LOBSTER MAN FROM MARS; Stanley Sheff, interviewed
by Steve Biodrowski (reprinted courtesy of CINEFANTASTIQUE MAGAZINE)

"Orson Welles was talking about his WAR OF THE WORLDS program, and he was always referring to it as 'that LOBSTER MAN thing I did back on the radio' recalls Stanley Sheff, explaining the title of his feature film directing debut. "1 said, 'That would be a great title; can I use it?' He said sure."

At the time, Sheff was working as the editor for Welles on an unsold pilot for a variety show which featured the famous film maker performing magic acts and interviews with such guests as Burt Reynolds, Angie Dickenson, and the Muppets. Shortly thereafter, in 1978, Sheff sat down with collaborator Bob Greenberg and wrote LOBSTER MAN FROM MARS, a script about a young film maker trying to get a Hollywood mogul to buy his homemade sci-fi opus.

"Somebody said if I could come up with a script that could be shot for $50,000, they could get the money, so Bob Greenberg and I cranked this out in two weeks. Then these guys didn't get the money, so the script sat around for a while. I always say it took two weeks to write and ten years to polish," Sheff laughs.

"About three years ago the same people came back. They paid for the construction of props: the spaceship, the death ray gun, and the lobster bat. They found somebody else that wanted to put money in it, and they said, 'If we go 35-millimeter and SAG, we can do it for $150,000.' Then Bob Greenberg got killed in a car crash. At the time, he knew it was a go project; after that the deal fell through. I was very determined, because of that, to get it made. So I asked Steven Greene, who was president of animation at Warner Brothers, to see if he could find someone to do it.

Greene took the project to Steffan Ahrenberg of Electric Pictures, which had just started its first film, WAXWORK. Electric liked the script and decided to get some familiar faces in the cast. Tony Curtis signed on as Shelldrake, the Hollywood mogul, a role originally intended for Welles. Billy Barty and Bobby "Boris" Pickett appeared in cameos, and Dr. Demento provided voice over narration. Several members of the cast and crew of WAXWORK were drafted onto the project, including cinematographer Gerry Lively and director Anthony Hickox (who agreed to take direction instead of give it, as the male lead) and actors Patrick Macnee and Deborah Foreman. Of the cast assembled, Sheff says, "The film was intended to be a fun, spoof of Science Fiction movies. Tony Curtis and Patrick Macnee helped make it a great tribute to the genre."

"We shot last summer -- during the writers' strike, which allowed us to find great equipment deals", says Sheff, who adds that he had no problems as a fledgling director; "I had ten years to prepare, so I'd shot this film in my head 23 million times."

Sheff, who describes his work experience with Welles as "a film class for a year with Welles as teacher," finally got to apply some of the lessons learned, such as making small sets look bigger by framing shots which include the ceiling. "Another thing I learned from Orson Welles was how to choreograph a master shot to do everything in one take and still get close-ups and two shots by having actors move up to the camera and walk away when you want a wide shot. There was a scene we did that was five pages without a cut. The producers were very worried. They said, 'How are you going to cut this if you want to shorten it?'l said, 'Don't worry.' I knew anytime I needed a cutaway I could use Tony Curtis in the screening room."

Sheff took his crew to several locations recognizable from their overuse in classic low budget sci-fi films, including Bronson Cave. "We went to Tapia Park, were Roger Corman shot a lot of his movies. It's great because you have forests in one direction, a stream and swamp in another, and rugged mountains in the background. So just by turning the camera we were able to get a completely different look. The only problem is that it's next to a sewage plant that makes a horrible noise, so you have to hold your nose and shoot without sound."

The choice of locations was an intentional homage to the sort of flicks Sheff enjoyed as a kid, and LOBSTER MAN FROM MARS is filled with such inside references. "One of these days I'm going to take a year off and count all the references," laughs Sheff.

"We submitted the script to a research service," Sheff continues, "that picks out all the references. The Robot Monster character called Mongo would have to be changed because there is a planet "Mongo" in FLASH GORDON. Since the name was already used in BLAZING SADDLES, I was going to leave it, until the executive producer by mistake called him 'Mambo', like the dance. I said, 'That's great!'

In keeping with the humorous tone of the film, the special effects by Tony Doublin make no attempt to look expensive, but are frequently amusing: A Lobster Bat hanging on a wire, a space ship with a Picolo Pete firework for exhaust, and a house blown up not with a miniature but with a photograph. "We didn't want elaborate looking effects, because this is a film within a film, made by the young boy genius Stevie Horowitz," says Sheff. "If the audience thinks the effects are goofy I can always use the excuse that it's not my fault; it's that kid Stevie Horowitz!"

After the shoot, Sheff rushed together a 95-minute cut for the Sundance Film Festival, editing on video equipment in his apartment and then conforming the film to match. "That was not the final cut or mix, and that was the one that got reviewed in Daily Variety. They said it was good, but too long; I said, 'What else is new?"

An 87-minute version followed for the American Film Market; the final cut came in at 82-minutes, and is being shown to distributors, although it has been screened for the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films (which awarded Sheff a Golden Scroll and an honorary membership).

Sheff is delighted with the final picture "It's the kind of film I would like to see, because it's a parody of the many Saturday afternoon matinees I grew up with."