I'm sitting at a roundtable in Houston, Texas, and Michael Biehn is yelling at me. At the top of his voice, he's screaming, "This is fucking LIFE and DEATH! This is your life that's on the line here, and your wife, and your children!" Granted, he's not yelling at me, per se, but describing a day on the set of THE VICTIM, Biehn's directorial feature debut. Biehn is trying to get an elevated performance out of one of his actors, and at times he would have to yell at them. "Don't give me that shit! Don't fucking tell me that! That's bullshit! I'm playing it up here, so you better come up there with me!" And as Biehn is describing the trials and tribulations of his grindhouse movie, it becomes obvious very fast that Michael Biehn is a man that is passionate about his craft, whether he's working with James Cameron or William Friedkin, or on the set of his own movie.
Quint did an amazing interview a few days ago, and when I was offered the chance to interview Biehn I jumped on it before I knew that Quint's was in the pipeline. The roundtable and VICTIM screening was set up by Nick Nicholson, president of the Houston Film Critics Society, and while I love Quint's interview I wanted a chance to sit down with one of my movie heroes myself. I still don't have a lot of interviews under my belt, and any opportunity I get to talk to writers, directors, actors, I'm going to take it. So when Nick sent me the invite to this roundtable, I jumped at the chance.
Biehn and his wife, Jennifer Blanc-Biehn, seem inseparable and there's a nice give-and-take between them that feels genuine. They finish each other's sentences and and enjoy each other. That came in especially handy as Biehn was trying to figure out how to get his grindhouse film off the ground: "What is a grindhouse movie? Here's what I did, I said to myself, I don't have enough money to really put a lot of bodies in. I can't do zombies, I can't do zombie makeup, I can't do many special effects, I can't do vampires, so what can I exploit? So, I looked at (Jennifer Blanc-Biehn)" - "I wasn't eating at the time," Jennifer said - "and asked her if she was willing to get naked for me, and she said yes, she'd get naked for me, and I said do you have any friends who'd be willing to get naked for me, and do dirty things." A phone call later, and Danielle Harris was on board, "so I had the sex thing covered." Throw in dirty cops, drugs, a little action and torture, and boom, instant grindhouse movie.
Michael Biehn is well known as an actor who has worked with some highly influential directors, such as James Cameron, William Friedkin, or Michael Bay. He's been in many beloved films, inclusing THE TERMINATOR, THE ABYSS, TOMBSTONE, and he's always given great perfromances, coming from a place of reality. So when the opportunity came for Biehn to do his own project, co-produced by his wife, Jennifer Blanc-Biehn, who also stars in the film, he wasted very little time in getting behind the camera. "The movie never would have gotten made without Jennifer," Michael said. "After working with Robert Rodriguez, and after talking with Jim Cameron recently, and Jim was talking about Robert's brilliance, and just going out and doing it, I decided I was going to make this grindhouse movie."
THE VICTIM is interesting in that Biehn shot it in 12 days, with very little money, and what came out of the end of it is a quite effective, genuine grindhouse movie. Sure, the budget shows, and there are stretches that feel like Biehn is trying to pad the running time a bit, but he comes from a place of real passion and storytelling in making this film about corrupt cops, hot women, a loner in a cabin, "and fuck it, I'll just throw in a serial killer too."
Being a director was especially freeing for Biehn. "For me, the thing that I love so much about this project, was that I got to make the decisions. I always liken an actor to being like a color in a painter's palette, and I always try to make that color whether it's yellow or whatever, as beautiful as possible, as large as possible, as many different dimensions of yellow as possible, but when you're the director you get to use the whole palette, and when you're the director or the producer, you make all the decisions."
What Biehn's done with THE VICTIM is impressive. He took a project, and the time, from start of pre-production to final shooting was 25 days. The end result is a fun, nasty little grindhouse movie. It's effective in all the right ways - we get sex, despicable characters, girls with and without clothes on, actors chewing the scenery, and even a really great punchline in the final scene that sent the audience out laughing. Seriously, the final scene makes the film and Jennifer Blanc-Biehn and Michael Biehn play it perfectly. I enjoyed THE VICTIM quite a bit for what it was. What it is is a new director just cutting through all the bullshit, and doing what Robert Rodriguez told him to do in his book REBEL WITHOUT A CREW - "Just go make it."
At one point in the making of THE VICTIM, Biehn got so into his work that he passed out for his troubles. He told the story about a fight scene in the film where he told the other actor to apply the LA cop choke hold, which has since been banned. "That was me being stupid, that was me being like let's hurry, let's get this done, and I know the LAPD choke hold, and it's different than just choking somebody. I told them to put the LAPD choke hold on me. Then we had a guy who's like a quasi-coordinator on the show, and he's like, no no no and I went, 'Shut up, let's go, put it on me, and roll cameras! Roll cameras!' And I don't know, I thought I was like Superman or something, and why I thought somehow I could survive the LAPD choke hold when they banned it because it was killing people like 20 years ago. So I thought it had to do with my breath, or something, I was just moving so fast, I was thinking nobody could choke me out. Well, it works, that LAPD choke hold. I just tapped out, because I knew I was going out, but I tapped out a little bit late. I didn't pass out, but I was kinda in like La La Land for about 10 seconds." Fortunately people were on set and able to snap to what was happening. "I came to almost immediately, and two minutes later I was like, 'Okay, put the old-fashioned fake choke hold on me,' and that's the one we shot."
Biehn isn't done with grindhouse filmmaking, either. He just wrapped shooting scenes for Odyssee Pictures' JACOB, directed by Larry Wade Carrell, which will premiere at Houston's Splatterfest in late September. In it, Biehn plays the father to the title character Jacob, a 400-pound teen who goes on a rampage after his sister is killed. Larry Carrell was able to persuade Biehn to take the part after courting and persistence - "Jennifer was so taken with his persistence and his passion, is really what it was, and he convinced her, and she convinced me, and I got on the phone with him, and it must have been an hour the first time that we talked. And I felt that the passion of another person was the passion that I had. And I almost get tears in my eyes when I think about that conversation because I could just hear it in his voice how passionate he was about his project, and that's how I am. And after talking to him for about 45 minutes I said, 'You know what, I can tell that you care about this, that this is the most important thing in your life and you want to get this done and want to get it done right, and if I can help you out in any way I will.' And it's been a blessing in a lot of ways."
Michael Biehn is entering a new chapter in his life, with his filmmaking, and in his personal life as well. "I'm going to have to have heart surgery in the next few months or so. It turns out that one of the top three heart surgeons in the country is here (in Houston)." The surgery will be relatively routine - "Arnold's had it done" - and Biehn feels like it's his good fortune that all of this in his life is happening now. With THE VICTIM, his upcoming acting work - in JACOB, Xavier Gens' THE DIVIDE, PUNCTURE, and SUSHI GIRL, Michael Biehn isn't going anywhere. And I look forward to the day when Michael Biehn will yell at me again.
Thanks to Michael Biehn, Jennifer Blanc-Biehn, Larry Wade Carrell and the folks at Odyssee Pictures, Travis Leamons, Nick Nicholson, Michael Contreras, and the Houston Film Critics Society for their help with this article.
And here's an AICN exclusive - Michael Biehn on the set of his newest acting film, JACOB, shot here in Houston: