Of all the world’s snakes, one of the most beautiful is the sluggish yet deadly Gaboon viper, also known as the butterfly adder for the delicate pink, brown, and purple patterns that stipple its skin. It’s the favourite photogenic snake of Hollywood reptile wrangler to the stars Julian (Jules) Sylvester, who grew up in Kenya catching creepy-crawlies from the age of four. Now, more than 300 movie sets and fun challenges later, Sylvester has parlayed a deep knowledge and love for all slithery creatures great and small into a professional niche, which might find him providing maggots to a CSI set or taking 10,000 flies to Paramount’s Stage 17 for a horror movie; more than 20 years ago, he worked on the Toronto set of The Freshman, starring Marlon Brando, training Malaysian monitor lizards (which doubled as Komodo dragons) to walk on a leash.
A good son, Sylvester credits his mom, Okanagan-based author Margaret Hayes, not only with hauling him out to Africa as a boy but also with subduing her own apprehension of snakes and remaining cool while observing how much their beauty appealed to him.
“Still, I’m 61, and she still tells me to be careful,” he quips, his bubbling sense of humour belying an unblemished safety record of more than 30 years. Motherly advice coupled with Sylvester’s mirth diffuses an innate human antipathy to reptiles, standing him in good stead during early summer jobs that ranged from cleaning out cages at the Nairobi Snake Park to “banking” cash on the Kenyan set of the TV series Born Free by placing money in a drawer full of puff adders, where, unsurprisingly, it remained safe.
Later, Hollywood beckoned, and now Sylvester and his wife, Sue, work from their ranch in California. In addition to myriad colourful, non-venomous snakes such as the rainbow boas, other ranch residents include personalities like Moffie, a voracious three-horned Caribbean rhinoceros iguana whose gastronomic idiosyncrasies mean that “she will eat anything, and I mean anything—chocolate, marshmallows, Brussels sprouts, you name it,” says Sylvester fondly.
At Reptile Rentals, Sylvester’s company, the employees are snakes that feast on rodents—previously frozen but gently defrosted in the California sunshine. “Like actors, my snakes have to look 100 per cent ‘on’ when they are on camera, so chilling their food kills the bacteria and [the snakes] stay healthy,” says the fluent Swahili speaker, who is also a fundi (expert) on reptile psychology. On-set, Sylvester coaxes his workers to go where he wants by lowering the lights and dropping the temperature, since snakes will gravitate to a cool, dark spot.
At the top of the recalcitrant employees list are cobras. “Directors need them to put up their hoods and look kali [aggressive], but a cobra is a very temperamental creature,” says Sylvester. “If he thinks he can get away from you—if, for instance, he can see the edge of the table—knowing he can slide away means he won’t ‘hood’ for the camera.” This gives a whole new dimension to divas on set.
Sylvester, who is a favourite guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (he once poured more than 100 kilograms of writhing snakes onto Leno, who was lying in a Plexiglas coffin with instructions to keep his mouth shut), is probably best known in the Canadian industry for his work on the 2006 cult movie Snakes on a Plane, shot in Burnaby, B.C., during which up to 70 snakes needed to be marshalled on-set at any one time out of the 500 that were on hand for the production. Just like kids, “Snakes become tired and bored after 15 minutes. So they have to be changed regularly, rest up, and then they are ready to work again,” he says.
All in a movie day’s work are detail assignments like providing 10 Goliath bird-eating spiders for Arachnophobia and 10,000 cockroaches for Men in Black. He’s worked with Salma Hayek twice: for three days on the set of From Dusk till Dawn, Sylvester had to coax a bikini-clad Hayek into wearing an albino Burmese python; and for the music video for Will Smith’s “Wild Wild West”, he had to gently place tarantulas on her body while she was strapped to a machine-like contraption.
Sylvester’s jolly attitude makes him a favourite on and off the set. “You know, this is Hollywood. It’s going to be snakes in a church: all sorts of crazy people dancing with snakes.” Once, for a weekly prime-time travel show, he travelled up the Amazon in a small tin boat with three hefty Australian film and sound crew members to lasso a giant black caiman. “Suddenly, [the caiman] took off upstream at the rate of knots. We were all howling with laughter, but at the same time hoping not to fall into the water, which was throbbing with piranhas.”
Later on the same trip, he was “whacked by an electric eel,” he recalls. “Its shock makes your hair stand on end and your teeth chatter—gives you quite a rush.” Trademark Sylvester.