Jackson Heroically Defends Campy Title for 'Snakes'

"Snakes on a Plane" doesn't slither into theaters for several more weeks, and already it's a cult phenomenon. If you're still wondering why, perhaps you're not laughing hard enough at the over-the-top title.

In the movie, Samuel L. Jackson plays a reptile-wrangling FBI agent who squares off with the poisonous snakes who attack passengers on a flight heading from Hawaii to Los Angeles. But here's how Jackson really played hero: The one-time Oscar nominee fought New Line Cinema not to change the movie's campy title.

"People either want to see this movie or they don't," Jackson told an audience at a special screening of the horror film at San Diego's Comic-Con, a comic book convention.

Arguably, most summer movies are all about a marketable title that appeals to kids on school break looking for action. Jackson said he reminded New Line executives that the studio revived two moribund movie franchises -- "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Friday the 13th" -- because of snappy titles.

"That little movie you did called 'Freddy vs. Jason' -- it wasn't [called] 'Bad Movie Guy Fights Bad Movie Guy.' Let 'em know what they're going to see, OK?" he said.

Star Aborts 'Pacific Flight 121'

But "Snakes on a Plane" means more than marketing to Jackson, who loves science fiction.

He said he nearly twisted George Lucas' arm to play Jedi Knight Mace Windu in "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones" and "Star Wars Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith." Jackson told comic book fans that it was the title of the film, which was originally set to be helmed by "Freddy vs. Jason" director Ronny Yu that compelled him to ask for a part.

"I was sitting at home reading the trades, and I saw where it said 'Ronny Yu Fights Snakes' and I went, 'What is this?' So being friends with Ronny, I e-mailed him [and] said, 'You really doing a movie called 'Snakes on a Plane'? Can I be in it?"

However, the vision for the film seemed to momentarily shift after Jackson signed on. Yu left to direct "Fearless," Jet Li's next film. Studio executives changed the title to the rather bland "Pacific Flight 121." Jackson knew it was time to take on forked-tongued studio executives.

"The title was changed when we got to Vancouver … [I asked] 'What's this?'" Jackson said.

Studio executives, Jackson said, told him they thought the more bland title was better because it didn't give away too much of the movie plot. Jackson disagreed.

"Excuse me? That's exactly what you want to do," Jackson recalled saying.

The Buzz Before Release

Jackson couldn't have been more right, given all the attention the film's title has attracted. His longtime love of science fiction has helped make "Snakes" one of the summer's most talked-about releases.

"It's the kind of movie I would have gone to when I was a kid and stayed all day long and watched it like three, four times," Jackson said.

But for those comic book geeks who want to know about their hero's derring-do with scaly skinned monsters, the 57-year-old actor's story might be a tad disappointing to the comic book fans.

"I didn't have to work with them all that often -- or at all -- because I was constantly rescuing people and bringing them from one part of the plane to another and building barriers between us and the snake," he said. "So, most of my snake encounters in the film were CGI [computer-generated imagery] encounters."

At Comic-Con, New Line also trotted out Jules Sylvester, the film's snake wrangler. Sylvester said 450 real-life reptiles were used in production, including a 22-foot Burmese python he managed on the set.

"They're crawling out of oxygen masks and crawling between legs and going down shirts and getting into purses, scaring the dogs, all kinds of great, nasty things," he said.

"They're very gentle creatures," Sylvester added. "But, in the movie, they're deadly poisonous."

In movies in which animals are the main attraction, filmmakers often assure their audiences in the credits that the creatures were not harmed. But with Samuel L. Jackson taking on monster snakes, New Line has yet to confirm that assertion.

ABC Radio's David Blaustein contributed to this report.

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