Wide Screen Movies Magazine
edited by John Hayes

Issue 3

Interview with Norman J. Warren

By Tony Meadows

Tony:  As a director, you probably receive dozens of scripts, sent to you on spec, from which you might choose your next project.  Was Inseminoid one of these, or did it come to you with the specific idea of you directing it?

Norman:  Yes, it is true that when you start directing films, you receive a great many scripts on spec.  However, Inseminoid was written on the understanding that I would be the director.  I was set to direct a film called Gargoyles, which Richard Gordon was to produce with a small production company in England.  Locations had been found and I was doing some work on the script when suddenly, the two men who ran the production company disappeared.  They just vanished, and in fact I’ve not seen them to this day.  So that was the end of Gargoyles.

Richard was keen to do another production, so I started looking for a suitable script.  Special effects make-up man, Richard Maley, and his wife, actress Gloria Walker had invited me to their first wedding anniversary (Nick and Gloria met while working on, Satan’s Slave).  I mentioned that I was looking for a script, and two or three weeks later, they presented me with the first draft of what was to become Inseminoid.

At this time, the script was called Doomseeds (The title had to be changed because of the similarity with the 1977 film, Demon Seed, in which Julie Christie gives birth to a computer’s baby).  The script needed a great many changes, but I liked the basic story and I immediately sent it to Richard Gordon, who also liked it…and so Inseminoid was born.

Tony:  At the time of its release, the film was called an out and out rip-off of Alien.  What did you think of that?

Norman:  In fact before the film was released, people were saying it was an Alien rip-off, and as I have said many times before, we had not seen Alien at the time of writing InseminoidAlien wasn’t released in the UK until several months after we’d finished our script.  When we did get to see it, we were equally amazed at the “similarity”, which was quite uncanny at times.  On hearing the rip-off rumours, 20th Century-Fox considered taking action against us, but agreed to wait until they could see Inseminoid, and judge for themselves.  When the film was finished, we shipped a print out to Hollywood for 20th Century-Fox to see.  They agreed it was not an Alien rip-off, and in fact, the head of Fox sent us a very nice letter saying how much he enjoyed the film and wished us luck with the release.  I must confess that being asked a great many times about the Inseminoid/Alien similarity did become tiresome, although I agree it is an obvious comparison.  Everyone seemed to forget that Alien itself was a rip-off of the 1958 film, IT! The Terror From Beyond Space.  There have been a great many Alien look-alikes which no-one ever mentions.  And the straight-to-video film, Within The Rock is a complete copy of Inseminoid – shot for shot at times.  I take this as a compliment, rather than getting angry.  And coming back to the questions about the Alien/Inseminoid similarity, I find it flattering that anyone can compare Alien, which cost in the region of thirty million dollars, with Inseminoid which cost less than a million pounds….we must have done something right.

Tony:  What was the duration of filming, and did you complete it on time?

Norman:  The schedule for principal photography was four weeks; the first day being Monday 12th May 1980.  The first three weeks we were on location at Chislehurst Caves in Kent, and then we moved into Lee International Studios in London for the fourth week.  On completion of the principal photography, we moved into the small Rank Studio in the basement of Film House in Wardour Street for one week, where we did various special effects shots, close-ups and pick-up shots.  We also went to Gozo, which is a small island off Malta, for two days to shoot the alien landscape.  Why go so far to shoot what looked like little more than dried, flat ground?  The answer is simple: guaranteed good weather.  We needed good, strong sunlight, and…. well you know the weather problems in England.  It was a tough schedule and we did run over by just two days.

Tony:  You said the main location shots were filmed in the Chislehurst Caves.  They gave a great atmosphere to the film itself.  Did you have any problems filming there, and if so, what were the most difficult aspects?

Norman:  There’s no doubt the caves at Chislehurst provided a visual quality that was far greater than the budget would have allowed us to build in the studio.  The script called for an underground complex, with numerous tunnels and passages going off in many directions.  Well strange as it may seem, caves are one of the most expensive sets to build in a studio.  Much more than a standard wall set.  The reason being that you need to build a very strong structure, which is then covered with chicken-wire and plaster to create a cave surface.  As you can imagine, the weight is enormous.  Even if we had decided to build a set, we would probably only have been able to afford one passage, which would be very boring indeed.  Chislehurst Caves on the other hand, is something like twenty two miles of man-made tunnels.

From the point of view of the film, the caves were a wonderful location, which certainly gave added production value.  But working there for a minimum of twelve hours a day, six days a week, was another matter.  It was very cold and very damp, and because of  walking on the uneven ground all day, everyone suffered with leg cramps.   Also, most of the cast hurt themselves in one way or another during the shoot.  Nothing serious I’m pleased to say – mainly twisted ankles and wrenched backs – due once again to the uneven surface.  The caves are chalk, not rock, but it’s still hard when you fall on it!

I must mention that even with the long working hours and appalling conditions, there was never any complaint from the cast.  They suffered the cold far more than the crew, because for much of the time they were wearing just a thin T-shirt and thin trousers.  Obviously there were no dressing rooms or make-up rooms in the caves, so up in the car-park we had a group of caravans which acted as a production office, dressing-room and make-up department.  At the end of the day there would be a sight I will always remember.  I only wish I had taken a photograph, because there in the car-park would be Judy Geeson, Stephanie Beacham, Victoria Tennant and the rest of the cast washing off the make-up and dirt, and their hair, in buckets of water.  Just kneeling in the car-park.  No running hot water – just out of the kettle, into the bucket and wash your hair….an amazing sight!

Tony:  What format did you shoot the film in? ( You can get as technical as you like here, Norman, there are quite a few “techies” out there).

Norman:  We shot the film on 35mm Eastman Kodak “Rochester” stock, using a Mitchell camera with anamorphic prime lenses.  I feel I should explain the reason for “Rochester” stock.  You can get Eastman Colour Kodak stock in England and just about everywhere else, but Rochester stock is only produced at the Eastman Kodak laboratory in Rochester, which is on the east coast of America.  So what’s the difference?  Well I don’t know the full technical reason, but I’m sure it must have something to do with its chemical make up, but the end result is that the picture has a sort of blue tinge, and it may be a kind of illusion, but it also produces an incredibly sharp image and what I would term as the “American” look.  The stock for Inseminoid was shipped from the States.  Of course, full credit for the wonderful look the film has, must go to the brilliant Director of Photography, John Metcalf.

The Mitchell camera was supplied by Joe Dunton Cameras, as was the anamorphic prime lens.  Joe Dunton had the lenses made for him in Japan, and we were the very first production to use them.  All companies have a name for their ‘Scope lenses, CinemaScope, Metroscope, Hammerscope, even Bingoscope, etc. but when we asked Joe what he called his system, he said he hadn’t thought of a name; so although it doesn’t appear in the credits, we told everyone we were shooting in “DuntonScope”

Tony:  I once read somewhere that your preference is CinemaScope.  Why is that?

Norman:  It’s true, my favourite screen ratio is CinemaScope.  I fell in love with the shape way back when as a kid, I saw the 20th Century-Fox promotional film for CinemaScope, which featured the Fox orchestra, at my local Odeon.  And then, of course, The Robe a few weeks later.  I like ‘Scope, not just because it gives the film a “bigger” feel to the production, but because to me it is a more natural image.  With our own eyes, we look at the world in CinemaScope, not Academy.  We make the effort to look up or down, whereas our normal vision is in ‘Scope.  I feel very lucky to have made three films in ‘Scope.  Loving Feeling and Satan’s Slave were shot in Techniscope, a wonderful system for low-budget film production, as it doubled your film stock by only using half the frame, and you didn’t need to use expensive lenses on the camera.  All good points for convincing the producer to shoot in ‘Scope.  The third film was, of course, Inseminoid, which I really wanted to shoot in ‘Scope. At first I had a bit of a fight with the backers, because they were worried about sales to television which, at that time, was very anti CinemaScope.  Fortunately, they changed their minds.

Tony:  What kind of reception did the film receive on its release?

Norman:  It’s not really possible for me to give a straight forward answer, such as the film had a wonderful reception on its initial release, or that the critics absolutely hated the film.  Because, unlike the blanket release films get today, by that I mean they tend to open everywhere at the same time, it was normal in the days of Inseminoid for a film to open in one area first, and then move around the country region by region.  As a result it could take quite a long time for a film to be seen throughout the UK.

Inseminoid opened in the Midlands on the 22nd of March 1981, playing at 65 theatres.  I remember attending a press reception and doing radio interviews at the EMI Cinema in Stoke-on-Trent.  The film didn’t play in London until much later in the year.  I think it was around October.  Of course during this period, the film was also playing in various parts or the world, starting in Germany at the end of January 1981.  I my diary for that year, I have a note on the 10th of February which states, Inseminoid going big in Munich and Berlin”.

Even without a countrywide review, Inseminoid was generally well received by the critics, and more importantly, by the cinema-going public.  It gained hold-overs in many parts of the country and reached the number 5 position in the UK top films.  In France it reached number 7, and in America it was listed as one of the top ten best films by the Los Angeles Times.  However, it must be said that not everyone liked the film.  BAFTA said they would like to screen Inseminoid prior to the London opening, and on the 21st of April the film was shown at the Academy’s headquarters in London.   I decided against sitting in on the screening, and remained in the lounge chatting with the Production designer, Hayden Pearce, and Assistant director, Gary White.  When the film ended, the cinema doors burst open and a group of what I can only describe as more senior members of the British Film Establishment came out.  Red faced and very angry, they hurried to the bar for a large port and double brandy. “Disgusting!” they said.  “Commercial rubbish!.....  Not the sort of thing the Academy should be showing…. And certainly not the kind of film the British Film Industry should be making!”  

Inseminoid also managed to offend a number of women’s groups, who would write to their local newspapers and cinema managers demanding the film be banned, on the grounds that it was disrespectful to women, and in particular, it was offensive to all would-be-mothers.   It seems it is quite common for pregnant women to have nightmares about giving birth to some kind of monster.  Of course, all their complaints and their letters which were printed in the local papers only helped to increase the queue at the box-office.

On the other hand, there was one occasion when I fully agreed with the complaints.  It was when someone in the publicity department thought it would be a good idea to do a mail-drop to advertise the films arrival.  I can’t remember in what part of the country this was done, but a flyer was put through the letter box of every house in the area.  On one side of the flyer in bold white letters it said, WARNING! An Horrific ALIEN BIRTH, and on the other side it announced…..

A violent nightmare in Blood!   INSEMINOID  At a Cinema Near You SOON!  Plus two colour photographs.  One of a screaming Judy Geeson and the other a naked girl cowering from a large alien monster.

The problem with mail-drops, is that you have no way of knowing who lives in the house, or who will see it first.  It could be a pregnant woman, and old lady, or even worse, a young child.  So it was not such a good idea. There were no more mail-drops.

Tony:  I see that John Scott scored Inseminoid, he worked on Satan’s Slave too, what is his association with you and what made you choose him from the rest of the field.

Norman:  I first met John Scott when I was working as the assistant editor and assistant sound editor, on a 70mm promotional film for Shell calledShellorama, which was to be shown as part of the Cinerama programme at the London Casino Cinema, in Old Compton Street.   The film contained no dialogue, just amazing visuals and sound effects, and the director, Richard Cawston, was looking for a composer who could produce a score to compliment these elements.  Somebody suggest he consider John Scott, and how right they were, because John produced an amazing music score which perfectly matched the excitement and splendour of the films images.

During a break in the recording session, I mentioned to John that I was planning to make a short film entitled, “Fragment” and asked his advice on how I should go about getting music.  To my delight he offered to do the score for me.  In fact John not only composed the music, but he also played on the recording with members of the Johnny Scott Quintet.

When I got the opportunity to direct my first feature film, “Her Private Hell”, John Scott was naturally my first choice for the music, and again for “Loving Feeling” and “Satan’s Slave”.  John is a joy to work with, and not only does he produce some of the very best music ever, but he also has the ability and skill to produce a full and rich score no matter what restrictions the budget may impose.   Inseminoid is a perfect example of that unique skill, because both John and I would have liked a full orchestral score for the film, but there really was no way the budget would allow this to be.   John didn’t want to create a score which was ‘small’ in its sound, as it would not have matched the visual style of the film, so he decided to produce the whole score electronically.  The electronic score is much more commonplace today, but at the time it was quite experimental.  The creation was very complicated and an enormous task for John.   He would spend hours and hours multi-tracking.  Hundreds of tracks were mixed down to produce a particular sound.  No-one had ever gone to that extent in recording an electronic score, and I believe the end result is an amazing achievement. 

 Tony:   Did you have any say as to who made up the crew i.e. Director of Photography, etc.

Norman:  Yes I did.  The director is allowed to choose the key technicians he would prefer to work with.  A film is made by a great many highly skilled and talented people, and a big part of a directors job is to bring all the different skills together and focus their attention on the shot in hand.  Very much like the conductor of a large orchestra.   To do this well, it is very important that the director has people working with that he can relate to and communicate ideas with easily.  He must have complete faith in their abilities.  Of course it’s not necessary for the director to select every member of the crew.  Inseminoid for instance, had a crew of around seventy five people.  In most cases the director will only select key people, usually the ‘head of departments’ such as the Director of Photography, the Production Designer, Editor and First Assistant Director.

On Inseminoid I was very fortunate to be able to work with people whose talents I greatly admired and had worked with on previous films.  The Director of photography, John Metcalfe is a born cameraman, with enormous talent in all areas of photography.  I first worked with John way back on “Loving Feeling” when he was the focus puller and again on both “Satan’s Slave” and “Terror when he was the camera operator.  I first worked with John as the DOP on “Spaced Out” (aka “Outer Touch”) and then of course on Inseminoid.  I really don’t need to say anything about the way he photographed the film, because his great talent is up there on the screen for all to see.

The camera operator is one of the most important people to the director, because he becomes the ‘director’s eyes’ during the shot.  It is the operator who is looking through the camera viewfinder and seeing exactly what is being filmed.  The director must have total faith that the operator will not only get the shot he wants, but will also give him an honest opinion on how the shot worked.  Dick Pope was the camera operator on Inseminoid.  I had only worked with him on one previous occasion, and that was on “Loving Feeling” when Dick was the clapper/loader.  He was a great operator and he has since become a first class Director of photography.

There is little I can say about the Production Designer, Hayden Pearce, apart from brilliant!  Hayden is one of the best designers you could ever wish to work with.  He has a natural talent for producing wonderful looking sets even when there is no money to do so.  He’s also a great guy.  I have worked with Hayden on just about every film I’ve made.  The first being “Her Private Hell” on which he was the focus puller.  Although Hayden was good on focus, his true interest and talent was in art direction, and he got his very first opportunity as production designer on “Loving Feeling”.

One of the most important elements of a films production is the sound, and we had one of the best Sound Recordist in the business, Simon Okin.  I’d worked with Simon on both “Terror” and “Spaced Out”.  Despite all the sound problems of a location like Chislehurst Caves, Simon produced perfect dialogue tracks.

Editing is a vital part of any film, but the editor on Inseminoid, Peter Boyle, was the one key technician I didn’t know and had never worked with before.  It was the production manager who suggested Peter, when the editor I would have gone with was not available, and didn’t we do well. Peter was a pleasure to work with, because he had a natural feel for the material and managed to create just the right pace and rhythm throughout the film.  Peter is a great editor and after Inseminoid, it was only a matter of time before he moved to Los Angeles and soon became one of the top editors working in Hollywood.

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Last revised: 12 July 2003

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