killing snakes and saying “motherfucker” and stuff, and then the people who are interested but think it’s gonna suck. We don’t have the expectation of Gone with the Wind. The expectation is mixed where people will see it but not ready to totally embrace it.

Can you talk about the reshoots?
What happened was, when I came on the project it was an R-rated film. That’s what I signed on to make. Then New Line decided it would have a broader audience with a PG-13 film. So that’s what we shot. The buzz was going on on the internet about what they wanted to see. I showed it to New Line, and they said “David, it’s gotta be an R-rated film.” And I said “No shit”. So, we went back and did what we should’ve done all along. Now, Sam can say brilliant lines like only he can. And we’ve also been able to give our demographic the violence and gory stuff that they want. Oh, and nudity too.

So you were happy when you were told it was going to be an R-rated film?
I was so stoked. Because I felt the PG-13 version would be kind of watered down. And since the fans were such fanatics about it, we had to give them what they wanted. It’s called Snakes on a Plane, what’re you trying to hide? You gotta go for it.

Can you talk about the change of title?

That was interesting, because we were never renaming the film. We never planned to. But we started to go around in Vancouver to locations and said “We’re doing a movie called Snakes on a Plane”, and going out to actors, and nobody was taking it seriously. So we changed the working title to get the script out there. But it worked in our favour in that the internet got really pissed off about it, and we were aware of it. If they’re talking good or bad, at least they’re talking. When Sam announced that we were going back to Snakes on a Plane, the internet went crazy again. That’s what you want.

Can you talk a bit about the cast?
Sure. Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford [laughs]. No, we have an awesome cast. We have Sam, and when you have Sam you can attract a lot of other people. We got Juliana Margulies, who’s amazing. I didn’t know she’d turn into a crack whore after she did the film… [laughs] She’s been doing a lot of great work lately. Kenan Thompson from SNL is hilarious, Bobby Cannavale is great, David Koechner is freakin’ hilarious, he plays this guy that’s always hitting on stewardesses, and he’s wearing snakeskin boots which is bad on a plane full of snakes… Nathan Philips, this young kid from Australia who was in Wolf Creek. He’s a big star back home….

Yeah, he is
He’s gonna be a big star here, too. Kinda like Chris Evans, I kinda discovered him for Cellular and he’s gone on to Fantastic Four and other stuff.

How did you handle the Snakes?
:Very carefully! Snakes are snakes, they’re not like dogs and cats – you put ‘em down and they wiggle around, and you try to find them with the camera. You can drape them on people and stuff like that, but for any really specific behaviour, you have to have a CG snake. Like Sam’s running around with a variety of weapons, like a Taser, and they recoil, so to get that reaction it has to be computer generated.

What’s next for you?
A little independent horror film. A real quick shoot. It’s called Asylum, it’s about these freshmen who go to school in a college that was converted from an old insane asylum that’s haunted by this guy… it’s freaky. It’s very psychological, all the kids have their own nightmares – one was abused by her father, all these different things, and when they get to the school they start reliving their own worst nightmares and they don’t know if they’re real or not. I‘ve also got some high-profile films – which I can’t discuss yet – but one that I hope Sam will do.

What was the most consistent challenge when making the film?
Just to make it beyond what people expected.

Now the expectations are pretty high.
I know – I’m gonna start drinking [laughs]. I just wanna get it fuckin’ over with! I’ve become addicted to the internet now. I go home and say “What do I have to do now to make these guys happy?” And my daughter gives me shit about it all the time, about my head swelling. I want it to come out, I want people to dig it and have fun.

Are you going to do the commentary for the DVD?
We just did it. Sam too. About four days ago. It was hilarious. We had like six of us in there and we got off on some bizarre tangents. It’s definitely R-rated, too.