Snakes on a Plane: Jackson on the Fans

The 2006 San Diego Comic-Con International, the nation's largest comic book convention, again proved to Hollywood that there is no better place to appeal to the smartest crowd of American pop culture.

This was especially the case of the eagerly awaited “Snakes on a Plane,” which its studio, New Line, debuted with a nine-minute-footage. Asking the film's star Samuel L. Jackson to attend the event and be on a panel was a very good idea, which drew a lot of attention.

With all due respect, I don't think that Jackson, 57, a gifted, versatile, and busy actor, has ever been in the spotlight in such intense way, not even when he co-starred in Tarantino's cult picture, “Pulp Fiction,” for which he was nominated for the Supporting Actor Oscar. (John Travolta benefited much more from that comeback movie)

Director David Ellis and Snake Wrangler Jules Sylvester also appeared on the panel, which was hosted by SNL comedian and cast member, Kenan Thompson. The event began by showing a random collection of clips, a truly hilarious montage of all the Internet spoofs based on the film.

Kenan talked with the cast, and the panel members took questions from the audience. The level of enthusiasm was high, as befits the hype surrounding the picture; occasionally audience members screamed epithets from the as yet-unseen movie.

Samuel Jackson's introduction was from his now-infamous line in the movie: “I've had it with these motherf******* snakes on this motherf******* plane!”

The panel members discussed the origin of the film and Samuel Jackson's involvement in it, followed by Sylvester's showcase of some of the reptilians from the film, including one that was simply too big to fit the screen's size, a 19 foot, 250 pound anaconda. Reportedly over 25 snake species are displayed in the movie and 450 snakes were used during the shoot, something that no other Hollywood movie about snakes has done.

Finally, the audience was shown the nine-minute sequence from the film, a good one, in which the snakes get loose and run rampaging on the plane, attacking victims right and left.

How did it all begin

Jackson's management was baffled by the project ever since producer Craig Berenson first pitched the high-concept film, based on David Dalessandro's script called “Venom.” The idea was to exploit two of the biggest fears humans have, fear of snakes and fear of flying, particularly after 9/11.

Optioning the rights to “Venom” from Dalessandro, Berenson continued to develop the concept with screenwriter John Heffernan. When MTV Films turned it down, New Line came aboard. Initially, the project was assigned to the Hong Kong action director, Ronny Yu, but due to creative differences, Yu left, though not before suggesting Samuel Jackson for the lead.

Casting himself

Jackson said he was drawn to the movie by the title and by its blend of three popular genres: monster, horror, and Hong Kong action. Jackson knew Yu, when they collaborated on “The 51st State,” and was happy to work with Yu again despite the fact that their actioner was a failure.

Jackson's agents didn't approve of his choice, but it was not their first disagreement. They didn't like many of his other choices, including the New Line actioner “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” with Geena Davis, which was also a disappointment. Known for his stubbornness, and judging projects by instincts, Jackson prevailed.

New Line then hired David Ellis, a former stuntman who had directed for them “Final Destination 2,” which did better than the first picture. New hire was fine: Jackson knew Ellis, who had worked as second-unit director on “Sphere” and “Deep Blue Sea.”

The title's the thing

The shooting of the movie, now called “Pacific Air 121,” began in Vancouver last summer. The title's change was made to elevate the prestige of the movie, which was considered too cheesy. New Line's marketing was concerned that people wouldn't take the movie seriously.

According to Jackson, New Line also feared of giving too much away of the plot. For his part, Jackson argued that the only way to get people to see the movie was to let them know what to expect. Besides, who wants to see a bland title like “Pacific Air 121” “People either want to see a plane full of deadly-ass snakes, or not,” Jackson said, while continuing to put pressure on New Line to keep the original title.

Films' titles are often misleading, often catchy, often inaccurate and distorting of the nature of the movie. At the very least, New Line's movie boasts an accurately descriptive title. Yes, it's literal, but it's also catchy and campy, and does justice to the as yet unseen movie.

Hardcore horror

Jackson wanted more action, and more gruesome action, but he couldn't get New Line to reverse the PG-13 rating. Then, months after the film wrapped, New Line accepted Jackson's idea and made “Snakes” into an R-rated picture, based on the success of the comedy “Wedding Crashers,” last summer, which actually benefited from its R-rating.

Thus more vicious snake attack were shot, including a scene about a couple getting chomped while having sex in the toilet. You can't beat the combo of high-club sex scene with violence. Certain body parts that were off-limit for the snakes' attacks were now included as well.

Few people are talking about “Snakes on a Plane” as a hardcore horror movie. However, based on the footage, I can say that the attacks are sudden, vicious, and bloody. The snakes strike with venom (in both senses of the term), reducing their innocent (and no so innocent) victims to jelly.

As has become the norm, for both intensity and impact, the movie combines CG with live snakes. There were quite a few jumps, screams, and cheers (all warranted by the plot), during the showing of the clip.

The shoot and reshoot were rather smoothand safe–as Jackson recalled: “I never even touched a snake while we were shooting. My agents put into the contract: 'No snakes within 25 feet of Mr. Jackson.' They were more scared of the snakes than I was.'

Hot and cool movie

The movie is both “hot and cool” but in a different way than the “Star Wars” or “Lord of the Rings” series were, and I hope I'm not offending anyone by mentioning all three films in the same sentence, since they represent different types of movies, based on different ideas and source materials.

Fans as film's co-creators

It's hard to detect how the Internet madness all began, but “Snakes on a Plane” has captured the collective consciousness of the electronic community in unparalleled ways, signifying a phenomenon that might be more interesting to analyze from a sociological than from a strictly cinematic perspective.

This became very clear over the weekend at Comic-Con in San Diego, where a 9-minute footage of the movie was showed in a 6,500-seat auditorium, with hundreds of fans standing outside frutrated because they were shut out of the event.

Should the fans be considered the 'co-creators' of the film, having created the buzz on the Internet as well as contributing the best lines, including Jackson's by now notorious “motherf—ing” line. (You can imagine the reaction to this line when you see the movie in a theater).

It raises an interesting question for future Hollywood movies: Should fans be allowed input into the artistic process during the making of a film And if yes, how much and what kind of input What if the filmmakers (producer, writer, director) disagree with the fans
For Jackson, films are a collaborative process, and “Snakes” just is the next step. If a film is vying for that mass teen, then yes, they have every right to say, 'This is the kind of film we want to see.' But not so for films of social relevance.' But how and where do you draw the line between the films

I guess interference is a matter of degree, or extent. Viewers have always participated in determining and changing the ending of pictures, from Hitchcock's “Suspicion” to Billy Wilder's “Double Indemnity” to “Fatal Attraction.” But arguably, they have never played such an active role in the process of making the movie. Will it set a precedent for mass entertainment

In the spring, New Line conducted focus-group research that showed that awareness of “Snakes” among potential moviegoers wasn't as high as the fans led them to believe. A new concern emerged: Is it just a small but very vocal and enthusiastic cohort that champions the movie

The studio wanted to position the film as a scary horror movie, in the vein of the “Final Destination” series. But the bloggers may expect–and want to see–just a campy picture, a good-bad movie that may qualify as guilty pleasure for the more educated and sophisticated viewers.

New Line has been feeding info to snakesonablog.com, the center of fandom, offering official materials for use on various unofficial sites. But it's unclear whether the fans are excited by the idea of the movie rather than the movie itself.

Many people will take credit if the movie is a bonanza. Question is, what specific conclusions can be drawn form the “Snakes” about the new relationship between Hollywood and the Internet

Having made good and bad, serious and schlock fare, Jackson is realistic in his perception of the movie, seeing it as a fun, visceral experience that will allow people to have “a good time, scream, and freak each other out.” For him, “Snakes” belongs to the same category as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and its sequel (also New Line), “Hostel,” “Saw.”

Jackson's Famous Line

New Line has finally taken a stance, correcting fictions and myths about the movie. Regarding Jackson's by-now notorious line.

Fiction: The famous Samuel Jackson line that was added to the film is “I want these mother fuckin' snakes off this mother-fuckin' plane!”

Fact: It's true that, in response to the overwhelming fan interest in the film, a line of dialogue was added to the film for Jackson to deliver. However, the real line that made it into the final cut is, “Enough is enough! I've had it with these mother-fuckin' snakes on this mother-fuckin's plane!

Critics-proof movie

Will anyone take the movie seriously from an artistic standpoint And how about the impact of the critical response. As known, New Line has decided not to hold advance screenings for the press, claiming that “Snakes” belongs to the fans.

Director Ellis said in San Diego that “Snakes” was made for the fans, not for the critics, thus rehashing what has become de-facto the studio's rationale for not showing the film ahead of time. The joke was appreciated by the crowds, which cheered when Ellis said, “We intentionally did not put a trailer out there, because we didn't want to give the plot of the movie away.”

Deep down New Line knows that “Snakes” is not a “critics movie,” but is it critics-proof, in the way that “Da Vinci Code” was One thing is clear, though: The opening weekend and word-of-mouth are crucial for “Snakes,” more crucial than they are for other pictures.

And the movie itself Stay tuned for a detailed report, after the first screening of “Snakes” Thursday, August 17, 10pm. I'll write about the picture right after the first showing, which means yet another sleepless night. But that's my problem.

“Snakes on a Plane” opens wide, Friday, August 18.