Features and Columns · Movies

Blood, Sweat, and Latex: Tunneling into Tobe Hooper’s ‘Invaders from Mars’

By  · Published on August 8th, 2011

by Shannon Shea

As a kid, I loved the original Invaders from Mars. To me, it was more akin to The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T than The Day the Earth Stood Still. An alien invasion seen through the experiences of a child meant an attack on the familiar, more personal, visceral level. Teachers, classmates, neighborhood cops and parents all fall prey to mind-controlling Martians, who drag their victims underground via a sand pit. The paranoia and frustration created by director, William Cameron Menzies, was only surpassed by the film’s strong, dramatic, dream-like design sense.

So, when I discovered that Tobe Texas Chainsaw Massacre Hooper was directing the remake, I was skeptical. Now, before I get misinterpreted and receive hate talk-back and e-mails, I want to go on record as recognizing that Tobe has directed a few films that are outstanding and have withstood the test of time. Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist, and, yes, even The Funhouse are very effective, however Invaders from Mars would bring with it, a set of unique challenges.

The first challenge was that the main character was a child. If you didn’t have a believable, sympathetic actor in the roll, then the rest of the production was doomed to unravel. Understandably, that was an incredible amount of pressure to put on any, one, cast member – especially a child. Hunter Carson, son of actress, Karen Black and screenwriter, Kit Carson was cast as David, the boy who discovers the Martian invasion in his back yard. Hunter seemed nice enough. He certainly made an effort to learn his lines (which is more than I can say for some actors I’ve worked with since) and show up on time. But we could all tell that he wasn’t “into the experience.”

The second challenge was the casting of Linda, the sympathetic school nurse that was one of the few adults to believe David’s story of invading Martians. It was no surprise that Karen Black was cast in this role, but what was surprising was her behavior on set. Without going into specifics, let’s just say that she didn’t appear completely present and leave it at that.

In the assets column, however, I would have to include Hollywood veterans, Louise Fletcher and James Karen. Their professionalism and commitment to their parts made working on set with them a pleasure. Also, on board as the visual effects supervisor was ILM/Apogee alumnus, John Dykstra who would be supervising the optical and miniature effects (don’t forget that cool rocket-on-the-gantry explosion!).

Production shot on locations in and around Los Angeles, primarily, but most of the Martian filming was to take place in a refabbed building in San Pedro, California. A huge, two-level set that represented both the inside of the Martian spacecraft as well as a series of tunnels was constructed. Coincidentally, the foundation of this set was used to construct Skeletor’s throne room in Masters of the Universe, which, like Invaders from Mars, was a Golan and Globus production.

The spacecraft set, which was the majority of the construct, was essentially two rooms: the needle room, and the Supreme Martian Intelligence throne room. Physical Effects technician, Phil Corey, built an enormous, hydraulic, telescoping needle device that was suspended from the ceiling as well as a scanning table for the human victims to lie on as they received their mind-controlling needles in the base of their necks. The Supreme Intelligence throne room featured an ornate platform that housed hidden hoses to deliver jets of steam as well as a round portal on the wall above it from which, the creature would emerge. Behind that opening a huge platform was built where we would stage and operate the puppet when it would make its entrance or exit the room.

Via internal mechanisms and external wires, we would “fly” the Supreme Intelligence by pushing him on a rolling boom arm through the hole and onto the throne. Its tentacles were just latex and soft urethane foam that were anchored to its sides. Once in place, we would free the side tentacles, which would drape behind the throne and two mechanical tentacles would be positioned so that it appeared that they were part of the same creature.

A series of air bladders were fabricated within the body of the Supreme Intelligence that would enable the side lobes of the creature as well as some of its blood vessels to throb. A custom keyboard regulated the amount and pressure via coming from an air cylinder to the bladders. The facial expressions were a combination of radio-controlled eyes, blinks, squints and brows as well as a hand-controlled mouth. The bottom of the creature would open, allowing two operators sitting in the hollow throne to reach up for access to the mouth and the small, vestigial arms just below its face. It required over 9 puppeteers to perform all of the functions of the Supreme Intelligence.

In the scene where the Supreme Intelligence taunts David by mocking David’s father’s voice (played by actor, Timothy Bottoms), there was not the usual dialogue play back for Everett Burrell to coordinate the mouth movements of the creature. Instead, after Hunter Carson spoke his dialogue, an A.D. would get on a bullhorn and say, “Poor little guy, poor little guy” and Everett would attempt to keep up with the live line reading. The problem was that the A.D. that read the line, would never deliver it consistently. Everett, sitting cramped underneath the puppet with the sound of steam jets in his ears would struggle to hear Hunter deliver his dialogue only to hear the A.D., missing his cue, say, “Poor little guy……..little guy….”

In the long run, I guess it didn’t matter.

Meanwhile, two rooms were assigned to our crew for the maintenance and upkeep of the Martian Drone suits. To prevent the audience from immediately recognizing the shape of a human being in a suit, Stan Winston had come up with a concept that was truly out of this world: A large stunt-man/performer would hold ski poles and walk backwards wearing a custom frame that would allow a little person to ride back to back supported by the stuntman. By doing this, the Drone’s knees would bend backwards and the ski poles would be within latex arms so that when the drone walked, it had a very unnatural gait.

The little person was responsible for the creature’s jaw movements. By bending their legs up and down, the mouth would open and close. Also, a second set of more vestigial arms would emerge from the Drone’s sides that were performed by the little people wearing three-clawed gloves. Eye movement was puppeteered via radio controls.

It was a great idea and certainly seemed to work when we tested it in the studio, but once the drones had to do things like walk up inclines, or spend hours in the suits waiting between set ups, the stunt men asked if there was any way we could not put the little people on their backs. Trust me, the feeling was mutual from the little people. Being strapped in a chair on the back of a sweating stuntman, in a dark urethane costume doing leg lifts didn’t appeal to them either. So, it was understood that we would only use the little people when absolutely necessary and all of the Drone performers were happier.

Speaking of drone performers, I need to single one of them out as going above and beyond the call of duty: Doug Simpson. Doug was a big guy. Not fat big, just brawny big and his size was only matched by his interest to really make the Drones successful. When not in the suit, he would be speaking with coordinator Alec Gillis, and mechanic, Dave Nelson about how to adapt the suits to improve the performance. He, soon, began to feel like a member of our crew and that meant that we were all more casual how we treated Doug and soon the practical jokes began.

I can’t remember the escalation, however I do remember throwing an apple at him that I had driven wooden toothpicks through so it looked like a spiked ball. It didn’t hit him; I knew he would duck. But payback is a bitch.

Our responsibilities with the Drones meant dressing and undressing them which was a complicated procedure involving lots of buckles, wires, and Velcro tabs. Getting them ready was infinitely easier than wrapping them for the night, once their suits were drenched in sweat and an exhausted stunt man was struggling to get out. After successfully dodging the “ninja apple”, I was assisting Doug with his sweat-drenched Drone boots (which was disgusting enough). Unaware for the moment that I was in a helpless position, as Doug stepped out of the boot and suit, he grabbed me with one of his paws and wiped his sweaty ass with the back of my head.

Even though there were layers of underwear and a Lycra unitard, I still went home that night with my head reeking of sweaty ass. I forgot to “thank” Doug for that. Payback is a bitch, buddy.

…And Last Time on Blood, Sweat and Latex…: “Wasting Money and Working in Stan Winston’s Mold Shop on ‘Aliens’”

Shannon Shea, a native New Orleanian educated at The California Institute of the Arts, has enjoyed a 27-year tenure designing, constructing, and performing animatronic creatures and characters for Motion Pictures and Television. He has had the pleasure of contributing to such diverse films as Predator, Dances With Wolves, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Spy Kids, The Chronicles of Narnia, Drag Me To Hell and 2012’s Men In Black 3.

Not limited to the confines of Motion Pictures, he paints (having been shown in New York, North Carolina, and Los Angeles), sculpts, writes and authors a new blog about his motion picture experiences called Monster History 101. Recently, he was tapped by the Stan Winston School of Character Design to be one of their instructors for a lecture series entitled Garage Monsters. When not participating on Hollywood projects, he enjoys producing, writing, and directing his own short films including Hotel Superman, Blind Passion, and his current Internet project Phantom Harbor. Shannon lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Tracy, an Operatic Soprano and their daughter, Molly, who attends the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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