David R. Ellis

Active - 1981 - 2013  |   Born - Sep 10, 1952   |   Died - Jan 7, 2013   |   Genres - Thriller, Action, Comedy, Drama, Adventure

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Biography by Jason Buchanan

A prolific stuntman turned high-profile second-unit action director and, ultimately, feature filmmaker, California native David R. Ellis got his start in cinema as an actor before discovering that his high threshold for pain and addiction to adrenaline made him the ideal candidate for a career in stunt work. There are few things Ellis hasn't accomplished in the realm of film, and with over three decades of experience to his credit, he's worked for and with some of the biggest names in the business. Of course when you've performed motorcycle stunts in a Bruce Lee flick (Game of Death), taken a bullet for Al Pacino (Scarface), and been blasted by lasers in the biggest sci-fi franchise in entertainment history (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier), where else to go for a little relief but the other side of the camera?

Though he may not be launching himself through windows or diving off of buildings anymore, Ellis certainly can't be accused of mellowing with age when he's got such thrill-ride directorial credits as Final Destination 2, Cellular, and Snakes on a Plane under his belt. Ellis was only 19 years old when he first got his start in stunts, and as he racked up an impressive list of credits in a series of hits including Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Smokey and the Bandit II, Taps, and The Beastmaster, he would simultaneously appear onscreen in such efforts as Rocky III, The Mighty Quinn, and Blind Fury. While his acting career would end right around the time he began to hit his stride as one of the most reliable second-unit directors in Hollywood, Ellis still had stunt work in his blood and continued to work as a stunt coordinator until 1996's Harriet the Spy. A landmark year for the aspiring filmmaker, 1996 also marked the time when Ellis would put years of second-unit experience to the ultimate test as he assumed directorial duties for the kid-friendly sequel Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco. Though he had indeed worked on the occasional children's films in the past, Ellis could hardly be considered a specialist in that arena, and he would subsequently return to second work to refine his skills as a director for the better part of a decade; a successful move that ultimately culminated in an impressive trio of credits (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, The Matrix Reloaded, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World).

His confidence at an all-time high and his knowledge of film now encompassing virtually every aspect of production, Ellis was now ready to strike out on his own as a director. When New Line Cinema approached Ellis with the prospect of a two-picture deal that included the continuation their Final Destination franchise, he readily agreed; the result was the gore-drenched hit Final Destination 2. A wild ride highlighted by a series of elaborate, Rube Goldberg-style deaths and giddy tension, Final Destination 2 proved a worthy enough sequel to carry on the series while baring all the signs of a director confident enough in his skills to have a bit of fun with the wild source material. Though his second film for New Line, the Larry Cohen-scripted nail-biter Cellular, didn't make much of an impression at the box office, a healthy run on home video gave viewers the opportunity of finding a hidden gem that maintained an impressive amount of tension throughout its lean, 94-minute running time. By this point it was obvious that Ellis was skilled at delivering thrills to theatergoers, and his fourth film as a director, the irresistibly titled Snakes on a Plane, would easily be one of the most talked-about films of 2006. Initially set up at Paramount with MTV Films, Snakes on a Plane was scripted before the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and later shelved due to lingering sensitivities about the tragedy. Eventually revived with Freddy Vs. Jason director Ronny Yu at the helm, Snakes on a Plane would ultimately go before the camera under the eye of Ellis when Yu bowed out due to "creative differences." Though Snakes on a Plane was originally envisioned as an over-the-top, R-rated action thriller, the prospect of gaining a larger viewing audience momentarily prompted an indecisive New Line Cinema to nudge the production towards PG-13 territory before word of mouth and a slick advertising campaign forced them to reconsider. With a series of re-shoots subsequently scheduled to ramp up the violence, nudity, and language, it appeared as if Ellis had finally been permitted to shoot the film that would truly live up to its outrageous title.

He went on to deliver haunted mental hospital spooks in the direct-to-video outing, The Asylum, but moved back to the big screen for his return to the Final Destination series, as well as swimming in the fin-filled waters with Shark Night. In 2013, he was in South Africa in pre-production on an American remake of the celebrated anime, Kite, when he was found dead in his hotel room at the age of 60.

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