The Victim – Michael Biehn and Jennifer Blanc-Biehn interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
MICHAEL Biehn talks about writing, directing and starring in his directorial debut The Victim and the challenges of making a grindhouse movie on such a low budget.
He also talks about some of the logistics involved, including arguments with his wife and leading lady and walking out onto the set on the first day stark naked. He also reflects on some of his past roles, including working with James Cameron on The Terminator and Aliens and why he was initially disappointed but then relieved to have missed out on Alien 3. The Victim is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday, September 24.
Q. What made you decide to write, direct and star in The Victim?
Michael Biehn: It was really a situation where things just came together. I had worked with Xavier Gens on a movie, The Divide, and was hanging out with Jennifer in a coffee shop in Winnipeg and I saw a kid reading Rebel Without A Crew, the book by Robert Rodriguez, and that reminded me of working with Robert and his pick up a camera and go shoot attitude. Indeed, Jim Cameron always said that one of the brilliant things about Robert Rodriguez is that he doesn’t understand he can’t do something. So, I got it into my head that I could do a grindhouse movie and, together with Jennifer, I found a bit of money.
I’d actually read the script for The Victim three years ago because it was based on a story by Reed Lackey but it had more of a Saw feeling to it and it was a page one re-write, so at that time I didn’t want to get involved. But this time around, I thought I’d go ahead and do it because I didn’t want to get to the end of my career and look back and say that I’d not directed anything. So, we got together this really low budget and decided to make a grindhouse. And I consider a grindhouse movie to be an exploitation movie… but I didn’t have enough money for visual effects, special effects, lots of people or crashing cars or monsters… I just had my beautiful girlfriend, so I asked her if she’d mind taking her clothes off for me and she said ‘yes’ [laughs]. And then I asked her if she had any friends who wouldn’t mind either and she said Danielle [Harris], who also has a good following of her own thanks to the horror movies she’s done.
So, I then got some dirty cops, added some torture, some action so then thought ‘fuck it, I’ll just play the serial killer’ because he was in the original script anyway. So, then I was writing for three weeks, we went into pre-production immediately, we crewed up, cast up, sorted the locations and then we rode into a 12-day shoot, working 12 hour days and voila!
Q. You make me tired saying all that…
Michael Biehn: It was pretty tiring. I was running on adrenaline for most of the time.
Q. Did it help to be working with someone like Jennifer given the nature of your off-screen relationship?
Michael Biehn: Yes, because we always knew we had each other’s backs. You can see on the special features that we fought a lot on the movie. But in spite of that we always knew we had each other’s back – and she knew that I always got to make the final decisions.
Q. And Jennifer?
Jennifer Blanc-Biehn: I also knew he was always going to be the one to tell me the truth. So, that helped incredibly because we had that trust already without having to work on it during the shoot.
Michael Biehn: One of the things you have to remember is that this was such an incredibly small amount of money to make a movie with – and in such a short period of time. I’ve never shot anything in less than 24 days, so I had to have control of the creative decisions and the production decisions, when we were ready to sell it and who we were going to sell it to and they [the backers] said ‘yes’ to that. And Jennifer [who also produces] let me be in charge. She was the one to buck up against me the most often… we were fighting over this and that and she would sometimes get upset that people weren’t listening to her, I’d tell her to shut up, she’d start crying and we’d roll the cameras – but somehow it worked for us. There’s a little vignette in the making of the film where I’m sitting in the corner saying that there seems to be a little angel on my shoulder because everything seems to be working out…
Jennifer Blanc-Biehn: That was me! I was your angel [laughs].
Michael Biehn: But I’m pleased with the result. We ended up showing it on 30 screens across the country and in Canada and twice in Ireland and it held up pretty good on the big screen. It’s still a little scratchy here and there and if I had a little bit more money I’d have liked to have made it ever better in places. But it is what it is and I tried to make a movie that was fun and one that the audience knows right off the bat is not taking itself too seriously. But if you can give people 90 minutes of fun instead of making them worry about the mortgage, then I think you’ve got a good movie.
Q. And you’ve since completed another film?
Jennifer Blanc-Biehn: That was with our production company. It’s called Treachery and Michael stars in it but he doesn’t direct it on this occasion. I’m one of the producers.
Michael Biehn: It’s a grindhouse version of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? And when I say grindhouse I mean low budget. Grindhouse usually means exploitation, or something with lots of monsters and zombies, but this is a family story with a lot of terrible problems [laughs].
Q. What’s the biggest lesson you learned as a director from making The Victim?
Michael Biehn: The biggest lesson I learned is not to use a handshake as a contract…
Q. And Jennifer, what about lessons from producing?
Jennifer Blanc-Biehn: My biggest lesson was that communication as a producer is really important and each movie I do I learn how to communicate with various different people differently, according to where they’re coming from. Sometimes they don’t always understand you when you’re coming at them from a certain level, so you have to go to someone in a different way.
Q. And are you happy with producing? Could it become a substitute for acting ever?
Jennifer Blanc-Biehn: I’m really enjoying being a producer. But I am first and foremost always an actress. but what it [producing]’s done for me is it’s made be able to pick and choose more because I’ve created things for myself and no longer just relying on only other people’s decision-making. I also have some good ideas and outside of the box ideas, which I enjoy being able to see come to life.
Q. Michael, you’ve appeared in some great movies over the course of your career, from The Terminator to Aliens via The Abyss, Tombstone and Planet Terror, so what did you learn from those experiences that helped you when it came to directing?
Michael Biehn: I think all of those directors will tell you that need a very, very solid story to start to make a great movie. From Jim, I really learned his intensity of knowing what he needed inside the film… inside that square of the film. And what I mean by that is there can be a lot of stuff going on outside the set – people can be having affairs, people can be yelling, the police can be coming down to cite you for shooting in the wrong, area, but it’s only what’s going on inside the square that’s going to be seen on film. He’s a perfectionist. He doesn’t want somebody to be able to look at a movie and say ‘it doesn’t make sense’. And I was able to help him early on with that. I was able to look at stuff and say… we called it a bullshit meter. If something wouldn’t fly we’d call it bullshit and say: “Let’s make it right. So, we put a band-aid on it.”
Q. Jim has a reputation for being quite hard on-set. Did you rise to that as an actor?
Michael Biehn: Jim is a little bit like I am… But [William] Friedkin is the same, Michael Bay is the same way and Val Kilmer is the same way too. We all want so badly to do a good job and we just get so passionate about getting it right that that passion sometimes sounds like anger [laughs]. But Jim never calls anyone an asshole. And I don’t either. It’s about the process and making decisions in the moment… say if someone hasn’t got the prop you want, should we move onto the next scene or not. It’s just that some people are born with that intensity to want to do it perfectly every time. But those guys are all pussycats compared to me. I got described as a cross between a drill sergeant and a raving lunatic by one of the writers on my set [laughs]. But I only had 12 days to shoot this in and no one got fired and no one quit, so that tells you that we were all determined to do the best job we could.
Q. Is it true that you also walked onto set stark naked on the first day of shooting?
Michael Biehn: That’s true… I didn’t have the movie finished, so we decided to shoot out of my bedroom and do a scene that didn’t have much dialogue. So, I just came out and said: “This is what we’re going to start with.” I didn’t walk out of the trailer naked; I just dropped my robe and then waited while Jennifer got ready in about 15 minutes… I let everyone get a good look [laughs]. It broke the ice.
Q. And you also allowed one of your co-stars, Ryan Honey, to get you into a choke-hold that made you pass out?
Michael Biehn: Yeah… I let a guy get me into this hold… it’s called an LAPD choke-hold and it’s used to subdue victims in a very specific way because it cuts off blood to the brain. I figured that if this guy was a cop he’d know how to do that. But we were moving through the scene and I thought I could last longer than I did… and I got tapped out. I think I was gone for 10 seconds or so… when I came to I didn’t know where I was for a second, or who I was and I couldn’t understand why no one was coming to help. It’s in the making of video and we talk about it a little bit. But I think probably about a minute and 30 seconds later we were shooting the scene again using another hold.
Q. Is that something you’ve done throughout your career, get as involved as possible in fight scenes and stunts?
Michael Biehn: I’ve done everything I possibly can but I also have a lot of respect for stuntmen. So, I’ve always done a lot of my own fighting and running and jumping and driving. But when it comes to a big stunt, I let the big boys take care of that. In the beginning of The Terminator, when that slab of meat hits the ground, that’s not me. The stunt guy was dropped off a 6ft ladder and he hit that cement hard. So, that’s him coming down the ladder behind the car and jumping 15ft and landing on the ground. I’m only the one who comes out from the back of the car. I do the ones I think I can do. I like doing jumps. But I leave the real stunts to the guys that get paid to do them.
Q. Coming back to James Cameron and Aliens, his producer Jon Landau mentioned that Aliens could be the next film in the back catalogue to receive the 3D treatment like Titanic. Would you like to see that?
Michael Biehn: I’d love to see Jim do Aliens in 3D. But I get the feeling from him… I don’t know how far off Avatar is, but it seems like that’s going to take a long time. And it was 10 years between his last two movies. So, I always get the feeling with Jim that he’s more interested in his underwater exploring… he’d rather be the second coming of Jacques Cousteau than the second coming of Frank Capra [laughs].
Q. Finally, and I have to ask this since we’re on the subject of Aliens, what did you think when they got rid of your character in the first minutes of Alien 3?
Michael Biehn: I thought it was really fucked… I was upset about it! But really what can you do? It certainly wasn’t my decision and I know Jim didn’t like it either. But over at Fox they had idea some idea about what they wanted from the next movie and they decided to make it an ensemble piece… or for it to be a movie that stayed with Sigourney [Weaver]. So, that’s what they did and that’s the way it went. And it was a big disappointment for me. But the fact of the matter is that Jim would not have been on board for Alien 4, 5 and 6… and to be truthful, I think the series went dead flat right after Jim’s departure. The one right after Jim’s wasn’t particularly good and the one after that [Alien: Resurrection] was awful. I saw Prometheus recently and I liked that. But I kind of got lucky to get out of it after Aliens because it got crap after that second film.
The Victim is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday, September 24, 2012