Making Hisssstory: Samuel L. Jackson talks about 'Snakes on a Plane'
After months of buildup, the day has arrived: Snakes on a Plane is finally slithering into a cineplex near you. We caught up with star Samuel L. Jackson to ask how he wound up starring in the year’s best-titled horror flick and to find out what he makes of all the hoopla.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you first notice that there was this phenomenon of fandom blossoming around Snakes on a Plane?
SAMUEL L. JACKSON: I guess surfing the ‘net. First thing I noticed was people bitching about the same thing I was pissed off about: that the title of the movie had been changed. People started going, ”What the hell? They changed the name of the movie from Snakes on a Plane to… Pacific Air 121?!” That’s when I became aware that there was a kind of joy that people were taking in knowing there was a movie being made about poisonous snakes on a plane. That was my initial response to it, too, way back when I heard about it. Snakes on a Plane. I thought, ”Oh, s—, I need to be in that!” I saw that my friend Ronnie Yu [the Hong Kong action helmer who had directed Jackson in The 51st State] was directing it, so I immediately emailed him and said: ”Are you really directing a movie called Snakes on a Plane?” And he was like, ”Yeah. Why?” And I said, ”Because I want to be in it!” He said ”For real?!” I said ”Yeah! Hell yeah!” He told New Line, and New Line was like, ”Are you sure?” One thing turned to another, and as it happened, Ronnie ended up not doing the picture. They said, ”You still want to do it?” I said. ”It’s still called Snakes on a Plane, right?”
What was it about Snakes that speaks to you and your taste in films?
It’s all about going to the movies on Saturday when I was a kid, sitting in a dark theater with all my little friends and screaming and yelling and doing s— to people while the movie’s on, like taking a piece of wire or something and running it up somebody’s neck and making them scream. Snakes on a Plane has all the things that were Saturday afternoon matinees for me, like ”Wolfman,” ”Dracula,” ”Tarantula,” and ”Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.” It’s just a ridiculous f—ing concept that’s exciting. Everyone is scared of snakes. And a lot of people are afraid of flying. Combine those two fears and you have a pretty good roller coaster for a lot of people to get caught up in.
It sounds like that for you, Snakes not only represents a lot of the things you love about movies, but about the social experience of moviegoing as well.
It’s all that stuff. It’s… a movie. It’s JUST a movie. Not everybody goes to movies to get their life changed. Some of us go to the movies so we can forget about our lives for an hour and half. Have some mindless fun. Don’t have to worry about the plot. The plot is… some people are going to get killed. The thing you need to know is that there are some vicious snakes, some victims, and a hero. It’s that kind of mindless, popcorn, you-didn’t-need-a-genius-to-write-this kind of script. Nobody has to evaluate at Academy Awards time. Okay, maybe MTV Movie Awards time. But the Golden Globes doesn’t have to see it; nobody has to talk it up for the Oscars. Nobody has to act like, ”I wouldn’t be caught dead in that film!” Fine! Don’t go! Wait until they have Snakes on Brokeback Mountain or something! Snakes on a Plane doesn’t speak volumes about s—. It just says people are still making movies that people are having fun going to watch.
Was there anyone in your life saying, ”Sam, don’t make this movie?”
Sure! My agents were like, ”Did you REALLY tell Ronnie Yu you wanted to make a movie called Snakes on a Plane?” [But] my agents and managers have finally figured out that I’m pretty much going to do what I want to do. Sometimes, they don’t get it. And it’s okay for them not to get it. But it’s not okay for them not to go make a deal because I want to do that particular movie. It doesn’t reflect on them, or anybody. Just me. Every now and then, I want to do a movie that’s just — it doesn’t mean the end of the world. It’s not stretching my acting abilities or anything else. I’m doing movies for other people to go see and have some fun because I want to go see them and have some fun. It’s just that simple.
Are there any other examples of movies that you did where you and your agents weren’t on the same page?
The Long Kiss Goodnight. They didn’t get it. They didn’t get The Man. All the mindless kind of comedy or adventure stories I’ve done, they didn’t get. And maybe they were right, because they didn’t make a lot of money. But I had a great time doing them, and they have a great life on video. Long Kiss Goodnight has a huge cult following. They could make another version of that movie right now and make a lot of money.
What do you make of all the people out there that are making trailers and parodies inspired by Snakes — inspired by a movie they haven’t seen, inspired only by the thought of you and this concept? In many ways, they have shaped the image and even content of the film.
I make of it that there are a lot of astute people out there who know what they like. And if you have an opportunity to use your voice you should use it. It’s like voting. If kids would get out the vote the way they got behind this movie, George Bush wouldn’t be president. There are certain things and there are certain sensibilities that people have, and they know what they want to see and they know how to tell each other about it. And a concept like this is the kind of concept you can have fun with, and that’s what they actually started to do. They started to make their own trailers, started to make their own one-sheets, their own songs. The concept is so… out there.
When Ronnie Yu was attached to Snakes, he was developing an R-rated movie. When director David Ellis (Final Destination 2) came aboard, he was asked to make it PG-13. Did you have any opinions about that tonal switch?
Yes, I did. All the time we were shooting. I said, ”Why don’t we do the R-rated stuff anyway?” In this era of DVD features, it wouldn’t be a waste of resources. And in editing, you can always tame it back, but you can’t ratchet it up if you don’t have the footage. But in general, I hate movies that take me back to this old Hollywood sensibility, where if there was a cowboy movie, and they rode up on a rattlesnake, the snake had to strike off screen, and the next thing the guy’s going ”OW! OW! OW!” In this day and age, you can show snake strikes. You can see them bite. You see the injection of venom. You can see the snake bite fester, blow up, and all that other stuff. But we weren’t doing any of that stuff when we were shooting. And also, nobody was cursing. Which is kind of unrealistic, when you’re in a plane with a bunch of f—ing snakes. Nobody even got the chance to say that: ”F—!” They would tell me, ”Well, because of PG-13, we only have two f—s, so we have to save them, and we have to make sure they’re used just right, and they can’t be used in a sexual connotation.” I was like, ”What?! Are you kidding me? So how many ‘s—s’ do we have?” ”Uhhh — three.” [Laughs] I HATE working with those kind of restrictions. We did SWAT that way. SWAT was kind of a bloodless crime film. How do you do that? But I was insistent, all the time shooting Snakes, that we should go ahead and do it anyway. It’ll save us time and money, ‘cuz I knew we’re going to have to come back and do it anyway. Nobody ever believes me when I say that.
But to be clear, ultimately, you didn’t shoot any R-rated stuff during principal photography. That came later, after New Line executives saw the finished film and realized it needed more intensity?
Right. We didn’t shoot any of it until they said, ”Okay, let’s come back and ratchet it up to an R.”
Why did New Line change the title? What I’ve been told is that they couldn’t get actors to read scripts because the title suggested a rather… dubious sort of movie.
The thing they said to me was, ”We really don’t want to give too much away about the movie.” I was like, ”ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR F—ING MINDS? That’s EXACTLY what you want to do!” How else are you going to get people into the movie? Nobody wants to see Pacific Flight 121. That’s like saying ”Boat To Heaven.” Bulls—! C’mon! People know what they want to see. People either want to see this movie, or they don’t. So let ’em know, if you’re coming to see this movie, you’re going to see a plane full of deadly-ass snakes. That’s what it should be called: Deadly Ass Snakes on a Plane. Do NOT fool yourself into thinking that people don’t want to see THAT. People want to know what this is. Like Freddy vs. Jason. They don’t want to see Two Very Bad Guys From Horror Films Are Going To Fight. Well, who are they? ”Can’t tell you until you come to the movie.” Bulls—! Nobody’s going to see that. Freddy vs. Jason — Snakes on a Plane. Alien vs. Predator — Snakes on a Plane. [Jackson suddenly slaps his hands three times for emphasis.] C’mon! Listen, I go to movies. I buy movies! I buy Hong Kong movies that tell you exactly what you’re going to see! I love Hong Kong movies because they got all the s— in them [that they promise], and they tell you exactly what you’re going to see. Brother Killing Brother — brother kills brother. Sister Killing Sister — sister kills sister. None of that bulls— like Family Dispute.
While you were doing publicity for The Man last summer, you made a conspicuous point of telling people you were making a movie called Snakes on a Plane. Did you feel you needed to say something publicly to get New Line to change it back?
Oh, yeah! Hell yeah! Because I didn’t believe them when they said the name change was still under consideration. The whole time we were filming, they were waffling. People at movie studios always outthink themselves. They always overthink the situation. They don’t advertise to the right people, they change the name, they change the content, the lock the directors out of the f—ing editing room, they take scenes out because they’re afraid of alienating a certain segment of the audience. F— that! Show the movie to the movie crowd that it belongs to.
With all that said, in this case, do you give New Line some credit for how they’ve ultimately handled the marketing of Snakes on a Plane? Because they’ve done something here that cuts against the usual hyper-conservative, hyper-controlling norm: they’ve basically given up control of the film to the fans. They ”let it go,” to use your phrase.
But they might as well, because it was happening anyway. Why alienate your audience by starting lawsuits and issuing cease-and-desist orders? They are getting something they could never pay for, that they couldn’t have paid anyone to research and find out. They are the luckiest people in the world that this is going on. They SHOULD let it go. I think the movie is going to have a great opening weekend. It’s going to be fun. People are going in with the right mindset.
What kind of mindset is that? Because there are people out there who are assuming this is going to be a bad movie. Some people even WANT this to be a bad movie.
Nobody’s going in and thinking, ”I’m hoping it’s a piece of s—.” C’mon! The people who are going to see this movie know what kind of film they like to see. They like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They like Hostel. They like Saw. I like those movies, too. They’re not afraid to say they like it. They’re not afraid to say, ”I like a good slasher movie,” or, ”I like to seeing people getting f—ed up in strange and funny situations.” I like seeing people getting f—ed up in strange and funny situations, too! There are a lot of us out there! When Pulp Fiction came out, there were a lot of people who were embarrassed that they laughed when the kid got his brains blown out in the back of that car! They were like, ”Oh my god I laughed at that! What’s wrong with me!?” NOTHIN’! It’s a strange and funny situation! Nothing wrong with you! You’re not a serial killer because you enjoyed that. Everyone has their guilty pleasures. Some people like porn. I like it.
Are you bracing for the critical reaction to this movie?
C’mon! Number One, Owen Gleiberman, Peter Travers, and all those motherf——s don’t need to watch this movie. They need to send some 13-year-old kid with f—ing pimples that goes to the mall every Friday to watch movies to review this movie. We don’t need those guys talking about this movie. Send some kid to review this. Send a kid to review even Pirates of the Caribbean. Critics don’t NEED to talk about Pirates. They KNOW they won’t like it. But movies are all about suspending that kind of disbelief and incredulity. Do you critics know how to do that? I would love to be a pirate. I used to go watch Errol Flynn and go, ”Man, I wish I had a sword and could get on a boat and put a knife in my teeth and swing from boat to boat and chop some people up and all that kind of s—.” Critics can’t even get to that kind of place. Instead, it’s like: ”Once again Johnny Depp wastes his enormous talent…”?BULLS—. You know, Johnny’s having a GREAT time. He DESERVES to have a great time, because sometimes he expends a lot of energy doing some serious s— that doesn’t make but $150,000. He deserves to have fun, too…. There comes a time when you just want to do some s— and let it go.
So there’s no shame on your end if people regard the film as a guilty pleasure — a so-bad-it’s-good Rocky Horror Picture Show kind of ride?
No! I still sing ”The Time Warp.” I walk around singing ”The Time Warp” all the time.
Snakes has inspired a lot of multimedia creativity from its Internet fan base — parody films, trailers, even novelty songs. Much of the humor of this stuff hinges on this image that many people have of you — this hardboiled guy who says ”motherf—–” a lot. In fact, it was this fan ”creativity” that persuaded New Line to insert a couple ”motherf—–s” in the movie. What do you make of this image that people have of you?
It’s weird seeing what people think of you. But I love watching that stuff. It’s like people pay attention to what you do. There are people who have gone their whole careers and nobody remembers one f—ing thing they do. Not one. I’ve been fortunate to be in films that are classic, that are going to be around. Winning an Academy Award — that would be great. But year-to-year, who the f— knows who won? People know who I am. They know what I’m doing. I continue to enjoy going to work every day.
Do you have a favorite piece of Snakes fan media?
I’ve actually been walking around singing ”Someone Tell Sam Jackson He’s My Bro.” [He’s referring to a fan-recorded ode that’s making the rounds on the Internet. In a surprisingly soft and tuneful voice, Jackson starts singing a few lines from the song, which goes to the tune of U2’s ”Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”]. ”And it’s you when I go to the movies/and it’s you when I’m in the front row/someone tell Sam Jackson/he’s my bro.” I love that song. I’m down with that. They should put that out.
Snakes on a Plane