Snakes on a Plane – how the hell did it happen?

As the film turns 10, Ralph Jones delves deep into the inside story of this reptilian masterpiece

“Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherfuckin’ snakes on this motherfuckin’ plane!”

…is, when you give it a moment’s thought, the greatest line in the history of cinema. Forget “I see dead people”, forget “Here’s Johnny”, and wade waist-deep into the warm majesty of that line. There’s a lot happening there. First of all, it’s being delivered by Samuel L Jackson; it’s already got a lot going for it. Second, it smuggles in the saying “I have had it” – a deliciously genteel phrase, incongruous in Jackson’s mouth and more at home in a Radio 4 drama (“I have had it up to here with those blasted geraniums!”). Then we thump into the body of the line, the real meat, the moment we realise that what’s going on here is truly special. There are snakes – not a snake, not one singular serpentine maverick, but plural snakes, enough to have profoundly irritated Samuel L Jackson – and these snakes are currently on a plane. Not only do the snakes get Jackson’s “motherfuckin’” treatment but, and here is what puts the cherry on the rich cake of this line, the plane does as well: Jackson is so angry with this predicament he can’t even stand the fucking plane any more.

Today Snakes on a Plane, internet phenomenon and universal shorthand for ‘hilariously bad film’, turns a decade old. A milestone in popular culture, it was the first movie to be not just buoyed by but explicitly changed as a result of its reputation online; the first movie that can claim to have been ghost-written by the web.

The film’s plot is as simple as they come, and in its simplicity it attains a horrible kind of beauty. FBI agent Neville Flynn is tasked with taking Sean Jones on a flight from Hawaii to LA to testify against gangster Eddie Kim, who Jones has witnessed beat a prosecutor to death with a baseball bat. Kim, the sly old fox, arranges for 500 snakes to be released from a crate on board the aircraft once it has passed the point of no return. As if this wasn’t mental enough, the reptiles have been sprayed with a nondescript pheromone – of course they have – that riles them up good. From that point, everything is as you would expect. Imagine a B-movie cliché and Snakes on a Plane will deliver it. This is the kind of film that contains lines like “We missed the bastards because they were cold-blooded” and “The pheromone will make these guys go fucking crazy.”

“I still get emails from friends saying, ‘Someone found a bat on a plane’; ‘Someone found a scorpion on a plane.’ It’s endless.” David Dalessandro, associate vice chancellor at the University of Pittsburgh, is where this story begins. His is the gifted mind that first took the concept of snakes and asked “Yes but what if they were on a plane?” An attorney by trade, he grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, moving to Pittsburgh when he was 33. Before Snakes on a Plane he had written several scripts, reaching the semi-final of one competition and the final of another. When Dalessandro wrote it, the film wasn’t meme-fodder Snakes on a Plane; it was straight-faced horror Venom.

Snake2

The cogs started whirring for Dalessandro when he heard about a man catching snakes with his dog at Hawaii airport. (During World War Two, nearby Guam hosted planes and other equipment that had been spread out over the Pacific; Indonesian brown tree snakes crawled inside them.) “Then one day I’m flying on a Red Eye back from California on business,” he says. “It’s maybe 2.30 in the morning and I wake up. It’s totally quiet and I see a woman get up and she opens the overhead compartment and she reaches in to pull out a blanket. And suddenly I thought, ‘Wow – what if a snake came out with the blanket? That would be scary.’”

Dalessandro sent the script to talent agent Melinda Jason and on Jason’s recommendation Venom, which evolved so that the singular snake became many snakes, was taken to auction: 30 studios would have the opportunity to read the script; one might buy it.

Not one of them did.

A glimmer of hope came in the form of producer Craig Berenson, then at Davis Entertainment, who left a voicemail with Dalessandro. The message said, “This is the scariest thing I’ve ever read.”

I pitched it: OK. You’re at 30,000 feet. You’re on a flight going from Hawaii to Los Angeles. 100 of the deadliest snakes in the world get loose. What are you gonna do?

“I had always loved the idea of it,” says Berenson, a lively 66-year-old from Texas who has fleeting cameos in Airplane! and Airplane II: The Sequel. Berenson pitched the idea to Sony, who, because they had made Anaconda the year before and we were planning another, politely declined. This was 1998. “That was the end of my association with it,” says Berenson, who went on to become head of live action at Patchwork Productions. “But it always stuck with me.”

Though Dalessandro must take credit for the original concept, the phrase ‘snakes on a plane’ – perhaps the only reason the film is remembered, certainly the reason it is so cherished – was all Berenson. Every Friday he and his team at Patchwork would drink a pitcher of margaritas and share potential movie ideas. In 2000 Berenson remembered Venom and prepared to pitch it. “I said, ‘OK. You’re 30,000 feet. You’re on a flight going from Hawaii to Los Angeles. 100 of the deadliest snakes in the world get loose. What are you gonna do?’” By chance all the women in the room were sitting on one side and all the men on the other. When they heard the idea, both groups recoiled in disgust. Berenson knew that he had a movie on his hands.

MAIN2

What Berenson didn’t do, however, was let David Dalessandro write the script. He chose John Heffernan, his own assistant, after much pleading from Heffernan. “I didn’t like that,” says Dalessandro. The first draft arrived and it was called Pacific Air Flight 121. Of the twelve writers listed, Dalessandro’s name was nowhere to be seen. He was only paid anything at all because he filed a dispute with the Writers Guild of America, who eventually conceded that he ought to get story by-credit and therefore a cut of the residuals. Every three months Dalessandro opens a cheque for his contribution to the film; his last cheque was three digits. Kazakhstan is particularly lucrative, he says. He estimates that the film has made him less than $200,000.

After pitching unsuccessfully to various executives, Heffernan and Berenson saw eye to eye with Don Granger, then executive vice president of production at Paramount, who thought that the film could work for MTV Films. He asked for a second draft. His deadline: September 11, 2001.

All of a sudden, American films about aeroplane disasters seemed in questionable taste. “I got a call saying our project’s dead,” says Berenson. “We never even turned in the second draft.”

Once the impact of 9/11 had subsided, Granger – at Mutual Films but still committed to the movie – pitched the idea to New Line vice president Stokely Chaffin over sushi in 2003. New Line were on board, stumped up the cash, and the film was on its way.

The intriguing smell of this unique project wafted up into the nostrils of Samuel L. Jackson in 2004 when he read that his friend Ronny Yu – whom he had worked with on The 51st State – had been recruited as director. He didn’t even read the script. Jackson was in.

It is worth pausing to reflect on whether a film like Snakes on a Plane had ever been made before. In David Waldon’s book Snakes on a Plane: The Guide to the Internet Sssssssssensation, the late author points out that in 1974 the film Fer-De-Lance showed audiences what a bunch of snakes let loose on a submarine would look like, and that in 2001 Tail Sting took the aircraft setting and flooded it with genetically engineered scorpions. Four years later, StingerTail Sting’s ill-advised sequel – kept the scorpions but threw them onto a submarine. The closest predecessor to Snakes on a Plane came in 1998, in the form of a Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Will Ferrell releasing a violent cobra on a plane.

No sooner had Ronny Yu climbed aboard the project than he decided to leap off. “I’m not here to criticise them,” Yu says from a hotel in Hong Kong. “This is what happened. The direction I wanted to take was to go for the campy, fun, and scary – just like I did on Bride of Chucky. They didn’t see it that way. They wanted to make it very serious.” You might not think of Snakes on a Plane as a serious, let alone “very serious” film, but Yu has a point; the film is nowhere near as tongue-in-cheek as one might expect. In retrospect Jackson agrees: “I think it actually suffers from the fact that it was not as cheesy as people thought it was going to be and it was actually made kind of seriously,” he says. When Jackson ran into Yu some time later, the actor said he wanted to punch him: he had only said yes to the film because of Yu’s involvement. David Ellis was chosen to replace him.

To create scenes that would include a woman’s breast being bitten, a snake leaping out of a toilet to chomp on a man’s penis, and a 20-foot Burmese python crushing then devouring an entire man, a combination of CGI, puppet snakes and real snakes was required. If you want real snakes in your film you need to call the best snake wrangler in the business. Jules Sylvester speaks to me from the desert, where he is hunting for deadly snakes on a John Cena movie. Now 65, he has been wrangling snakes for 50 years. He has never been bitten.

SNAKES? I HATE SNAKES

Sylvester acquired about 500 snakes from snake catcher Brad McDonald and transported them the 1,500 miles from LA to the set in Vancouver. “I’d rather drive because I don’t think it’s a good idea to fly the damn things,” he said at the time. Once they were on set, Sylvester rotated the snakes – which included a cobra and rattlesnake, both poisonous – and fed them defrosted mice before they had the chance to hungrily bite the cast. When I ask what would happen if a man really did suffer a snake bite to the schlong, Sylvester says, “One would guess that no one would volunteer to suck the venom out, hence death!”

Though Berenson disputes it, a tale that Jackson confirms is that his agent insisted the actor never be within 20 feet of a live snake on set. In practice Jackson broke this rule, interacting casually with Sylvester and his legless friends. This degree of comfort was not necessarily shared by Jackson’s co-stars. Julianna Margulies was terrified of snakes. “We weren’t allowed to have the snakes on the aircraft or on stage when she was on stage,” Sylvester says. “I never understood why she took the job.”

Gerard Plunkett, who plays an English arsehole in a suit, needed to be filmed with the python resting on him temporarily before it swallows him. Kitty – Sylvester’s name for the python – was three times Plunkett’s height and took ten men to lift. “You could feel the tremendous power of this thing,” Plunkett says. “You felt it could just crush you by thinking about it.” Sylvester’s take: “She was a very sweet snake. She wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

Pacific Ari 121

As well as the snakes, a team of puppeteers was enlisted to build and operate realistic reptilian models. Animatronics supervisor Rick Lazzarini and his team painstakingly made more than a dozen snakes, including a massive replica of Kitty. They draped real snakeskins around silicone moulds, using a thin plate wax for the belly scales and motorcycle chain for the skeleton.

This is the point at which accounts of the filmmaking become more fractious, as the divide between the old and the new school reveals itself. Janet Muswell, the visual effects producer, says that she and visual effects supervisor Eric Henry didn’t want to use puppets at all – “but the studio insisted”. In the end, almost none of the puppetry was kept in the film. This seems to have strained the relationship between the animatronics and digital teams. “Here’s the way I like it,” says Lazzarini. “There’s a visual effects department and there’s an animatronics department. And I wouldn’t deign to tell visual effects how to do their job; and I’m not so comfortable when the visual effects people are telling me how to do my job.”

Head Canadian puppeteer Adam Behr is similarly forthright with his criticisms of the visual effects team. “I think they had good intentions but they were not very experienced or aware about how the puppet effects could be used to their best advantage.” He casts the visual effects supervisors as devils on the director’s shoulder: “‘Oh, don’t worry about wasting valuable shooting time shooting that puppet thing; we’ll just do it in post,’” they whisper.

But Muswell is unequivocal. “The puppets really didn’t work. Snakes move a lot faster than people and they just couldn’t get the speed.” Before long the visual effects team announced that the puppets were redundant. “I can’t say it was the most fun I’ve ever had,” says Lazzarini, who was constantly flown back and forth from the set. “I’ll just be honest: they were a little cheap on this one.” When he saw the film, Behr couldn’t help feeling frustrated. “I don’t know if I should really say this but to me it felt a little bit like a TV movie. We were a little bit disappointed by the fact that our stuff could have been featured and provided a completely different kind of result if there’d been proper consultation and proper strategy from earlier on.”

Even Sylvester’s real snakes were deemed sub-par. “When you put a snake down, they don’t really do much,” says Muswell. “So we ended up replacing most of them. In fact, in the entire movie – he is gonna hate me for saying this – but in the entire movie there are 27 shots that have live snakes in them.” When Hollywood decides to ‘replace’ real snakes with CGI, they tend to get carried away. “They always have the bloody mouths open, the fangs sticking out,” says Sylvester. “It doesn’t matter how many times you tell them, ‘Don’t do that, it looks like crap.’”

Pacific Ari 121

AN ONLINE EXPLOSION

While filming was taking place, something strange was happening online. Snakes on a Plane, this insultingly ludicrous concept, this shamelessly straightforward title, was becoming a phenomenon.

Piecing together which snowball triggered this particular avalanche is like ascertaining the causes of the Big Bang, but a blog entry called Snakes on a Motherfucking Plane by Josh Friedman on August 17, 2005 probably generated the most momentum. Friedman had been asked to do rewrites on the script but declined because the studio were thinking of changing the title. No way, he said. It’s Snakes on a Plane or nothing.

On blogs and on message boards, word spread about the film. At the time this level of online interest (it would be inaccurate to call it fan interest, for reasons explained later) was exciting for New Line. But it was also confusing. It took a while for them to rub their eyes and work out what was happening. Opening a competition up, they essentially let a member of the public create the artwork for the film’s poster; at the MTV Movie Awards Samuel L Jackson wore a T-shirt created by Chris Buccella, another member of the public; a man called Brian Finkelstein built snakesonablog.com and used it to curate a miscellany of Snakes-related content; and for a time, the film’s official site linked to a different URL about the film every day. Waldon’s aforementioned book – printed before the release of the film – features interviews with dozens of the people who drew cartoons about the movie, made T-shirts about the movie, and filmed parodies of the movie. The level of insight these people offer is overwhelmingly underwhelming but as a collective force they were making pop culture history; setting a precedent for the fevered online fan fascination that now accompanies every Marvel release or Star Wars teaser. The important distinction was that New Line had no real idea how to weaponise the hype.

“I think that what New Line grappled with was, do you try to market it traditionally? Do you let the internet sensation drive it, or do you try to have a mixture of both?” says Berenson. “And I was never absolutely certain that we ever found what that happy perfect place was.”

At the time the organic accumulation of Snakes-inspired material, and the acres of online coverage devoted to the film, looked like an unexpected gift for the studio. “In retrospect it was a hashtag before there were hashtags,” says Andrew Mueller, contributing editor at Monocle. “It was kind of a pioneering example of that sense of humour that you do now see on social media, where one particular photo or one particular phrase has a Pavlovian effect.”

The puppets really didn’t work. Snakes move a lot faster than people and they just couldn’t get the speed…the real snakes didn’t do much when you put them down, so we replaced them with CGI

Infamously, New Line pandered to the online buzz and filmed for an additional five days, partly so that Jackson could bellow the film’s most celebrated line – one that had its origins online, not in the official script. This, as well as further explicit footage, deliberately pushed the film from PG-13- into R-rated territory. (When the film was shown on TV the line was dubbed to “I have had it with these monkey-fightin’ snakes on this Monday to Friday plane.”) Dalessandro believes that this re-certification was one of the film’s “major mistakes”.

David Koechner, who played the co-pilot, says that although there was a good deal of excitement online, at some point the mood turned: “My perception was that people were feeling they were about to be duped.” Berenson, too, believes that anticipation stagnated before the film was released. “We were two weeks beyond the apex of the hype,” he says. “I think that had we been able to go right after Comic Con or something like that, I think we probably would have had a boost for our box office.”

Because David Ellis, who died in 2013, decided that critics could not see the film before its cinematic release, writers were compelled to merely speculate on its quality. “This film – and nobody is pretending otherwise – will suck,” Andrew Mueller wrote in The Guardian, calling it “stupid” and “self-evidently terrible”. Now that time has diluted his ire a little, he is a touch less coruscating about the film’s mediocrity. “So much of popular culture is just vacuous, empty-headed bullshit dressed up as something more profound,” he says. “This time they basically just said, ‘This is vacuous, empty-headed bullshit.’ And I think there’s something kind of liberating about that.”

A TOXIC AFTERMATH

However liberating in theory, in practice the hype around the film didn’t lift as many people out of their homes and into the cinema as the studio had hoped. On a budget of $33m, Snakes on a Plane made $34,020,814 in the US and a further $28m internationally. Even though it was the biggest film of the weekend, Berenson admits the numbers were too low: 15-year-olds, forbidden from seeing the film, were buying tickets for other pictures but sneaking into Snakes on a Plane.

Though at the time he predicted big box office receipts, Mueller says that in hindsight the film’s disappointing performance is unsurprising. “You don’t actually need to see the film. Once you’ve apprehended there’s a film, it’s about snakes on a plane, and it’s called Snakes on a Plane, what else is there to get out of it?”

Jackson thought that the film would be more popular. “There was so much attention paid to it when it was being made and when it was about to come out and there was all this stuff online, all these people were making their own posters and doing all this shit…” In the end, he says, “Everybody just kinda stayed at home.” As Berenson says, given how much hype the film had inadvertently generated, living up to it was all but impossible.

1

There is a touch of the fox and the crow fable about Snakes on a Plane. The fable goes as follows: a crow, having stumbled upon a wheel of cheese, understandably wants to gobble it down. A passing fox (who also likes cheese, as foxes famously do) flatters the crow, telling him how beautiful his singing voice is. Won’t you sing for me, says the fox. N’aw, I’m nothing special, says the crow, the cheese in his beak. Trust me, mate, you’ve got lungs, says the fox. No no, I couldn’t. Go on, says the fox. I really don’t kn-WOOOOOOOOAH, WE’RE HALFWAY THERE, WOAH-OH, LIVIN’ ON A PRAYER, sings the crow. Cheese falls out of its mouth; fox eats it. Those starring in and producing Snakes on a Plane couldn’t help but let their defences down due to the perceived flattery of the online masses. But like the fox, those creating memes and writing blogs weren’t principally motivated by goodwill; rather, they were interested in what they were getting out of the situation. Like many of the billions of people who piss about online in 2016, they got the only thing they wanted to get from it: a laugh. New Line needed the film to be either so groundbreaking that these people were proved wrong, or so all-consumingly ludicrous that it generated a fresh tsunami of hype. The problem was that neither of these things happened.

All of the anticipated “This was a great film to work on” platitudes aside, it is clear that Snakes on a Plane was a memorable and unparalleled film experience for many of the people involved. “Of all the movies that I’ve done over all the years, that’s the one that everyone remembers – even if they haven’t seen it,” says Janet Muswell. Berenson says that, however disappointing the box office performance, he is proud to have worked on a film “that will forever be in the lexicon of filmography”. And, despite his protestations, Dalessandro is keen to stress that ten years on, there are no hard feelings. “I’m not some grouchy old guy bitching because they screwed up my idea,” he says. “They did everything they were supposed to do. They just didn’t make the movie I envisioned. That’s life.”

Make no mistake about it. Snakes on a Plane is a bad film. Its stars and its producers fling the words “fun” and “hilarious” around but they know perfectly well that they are reaching for easy euphemisms. What it is, however, is a bad movie with a good story – a story that, because of the cocktail of factors that were necessary for it to occur, can never be replicated. For better or for worse, it will be remembered for many years to come. “It’s not Gone with the Wind. It’s not On the Waterfront,” said Samuel L Jackson ten years ago “It’s Snakes on a Plane.”

Follow Ralph Jones on Twitter: @OhHiRalphJones