Deep Water snail handler tells all: Ben Affleck was 'exceptionally good' with the gastropods
We have watched Deep Water and have so many questions — most of which involve the snails Vic (Ben Affleck) raises in a mollusk-friendly room in the house he shares with his wayward wife Melinda (Ana de Armas) and precocious daughter Trixie (Grace Jenkins). We tracked down the film's snail wrangler, Max Anton, and asked him everything we wanted to know about the thin-shelled, slimy trailed creatures that Vic is obsessed with. And snails too.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your actual job on the movie?
MAX ANTON: I provided the snails. I went out and I collected them, and I brought them to set. And I made sure that they were where they needed to be: placing them in the tanks and then taking them out at night when we were wrapping up. Basically taking care of the animals, making sure that the actors were comfortable with them. I was also tasked with building out the snail terrariums on set.
The snail room that Vic has — is that ideal way to keep snails or was that cinematic liberty?
I'd say it's fairly accurate. I actually don't keep live snails at home very much. I have a few, but not very many. Vic's setup is the prettiest way it should look with these big glass tanks. Some professionals I know, they keep them in Tupperware or in these herpetological drawers where they just kind of roll them out. Again, I don't keep them because I don't have good luck keeping these animals. They're very chemically sensitive. So depending on if there's just too much moisture, if the soil is just too acidic… their shells [can] start to deteriorate and I don't like to see that.
What sort of snail-handling guidance did you give Ben Affleck?
I showed him how to pick up the snails. There are certain ways you can pick them up without damaging them. The Humane Society was there the whole time, poised to strike in case even a single wafer-thin shell got cracked or damaged. We didn't want that.
Does a snail die if that happens?
No. For the most part, if a snail shell cracks it'll repair itself. But some of the snails we were working with were babies, and their shells are so thin that if you even touch them wrong, they can smush. I wanted to be very, very careful with that. I showed Ben how to handle the snails. I would put them directly on his hand. And then when the scene ended, I'd run up and take the snail off of his hand with my left hand and put a rag in his hand with the right hand so he could get the slime off.
There is one scene where Melinda inadvertently steps on a snail. I assume that wasn't real, but what went into the making of that scene?
She stepped on an empty shell. The goal was to have it kind of bubble up a little bit after the shoe came up. So we tried vinegar and baking soda and created our own slime. It was kind of a last-minute thing. That was just a creative workaround and no snails were harmed.
The author of Deep Water, Patricia Highsmith, had a thing for snails.
She did. She was known for carrying around a handbag with a head of lettuce and a hundred snails in it. She would take it to parties and said because she needed some real company.
What do you think it is about snails?
There's a simplicity to snails that I think appeals to people. It's not that they're not complex in their biology, because they can be. But they're just a straightforward animal. There's no guile about them. And in the book and in the movie, I hope this came through, the fidelity of these two snails…they were a foil for Ben and Ana's characters. Even these dumb animals, these very simple animals, without even really brains, as you know, by definition, exhibited the kind of love and fidelity that these humans were seemingly incapable of. The draw of the snails, for Ben's character, is that it's almost like peering into a world that he desires and he can't have.
Snails: Fact or Fiction: That scene in the kitchen where Vic tells Tony (Finn Wittrock) that you have to starve the snails or else they'll be poisonous to eat. Is that correct?
Yes, it is essential to purge snails before eating them. If the escargots are not purged, the dirt, fecal matter, and potentially toxic plants in their digestive tract can pose a severe health risk to humans. Purging is accomplished by starving the snails for 7 to 10 days, then immersing them in cold salt water mixed with a little vinegar.
Vic also tells Don (Tracy Letts) not to smoke because it'll kill the snails. Is that true?
Tobacco is definitely poisonous to snails. It has been proven deadly to pond snails, which are pulmonates just like land snails. Tobacco smoke would probably kill land snails the same way tobacco powder kills pond snails. I'd say that if you blew tobacco smoke at a snail long enough, it would keel over.
When the snails are sort of twisting on Ben's hand, are they mating?
Those are the Rosy Wolfsnails, and they're fantastic creatures. Anytime I get two or three together and put them in the same jar, first they eat every smaller snail in there, and then they mate. They do these two things pretty reliably. So when [the production asked], "Can you make them mate?" I said, "We'll see what happens." These animals, you can't train them. They don't really have brains as we know them. And so before each scene, I'd step off for a minute and I'd pray about it. And I'd say, "Look, Lord, these are your animals." I just kind of gave it up to Him and they performed better than I could have possibly predicted.
Snails are hermaphrodites, right?
Hermaphrodite means you can be either [male or female], but usually not both at the same time. When snails entwine around each other, they have something called a love dart, and it's like a harpoon. One of them will stick the other with the love dart and that injects an enzyme. And that enzyme triggers the activation of the female reproductive system. So that's not the act of fertilization. It's just deciding who's going to be the man and who's going to be the woman, essentially. Once that's established, then the female reproduction kicks in, and the other one male by default deposits the genetic material. And sometimes they can go at it for hours, and hours and hours.
Wow. How did the actors feel about the snails?
Ben was fantastic to work with. He's a great listener. And you can tell that when he does his scenes, he will take instructions. He understands them, and usually, he can nail it the first time. He was exceptionally good with my animals. We didn't lose a single one.
What about Ana?
She did not have to fake her look of revulsion. I don't know if she hated the snails, but she did not want to touch them. And I was trying to put her at ease. I said, "You know in Knives Out, you were working with Captain America. He's a lot scarier than these animals." She said, "I'm not scared of it, I just think they're gross." Despite being not okay with the snails, she did a great job too. And the director was just a delight to work with.
I guess the director [Adrian Lyne] couldn't really direct them because they're, you know, snails.
I think we all did the best we could. What I wanted out of my role in this production was just to let people see some beauty in these things that so often get overlooked. When I'm out looking for bugs, sometimes if you just squat down and you focus on just a little one square inch, there is a world of beauty. I think we miss out on a lot of life when we don't take time to explore and to really look at the small things, you know? And after reading the script and reading through the book a few times, I came to the conclusion that the snails were arguably the least slimy characters in the story.
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