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Hollywood Lifer David R. Ellis, 60, Passes Away

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David R. Ellis, the director of such cult-status, Hollywood escapist fare as “Snakes on a Plane,” “The Final Destination,” and “Shark Night 3D,” was found dead yesterday in Johannesburg, South Africa.

David R. Ellis - artist/ director/ gone too soon

“Well, I guess you’ll do. Although, I don’t know if Sam can work with such an unprofessional.”

Ellis, who was in Johannesburg filming the live-action remake of 1998’s anime film “Kite,” was discovered in the bathroom of his hotel in the posh Sandton section of the city by the hotel manager around 1 p.m. on Monday afternoon.

According to the South African Press Association, the 60-year-old Ellis was last seen in a Johannesburg restaurant by a friend on Saturday. Although local police officials do not suspect any foul play related to the incident, the results of today’s autopsy were inconclusive.

Ellis, who was born in Santa Monica, California in 1952, started his film career in the 1970s as a child actor in Disney films and moved on to working as a stuntman and stunt coordinator. Some of the more well-known films that Ellis provided stunt work for in the 1980s and 1990s included “Smokey and the Bandit,” “Scarface,” and  “Lethal Weapon.”

Starting in the 1980s, he was promoted to second-unit director  with 1987’s noir-classic thriller “Fatal Attraction” listed as his first feature film. He would go on to direct second-unit action with some of the most talented actors and directors of the last few decades – working with Barry Levinson and Dustin Hoffman on “Sphere” in 1998, Wolfgang Peterson and George Clooney on “The Perfect Storm” in 2000 and collaborating with Peter Weir and Russell Crowe on 2003’s “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.”

Ellis also added second-unit directing credits on some of the biggest franchises of his generation, working on such films as “Patriot Games,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “The Matrix Reloaded.”

Ellis’ first job as primary director of a feature length film came in 1996; returning to Disney with the family film, “Homeward Bound 2: Lost in San Francisco.”

In the next phase of his directing career, Ellis carved out a decidedly less than kid-friendly niche for himself, instead opting to helm the genre picture instead. This started in 2003 when Ellis went behind the camera to direct the second entry in the gore-filled “Final Destination” franchise. Ellis gave “Final Destination 2” the pace and the style it needed to keep the creatively-staged, ode to all things death series going for another three films. One of which, 2009’s “The Final Destination” (which was series entry number four of five) Ellis returned to direct himself.

Ellis would add films such as “Cellular” in 2004, the straight-to-video “Asylum” in 2008, and the surprisingly fun “Shark Night 3D,” which was the last completed film he had released, in 2011.

However, the film Ellis is mostly known for (as far as where the aforementioned “cult-status” comes from) was 2006’s “Snakes on a Plane.”

The film featured Samuel L. Jackson leading an ensemble cast to do battle with… you guessed it… snakes on a plane. The ludicrous plot of the villain unleashing poisonous and deadly reptiles on an unassuming group of airplane passengers in order to assassinate a witness onboard, was brought to life by the campy dialogue and the almost-well done CGI snake effects, but mostly by the comic way that Ellis handled the direction.

It’s as if Ellis knew the movie was bad, but “so bad, it was good” bad – which was why, starting with the ad campaign and promotional materials, the movie was marketed that way.  The movie even pulled in $62 million worldwide at the box office, which, I’m pretty sure, is $61 million more than anyone predicted for a movie with such a ridiculously generic title and storyline.

However, it worked. It worked for Ellis and kept him working. It also worked for star Jackson, who got to be in a movie that called for him to say this…

It also worked for Ellis and Jackson as a collaborating duo. In fact, Jackson was in Johannesburg with Ellis, as he was attached to star in “Kite,” when he died.

Jackson tweeted yesterday regarding Ellis’ death, “So sad to hear of David R Ellis passing! So talented, so kind, such a Good Friend. He’ll be missed. Gone too soon!”

Ellis also leaves behind a wife and three children.

According to IMDB.com, Ellis’ name was attached to five movies (not counting “Kite,” which wasn’t listed) as primary director when he died, as well as three more as second-unit director. If some of the rumored titles of those movies are any indication – including “Zombie Blondes” and “Paris I’ll Kill You” – we might have had another “Snakes on a Plane” on our hands.

It seems as if Samuel L. Jackson’s condolences on Twitter are really starting to hit home.

“…He’ll be missed. Gone too soon!”

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