Director David R. Ellis is probably one of the most mellow Hollywood veterans I’ve ever met, a real Southern California surfer type complete with rich tan and abundant usage of terms like “radical”. He’s been an actor, stunt coordinator and second unit director on everything from Nightbeast to The Wraith to Harry Potter, before shifting over to calling the shots on feature thrillers like Cellular and the gruesomely enjoyable Final Destination 2.

At this year’s San Diego Comic Con he seemed to be in pretty high spirits, which isn’t surprising when you consider that his latest movie, New Line’s reptilian air scare Snakes on a Plane, already seems like a guaranteed smash hit based solely on its own self-perpetuating publicity.

Q: Are you pretty thrilled with the response the movie’s already getting?

Ellis: Are you kidding? It’s fuckin’ awesome! When I took this picture I had no freakin’ clue. They sent me a script, Ronny Yu had just dropped off, Sam was interested in doing the picture. They said, it’s called Snakes on a Plane. I go, “Okay, yeah right. What’s it really called?” They said “No, that’s what it’s really called, we want you to read it and see if you want to do it.” So I called my wife and said “I just got an offer from New Line to do my third film in a row with them.” The only other guy who did three in a row with them was Peter Jackson, so that’s kinda cool, good company. So she said “What’s it called?” So we’re looking at the name, and we’re looking at this huge stack of bills, and I said “I’ll do it.” [laughs] So I looked at the script and there was some potential in it. It needed some work. And I knew that Sam was interested in doing it, which was awesome, I’d worked with Sam as second unit director on four different films. So the opportunity to work with Sam on a high-concept picture, with snakes and planes and people’s phobias, would be cool. But I had no clue that it’d ever turn into what it’s turned into. And the best part about the whole thing about the buzz on the internet and all the posters and merchandise and all that stuff… I’m gonna be happiest on August 18th when people actually get to see the film. The movie rocks.

Q: Are you a little worried if the movie will live up to the hype?

Ellis: Not really, there’s two kinds of hype out there. There’s the fans who can’t wait to see Sam killing snakes and saying “motherfucker” and stuff, and then the people who are interested but think it’s gonna suck. We don’t have the expectation of Gone with the Wind. The expectation is mixed where people will see it but not ready to totally embrace it.

Q: Can you talk about the reshoots that happened?

 Ellis: What happened was when I came on the project it was an R-rated film. That’s what I signed on to make. Then New Line decided it would have a broader audience with a PG-13 film. So that’s what we shot. The buzz was going on on the internet about what they wanted to see. I showed it to New Line, and they said “David, it’s gotta be an R-rated film.” And I said “No shit”. It just wasn’t gratifying. So we were able to go back and do what we initially wanted to do. Let him say his brilliant lines like only he can say. [laughs] Give our demographic the violent and gory stuff that they wanted. Give the teenagers a little bit of nudity. All the stuff people would want in this kind of film.

Q: Were you more energized after you got to do an R?

Ellis: Oh yeah, I was so stoked. Because I felt the PG-13 version would be kind of watered down. And since the fans were such fanatics about it, we had to give them what they wanted. It’s called Snakes on a Plane, what’re you trying to hide? You gotta go for it.

Q: What’s the story about the title possibly getting changed?

Ellis: That was interesting, because we were never renaming the film. But we started to go around in Vancouver to locations and said “We’re doing a movie called Snakes on a Plane”, and going out to actors, and nobody was taking it seriously. So we changed the working title to get the script out there. But it worked in our favor in that the internet got really pissed off about it, and we were aware of it. If they’re talking good or bad, at least they’re talking. And it created more and more discussion about it. And when Sam announced we were going “back” to Snakes on a Plane, the internet was excited about it, so it kept the buzz alive.

Q: Can you talk a bit about the cast?

Ellis: Sure. Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford [laughs]. No, we have an awesome cast. We have Sam, and when you have Sam you can attract a lot of other people. We got Juliana  Margulies, who’s amazing. I didn’t know she’d turn into a crack whore after she did the film… [laughs] She’s been doing a lot of great work lately. Kenan Thompson from SNL is hilarious, Bobby Cannavale is great, David Koechner is freakin’ hilarious, he plays this guy that’s always hitting on stewardesses, and he’s wearing snakeskin boots which is bad on a plane full of snakes… Nathan Philips, this young kid from Australia who was in Wolf Creek. He’s a big star back home and he’s gonna be a big star here. Kinda like Chris Evans, I kinda discovered him for Cellular and he’s gone on to Fantastic Four and other stuff.

Q:  How did you handle all the snakes?

Ellis: Very carefully! Snakes are snakes, they’re not like dogs and cats – you put ‘em down and they wiggle around, and you try to find them with the camera. You can drape them on people and stuff like that, but for any really specific behavior, you have to have a CG snake. Like Sam’s running around with a variety of weapons, like a Taser, and they recoil, so to get that reaction it has to be computer generated. You can’t tell the snake what to do, they just lay there.

Q: Anybody freak out on set?

Ellis: A lot of people! It was also cool, I got this little baby rattle I’d keep in my pocket, and you’d do the rattle and hit someone on the leg with a stick – it was great.

Q: What are you doing next?

Ellis: A little horror film, it’s the first independent film I’ve ever done so it’s a lower budget film, a real quick shoot. I’ll be done with the entire film by December and it’ll be out next spring. It’s called Asylum, it’s about these freshmen who go to school in a college that was converted from an old insane asylum that’s haunted by this guy… it’s freaky. It’s very psychological, all the kids have their own nightmares – one was abused by her father, all these different things, and when they get to the school they start reliving their own worst nightmares and they don’t know if they’re real or not. Then next year some real big high-profile pictures, hopefully one I just talked to Sam about, bigger budget films.

 Q: What was the most consistent challenge when making the film?

Ellis: Just to make it beyond what people expected.

Q: Now the expectations are pretty high.

Ellis: I know – I’m gonna start drinking [laughs]. I just wanna get it fuckin’ over with! I’ve become addicted to the internet now. I go home and say “What do I have to do now to make these guys happy?” And my daughter gives me shit about it all the time, about my head swelling. I want it to come out, I want people to dig it and have fun.

Q: Are you going to do the commentary for the DVD?

Ellis: We did it with Sam about four days ago. It was hilarious. We had like six of us in there and we got off on some bizarre tangents. It’s definitely R-rated, too.