David R. Ellis has had an unusual career in film: Starting out as a stuntman, he transitioned from stunt coordinator to second-unit director to director. He has helmed a sequel to Homeward Bound, the first sequel to Final Destination, and Cellular, a clever Larry Cohen-penned thriller. In spite of the widespread anticipation for Snakes On A Plane, it will not be screened for critics, in what's becoming a summer trend. The A.V. Club spoke to Ellis about this, and about fan involvement in the film's creative process.
The A.V. Club: We haven't seen the movie yet because it isn't being screened for critics. So… is it any good?
David R. Ellis: It's great. It fucking rocks. The decision to not screen it for critics was mine, the reason being… and it's the same reason that we didn't test the movie. The buzz on the Internet because of all the fans has been so insane that to screen it—we did not want to kill the buzz. We're not going to improve on it, but we might get that one person where it's not their kind of movie, trying to bash it. But at the same time, more importantly, the fans have worked so hard to promote this movie with their songs and poster art and videos. We felt we should give it to the fans first, and the critics can see it when they see it. And they can say what they want about it, but I think we're going to surprise a lot of them, probably all of them, because the movie really rocks.
AVC: Was Cellular shown to critics?
DE: Absolutely. Every film I've done has been screened for critics.
AVC: It was a good film. It's surprising that it didn't get more support.
DE: You know, I don't think they marketed it right. They were afraid—on our weekend, Resident Evil was coming out, and they felt that would take the under-25 demographic, so they tried to market it over 25. When we tested it, it played really good in all four quadrants, all age groups, but they were so nervous that we were going to lose to Resident Evil that they didn't waste money marketing it there. And they should have, because it was very obvious when the DVD came out—it was so huge in DVD that more people discovered the movie after. And also, a lot of friends of mine weren't even aware the movie was out until two or three weeks in. So… it did fine.
AVC: It's a nice, tight genre film. Was that idea you were going with for Snakes On A Plane?
DE: Yeah, a high-concept thriller, slash, a little bit of horror-esque in there. It's fun, it has some comedy in the middle of all the insane situations that are going on between these people in the plane. And it works—I mean, the film rocks. It's going to be great to watch it in front of an audience, a big audience. Because so far, we've only shown it to studio execs and people like that. And a lot of them aren't necessarily in the demographic—they all love the film, but when you show it to a studio, there will be 80 people in there, and they don't laugh unless the head of the studio laughs. You know, they're really reserved. So people that just don't have anything invested in it, it will be great to watch.
AVC: Was the fan-buzz part of the plan all along? Or did that just come along as the film developed?
DE: Truthfully, it was not planned. It just happened, and then we tried to keep it going. You know, I started liaisoning with Brian Finkelstein of Snakes On A Blog. Little tidbits of information that he could put out to the fans, and we'd listen to what the fans wanted, and try to incorporate some of that into the movie. Specific lines that Sam Jackson would say, and stuff like that. So we were totally aware of it, and we had the unique ability to take advantage of that prior to releasing the film and actually kind of tailor the film to the audience that we were going after, and deliver exactly what they wanted to see.
AVC: There are several thrillers coming out right now involving airplanes. Do you think that involves tension coming out of 9/11?
DE: Could be. This script has been around for nine years, and was almost ready to be made at MTV right prior to 9/11. And then 9/11 came out, and it was too soon, and rightly so, MTV put it in turnaround and they brought it to New Line, and they finally felt the climate was right, that they could make this kind of film. And it's not a political statement, this film, it's about a mob boss trying to take down an eyewitness to a murder he committed. So it's a little easier to sell.
AVC: The singer of Cobra Starship has talked about how he attempted to use snakes on a plane as a metaphor in his song. Can snakes on a plane work as a metaphor in the film?
DE: Um… I guess it could. People can read into it whatever they want to read into it. And it's really funny to read all the things that they're reading into it. For me in the beginning, it was just snakes on a plane. But if they want to make it deeper than that, that's cool.