Wrangler pampered snakes during filming

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And you thought your first summer job was nasty.

James Dittiger/New Line Productions
Jules Sylvester introduces Kitty, a Burmese Python, to cast and crew of "Snakes on a Plane."
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As a 16-year-old, Jules Sylvester was hired as a student keeper at a snake park in Nairobi, Kenya. His task? Cutting the grass with a pair of hand shears in a 40-by-40 pit hissing with 1,000 snakes.

"Absolutely terrifying. There's no other word for it," he says by phone from California, where he lives 40 miles north of Hollywood with his wife, two children and two cats.

Sylvester remembers leaping over the wall 250 times that first day. "After a while, you got used to the idea the snakes weren't coming after you," and the dangerous ones that lived in the trees largely stayed there.

That was 39 years ago and Sylvester long ago shed his jitters, but he's about to spook audiences everywhere. He was the snake wrangler on "Snakes on a Plane," the movie that entered the pop-culture and Internet lexicon long before it slithered into theaters.

He drove 450 snakes to Canada and borrowed another 50 north of the border.

As for how you transport scores of snakes, Sylvester says, "It was surprisingly easy. I have these 1-gallon plastic jars, and you can put a 3-foot snake into a plastic jar with special holes drilled in it, and then they get packed into a cool chest."

Listen In:

PG's Barbara Vancheri chats with Jules Sylvester, Hollywood snake wrangler, about snakes and the new film "Snakes on a Plane" :

Why do we fear snakes?

The snake safety talk ... for the snakes, that is.

One slithering cast member went missing one day.

Computer graphics vs. the real thing

As a snake wrangler, what's your favorite snake film?

He bought large coolers from Costco, drilled extra air holes in them and packed 22 jars per chest. He filled up his van, kept the temperature a comfy 75 to 80 degrees and headed to Vancouver.

"When you get to the border, you just give the Fish and Game there the import-export permits and, of course, the list of snakes, and [an inspector] goes down the list and says, great, they all look good. ... When I got to Canadian Customs, I asked the guy, 'Would you like to see the snakes?' He looked at me like I was mad."

In a scene with biblical echoes, however, the customs official was angry about a loose apple coming into the country, so one of the other trainers ate it.

Although Sylvester had 500 snakes at his disposal, he used only 60 to 70 at any one time. If snakes "tired" after a couple of hours of work or from being handled too much, Sylvester pulled that team and sent in a substitute.

"We only worked two or three days a week. There was a lot of action stuff going on, and when there's action and there are people flying around and fire and people smashing rubber snakes left and right, my snakes are nowhere to be seen in those scenes. Safety is paramount with my snakes at all times."

In fact, when he delivers the "safety talk" on a set, the vain humans think he's talking about them. He's talking about his snakes. "Please do not, absolutely do not, hurt my snakes," he tells the humans. "These are my living, and I've raised these guys from babies, and I take great pride in their condition."

The crew, he says, "was absolutely wonderful. They were extremely careful about my snakes. Many a shot was ruined because an actor couldn't move because a snake was by his feet."

The movie mixes shots of real snakes with computer graphics, animatronics and rubber snakes.

"Lots of cuts and clips in between, so you'll never know which one is real, and which one is not.." Sylvester says you'll see "a lot of knee-jerk sort of stuff" as snakes slither along the cabin floor, curl into the airplane circuitry, drop from the overhead compartments, sneak up a woman's dress or breach the cockpit.

"I highly advise you, do not touch anyone in front of you. They will turn around and beat the hell out of you," says Sylvester, predicting moviegoers will be jumpy.

During his three months in Canada, his snakes were pampered by the producers, who built a "beautiful snake room on one of the stages, 50 by 50. They built me some beautiful cages and all the snakes stayed in this climate-controlled room. It was wonderful. We had a deep freeze full of frozen mice, which we pulled out once a week. Everybody got fed on Saturdays."

No need for craft services for these performers. "They're only 3 feet long, so they'll keep their nice, girlish figures with one or two mice a week."

Sylvester emphasizes he's a wrangler, not an acting coach.

"My snakes would never do anything weird and wonderful. They just did snake stuff, there's no training involved."

He taps into a snake's natural instincts to gravitate from light to darkness and to avoid being in the open where birds of prey can swoop down on them. By controlling the temperature, wranglers can speed up or slow down a snake.

"Some snakes like to climb, some of the pythons and some of the rat snakes, so you put them on the floor and they go up. Some of the corn snakes and other ground-running snakes, you put them on top of the seats and, of course, they go down. You get a criss-cross of all these snakes cruising in all directions."

Most of the snakes on screen are milk snakes, which look like coral snakes but the colors are reversed. Still, they are 3 feet long, have red, black and yellow bands around their necks and look venomous. Corn snakes come in 35 different colors, from pure white to pink, orange, red and gray.

Lethal snakes -- an albino coral and a western diamondback rattlesnake -- were filmed, but only in isolated shots. "You don't put those near actors. They'll kill you."

Sylvester came to this country in 1977 and got his start as an assistant chimp trainer on "B.J. and the Bear." He sat behind actor Greg Evigan, who played B.J., in the semi-truck and made sure the chimp didn't hit the jake brake on the freeway.

He provided the lizards for "The Freshman" and has worked with flies, wolves and spiders. He keeps about 150 snakes in a climate-controlled room, along with some chickens and tortoises, at a friend's ranch eight miles from his home.

On set -- just like an operating-room staff tallies the surgical instruments after a procedure -- Sylvester's team would count the snakes going on and coming off. One day, the number seemed correct but the wrangler had an inkling something was amiss.

"About 30 minutes later, we got a call. 'Oh, Jules, we found one in the cushions.' " If you can put your pinky finger into a spot, a snake can wriggle through it.

Sylvester, who counts "Raiders of the Lost Ark" as a favorite snake movie, says he's never been bitten by "anything that counts. Anything venomous."

Once every two or three years, he gets nipped, which makes him furious. "If you're getting bitten by a snake, that means you're making mistakes, and in this business, you just cannot afford to do that."

Movie editor Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.


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