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Features Is This End Of Mombo? (Interview)

An Interview with Stanley Sheff

I was quite amazed that this $50,000 film ended up with a budget of $1,000,000 and even made a profit!
Lobster Man From Mars is a tribute to drive in classics. Part One of Two.

Recently, Ziggy was able to chat with Stanley Sheff, director of Lobster Man From Mars. Prior to bringing his tribute to the golden age of drive-in science fiction to the screen, Mr. Sheff spent time working with the great Orson Welles, who actually inspired the title for Sheff's film. However, it's best to let him tell the story in his own words, so without further fanfare...

Ziggy: What exactly was the genesis of Lobster Man From Mars? How did it all come about?
Stanley Sheff: I was offered the sum of $50,000 to do a feature film. The challenge was to create a story that could be made on that budget. My writing partner (the late Bob Greenberg) and I came up with the idea of a letting the audience know in advance it was going to see a $50,000 film. We decided on the "film-within-a-film" concept, which was the cheap film by Stevie Horowitz, Lobster Man From Mars. The $50,000 never materialized, but we did end up with a very funny script -- written in two weeks.
Ziggy: You've said that the movie took "two weeks to write and ten years to make". Can you expand on that?
Stanley Sheff: We wrote the script in two weeks, but the promised $50,000 never materialized. After many years of unsuccesdful money raising efforts, a friend (former head of Warner Bros. Animation Steve Greene) had a meeting with a producer looking for a low budget film. He called me and asked if I could come up with a $350,000 budget. No problem, I just took the $50,000 budget, poped it into the computer, multiplied by seven and bang - $350,000 movie!
Ziggy: Once you finally were able to get started with making Lobster Man, what did you feel was the biggest challenge you faced with the production?
Stanley Sheff: The production went very smoothly; after all, I had ten years to plan it! By the time we went into production, the budget was up to $800,000. In addition, we cut a promo after the shoot and based on that, were able to sell the advance video and theatrical rights for $1.4 million. We had a nice profit even before post-production. I was then able to go back for another week of shooting to get all the shots we had to skip. I was quite amazed that this $50,000 film ended up with a budget of $1,000,000 and even made a profit! What was even more of a surprise was that it had its premiere at The Sundance Film Festival.
Ziggy: Lobster Man From Mars contains many, many references to classic "drive-in" type science fiction movie cliches, etc. Were there any specific references you wanted to be sure to get into the film, and do you have a favorite?

Stanley Sheff:
Teenagers From Outer Space featured a swell ray gun that turned people into skeletons. Also, "Missle to the Moon" had the same effect whenever a person ventured into the bright sunlight on the moon. We decided to use the ray gun effect for the lobster man. My favorite is the head in the jar, "Brainex", a tribute to the head in the jar from Invaders From Mars. [Ziggy's Note: Stanley Sheff himself provided the voice of "Brainex" in Lobster Man From Mars.]

Tommy Sledge adds unique color to "Lobster Man".
With the decidedly drive-in sci-fi feel that you gave to the "movie within the movie" for Lobster Man, what made you decide to add the private eye/film noir element? And once that decision was made, how did Tommy Sledge become involved?
Stanley Sheff: I was working on a comedy special for Showtime and Tommy Sledge was one of the comedians. He was so funny I thought he had to be in the picture. I asked him and he said "yes!"
Ziggy: Did you find it easy to add Tommy Sledge's material into the screenplay, or was that something of a challenge?
Stanley Sheff: It was easy, since the film within-a-film was so loosely structured to begin with. Tommy's dialogue is all his, and is brilliant.
Ziggy: With all of the modern effects techniques so readily available, was it easier or more difficult to make a film consistent with the old drive-in standards (the visible lines holding up the bats, etc.)?
Stanley Sheff: It is actually quite a trick to find the balance between effects that look either too good, or too stupid. By the way, the bat strings were not planned. We tried to hide them, but they showed up anyway. I liked the way it looked so we kept it.
Ziggy: Of those "cheap effects" (and I use the term with respect, of course), do you have a favorite?
Stanley Sheff: The flying saucer flying over the car on the lonely road. This was not an optical effect, but done "in camera" using a foreground miniature, just like they did it in the silent film days. Another is the energy beam that appears under the flying saucer when it takes off from Mars. This is the actual "Star Trek" transporter optical element. Howard Anderson Co. did our optical effects, and also did many for the original "Star Trek" TV series. They had it lying around, and I was allowed to use it. First (and last) time it had been seen since the TV show! Listen carefully and you'll hear a bit of the Enterprise's warp drive engine sounds during that scene. I also used the "Star Trek" "star field" for the main title sequence.
Ziggy: What would you say is your favorite behind-the-scenes moment from Lobster Man From Mars?
Patrick MacNee is "Lobster Man"s learned professor.
Stanley Sheff: Working with Patrick MacNee. We usually were able to do scenes in one or two takes, but there is a long scene in the Professor's Lab that took 37 takes. Nobody could get through it without laughing. If the cast made it without laughing, the crew would laugh, and if the crew was quiet, the cast would laugh. It has the line "If you were a Lobster Man, would you enter a haunted house surrounded by artillery?". Every day of that shoot was a party. We all had a great time.
Ziggy: What about in front of the camera?
Stanley Sheff: I am fond the the haunted house sequence. Billy Barty was a lot of fun as Mr. Throckmorton. Vincent Price had agreed to do that part, but was on a cruise when we shot it. Billy agreed to do a night shoot and never complained. A true professional. You will note that Mr. Throckmorton's bushy eyebrows were his idea, and looked great!
Ziggy: Was that really the end of Mombo? (I love that line!)
Stanley Sheff: Unless I buy another cheap gorilla suit and a space helmet from the Hollywood Toy Store, it is... Mombo's helmet opening and the fake guts flying out was one of those shots I did during the extra week of shooting. We ran out of daylight shooting it the first time. The footage was too dark, but I would have used it if I had to. Here's how we did the effect. The helmet was nailed to a board. The board was on a 45 degree angle, with the camera at the same angle so it would look level. We then poured the guts into the helmet. On screen it looks like they shoot out with great force! My thanks to Tony Doublin for the great effects work.
Ziggy: Is there anything you would like to have done differently on the film, given the chance?
Stanley Sheff: The ending with Stevie in the office. It was not was what originally written, and is the only thing I would like to do over. The original ending was a series of false endings -- climaxing with a sequence, "Lobster Man on Broadway". The fake endings would have bookended the trick "scene missing" opening. We cut the endings to keep the budget under control. As a protest, I copied the last shot from Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, which was not Orson's ending. It's the shot where the actors walk out of a doorway and around the camera on either side.

Stanley Sheff had more to say. Click here to go on to Part Two of the interview to learn more about "Lobster Man From Mars", what he learned working the the great Orson Welles, his views on drive-in movies, and more!

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