David R Ellis: Stuntman who went on to direct 'Snakes on a Plane'


David Ellis was one of those rare figures in the movie world who had made the leap from stuntman to director. The film for which he was best known, Snakes on a Plane (2006), achieved a cult following even before it was released, based on its name, its director's reputation and internet-based "viral" publicity.

Ellis was born in Los Angeles in 1952 and grew up in Malibu. His early career saw him play various roles as a supporting actor, leading up to his first film credit as a student in Disney's The Strongest Man in the World (1975), starring Kurt Russell. As a former junior professional surfer on the Malibu beaches, he took to the more physical and riskier side of acting, in the form of stunt work. He became a stunt co-ordinator on the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). This included providing guidance to the film's star Donald Sutherland, playing Matthew Bennell, who insisted on doing his own stunts for the film's finale.

Five years later he took the job as second-unit director on Gorky Park (1983), which he spoke of as his "first big feature". Talking in interviews about the next stage of his career, and growing recognition in the business, he said, "I think my biggest breakthough came probably on Patriot Games [1992] because it was the biggest, longest second unit up to that point. It was, like, five months of shooting and a huge crew."

Ellis's directorial debut was Homeward Bound II: Lost In San Francisco (1996), from Disney and starring Michael J Fox, a golden retriever, a bulldog and a cat. The film received mixed reviews but was a box-office success, trading on the impact of its predecessor Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993). The Washington Post noted: "The tone is ideal for a family audience. The length is perfect. And the sequence of last-minute surprises elicits tears and laughter in just the right proportions."

Waterworld (1995), with a budget of $175 million, was at the time the most expensive film ever made. In his second-unit work Ellis combined his stunt and directorial skills in shooting action sequences: "Waterworld was the best time of my life. It was physically demanding, but it was fun. I mean, you're in Hawaii for nine months shooting on the water every day."

The 2003 supernatural horror Final Destination 2 was remarkable for its opening car-crash scene, conceived and directed by Ellis, which the critic Toby Emmerich rated as the best action footage since French Connection. The following year brought the thriller Cellular, directed by Ellis and described by the New York Times as "...a refreshing rarity: an honest, unpretentious B picture, with enough decent jokes, crackerjack car chases and plot convolutions to make the price of the ticket seem like a reasonable bargain".

In Snakes on a Plane (2006) a witness to a beating is being flown to give evidence at a trial in Los Angeles. The gangster perpetrator arranges for a crateload of snakes to be released on the plane during its flight, with horrific but sometimes humorous results.

It was one of the first films to use feedback from internet users in its production stages. The Hollywood screenwriter Josh Friedman had discussed the upcoming film on a blog a year before its release: "Snakes on a Plane. Holy shit, I'm thinking. It's a title. It's a concept. It's a poster and a logline and whatever else you need it to be. It's perfect. Perfect. It's the Everlasting Gobstopper of movie titles."

Paul Arendt, reviewing for the BBC, remarked: "Faced with such an enthusiastic fanbase, all that director David Ellis had to do was deliver on the promise of his brilliant title, and he has done exactly that." The box-office takings did not match the hype but the film has become a minor cult classic.

His last major film as director, Shark Night 3-D (2011), had a working title of Untitled 3-D Shark Thriller because, as Ellis said drily, "The title says everything you need to know: we've got sharks, it's in 3-D and it's a thriller'".

Asked about his influences, he replied, "Truthfully, there are a lot of great directors, and a lot of great films, and I try to take something from all of them. Some movies make you think; others are popcorn movies where you don't want to think too much."

Ellis died of as yet unknown causes in South Africa while preparing a remake of the anime film Kite (1998), on which he would have been working once again with the Snakes on a Plane star Samuel L Jackson, who said in an online tribute: "So sad to hear of David R Ellis passing! So talented, so kind, such a Good Friend. He'll be missed. Gone too soon!"

Marcus Williamson

David Richard Ellis, stuntman, actor and film director: born Los Angeles 8 September 1952; married Cindy (one son, two daughters); died Johannesburg 7 January 2013.

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