This is not a story about the feverish hype swirling around Snakes on a Plane. It’s not a review of the film, because Snakes on a Plane is so critic-proof that snotty journalists like me don’t get to see it before it opens. And it’s not yet another piece in praise of Snakes star Samuel L. Jackson’s inherent awesomeness (not that I'm denying it, of course). What follows is an interview with the individual who just may be the coolest cat in America right now -- snake handler Jules Sylvester, the guy responsible for charming winning performances out of Jackson’s forked-tongued co-stars. Sylvester, a Hollywood veteran who’s wrangled critters on everything from Men in Black (thousands of cockroaches) to Out of Africa (lions, dogs, owls) to Arachnophobia (duh), is bar none the jolliest person I’ve ever talked to at 8:30 in the morning on the subject of killer snakes.
Image of Albino Monocled Cobra from Chameleon Counters.
[Note: this is the complete transcript of the interview that appears, in edited form, in this week’s Guardian print version.]
Guardian: What was your first reaction when you heard there was gonna be a movie called Snakes on a Plane? Most people are like, “Say what?”
Jules Sylvester: That was my reaction too. I actually laughed my head off, like, there’s no way they’re gonna keep that title -- it’s obviously a working title. But then I found out it was a very good idea. It’s very, very funny, so I had to laugh. And I was quite impressed that Samuel L. Jackson liked the title so much that’s one of the reasons he took the movie.
SFBG: Are you surprised at the amount of hype that’s built up around the film before it’s even opened?
JS: Yeah, I think everyone is, actually. It’s quite amazing. The internet has done an incredible amount for this movie. You know, it can either make it or break it, but it’s certainly made it in this one. I mean, the movie could be an absolute stinker, but you wouldn’t know for the first week. We’ll see what happens! Hopefully it’s a good movie. As long as it’s a good thriller -- no one’s expecting, you know, brain surgery on this one. It is what it is. You know what you’re getting. There’s no surprises. And I think they’ll be there to see Samuel L. Jackson. He’s the guy, you know. They’re just expecting Samuel to do his thing.
SFBG: You definitely have one of the most unusual careers around -- Hollywood snake handler. How’d you get where you are today?
JS: I was very lucky, actually. My career started when I was about 16. I worked for the Nairobi Snake Park in Nairobi, Kenya, which is where I'm from. I started as the student cage cleaner. My job was to clean the cages from the inside, and also get into the snake pit, which has a 40 by 40 perimeter wall, about five feet deep, and it had about a thousand snakes in some thick bush. My job was to cut the grass with a pair of hand shears. It should have taken me, like, four hours, but it took me weeks because I was jumping in and out of that pit. I was terrified.
SFBG: So you were scared of snakes at first? Now obviously you’re not, right?
JS: You never lose the fear. I think the fear is a wonderful tool and it should be kept under control. But never lose the fear. If you get bitten it’s a doozy. It’s a bad one. You know, I’ve lost a few friends to snake bites. But I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve never been bitten by a venomous snake and I’ve been doing this 39 years now. I think every time you catch a venomous snake the odds are still the same. Nothing changes -- it doesn’t get worse or better. I think as long as you use the right tools, and you stay alert, you’ll be fine.
SFBG: Do snakes have personalities? How do you “direct” them on the set?
JS: Someone said, “I didn’t know you could train a snake!” And I said, “You’re absolutely correct.”
SFBG: Are they pretty smart?
JS: No, they’re thick as a brick! But each snake has his own slightly different character. Rattlesnakes will hold their ground, and so will cobras, most of the time. But if you change the temperature then the cobra will split. He’ll take off, you know. So temperature control is one thing. They go from light to dark, they’re looking for cover. Some tree-climbing snakes, like rat snakes, if you put them on the floor, they will climb up; certain forest-dwellers, like milk snakes, or gopher-snake type animals, they will climb down. So you can mix and match and put them in places where they’re not comfortable so they’ll go someplace else. It’s more snake management, more than anything. They’re not trained at all. We’re very vain -- people are very vain. We like to say our reptiles love us. They really don’t give a rat’s butt. They really don’t.
SFBG: So, for particular scenes, they would say, “Ok, we need a snake to fall here,” and you’d figure out which type to use? Would you only film scenes a few minutes or seconds at a time?
JS: That’s correct, yes. I had about 450 snakes I took up to [the set in] Canada.
SFBG: [Interrupting] Did you take them on a plane?
JS: No, actually, I didn’t -- one of the reasons was because of the title. I thought it was pretty tacky to put them on a plane to do a movie called Snakes on a Plane. So I drove them! I had 450 snakes in my van. I had them all packed up in their special little boxes. It was filled to the top. It took us three days to drive them. But I had them all in an air-conditioned vehicle, in cool chests, with ventilators and everything else. I got there and everyone was fine. They traveled very well. But when we actually filmed I only used, like, 60 or 70 at any one time, because we did it in sections. I had a lot of back-up teams, because when you use the snakes, I used them for maybe two hours on the set, and then -- the temperature by that time is pretty hot, and they’re getting a little tired. So you take that team out and you bring in the second team. So you never exhaust your snakes, you don’t get them too tired. We only worked two or three days a week, for three months. They had a lot of time off. They recuperate very quickly. And we feed them once a week. The team that ate, they don’t get work for a week -- let them digest and chill out, and we have team B, C, D, and E, you know. And it worked out very well.
SFBG: What would a typical day on the set be like for you?
JS: Usually, I'd be on the set by 6:30, make sure the snakes are ready. They have a call sheet -- what sort of snakes, or how many snakes they had in mind. I go and check with the director again when they’re lighting and say, “How many snakes do you envision in this shot?” He says, “I don’t know, about 12 here, 12 here, and 12 here, coming up through the oxygen masks.” So I say, “Ok, I need to cordon off this area and this area.” Once they’re in there with the cameras, then I can place everything from there. I make sure there’s barriers put up so the snakes can’t land on the floor and take off down the aircraft. We put up these cardboard barriers and tape them down and make sure all the holes are sealed. Have a little quick chat once again -- my morning chat with the crew as to, “Please don’t hurt my snakes.” When the snakes are out, I always say, “The snakes are out!” When the snakes are back in, I say “Safe!” so that everyone can move around without treading on snakes. So it was very specific. It’s actually borderline boring. Everything is done by the numbers: “And, action!” and the snakes come through, I’ve got three of my trainers up above dropping snakes on the people, and then “Cut!” Catch all the snakes. As soon as all the snakes are caught, it’s safe for people to move around and they can reset and get ready for another take.
SFBG: Are most in the snakes in the movie real? I'm guessing there’s at least some CG involved, right?
JS: There’s some CG, there’s some animatronics -- pretty much a mixture of everything working together. It was a great movie to work on.
SFBG: So were there scenes with actors and real snakes? Was anybody scared?
JS: Yeah, I don’t think Julianna [Margulies] liked snakes very much. She was a bit nervous, but that’s OK -- it paid off ten times because she doesn’t have to act that hard. Just show her a snake and she got the total willies, I guess. But because she was scared of snakes, I was never allowed on the set when she was there, with the snakes.
SFBG: What’s the fiercest snake in the movie?
JS: The fiercest snake in the movie is definitely the albino cobra. He’s the one that was so aggressive, he hooded up when he saw himself in the reflection of the window. He was pissed off right from the start. When I put him on the airplane seat and touched his tail, he turned around and he just laid into the cushion. He just chowed on that cushion. He kinda hoped it was me. [Laughs delightedly.] That’s just his job. His job is to be very pissed off. And the other one was a rattlesnake, which is very aggressive. But that’s their job. All they had to do was sit there and rattle and look scary and impressive -- and they do that just by being there, you know.
Image from www.snakesonablog.com
SFBG: If you actually encountered a snake on a plane in real life, what should you do?
JS: Basically, cover it with a blanket. Cover the snake. It’s an awkward one, in that I know what I would do, but Joe Blow wouldn’t know what the hell to do. It’s like, screaming bloody murder and pointing at it is the worst thing you can do -- that will panic everybody. I believe [a snake on a plane] has happened a few times, but they never actually saw the snake get loose. It got loose in the luggage rack above everyone’s head. And it was in there -- it just got out. I think it cruised down like three luggage racks, and when people took their luggage out the bloody snake was in there. Some idiot had packed it in his bag and it got loose.
SFBG: Uh, are you allowed to carry snakes on planes like that?
JS: No, you’re not. You can carry them on planes but they have to be in cargo. They have to be packed to the international standards which are basically in a bag, in a bag, in a box, in a box. So it’s pretty much safe. It has to be built to specific dimensions. But other than that, no, I wouldn’t recommend it. It could be really frightening actually because the snake could disappear in a heartbeat. It’s quite amazing. They just go, “wshhhtt!” and they’re gone. They go into the cracks -- the inner lining of the aircraft is full of holes. If you can put your pinky finger in there, the damn snake will disappear into there. Then all of a sudden you’ve got a snake in the frame. How do you get him out? You can’t take the aircraft apart!
SFBG: Did that ever happen?
JS: Not with me, but I'm sure it must have happened somewhere along the line. Very frightening.
SFBG: Do you have any funny Sam Jackson stories?
JS: No, he’s actually a pretty cool guy! I did a photo shoot with him recently, for Entertainment Weekly, where he’s sitting on the toilet, with his underwear down by his ankles, and we put 15 snakes in his underwear. He’s reading a Reptiles magazine while sitting on the toilet, which was a very funny shot. He’s a very good snake handler, but the rule of thumb was on the set, that he wasn’t allowed to be anywhere near the snakes because his agents were more concerned. But, basically, Sammy doesn’t care. He’s fine with snakes. I draped all kinds of things on him at Comic Con. I put like three or four large pythons all over him and he didn’t care one iota. He’s a good lad.