Michael Biehn is best known for his action-classic collaborations with James Cameron: The Terminator, Aliens, and The Abyss, and for playing the role of Johnny Ringo in Tombstone. Between making his screen debut as an extra in Grease and appearing in this year's '80s nostalgia comedy Take me Home Tonight, Biehn has starred in The Fan, The Seventh Sign, K2, The Rock, Clockstoppers, Grindhouse (Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror), Navy Seals, the John Landis comedy Susan's Plan, and the William Friedkin features Jade and Rampage, among many others. Lately, Biehn has been stepping behind the camera to direct. Biehn's grindhouse-style indie thriller The Victim stars the actor and his producing and life partner Jennifer Blanc (a.k.a. Jennifer Blanc-Biehn). Blanc cut her teeth in the Broadway cast of Brighton Beach Memoirs before making her way in films (The Blood Bond, Puncture) and TV (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Mommies). The Biehns chatted with me in the office of Larsen Associates, soon before showing The Victim at San Francisco's Another Hole in the Head Film Festival. This interview also aired on the radio show Celluloid Dreams.
Groucho: I’m here with Michael Biehn and Jennifer Blanc. Welcome to Celluloid Dreams.
Michael Biehn: Thank you. It’s nice to be here.
Jennifer Blanc: Very nice to be here.
Groucho: Looking back over the years, when was the first time you entertained the thought of directing?
Michael Biehn: Well, you know, I’ve had a lot of directors I’ve worked with tell me that I should direct. Cameron used to always tell me I should direct. And Robert Rodriguez said I should direct something.
Jennifer Blanc: I’ve always felt he should direct.
MB: And I’ve just always had some projects that I’ve gotten to close to before and things just haven’t worked out, and I kind of had this idea in my mind that if you weren’t really, really good with a camera technically—really knew cameras well, knew lenses, knew when to move a camera, how to tell a story with a camera and the camera alone—that you wouldn’t really make a true director. I mean, you really have to be able to frame stuff properly and know when the camera should move and why it’s moving. And I think that I know everything there is to do with filmmaking except for that essence, which a lot of people have, and I always kind of use that as an excuse to say, "Well, you know, I’m never going to be this really great director anyway because I don’t understand the technology." I don’t understand, you know, film speeds and—this process to me—I didn’t even realize what colorization was. I’ve been in the business for thirty years—
G: Like color timing, color correction?
MB: Yeah. It was an eye opener. It was a total eye opener.
JB: It’s amazing—the changes we’ve—I’ve just been watching him learning. But I’ve been learning too, and it’s just amazing to see what colorization can do or what effects can do, or sound.
MB: So I’ve been learning a lot on the project. Basically, what happened was Robert and I used to talk about directing little grindhouse movies on the set of Grindhouse. And Robert’s just this inspiring kind of guy who said, "Well, you know...” His vibe is just write it and shoot it. Like, you don’t need any acting class—you don’t need any directing classes, you don’t need film school—just go write it and shoot it. Don’t talk to me, don’t ask me questions, just go write something and shoot it, you know?
G: The democratization of cinema.
MB: Yeah. Exactly. So I kind of promised myself at that time when I was doing Grindhouse that I was going to make a little movie. And we finished Grindhouse, and something came up, and I was doing The Divide for Xavier Gens up in Winnipeg last spring. I saw a guy in a coffee shop who was reading [Rodriguez's book] Rebel Without a Crew. I was like, "Oh, man, I was going to make that grindhouse movie now," and, you know, with my name these days, I can’t raise a lot of money. But I can raise some money so I asked Jennifer if she could raise some money for me and co-star in it with me. So she produced it and I directed it, and it really came together really fast. And so fast that I came back from Winnipeg, I had a hernia operation, and she basically dragged me out of the hospital a day early to go sign contracts.
MB: And from that point on we had three weeks to write the script and twelve days to shoot it.
G: Yeah. I read the three weeks of prep were while you were writing the script—
MB: While I was writing the script.
JB: Our crew was kind of on top of me and therefore—in our house at night—I was on top of him, and he was like, "They’ll get it when they get it. Just tell them to prep."
MB: Yeah. And we used our house as the production office. That was kind of a mistake. We had—
JB: Craft service traipsing in and out, and carts.
MB: You know, ADs running on our print machine and so on and so forth, but I—basically there was a story. There was a story that was written by a kid by the name of Reed Lackey, and it was kind of not in screenplay form: I call it like a novella. To me he’s much better at—if I was gonna do a novelization of The Victim—if it became so popular, you know, he would do it because he’s really good at writing like that. But he didn’t really have it in a screenplay form. But it was a good story and the characters are his. And the story is his. But it was like a page-one rewrite. And so I would write at night then, you know, I had an idea in my head what we wanted to do, and they would follow me around, but we didn’t have a script. And I said I’m going to need two cars—I’m going to need a car for this guy and a car for wardrobe and during that three weeks, by the way, she was crewing up too. So it wasn’t like they were following me around for three weeks. She was hiring the line producer. The line producer was hiring the DP; they were hiring the wardrobe people. They were hiring our gaffers. They were dealing with the Screen Actors Guild. They were doing contracts with all the actors and all the crew. And all of that was done in a three-week period of time before we started shooting.
G: Then of course with any indie film it’s a sprint more than a marathon. An eleven -day shoot, right? And –
G: Twelve-day shoot.
MB: Eleven and a half is really what it was.
JB: Happy medium in between the two.
G: And thirty-five set-ups a day on a budget. Sounds like it’s own kind of high-tension thriller for you two to live through.
JB: Oh yeah. If any of you have seen or want to see the making-of, first of all you can go to Blanc-Biehn Productions.com and go click on the B/B at the bottom, and you can see a very short version of the making of, which will end up on the DVD and you’ll have a longer version. But you get a sense of the tension and you get a sense of the volatile experience that we were having with each other: while yet incredibly fun, it was intense.
G: Sure. And you can—they say you can sleep when you’re dead, film is forever, all that kind of stuff. You must have had to tell yourself that to get through it sometimes.
MB: We basically—we shot twelve-hour days. So, you know, a twelve-hour day is not...it’s the average day of work for a film actor, anyone who’s worked on a crew. We never went into any fourteen-hour days or anything like that. Other than that, it wasn’t like it was—it’s just people were moving fast and we were moving. And I was like—I describe myself as a cross between a drill sergeant and a raving lunatic when I was directing the movie.
JB: Pretty hilarious actually.
MB: Yeah. And I’m kind of a paper lion. But I was, like, screaming the whole fucking time I was making the movie.
JB: Well, you’ve got this madman screaming at you who actually is able to pull an amazing performance out of you and really has a vision. But he’s got these headphones on the top of his head with a little battery pack in the middle sticking off the top of his head, and it’s just kind of a funny thing to watch.
MB: I had about sixty Christian Bale moments on the movie.
MB: But, you know, my thing—
G: What does he know about the Terminator?
MB: I never yell personally at somebody and say, "You’re an asshole"—
G: It’s about the work.
MB: It’s about the work. It about like, "Well who the fuck is talking man? Why do you need to talk? We’re trying to shoot. Shut the f up!" You know? I mean, it’s that kind of stuff, you know? Or "Let’s move."
G: (to Jennifer:) You got caught in that once, didn’t you, during an interview?
MB: You heard about that?
G: I heard about that, yeah.
JB: Oh my God. You heard about that. Yes. Denny Kirkwood and I, who will also be out here for the film festival, were doing and interview and were just like having a good old time laughing with the guys from Fangoria and somehow one of the PAs or one of the ADs didn’t kind of like go "Rolling!" to us or, if they did, we didn’t get it. And so we’re sitting around the table while they’re kind of in the woods off—
MB: With press.
JB: With press, like, you know, laughing, joking, talking and with the film take rolling. And all of a sudden this madman walks in and, with a gun in hand, wielding [it] high in the air, screaming and yelling. These guys were so freaked out they were scared. So then I had to go talk to Michael: "Listen, you go and handle this right now. You need to take the rest of them…" He was taking them around set and taking them under his wing and making everything nice. But that tape still exists somewhere.
MB: Can you use swear words on your show?
MB: Basically I came out "Who the fuck is talking?! Goddammit, shut the fuck up. Jennifer, what the fuck are you doing? Who the fuck are these guys?"
JB: With a gun in his hand. With a gun. In his hand! I mean a fake gun, but, you know.
MB: So there are these two guys from the internet, from—
MB: From Fangoria. So I grab them and I take them and I put them and I stand them right behind Ryan. And I say, "You want to talk about eye lines?" This whole time—my whole energy throughout the entire movie was like this. I was like way up there. I grab them—"Come on. I’ll show you about fucking eye lines." So we go to do my close-up, and it’s a close-up where I’m out in the woods with Ryan, and we have this two minute scene or whatever. And I say—they’re like these big huge guys, and they have on these flowered shirts and so forth. And I say, "Here, you stand here. And you stand here right behind Ryan. And you try to distract me. Okay, roll cameras." And they rolled cameras, and these guys were standing behind me and they were just like this [mimes "freaked out" expression], you know, behind Ryan. Like in my eye line, which is you know all actors—
JB: Freaked out.
MB: Totally freaked out. They didn’t try to do anything. They just stood there like—it was like zombies, you know.
JB: But they weren’t freaked out enough that when we asked them to erase the tape, to say yes. They did not erase the tape. It exists.
MB: That’s okay. We think now if any tape gets out of me screaming, it’ll just be good for the movie.
MB: We actually thought of maybe doing our own little number and just like faking it and throwing it up on the internet. But we decided our movie’s so good, we don’t need to do that.
JB: We don’t need to do that.
MB: We don’t need to stoop to that sort of stuff to promote it.
JB: To those shenanigans.
G: Now, on a possibly more pleasant note, tell me about the first scene you shot on the movie.
JB: (giggling) Our sex scene.
MB: Yeah. That’s probably mostly a scene that I knew that we could do without a lot of blocking—
MB: And without a lot of dialogue. It was just something that we could roll into and spend two hours kind of getting acquainted with each other.
JB: We were a little nervous when we actually had sex in the scene. [Correcting herself:] We didn’t have it.
MB: No, we didn’t have sex in the scene. But I just kind of came out on the set naked, you know. And everybody knew what we were going to be shooting. So it was like not any surprise to anybody what we were gonna be shooting. So I just kinda walked out there naked and said, "Okay, let’s get started," you know. And I think that we put that in the schedule first up because we knew it would take two or three hours and I could be thinking, "Okay, what could we do later on during the day?" It’s one of those things where I’m just barely ahead of myself as far as writing and rewriting—
JB: Well, it was also the idea that of—look, we’re going to throw down here. You know, start off with a bang. A real bang.
G: Focus the crew.
JB: Focus the crew. Show you how serious we are about our movie. So you can jump in and join us so to speak. But his niece got quite a shock so she ended up back in the makeup room for awhile.
G: Well, there you have the writer, the director, the producer, stars all in bed together. It’s like an orgy.
JB: Casting couch.
MB: It happens like that in Hollywood a lot.
G: Yeah. (All chuckle.) So Michael—you’re known for your intensity and focus as an actor and it seems like maybe you found a kindred spirit when you worked with Val Kilmer because he seems to have that same sort of, I guess, dedication or focus to the work. Can you talk a little bit how you two worked together on Tombstone?
MB: Yes. I love Val. Val is a guy who is a perfectionist and very passionate about what he does. And I’ll give you an example. Somebody asked me last night what my favorite scene in Tombstone was. And my favorite scene in Tombstone, unlike a lot of other people’s favorite scene is the end scene where he shoots me—he kills me. And there’s a moment where Johnny Ringo, who I always thought was a guy who was kind of living bored—he was smarter than the rest of them, he was an alcoholic, he was looking for that adrenaline rush, really, kind of throughout his life and just—it was a death-wish kind of thing. He called out the Earps once on the streets—which is true. He didn’t kill a priest. He didn’t kill anybody, by the way. Anyway, Val and I got together the day before we were going to shoot that scene, the shoot-out scene; we decided we’re not gonna do a "You stand ten feet over there, and I stand ten feet over here, and we draw" or whatever. It’s gonna be like we’ll be two or three feet away from each other, you know. And then we started getting into this idea of kind of circling each other. And after I got hit, how I would go down and my gun would still be shooting as I was going down. And we rehearsed that whole scene the day before when we were off and Kurt and Sam Elliot, whatever—they were doing something with the Earps or something. And we worked six or seven hours on that scene. And you know, I’m very proud of that scene, and there’s a moment in that scene where he says, you know, "I’m not messing around here. I’m serious." And I look at him and I say, "Alright, Lunger." And there’s kind of a twinkle in my eye, which I think is one of my finest moments on film, which is like Johnny Ringo going, you know, "Okay, let’s take it there. Let’s take it," and that kind of signifies who he is and what his desire in life really is. It’s a thrill-seeker kind of a guy. In that day and age—that ready-to-take-it-to-the-edge—because, I’m telling you, living in Tombstone back then would have been like—it’s one-hundred and twenty degrees everyday during the summer. I mean, the hotels aren’t air conditioned. The beer’s not cold. There’s horses. There’s women. But it would have been tough.
JB: I just came back from shooting a western on the exact same spot where he shot that opening scene where he shoots the priest.
MB: And another thing about Val is that—I mean, I have this whole gun-twirling thing that I do, and everyone always asks me, "How long did it take you to learn that?" And they ask me all sorts of questions about the gun-twirling thing. And the fact of the matter is Val actually had to spin that little cup that he had. And that was no easy chore spinning that cup. It was not made for spinning—like my Colt was made. It was just a little cup and he—I’m telling ya—I think he practiced as much with that little cup as I did with my Colt, which is about three months of working on it before I could get that routine down, which I could do top to bottom as we shot it in the movie.
G: Now going back to The Victim, I think it’s one of those films that you watch it, and you’re glad to not know too much about it before you’ve seen it, because it’s an unfolding story and to say too much might ruin it. So I guess what I want to ask you two is how you might pitch it to the audience—without giving anything away—but what can they expect, I guess, as the ride of the movie?
JB: I’ll let Michael handle that, but have you seen it?
G: I have.
JB: Oh, wonderful.
MB: Well, what I really want people to do is have fun. I want them to enjoy the movie. And I don’t want them to think about it. I don’t want them to be afraid to laugh. And I want them not to be afraid to laugh at times where it feels inappropriate to laugh. And I want people to feel like they can laugh at it. It’s meant, like, if you look at our poster, "Even bad girls need protection"—that’s our tagline. And that’s basically—there is something that happens at the beginning of the movie based on true events—you know that deal? That whole deal?
MB: That’s supposed to give the audience the idea—
G: Yeah, a wink.
MB: That we’re not taking ourselves very seriously here. We’re just having fun. We had twelve days. We made a little movie here. It’s fun. A slice of life—it’s a guilty pleasure. And it’s the type of movie that I think that most people will say, "You know, normally I wouldn’t go to one of these kind of movies—normally I wouldn’t like one of these kind of movies but this one was"—
G: And I guess you could call it kind of a pressure-cooker thriller right?
MB: It’s—I believe it’s extremely well acted. It’s a suspense thriller; it’s not a comedy—
JB: With some comic elements.
MB: I don’t mean it as comedy. But there’s a lot of nods in it—there’s nods to Clint, there’s a lot of—my last name’s—there’s a lot of stuff in there that people haven’t begun to even pick up on yet. There’s books laying around. There’s all sorts of stuff. But the story itself, I think, is a well-acted suspense thriller, but it’s just meant to be fun.
JB: It’s "unrepentingly sleazy."
MB: Yeah. That’s what they called it at the Huffington Post. And I said, "Gimme that guy—I want to talk to him. Can I use that? Can I put that on my poster?" Yeah. "Unrepentingly sleazy." Basically—and it’s exploitation. When I decided to make the movie, I was like, okay, well what am I going to do here? I don’t have any money. I can’t do, like, zombies. I can’t do vampires. So I had her. And it was like, alright, so I got sex, and we got her friends who are all sexy—so we’ve got Danielle. So we had sex and dirty cops. I got drugs, a little bit of torture, a little bit of action, and a little violence and I threw in a serial killer and just said, "Fuck it." This is as exploitive as I can make it. It’s like exploit—exploit the exploitation. And that’s kind of what it is. If you don’t like fighting and you don’t like fucking, it’s not your type of movie.
G: Right. (All laugh.) Well, who could say no to that? And you play a hermit and Jennifer plays, I guess, a stripper, right?
G: And part of the fun of the movie is that you’re not really sure until the end of the movie which of these people you can trust and which you can’t.
JB: That’s always been my thing. If you watch the making-of, there’s a moment where I look back and I did—I really felt that from the beginning. I said, "You really wonder who is the victim in the situation."
JB: And I think you almost kind of wonder that with everyone in the movie. Who is it?
G: Yeah. It is a nice ambiguous title—several characters could be the victim. And several more could be, in The Victim II. Right?
JB: Yeah. We have some ideas floating around for that one. Michael and our producer Travis have been throwing some ideas around for a sequel that would take it to a whole other level.
MB: Yeah, I would like—if we were lucky enough that this became successful and we were able to make some money and prove to investors that we could make some money on a movie, I’d like to make the next one a little bit more of an action movie. Basically, what Jim Cameron did with Aliens; he took Ridley Scott’s Alien, which was sort of a walk through a creepy kind of funhouse sort of thing, and then all of a sudden something would jump out at you—and Jim took it to an action movie. And that’s what I’d like to do with the next one if I had a chance. I’d like to make it a little action movie.
JB: And who better to make an action movie than an action hero.
G: Right. She’s selling already. Now, Michael, you were at Armageddon Expo last year, and you told the crowd with a smile that there’s still some things you won’t do, but you didn’t elaborate as far as I can tell. What are some of the sorts of things you might reject just on the face of them like "I’m not going to do that kind of movie" or work under these conditions?
MB: Well, you know, uh, porn. (All laugh.) Gay porn, I say, "Maybe."
JB: Michael is super into story. Super into character. Super into script. I mean, every once in a while he has to make a living too, like everybody else, but I think he has a quote—I don’t even remember—I think it might have been Movieline years ago—he was kind of like "There’s no small parts." And it’s basically, I think, he likes a part he can sink his teeth into. He’d rather have the small part that he could sink his teeth into. Am I saying that correctly?
G: And with great collaborators.
MB: Yeah. I’m not a huge fan of the horror genre to tell you the truth, and this movie is not a horror movie by any stretch of the imagination. And there are some great filmmakers that are horror genre—like Rob Zombie and Eli Roth—and I have all the respect in the world for them, and I have all the respect in the world for the people who go to see those type of movies. If I have my druthers, I would rather stay away from that kind of stuff, you know, because to me, I don’t find it—
G: Fulfilling or appealing?
MB: Yes. And I did do a movie called Bereavement, which I’ve never seen, but I think it had some of that stuff in there. And if you look at The Divide, it’s pretty, pretty wild as far as the violence goes and stuff, you know, but it’s psychologically such a good part that I just—violence for violence sake, where people just go to the movies to watch people get torn apart: that bothers me. Other than that, when I said the things that I wouldn’t do, I mean, I’m surprised I said that. That’s a quote I’m surprised I said that. I don’t know what I was talking about.
G: Have you had any memorable moments you can recount when you worked with someone that you had idolized to some degree and you found yourself suddenly on the set with this person?
MB: Well, I mean—I think all the time that—I mean, I kind of idolize everybody, in a way. I look at a lot of actors and—when you say "idolize," I was never a kid growing up who thought like, oh, I gotta meet Robert DeNiro or I gotta meet Al Pacino, but I’ve had a chance to work—it’s exciting to work with people like the directors that I’ve worked with. I like Cameron, and [Michael] Bay and Quentin Tarantino. I think Tarantino probably, when I met him for the first time. He was like kind of the biggest star that I was like the most excited about meeting—Quentin and Robert, and they are so fun, man. They were so cool and so fun. Quentin is like this big kid who’s let loose in a candy store and Robert’s like just this mad genius of an artist, you know. And they’re just like—that set is as much fun as you can possibly have in the movie industry. But probably, to answer your question, it was probably Quentin, because even though I had worked with Cameron, and worked with Sean Connery and Ed Harris, and I’d worked with Nicolas Cage and I worked with a lot of good people, he had kind of a mystique about him that I was very interested in meeting.
G: And there are rumors circulating around the internet about a possible Terminator reboot coming up, and director Justin Lin is attached to that. And there’s been talk that your services might be required. Is that something you would be willing to revisit if the script was right?
MB: Uh, yes. But I think he’s already come out and said that, you know—first of all, that deal was made, then two days later the story broke on Arnold. So everything kind of got put on hold. And then I think I read someplace that basically this Justin—what’s his name?
G: Justin Lin.
MB: Lin, yeah, who did Fast Five. Basically, they said, "No, no, no, it’s not Michael, it’s not this or that or whatever." But I would. But, you know what? I would. I look at the Terminators now and...the last Terminator I saw kind of reminded me of the Fast Five in a way, where the first half an hour was like just this gigantic action sequence of loud explosions and action that is totally unrealistic kind of action where—you know, there’s action that could actually happen, and then there’s this kind of fantasized action that a lot of people love. It opened to eighty million dollars, so—but, you know what? I mean—I watched about thirty minutes of the fourth one—I’ve never seen the third one—but the last one, I was in a hotel room, and I’m like, "Alright, I’m going to put it on—what happens with actors is that when you don’t get a role or you don’t continue in a role, you get a little bitter about it, so "Oh fuck, I’m not going to watch Aliens III. I’m not going to watch Terminator III because I’m not in it anymore." Or, if you’re up for a role—like I was up for a role in True Grit and didn’t get it, and "Fuck it, I’m not gonna watch True Grit." I did anyway, you know. And actually, I just ran into Barry Pepper who played the role and who I respect a lot. But I watched T4 about a year ago or whenever it came out, and it was in a hotel and I shouldn’t have seen it in a hotel; I should have seen it in a big theatre. But it was just so loud and it was just so many explosions. And what’s his name was walking through the desert, and he shows up at this cave, and it was like—I didn’t even—I had no idea what was going on. And it just didn’t—it didn’t appeal to me at all. You know, at all. But, if they came to me and said, "Here’s a check" for whatever—that’s why I’m surprised there was a quote of me saying I wouldn’t do something, because if you pay me enough money, I’ll do anything.
G: Alright. Well, it’s been wonderful talking to both of you. Best of luck with The Victim and everything else you’ve got coming up.
JB: Thank you so much. We’re really excited to be here.