The ultimate Michael Biehn interview: The Abyss, Tombstone, and his directorial debut, The Victim

It’s the second part of our interview with Michael Biehn, in which he talks about his acting in The Abyss and Tombstone, and his first feature as director, The Victim…

As the first part of our interview demonstrated, the great, under-appreciated actor Michael Biehn has enjoyed a lengthy and varied acting career. His fruitful partnership with James Cameron continued after the success of The Terminator and Aliens, with the pair teaming up again for The Abyss.

Here, we talk to Biehn about the making of that 1989 epic of sci-fi, working with James Cameron, passing on Point Break, and defending strippers in his directorial debut, The Victim…

I’ve always admired your loyalty to James Cameron. And then you went on to work with him on The Abyss (1989), and I remember you’ve always defended his working style, especially after reports of a few egos getting bruised during the filming of that film. Does it still amaze you that people can fail to dedicate themselves as much as asked sometimes?

Well I’m not sure if it’s people… the thing about Jim is – I think that Jim is a really passionate person. He cares more about his movies than other directors care about their movies. Billy Friedkin’s the same way. He cares more about the way his movies look than the way other movies look, and Michael Bay’s that way, he cares more than other people.

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That’s why they’re successful, that’s their way, and their way of expressing that sometimes can be grating on people. I wish, and I’m sure that they all wish they could be Ron Howard, or Clint Eastwood, and have this really calm demeanour, and be able to get everything done and still do a great job.

I actually found out, when I started directing, that I was kind of a combination of Jim Cameron, Billy Friedkin and Michael Bay, all rolled into one! [Laughs] So you’re kind of talking to the wrong guy now about that, because I really… you know, passionate anger, it’s hard to tell the difference between passion and anger, and I can get very, very angry, very, very quickly on a movie set. But it passes very quickly, and then I move on, but I [think] a lot of passion can look like anger very quickly, and for me, I know that people think I’m a raving lunatic on a set.

Jim was working eighteen hour days on that movie, and I’ve done three movies with him, or four if you count T2. I’ve never seen him yell at anybody. I’ve never seen him say anything to anybody, but he’ll say things like this, and he said this to me once, and it’ll give you an idea of what Jim’s like.

You’ll do a take, and he’ll walk up to you and say, “Michael that’s exactly what I don’t want”, and you can either go, “Oh what a fucking bastard, oh he bruised my ego!”, or you can say, “Well what the fuck do you want, Jim? Show me! If you were an actor, you could act it, but you can’t! You have to show me what you want me to do! You wanna give me a line reading? Give me a line reading! Show me what you want, I’ll do it!”

And he’s cool, y’know? He’ll do it, but he’s not real sensitive when it comes to actors and their trailers, and waiting for actors to come to the set, so he can get his shots off. I think that Jim, from what I understand, got a little bit more verbal after he was done with The Abyss, because I didn’t see anything.

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Now, Friedkin’s another story. Billy Friedkin is just like Jekyll and Hyde, and he can scare the hell out of you, but Jim Cameron and Michael Bay – they’re just trying to get their movies made, and if they have to raise their voice, they raise their voice. But like me, I don’t remember people getting fired.

Usually it was, “This prop isn’t working, this lighting isn’t working, this camera is worthless, the angle isn’t working, this scene isn’t working, let’s fucking make this scene work! Let’s make this fucking prop work! Give me a fucking prop that works!”

That’s where the anger is, it’s not like, “Hey you, Bob the gaffer, you’re an asshole, you’re a prick.” It’s not that, it’s about the process, and being angry and frustrated that the process is not going as well as it should be, and that’s how it’s always been with me, even when I was acting. But as a director, [it’s worse], because you’re responsible for everything that’s on the screen.

Now, Timebomb (1991) – I don’t know if you have good or bad memories about it?

Well, I have pretty good memories about it. I think his name was Avi Nesher, but he had made a little movie about the British occupation of Israel, and I saw that movie and thought it was really, really good. So I signed on to do this movie, and I remember exactly where I was sitting when I was told that they’d cast Patsy Kensit to play opposite me, and although Patsy was like, darling, she was sexy and fun, y’know, she was supposed to be a psychiatrist, and she was twenty! [Both laugh] And I thought, that’s strange casting!

That movie didn’t turn out as well I’d hoped, but I had a lot of fun making the movie. But what ended up being the movie itself was not, was far… I thought it was going to be a much better movie, and that guy, I don’t think has gone on to direct very much of note. I don’t know how he directed the first one – maybe his DP [director of photography] did it for him, maybe he just had a good script, good actors and a good DP.

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But this guy totally ruined what was then called something else, but I thought he ruined [it], and he hasn’t really done anything since.Some directors, like Lewis Teague who did Navy Seals, somehow they just keep failing upwards. Like Jewel Of The Nile, which is one of the worst movies ever made, but somehow he gets work off it.

It’s like, “Okay, Jewel Of The Nile. Well then, let him do Navy Seals.” They’re just kind of [examples] of people who really aren’t that good at what they do, and slowly, but surely, just disappear.

I had to ask about Timebomb, because I remember seeing it but never found any information about it.

You then moved on to your brief cameo in Terminator 2, by which point my film mania was at full tilt, so I remember seeing your scene in the trailer and then being gutted when it wasn’t in the final cut, which has been amended in the DVD release. How long did it take to shoot your scene?

I was just back to the set one day and, of course, Linda and Jim were together at that point. I’d been through all of Jim’s like… marriages! [Laughs] But Linda and Jim were together at that point, and I came back and sat in the trailer, and talked to Linda and Jim about what we wanted to do, and we went out the next day and shot all my scenes.

I remember in particular it was the day George Bush Senior started the war on Iraq. But basically I fell in to that like… it felt like an old shoe, with Linda and Jim, playing those characters. That was just like putting on the most comfortable pair of shoes that you could have and going to work. It was really, really easy and fun, and I was a little jealous that they were all getting to make T2 and I wasn’t, but y’know, what are you gonna do?

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Then you went on to make K2, and I wondered how much of that was filmed on an actual mountain, and how the physical challenge perhaps varied from the water based scenes in The Abyss?

Well… I can tell you the truth – none of it is very physical. I mean, we’re actors, so when we were shooting K2, we were taken by helicopters up to those peaks, we weren’t climbing up those peaks! [Laughs] So there was nothing really that difficult about it. The Terminator was probably more so, because I was running all over the place and jumping and shooting and rolling.

K2 was an interesting movie for me to do, because I’m just terrified of heights. I’m the type of guy that walks out on to the balcony of my hotel, and if I’m up fifteen storeys, I look over the balcony and I’m like, “Ohhh! What happens if I just jumped over.” Which is really bad. So any time you saw someone hanging off the side of the mountain, that wasn’t me!

I was the guy that was crawling on the ground, and then the camera man would get down there and turn the camera sideways and then roll around, and I’d be pulling and reaching, when we’re basically just shooting it from the side!

But that was the second chance I had to work with Franc [Roddam, the director, who also made The Lords Of Discipline], who I liked a lot. I was always proud of the fact that I worked with directors a number of times, because they liked me, and because I brought a lot more to a picture, a lot of times, than just being an actor.I was a pretty good story editor, and would help sometimes to solve problems with scenes and so on.

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So Jim’s used me three or four times, and almost used me in Avatar. I did two films for Franc Roddam, two films with Billy Friedkin, and there have been other people that I’ve worked for, of lesser note, that I’ve worked for a number of times. Nick Vallelonga’s a director in town I’ve worked for four times – I’ve always been proud of the fact that the directors have wanted to have me back.

Absolutely. For me, it’s always added a different level to a film, because if a director and an actor genuinely get along and choose to work together, it makes you feel more connected somehow, to the material itself…

Are you talking about from an actors’ standpoint, or an audience standpoint?

From an audience standpoint – as an outsider, I look on that, and if I can see things working together, it helps to connect me to the material as well…

Well I don’t think that I would’ve been as good in Aliens if I hadn’t been in The Terminator. In terms of the performance, it would’ve been maybe good, but not as good, and I wouldn’t have been as relaxed. I wouldn’t have been as free to maybe make some choices and take some chances.

Going on to Tombstone, I’ve never forgiven Val Kilmer for shooting you!

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I wanted him to shoot me!

Is that right?

Well, I always thought Johnny Ringo had a little bit of a ‘suicide by police’ mentality. There’s a part in that movie, which I think is one of my greatest moments on film, and I don’t sit around and look for it, but whenever I see it, I always think, “Yeah, that’s what I was trying to do, and that’s what I got.”

It’s when Doc Holiday tells Kurt that he’s no match for me, and I show up expecting Kurt Russell’s character, Wyatt Earp, and Doc steps in, and I say, “I don’t have any problems with him”, and he says, “Well, I’ve got problems with you.”

I have the line, “Alright, lunger. Let’s do it.” And there’s something that’s like a twinkle in my eye, which is almost like because back then the only fun things to do were drink, whore, but [the prospect of the duel] was really exciting. That was really living on the edge, that was really life and death, and it was the only thing that really turned Johnny on. That was the height for him, like when guys skydive, or why people go to horror movies to get that scary feeling, that adrenalin rush.

He was just a drunk guy, as you can imagine living back then in the old west. You think about all the saloons and the all the warm beers, no air conditioning. And it’s Tombstone, and if you’ve ever been down there, it’s hot all the time, so it would be pretty miserable, if you ask me. But Johnny Ringo’s probably, along with Kyle Reese, my two favourite characters.

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And it’s an awesome movie too…

Awesome movie, awesome cast. I just sat with Jim Jacks [Tombstone’s producer] two nights ago, and talked about Tombstone a little bit. I gave him my movie The Victim, as I’m trying to get it to Harry Knowles at AICN. Jim is a friend of his, and hopefully Jim has seen it by now, but I sat up with Jim and told old Tombstone stories.

[At this point I asked if it was still okay to move on to his horror work, as I was now aware that the interview was taking up a substantial chunk of his free time, but he happily obliged to talk as much as I’d like…]

I remember seeing Cherry Falls at the cinema and quite enjoyed it, but I heard that the finished film varied quite a lot from the original vision, and that there was an entirely different cut, is that right?

Well I don’t know about Cherry Falls, to tell you the truth. I moved off that movie and moved on. I played the same kind of character in Cherry Falls that I played in this little movie, Bereavement, you know, where I played the father, the concerned father of a young girl. And the story isn’t based around me [as an actor]. Neither one of them are really good roles, they’re just fillers, supporting players.

I got paid nicely for both of them… I noticed that [makes a slightly amused/despairing noise] on the Bereavement poster, they put my name first and it’s just like, “Oh my God, I’m in, like, three scenes, and my name is on the poster first.” [laughs]

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But you know, basically, some jobs you do for passion and love, and thinking you can really do something with it. But I knew both Cherry Falls and Bereavement, I was basically drawing the water, getting paid, getting to work. I’ve got four kids, I’m trying to get them through college and keep the braces on them and so on – they weren’t great roles, Johnny Ringo was great role, the characters I played in The Terminator and The Abyss were great roles, the character I played in The Rock was a pretty good role, the character that I play in The Divide and The Victim, coming up, are great roles.

Cherry Falls and Bereavement, they’re just pay days, and by that I don’t mean to say that I wasn’t trying to do a good job, but an actor can only be as good as his role is. I always talk about acting being like if you’re a painter, and you’ve got certain colours that you use on your canvas, you dab paint, you put it on, but these roles, I only had a small amount of paint – you don’t have anything to work with.

[The script just goes] she comes in, “Where have you been?” She storms out. Oh, there’s a dying girl, there’s an argument, “Where are you going?” “I’m going out.” “No, you’re not.” You’re just filler. Sometimes you take roles because you need to work, and you need to stay busy, and you need to feed your family.

Whereas I got the impression from Planet Terror that Robert Rodriguez, having grown up with the same films as me, cast you in that film with a large amount of respect. Is that how he approached you?

Robert Rodriguez is one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met, and along with James Cameron and Friedkin, one of the most talented, though I don’t want to rate one against the other like an Academy Award! But Robert Rodriguez, when he wrote that movie, I believe that he saw me in that role, okay, and he saw something in that role which [meant that], when I came through those front hospital doors, with people dying everywhere, the audience would stand up and cheer.

So he basically had me in over at the Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles, and Mary Vernieu was casting it. He had me come in and he had me audition for it, and I did, but kind of screwed it up at first. And I said, “Let me give it another try”, and I did, and did a good job, and I said, “Okay, great, thanks”, and waited to hear for the usual three weeks, and boom! I got the job.

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I was very, very happy about it, because I knew Quentin [Tarantino] was going to be around a lot, and working with Robert and Josh Brolin – it was just going to be a lot of fun. [It was] shot in Austin, and I’d heard a lot of fun stories about Robert.

Robert said to me, “You were cast before I fucking ever had you in the office, dude. I know that when you come through those doors, what I want is the audience to stand up and cheer. That’s what I want, and I knew that by casting you, that’s what would happen.” And I tell you what, man, I went to the screening of the movie at the big premiere, and as soon as I bust through those doors, the whole audience stands up, like, “Yeah! Here he comes!”

Robert’s that smart that he writes and casts a movie knowing that those moments are going to be there, and he was absolutely right about that with me. I always have the feeling that by the time that Robert’s done with his screenplay, he pretty much knows how it’s going to look on film, how it’s going to be cut, he knows everything about it.

There’s not a lot of improvisation with him, because he knows what he wants. Although he did say to us that if we wanted to write anything, we could submit it to him, if we wanted to write a scene. Which I did, I wrote a scene for Robert involving my character and Freddy Rodriguez’s character, and he actually shot the scene, and I was very excited about that, but it did not ending up making the movie.

And from what I understand it didn’t even make the DVD version, but that’s okay, he shot a scene that I wrote, and spent the production time to do it.

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He was very, very, very inspiring towards me, and we used to talk a lot. I just found him to be a very inspiring kind of filmmaker, from the standpoint of [telling me], “Michael, if you want to make a movie, then there’s nothing stopping you, just go and make it.” And I said, “I know Robert, but I’m not sure if I know where to put the cams” and he replied, “Don’t worry about it Michael, just go do it, don’t have doubts, don’t worry about anything, you’ve gotta make it then learn, then make another one and you’ll learn more. Don’t be afraid to fail, just go do it!”

And I’d ask him lots of questions about where I should put the camera, or an idea and so on, and in a nice way, he said, “Don’t look to me for advice on how to direct, you go and direct, let’s see your vision, let’s see what you got.”

So I told him at that time I was going to make a movie, a little grindhouse movie, like they were making, and of course theirs cost $40 million, or whatever it was, and when I finished the movie, something else came up again and again, and I had kind of forgotten about it. Then, last spring, when I was shooting The Divide – which premiered at South by Southwest (SXSW), which is a great movie, which I’ve seen, which is really, really good with Milo Ventimiglia and Lauren German – and two things happened on it.

One was I was watching Xavier Gens’ movie Frontier(s), and loved it. I thought it was so cool, and I asked Xavier how he made the night look so great, it was almost like a character in itself, and he said, “Oh Michael, I just shoot day for night”, and I thought, “That’s day for night!?” Because my idea of day for night used to always be from the old cowboy movies, where it really looked stupid. So I learnt that I could shoot a movie day for night, and I thought, okay, that way you don’t have to get out all these lights, all the expense of shooting at night, without people all around.

Then I was sitting around in a coffee shop, and I saw this young kid reading Rebel Without A Crew, which is the Robert Rodriguez book, and I just said to myself that I promised Robert I was going to make a movie, and I never did, and I’m just going to drop everything and go make this movie. So I called my girlfriend, her name is Jennifer Blanc, she’s been working in the business since she was eight, and did this series with Cameron [Dark Angel], and she works all the time.

So I called her up, and asked if she thought we could raise a little bit of money for me to make a grindhouse movie, just on my name – my name. She was checking around and I said to myself, that if I’m going to make a grindhouse movie, which is basically low budget exploitation, then I need exploitation, so what do I need for that – I need half naked women, I need sex, I need dirty cops, I need drugs, a little bit of violence, a little bit of action, and what the hell, let’s just throw in a serial killer!

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So I said, “Okay, here’s my formula. I’m gonna make an exploitation movie, I’ve got everything I can possibly exploit in this movie”, and then I said to her “So we’ve got me, protecting a couple of strippers” well… that upped the ante for some investors. Then we got Danielle Harris to play one of the strippers, and she’s a very popular actress in the horror genre, having done the Halloween movies and Hatchet 2, and we got her to play a role in the movie. So I started writing it, and Jennifer started putting the crew together, and some weeks after the idea came into my head, maybe seven or eight, we were up in Winnepeg, shooting in Topanga Canyon.

And we’re done with it now, I am completely finished with the movie. I have to do my [dubbing] and add a couple of special visual effects shots, but it’s basically done, and I am very, very proud of it, it’s very, very, very, very good! But now, you’ve got to remember that people who see this movie, won’t know how much money we made it for, and I can’t tell you how much money I made it for, because [if I did], the distributors would turn around and go, “Oh! Well, you only spent that much money on it. We’ll just give you this much and you’ll double the amount!”

So I’ve been told repeatedly not to tell people how much money we made it for, but it was shot quickly, and I don’t think it’s any secret that it was shot in twelve day,s and we were doing forty set ups a day. We had one camera, and it’s got great performances in it. It’s beautifully lit and shot nicely. [There are] some great twists and turns, and I’m just very proud of it. I think, all in all, when I’ve put the icing on the cake – but believe me that cake is beautiful – it’ll be the one thing I can look back on and… What happened on this movie is I said, if I’m going to do a movie for [at this point he disclosed the amount of money!] I have to have all the creative control, because I’m not going to be in someone’s movie at X dollars and have me chop someone’s head off, or pull somebody’s guts out of their stomach, I’m just not going to say what I don’t want to say for X dollars.

So I had to tell the investors, I have to have all the creative control, from who’s cast, to what lines we say, what sets we use, when we move on after shots, what cameras we use, what post house we use, and I have to have all the production decisions. What days we shoot, how fast, when we quit, when we start, when we break for lunch, and then I get sell it to whoever I want to, whenever I want to, for how much I want to.

So this is really and truly a film that is… because it’s an exploitation film, it doesn’t have anything to do with Michael Biehn’s philosophy on life! It’s an exploitation movie, it’s my take on an exploitation movie. I’d love to do a romantic comedy. I would love to do a psychological thriller. I’d like to do a big action movie, but with the money that I had, and hoping that I would have a chance to make a movie that made money, it was going to be low budget exploitation, and that’s my take on it. So we’re moving along with it, and we’ll see how we do as far as selling it, but sooner or later you’ll see it, and I’m very proud of it.

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Excellent, and importantly, as you say, it was something you could kind of control and shape how you wanted it to be…

Not kind of…

[I suddenly pause to consider how I’d worded the question, panicking slightly…] Completely!

[he laughs in a slightly mischievous fashion] Correct! [laughs]

And have you now caught the bug for directing?

Well… I would rather produce and have somebody else direct, but I am so anal about stuff, I’d probably be jumping over his shoulder half the time saying, “We want this, we want that”. Yeah, I tell you what, it’s a lot easier to come on to a shoot two weeks in, and get dropped off by your town car, and say, “Which was one’s my trailer? Call me when my scenes are ready. Call me when you need me for make-up”, and go in and sit and listen to music and wait around for a couple of hours, than it is to be the first one on set screaming out orders at 5.45am in the morning, until six o’clock that night.

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But if this movie does as well as I think it does, we’re talking about doing a sequel, which I already have a treatment for, which I might end up doing next, if nothing else comes along. But [this year] I’ve got Take Me Home Tonight, released though Topher [Grace’s] dad, which is an amazing story of what happened on that movie – I’m excited for Topher for Take Me Home Tonight, and I’ve got a little, nice supporting role in that, and that’ll be the first big movie that I’ve been in since Grindhouse.

Then I’ll have my movie, The Victim, sold, I would think, in a few months, and I’ll get what I can from it and then move on. Then I’ve got that little movie, Bereavement, that I’m in, and another movie, Puncture, with Chris Evans, which is an Erin Brockovich type of story.

So I’ve got a lot of work in the can, and I’m excited, mostly excited about The Victim, and also very, very excited about The Divide.

Michael Biehn, thank you very much!

You can read part one of our Michael Biehn interview here.

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