"Snakes on a Plane": Behind the Scenes With the Movie's Snake Wrangler

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Born in England, Sylvester developed his fascination with snakes as a child living in Kenya, where his father worked as an agricultural officer.

As a teenager, he used to catch snakes and release them on a small island in Kenya's Lake Naivasha that had seen a lot of illegal poaching.

"Poaching dropped off quite a bit once the word went around that some crazy white kid had planted snakes there," Sylvester said.

He was hired as a student helper at the Nairobi Snake Park, where he cut grass and cleaned cages under the tutelage of James Ashe, the park's curator.

"This is where I got my experience handling snakes," he said. "It's also where I learned how to leap over a five-foot [one-and-a-half-meter] wall without touching it when you get scared."

Sylvester eventually moved to Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe, and started his own snake park in Victoria Falls. (See Zimbabwe map.)

"There, I caught about 3,000 snakes—mambas, puff adders, you name it," he said.

In his career, he says he has caught about 10,000 venomous snakes. Yet he has never been bitten by a poisonous snake.

"I have lost a few friends to snakebites," said the 55-year-old Sylvester. "I'm one of the very few who haven't been nailed yet."

Snakes on a Plane

In 1977, Sylvester moved to California and started Reptile Rentals.

At any given time, his shop has about 150 snakes on hand, as well as 50 tarantulas, dozens of frogs, scorpions, lizards, iguanas, and hundreds of thousands of cockroaches.

For Snakes on a Plane, Sylvester collected about 450 snakes, which he packed into a van and drove from Los Angeles to the shooting location in Vancouver, British Columbia.

"I had about 25 different species of snakes," he said. "Corn snakes, rattlesnakes, king snakes, milk snakes, a couple of mangrove snakes."

Sylvester says corn snakes were perfect for the job because they come in thirty-odd different colors, ranging from pure white to screaming red.

With their "fake" appearance they easily blend in with the rubber snakes often used on movie sets.

"They're also very gentle," he said. "Good wigglers … they can go in underneath a shirt and pop up through a sleeve."

The main set of Snakes on a Plane consisted of a 40-foot (12-meter) section of an aircraft filled with tourists.

In the movie, snakes pop out of vents and oxygen masks and land in the laps of terrified passengers.

"The camera would go down the aisle while we were dropping snakes on people from above—plop, plop, plop," Sylvester said. "It looked like a spaghetti machine."

Only a third of the snakes in the film are real. Two-thirds of the snakes that appear in the movie are either animatronic or computer-generated.

There were no more than 60 real snakes on the set at any time, Sylvester says.

"They get tired after 15 or 20 minutes, so we have to change snakes continuously," Sylvester said.

"We want to give them time to feed and shed their skin. After they've had time to recover, they're ready to work again."

Pass the Snake

While the lead actors never mingled with the real snakes, the stunt performers and extras soon got used to the slithering thespians.

"They'd call 'cut,' and I'd go to collect the snakes, and people would be passing them down the row like they were passing hot dogs at a baseball game," he said.

"You'd hear things like, 'Would you be so kind to pass that snake on your lap.' It was really cool."

Sylvester says his main priority was to keep the snakes safe.

One crew member on the movie set had to walk along next to the cameras at all times to make sure the snakes were not crushed between the wheels.

"I told people every day, 'Please do not hurt my snakes,' and everyone was really good about that," he said. "We never lost a snake or had one damaged."

In fact, the biggest challenge was to make the snakes look scary.

"It's really not that scary," he said. "Everything is very organized."

But Sylvester did get some great isolated shots from a cobra he kept on the set.

"We had an albino cobra that was very aggressive," Sylvester said.

"He'd see his reflection in a mirror and hiss. He bit the hell out of a cushion. The director loved that shot. You'll see that in the movie."

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