On Friday last week I went along to the first 42nd Street to Paradise Film Festival in Birmingham to see just what Grindhouse madness they had in store. The schedule looked good with a drive-in cinema on Friday evening screening Terrorvision (dir Ted Nicolaou, 1986) and Deadbeat at Dawn (dir Jim Van Bebber, 1988) and further screenings at the Custard Factory on Saturday.
The two films were great fun, my enjoyment of the drive-in cinema was marred only by two guys talking all the way through both screenings and not even having the decency to shut up when told (several times but very politely) that it was disrupting our viewing of the films. To my dismay I soon realised that the two people talking were the directors of one of the films to be screened on the Saturday (VHS Forever? Psychotronic People) – all I can say is that I am surprised they have managed to watch even one entire film between them because they could not keep their traps shut for even five minutes. If you’ve seen Cinemania (dir Angela Christlieb / Stephen Kijak, 2002), you’ll know what I mean when I say I’m like one (or a combination of all) of the cinemaniacs and I just wanted to tape their mouths shut, or worse!
The talking continued throughout Saturday, which was a terrible bore – just SHUT THE F*** UP! Anyway, that’s enough on that subject although I do feel the guy organising it could have been a bit more “present” and a bit more commanding, but he was trying his best to organise the festival (which must have been a lot of work) and aside from the disruptive element it was a very good festival which shows promise for the future if it continues. I hope it does.
The screenings on Saturday included the aforementioned VHS Forever? Psychotronic People (dir Darren J Perry / Mark Williams), which was good if only because the subjects of the film were interesting and amusing; technically it was lacking somewhat but to give them their dues, they wanted to make a film and just went out and made one. That’s a positive to bestow on them but that’s as far as I will go. And, no, they didn’t stop talking even for their own film – the mind boggles…
Herschell Gordon Lewis’ The Wizard of Gore (1970) was next up and it also was good fun – laugh out loud funny and terribly bloody but the kind of gore I can stomach. By far my favourite film of the weekend was Umberto Lenzi’s Violent Naples (1976), which starred the fabulous Maurizio Merli and John Saxon. It had the most exhilarating motor bike race through Naples that had the audience gasping in awe. I just love those Italian cop thrillers and it was absolute perfection, complete with tearjerker scenes with a child which had me crying with laughter (maybe it was just me but it was so corny that it was hilarious).
Photo of Norman J Warren by Dave Tinkham of Datapanik Design
The highlight of the weekend, for me at least, was getting to see Q&A sessions with the director Norman J Warren and the actor Ian McCulloch. After much preamble and moaning about people talking in the cinema (one of my pet hates, but I think you got that already), here is a little write-up of the Norman J Warren session. The Ian McCulloch session will follow shortly. Just to explain, these are not interviews I carried out, I wrote notes from the sessions and am just writing them up in case they’re of interest to anyone who couldn’t be there. I wrote extensive notes (what can I say? I used to be a committee secretary and minute taker…) but instead of quoting verbatim I am just writing these notes up in categories. Hope someone will find them of use or interest:
How Norman J Warren got into film making
As a child Norman J Warren spent a lot of time at the cinema as his mother was mad about films. He described how he became fascinated by the beam of light, convinced that that was where the magic came from. His aunt worked at a cinema and managed to get him an invitation into the projection room to see the magic for himself – he was hooked. By the age of 12 he was making his first films – comedies – and he joined a local cine-club. He made films at the weekend and he knew that was what he wanted to do with his life.
When he left education, he followed up on his wishes to join the film industry but found it was largely a closed shop. He eventually managed to get a foot in the door, starting as a runner and working his way up. It required dedication and he knew that he would have to be prepared to give up his life outside if he was to get anywhere.
Horror films were always of interest to Norman, although they were banned when he was a teenager. He saw films like Creature from the Black Lagoon but the Hammer films started his interest in the genre. Another film that has stuck in his mind is The Beast With Five Fingers, which featured Peter Lorre. Later, when Suspiria was released, he became aware of the work of Dario Argento; he has been a great influence on him ever since.
Norman has mixed feelings about modern horror films and is not very keen at all on the Hollywood films, which he feels are losing their way a bit and lack imagination. The output in the UK is pretty low at the moment – although he did enjoy The Descent and 28 Days Later… – so he mainly watches Korean films.
Earlier in his career, Norman had worked as an editor doing censor cuts on other people’s films but his own films have largely avoided censorship. Terror (1978) had a few cuts, Inseminoid (1981) had no cuts. The thing to bear in mind, he says, is that your film will be changed by your distributors anyway as soon as it goes out.
Films Norman J Warren didn’t get to make
- Gargoyles – a project that was to be co-financed by Richard Gordon, but which collapsed and led to him making Inseminoid instead
- The Naked Eye – it was going to star Vincent Price, but sadly never got made
- The Book of Seven Seals – he didn’t give any details about this one
- Back to the Future – No, he was not in the running to direct this but when asked if there was any film he wished he had directed, Norman named this one and described it as “A beautifully made film, perfectly constructed”
Spaced Out (1979)
Norman made this space sex comedy because, to quote him, “I needed the money, to be honest”. He didn’t really want to do it but the producers really wanted him on board and said he would be allowed to change things a bit. As a jobbing director, as Norman described himself, he said he had to do such things but that ultimately it was “not such a bad experience” and, apparently, it did well in America!
This film came off the back of the unmade film Gargoyles, Norman was given a script called Doomseed to look at after the collapse of Gargoyles – he said it all happened very quickly, with the film being financed from the initial script within 6 weeks. The film was also made very quickly. Nick Maley, who wrote the screenplay, also created the creature, the SFX and gore effects for the film. It took 9 people to operate the babies. This film was on the “hit list” for censorship but it actually avoided being banned.
Norman described this one as a James Bond spoof (I’ve not actually seen it myself, but I’m going to look it out) but he said it didn’t get much of a release. It was being shot in Macclesfield at the end of November / December when it was cold and dark and they were supposed to have helicopters, boats and all the glamour you associate with James Bond type films but the reality was very different. An atomic submarine was supposed to be used for one sequence but in the end they had to use something like a drain pipe in place of a submarine. Furthermore, there were not many extras and so people often had to die twice!
Bloody New Year (1987)
This one was made with the same producer as Gunpowder (Maxine Julius) and Norman experienced problems on this one too – mainly because the cast had already been selected and he was tied in to using them; the problem being that they were models and not actors. The film was also lit like an American TV show and Norman felt it needed to be darker.
Satan’s Slave (1976)
Norman enjoyed working with Michael Gough and said he had a wonderful sense of humour. The film was shot in Techniscope and for one particular scene they had to have Michael Gough sitting on a bed which was raised about 8-9 inches off the floor, so they could get everything in the shot. The only problem was Michael Gough forgot about this and when he had to get off the bed, he fell onto the floor and said: “If you want me, I’m downstairs”
This was, according to Norman, a hard film to do in a very short time. However, he enjoyed it a lot and said it was like being at a party every day whilst they were working on it; at the end of the film, they all just wanted to carry on. The budget was, again, restricted and at the end of filming they could only afford one electrician for the last day – but even though they knew they could not be paid, they all turned up to work.
This lovely little short arty b+w film is one of the extras on BFI Flipside’s excellent release of Her Private Hell – it was also screened at the festival. Norman said it was “very arty, very much the fashion then”. He described it as “very important” to him as it helped him to get accepted as a director. He was 23 or 24 then and he was getting frustrated at not being able to break into directing and so he made Fragment with his own money. It cost him about £200 to make, which was obviously quite a lot back then, but even so he couldn’t afford any sound, hence no dialogue and the limited story.
Norman managed to get Johnny Scott to do the soundtrack for free – he had just been working on a documentary called Shellarama, which Johnny Scott worked on. When Norman said he had no budget to get a soundtrack for Fragment, Johnny Scott offered to do it for free. Apparently, a vinyl EP will be coming out shortly of the Fragment soundtrack. It sounds like something Johnny Trunk would put out, so keep a look out for that soon. The soundtrack is excellent, as is the film.
When Fragment was made, Norman had to go out talking to cinema managers to ask them to screen it. Eventually a manager at a Kensington cinema agreed to put it on and it turned out that he was trying to get into film making himself; he and a friend had decided to make sex films because they thought that was they way to make money. They gave Norman a call and that’s how he got into making his first feature film!
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That is all the notes I took, but I have to tell you that Norman J Warren is such a lovely guy and his love of cinema comes through when he is talking. It is such a shame that guys like him don’t get more opportunities and better budgets to make films. I, for one, would love to see him make some more films soon.
Norman J Warren – an interesting film maker and a lovely guy