Snakes. On a plane. A motherf*cking interview with David Ellis
Interview date: 08/07/06
Posted on: 08/14/06
David Ellis does not have a lengthy résumé as a director. As a stunt man and second unit director, yes, but as the main man in charge, the only movies he has to his credit are “Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco,” “Final Destination 2” and “Cellular.” He’s about to add one more movie to that list, a low-budget film that you may have read about on this here site. It involves snakes. On a plane. Bullz-Eye leapt at the chance to chat with Ellis about what we already consider to be the Greatest Movie Ever Made (despite the fact that we haven’t seen it yet), with the hidden motive of persuading him to not make a sequel under any circumstances.
David Ellis: How you doing, buddy?
Bullz-Eye: Good. How much time do we have?
DE: Um, what time were you supposed to call in?
BE: Uh, right now.
DE: (Mimicking me) Rrrrright now. Then we have 15 minutes. The last guy, I think, something happened to him.
BE: Oh, really?
DE: Yeah, I don’t know where he went. There was a guy from the San Jose Mercury News that was supposed to call at 4:30, but he lost out. So I don’t know what happened, but how ya doin’?
BE: I’m doing great! How many of these have you done today?
DE: So far, about eight. It’s all right, it’s not a big deal.
BE: All right, well, let’s get right down to it. I was up in Chicago this weekend covering Lollapalooza when I got the call that we’d be doing this, and when I was in the Virgin Megastore, I bought a copy of “Final Destination 2” when I saw your name on it.
DE: A ha!
BE: I haven’t seen it yet, so I’m looking forward to seeing it.
DE: It’s fun. It’s got some good death scenes in it.
BE: I’ve seen the third one. And I liked that one.
DE: It’s funny, without having an ego, the producers like the second one best of the trilogy. But I think they’re all good.
BE: My friends have said the same thing.
DE: They’re all fun, but (the second one), you’ll dig it, it’s fun.
BE: He was once credited as the screenwriter, but he isn’t anymore. Can you tell me what happened?
DE: Yeah, let me get rid of (the call on my other line). So, uh, Sheldon Turner came on and he did one of the original drafts, him and John Heffernan (who received official screenwriter credit). But it really went through a lot of different writers. We had Sebastian Gutierrez, who did “Gothika.” Chris Morgan came on and did some work, the guy that did “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.” It was a collaboration of a lot of guys.
BE: So this is probably more of a Writers’ Guild issue than anything else?
DE: Yeah, I think they went through the Writers’ Guild, and it was based on who did the most amount of work.
BE: I must tell you up front, I’m one of the main movie critics for Bullz-Eye, and I speak on behalf of our staff and several of my movie critic peers when I say that we are most disappointed that New Line is not screening the movie for us.
DE: Yeah, I know, we get that. We totally understand that.
BE: So was this (the studio’s) decision or a producer/crew-based decision?
DE: No, you can really blame it on me. What happened was we had such an insane buzz on the Internet. And when I showed the film to New Line, they flipped out. They loved the film, they felt it really worked for what it is. And we intentionally did not (screen) the film, because we had nothing to gain from it. We had such positive buzz that all we had to do was get somebody that it wasn’t their kind of movie, and have them try to smear it on Ain’t It Cool News or something like that. And we felt the same with the media, that it’s become the fans’ movie and that we should give them the opportunity to pass judgment on it first, without being swayed by…you know, some of the press will be in our demographic and dig the movie, and there will be other guys that it’s not their kind of movie, and they’ll go out of their way to try and put a negative spin on it. And we just felt that we didn’t need that. We believe really strongly in the movie. The media, right away, assumes the movie’s not good, instead of giving (themselves) the opportunity to see it and then pass judgment. If they don’t like it, then that’s great; they can write whatever they want to write. But we felt that we needed to give the movie to the people who really want to see it first. We definitely pissed off a lot of people in the media, and I’m sorry about that. I went to Comic-Con, and had to deal with probably 150 journalists that feel the same way that you do. And I get it, because that’s what your job is, to report and hopefully report ahead of time and give the fans a heads-up on whether a movie sucks or not. But they did the same thing with “Pirates (of the Caribbean)” this year, they did the same with “Superman (Returns)” this year…
BE: Actually, I saw screenings for both of those.
DE: You did? Did they have a media screening?
BE: One of each. “Pirates” was a media screening, and “Superman” was a press and public screening.
DE: Okay. But they didn’t test either of those movies. I know they had select media screenings. But they didn’t go out to a test audience and recruit them and blah blah blah. And mainly it was because they had such hard release dates that they had to hit, that those films were rapidly trying to finish post-production and visual effects and stuff like that. We didn’t (have that problem). So if we were afraid this movie didn’t work, we could move off of our date and address whatever we felt was wrong with the movie, spend a few million more dollars to protect our investment. But we feel that it really works and it is what is, it’s a movie about snakes on a plane with Sam Jackson kicking ass. The fans that want to see that kind of movie are going to have a blast and they’re going to jump out of their seats and they’re not going to believe what we’ve done. We also intentionally didn’t do a trailer, which I think is the first time New Line has ever done that.
BE: I was going to ask you about that.
DE: Yeah, traditionally, trailers give away three minutes of all the best stuff in the movie. And I wanted to continually tease the audience, and not give them everything. So we did five teaser trailers…
BE: Which are mostly text, so you’ve teased (the fans) awfully hard.
DE: Yeah, but what’s really cool, and what’s going to be rewarding, David, is that when they see the movie, they’re going to see so many things they never saw before. The longest piece we’ve shown was a five or six-minute clip down at Comic-Con, and we showed them stuff that no one’s ever seen before. And we felt that was appropriate as well, to give those fans something new and something fresh. And it went over really well. I think, along with “Spider-Man 3,” we were the biggest draws at Comic-Con. So I think the marketing strategy has been outside the box for this movie. But I think that it’s working in a really cool way. We don’t even start our big push until (August 8). We’ve only done 7% of our marketing so far, and we have 93% of the money that we have to spend that’s going to be spent over the next 12 days. We’ve stayed out of the way of “Miami Vice” and “Talladega Nights,” because they were spending a lot of money. Now it’s our turn to get the people who are not Internet freaks by getting the marketing into a broader kind of range. I’m sorry you didn’t get to see it, but when you do see it, I think you’re going to have a blast.
BE: Well, there are a couple different things that I wanted to bring up. For starters, from my perspective, the movie is completely and totally critic-proof. So no matter what any of us said about the movie, pro or con, I felt like you guys were safe. The other thing is that I wanted to read to you a list of movies that we’ve been subjected to in screenings this year.
BE: “When a Stranger Calls,” The Pink Panther,” “You, Me and Dupree,” “Hostel,” “Grandma’s Boy,” “Freedomland,” “Annapolis.” At this point, I felt like New Line owed me a screening of “Snakes on a Plane.”
BE: We were planning a party around it.
DE: Right. Well, maybe they should give you a private screening.
BE: Have them give me a call.
DE: It was funny, someone at Comic-Con said, “Are you going to show it to Roger Ebert in the hospital?”
BE: I’m glad you mentioned that. I read that (quote) from him. He already seems to be sharpening his claws, and I don’t get that at all. (Note: Ebert has gone on record of saying, with regard to “Snakes on a Plane,” “I’m tired of the age of irony. The age of irony is just an attitude that excuses you for consuming junk as if it were worth consuming.”)
DE: Yeah, I don’t get it. I don’t think it makes a critic look that great if they come out and they blast a movie that they haven’t even seen. It’s only going to bite them in the ass if the movie’s good. I think you lose credibility as a critic because you haven’t seen (the movie), so you’re assuming something. And then it turns out different than you reported, and people say, “He jumped the gun.” And then that wasn’t very smart, because the movie is making money, and people are flocking to see it, and everyone’s talking about it. That’s just my philosophy. If I were a critic, I would be careful. I guess that’s the way I’ve always lived my life that I give someone a chance first. And then, if they fuck me over, then I’ve learned my lesson. But at least I come in with a pretty open mind.
BE: We have about five minutes left, and I have a whole bunch of questions I want to ask you.
DE: Okay, go for it.
BE: What exactly was New Line thinking when they switched the title to “Pacific Flight 121”?
DE: They were thinking that they wanted to get this movie read by actors, and nobody was reading it. They’d get it, and go, “’Snakes on a Plane,’ yeah, right.” It was always just a working title when we would (send the script) out to actors, and try to get movie locations. It really sounded like a C-(grade) kind of movie to a lot of people, because they didn’t get it. We always knew that, for the release of the movie, we have to call it “Snakes on a Plane.” I mean, it is what it is. But (the title “Pacific Flight 121”) was just a process of trying to get people to take the movie seriously. Once they opened the script and read it, they got it. But it was getting them to read it that was the chore.
BE: I think that would have made it a million times harder from a marketing perspective too, because with that title, you know there would be people who walked into that movie thinking it was about 9/11.
DE: Yeah, and it’s a stupid title, anyway. “Snakes on a Plane” is a genius title.
BE: Best title I’ve ever heard.
DE: Yeah, so there was no way me or Sam were ever going to (let them rename it). And people did entertain the idea about changing the title. Guys, are you kidding? I mean, the movie is about snakes on a plane. Why are we going to be afraid, and not have the balls to call it what it is?
BE: How difficult was it cutting the new, racier footage into the existing version that you already shot?
DE: Easy. Because Sam and I signed on for an R-rated film, and when (New Line) changed it to PG-13, we were upset. We shot it, I showed it to them, and they immediately realized the mistake. Because you have to cut away from the snake attacks too quickly to satisfy a PG-13 movie.
BE: Oh, geez.
DE: So you were losing all the impact of the movie.
BE: That was smart, because no one wanted a PG-13-rated “Snakes on a Plane.”
DE: No! You can’t, not when it’s called “Snakes on a Plane,” about snakes attacking people but you can’t really show it, what’s that?
BE: How much do you love Brian Finkelstein? (Note: Finkelstein runs the fan favorite snakesonablog.com.)
DE: He’s awesome. The guy should be president. He’s frickin’ amazing. I got to meet him at Comic-Con, and I started a dialogue with him very early on, on the site.
BE: I’ve seen your posts here and there.
DE: Yeah, but (I’ve written) even to his private email, where I would feed him little tidbits of information. The kid was HUGE as far as creating an awareness of this movie on the Internet. Other people picked it up, and that was great, but Brian was amazing. Can you hang one sec?
BE: Is that your next interview?
DE: I’m not sure. (Roughly 60 seconds pass, after which Ellis tells me that he is planning a 400+-person wedding for one of his daughters. Yikes.)
BE: You realize that following “Snakes on a Plane” up with a sequel is potentially suicide, right?
DE: Oh, absolutely. The only way I’d do it is if it was a parody. I actually told them that, when we were getting ready to shoot this film, they should let me do the parody at the same time and release it with the DVD. Use the same cast and just tweak the dialogue…it would have been hilarious.
BE: I want to dig into your back catalog a little bit, because you’ve worked as a second unit director for quite a few top-flight directors. I was wondering if you’d tell me something interesting or something you learned from the following people:
BE: Peter Weir ("Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World").
DE: Peter Weir: passion. He’s very passionate and detail-oriented, a really sweet man, and great with actors.
BE: The Wachowski Brothers ("The Matrix Reloaded").
DE: Wild, crazy, passion too. They keep pretty much everything in their heads on how they’re going to do something, so you gotta get them to communicate so they can tell you what they want you to do to help them. Very smart, very creative…good guys.
BE: Wolfgang Petersen ("The Perfect Storm").
DE: Wolfgang Petersen…again, very passionate. Loves to wrap by 7:00 so he can go to dinner. Treats his crew with respect.
BE: Two more: Chris Columbus ("Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone").
DE: Chris Columbus…again all these guys share a passion for filmmaking. Chris, what I learned from him is that his energy is just contagious, and he’s really, really good and really patient with children.
BE: Lastly, Renny Harlin ("Deep Blue Sea").
DE: Renny Harlin loves to shoot with lots of cameras. He’ll put 15 cameras on something if he can. Passionate, creative, and he likes to have a good time.
BE: And is that where you met Samuel Jackson (Harlin directed “Deep Blue Sea,” which starred Jackson), or did you work with him sooner than that?
DE: No, I worked with Sam on “Patriot Games” first. Then on “Sphere,” and then “The Negotiator” and “Deep Blue Sea.”
BE: Tell me about your upcoming movie “Asylum.”
DE: “Asylum” is a kids’ horror film that takes place with a group of freshmen going to summer orientation at a college that was built around an old insane asylum that’s kind of haunted by this psychotic doctor that used to perform lobotomies and stuff on people, thinking that he was helping people, when actually he was just torturing the shit out of them.
BE: Let me guess: this is a New Line movie.
DE: No. Hyde Park is doing it. They did “Walking Tall” and “Bringing Down the House.” It’s a lower-budget, quick shoot, but really good for the horror genre. It’s really psychological; you’re not sure in the beginning if the kids are just imagining what’s going on with them or not. So it’s not your typical slasher movie, it’s much smarter. It’s going to be cool.
BE: What is the one thing you hope Hollywood learns from the whole “Snakes on a Plane” phenomenon?
DE: One lesson to be learned…Don’t be afraid of the title of your movie.
BE: Good answer. Care to make a prediction on its opening weekend take?
DE: I can’t do that, that would be foolish. I just hope that a lot of people get to see it, and I can’t wait to see it with a live audience. If they react like they react to the teaser trailers in the theater, it’s gonna be awesome.
BE: We’re already planning on attending a 10:00 screening on Thursday.
DE: Yeah, that’s going to be fun. We’re going to have the premiere that night, and I was going to go to Texas and the Alamo Drafthouse, but my schedule got so crazy. I think, on Friday, we’re going to try to go to the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, which is in L.A., and see it with an audience at 10:00 at night. It’s going to be fun, and it’s going to surprise a lot of people that are expecting it to be really cheesy and dumb. We’ve got great actors in it, great performances, and they’re going to be surprised at the way these snakes attack people. There are two shots that have never been done in a film, ever.
BE: Really? Wow, there’s a tease.
DE: Yeah, just where snakes attack people, so you can use your imagination.
BE: Well, I’ve seen the shot of the one crawling between the woman’s cleavage.
DE: Yeah, that’s not even close.
BE: And the iPod girl narrowly missing getting struck.
DE: These will knock your socks off. It’s going to be crazy.
BE: Well, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. I’ve already been calling this the Greatest Movie Ever Made.
DE: Nice, I like that! And I’m sorry you didn’t get to see it (in advance). But call me on Friday morning, and tell me how you liked it.BE: Will do.