‘Snakes’ film irks its writer

By MARIA MASTERS

David Dalessandro didn’t even know screenplays existed until he was 40 years old. When he… David Dalessandro didn’t even know screenplays existed until he was 40 years old. When he finally found out, he wrote one of the most anticipated movies of last summer.

Dalessandro, a Pitt executive administrator who wrote the original screenplay of “Snakes on a Plane,” spoke to a group of approximately 20 students last night in the Cathedral of Learning at an event sponsored by Pitt in Hollywood.

“Snakes on a Plane,” a movie starring Samuel L. Jackson, debuted last summer. In the movie, Jackson plays an FBI agent who struggles to keep the passengers aboard a 747 airliner safe from attacking snakes. A brutal gangster planted the snakes in the aircraft as an assassination attempt.

The film plot experienced major changes after rumors flew across the Internet. A mass online following ensued, prompting producers and actors to re-film parts of the movie. Eventually, the film transformed into one Dalessandro hated.

Sitting at a table in the front of a small room, Dalessandro joined visiting lecturer Carl Kurlander – also a Hollywood screenwriter – and told stories about his writing career that ranged from his disinterest in Shakespeare’s writing to his obsession with the movie “Alien.”

Dalessandro went to college with a generation that was more concerned with writing the great American novel.

“No one wrote screenplays,” Dalessandro said. “Everyone wanted to be like Tom Wolfe.”

Much like his fellow colleagues, Dalessandro dutifully earned a law degree at night and pursued respectable day jobs, like working for the city government of Youngstown, Ohio.

But Dalessandro had always been interested in movies, mainly science fiction ones, and when he was 40 years old, he decided to write a screenplay. He then began to study the structure of his favorite movie.

He emphasized the need for screenwriters to write visually, since their characters usually do not have the liberty to tell the readers what they are thinking. Rather, actors have to portray characters’ emotions.

“Does anyone know the single most important part of a movie, that if this fails, the whole movie fails?” Dalessandro asked the audience.

After a few moments of silence, some students guessed, but couldn’t get the answer.

“The purpose of a movie is to illicit an emotion from the audience,” Dalessandro said. “So the purpose of a screenplay is to illicit emotions from the reader.”

But Dalessandro’s sudden success didn’t come overnight, or even quickly. He spent years writing screenplays that at best came close to production, including screwball comedies and adventure stories.

Dalessandro finally got the idea for “Snakes On a Plane” when he was flying on a red-eye flight. When the lights dimmed and the atmosphere became quiet, Dalessandro thought it was a setting fit for a movie.

“I thought, ‘What if something weird and alien-like happened right here?'” Dalessandro said.

But he struggled for a while to think of something that would make the scene even scarier.

His inspiration came not long after, when he read an article about poisonous snakes. After a period of intense research, Dalessandro discovered brown tree snakes from Indonesia that climbed into cargo boxes on a plane in World War II.

Dalessandro finished the screenplay in 1992, but it took seven years and more than 30 rejections from movie studios before New Line Cinema eventually bought his manuscript.

From there, Dalessandro was excluded from most of the re-writing process, and could not stop the transformation that occurred. In late August 2006, New Line Cinema released “Snakes on a Plane,” and Dalessandro hated it.

But this disappointment won’t stop him from writing. The rejection in his past didn’t deter him from writing more screenplays, and the transformation of his original story won’t keep him from writing, either.

“In the end, you write because you love the process, you don’t write because you want to be famous,” Dalessandro said. “That’s a sure road to disappointment.”

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