Dialogue: A Very Honest Michael Biehn Talks 'The Divide,' His James Cameron Legacy, 'Avatar 2,' and a Career Spent "Polishing Turds"

Dialogue: A Very Honest Michael Biehn Talks 'The Divide,' His James Cameron Legacy, 'Avatar 2,' and a Career Spent "Polishing Turds"

Jan 12, 2012

It's refreshing to interview an actor like Michael Biehn. He's the type who has been in the business long enough that he can say what's on his mind without being afraid of who he's going to offend. He knows he's fortunate to have been in movies as important as The Terminator and Aliens, but he's not afraid to admit that most of his career has been spent, as he puts it below, "polishing turds." But now he's entering a new phase of his career, the one where the the generation of genre filmmakers that grew up on Biehn's films want to cast him for what he brings to the table. And in the case of Xavier Gens' The Divide, which opens in theaters on January 13th, it's a raw, grizzled no-bullshit bite.

In the film Biehn plays Mickey, just one of several characters that find themselves in the basement of an apartment building seeking shelter after an unknown but massive attack. It's an interesting role in a brutal film, and hearing him talk about how he rewrote the character from the ground up is just one of the many reasons talking with the veteran actor was a lot fun. Plus, it's just great to hear his point of view on the continued legacy of films like The Terminator and The Abyss, and how unfortunate it is that Hollywood isn't make original films like those anymore.

Movies.com: How's your day going?

Michael Biehn: My day is going great, actually. I'm very excited. After The Divide I made this little low-budget movie called The Victim and we got picked up by Anchor Bay. There had been negotiations with a couple companies, but Anchor Bay was the one I really wanted to be with, and thankfully they recently entered the talks and really stepped up. So now I'm really with the distributor I wanted to be with and I'm really excited about it. So, yeah, it's a fun day.

Movies.com: Congratulations! Do you have a ballpark for release?

Biehn: We're going to release it first on college campuses. Every college campus in the country usually has a theater on campus, and so I've got a guy who is going to put is into 50 of those theaters. I think that's going to happen in January and February. I haven't spoken to anyone since the announcement was made, but I'm hoping they let it play out in the college campuses first. So I'm guessing it'll be early summer time that it comes out on DVD.

Movies.com: That sounds like a solid release plan. Now, before getting to The Divide, I wanted to talk about some of your past films. How often do you watch TV and how often do you find yourself flipping through channels going, "Oh, look, Tombstone is on again."?

Biehn: I don't watch very much television now that I have Netflix. I'm basically on Netflix or YouTube now, though Netflix is basically what I'm on now. But yes, I see stuff that's on all the time, but no, I never watch it. I've seen it all. I've seen a lot of them more times than I need to. Like Aliens, I had to see that a couple times this year because of the 25-year reunion.

I've seen The Divide from film festivals and so forth 6 or 7 times, but normally I don't rewatch them. They do come on all the time, though. It doesn't really phase me one way or another.

Movies.com: Can you recall any point in your career, if there was one, when you first realized that the movies you were in were important and were becoming cinematic landmarks?

Biehn: Only recently, to tell you the truth. It's only been over the last couple years. I knew they were good movies or whatever. I knew Terminator was a good movie. I knew Aliens was a good movie. I knew Tombstone was a good movie. Recently, though, I've been getting kids who are 20-year-olds who come up to me and say, "Reese is my favorite character of all time," or "Johnny Ringo is my favorite character of all time," or "I loved Aliens." You know? And these kids weren't even born when those movies came out. So it's only recently that I've come to learn that those movies in particular are... you can call them iconic or classics or whatever, they're going to be around for a while.

It's amazing how many children will approach you. Children will approach you much quicker than their elders, I think, and it amazes me how many children come up and want to talk about Aliens, The Terminator and Tombstone.

Movies.com: I'm not surprised. I'm a little over that age group, but I'm 26--

Biehn: So you were two when we made aliens!

Movies.com: I was. And it was one of those movies people my generation grew into because you or someone you knew's older brother had a copy of it on VHS and it spread that way. So there's an entire generation whose pop culture was infected by those films.

Biehn: [Laughs] My son told me the other day, he's 8, he told me the other day he was playing at school and there was a group of kids and they were playing The Terminator. And he said one kid was playing Reese and one kid was playing Sarah Connor, and one kid was playing the Terminator, and he ran over and said, "My dad was in The Terminator!" and so on and so forth. So you've got eight-year-old kids playing and acting out The Terminator at school!

And that's Jim Cameron. It's not me, it's Jim Cameron who kept putting me in stuff.

Movies.com: Correct me if I'm wrong here, but aside from Kyle Reese who has existed in other, parallel timelines in the Terminator universe, has any character you've ever played been remade? I can't recall anyone playing your role again.

Biehn: No, I don't think so. I think the closest they've come is that kid who played young me in T4. I didn't see it, but that's the closest I can think of.

Movies.com: There aren't a lot of films of that scale and importance where you can't say that. Terminator and Aliens in particular, even though they still continue in pop culture, no one is actually trying to recreate the exact things you guys first did.

Biehn: Well if I was a filmmaker, I wouldn't try to recreate a Jim Cameron, that's for sure. [Laughs]

Movies.com: So you haven't seen Terminator Salvation? Was that out of any active disinterest or did you just never get around to it?

Biehn: Actually, I never did see Terminator 3 for whatever reason. I actually did start to watch Terminator 4 in a hotel. I didn't think I'd be that interested in it, but I ended up turning it on when I was on location in a hotel. I watched maybe half an hour of it, and it was so loud and so confusing and there was so much CGI and so much going on I had no idea what I was watching. I had no idea what the story was doing. I just turned it off. I can't watch it. There's a lot of movies now that are like that. There's no story, nobody talking, there's just things blowing up. So that was the extent of my watching past T2.

Movies.com: I think that's the problem / reason why kids in your son's school yard aren't playing, say, Fast and the Furious, they're still playing Terminator. Even if they're playing something like Transformers, that still comes from an '80s toy. I think it's kind of sad that movies aren't giving us these great characters that trickle down from generation to generation. And I think that makes those films, and not just your films, but the films of that era so special.

Biehn: I'm not sure is the case, but... you know, I'm lucky I've been involved with Jim and these iconic films. But if you look at even just the Academy Awards now, if you look at the last five years and the films that won Best Picture, and then you go back to the '60s and '70s or even the '80s and look at won Best Picture. It's amazing how good the movies were back then as opposed to what they're doing these days.

It's all about making money at cineplexes. The Fast and the Furious Part 5...it's all about anything they can remake. The quality has just gone down. There's nowhere to even put movies on anymore. These theaters are just conglomerates. The people who own the screens might as well be owned by the studios. The kids' movies these days, though, there's some pretty good kids movies...

Movies.com: There's been an impressive rise in the quality of kids films these days. I have a one-year-old son now, and I'm glad that I'm not going to have to say, "Oh, God, I have to go watch the new Pixar movie now..."

Biehn: Exactly. That's true. There's just so much these days... there's no way these movies would even be nominated back in the '70s. It's just a different business now. It's corporations and money more so than it is talent. The guys like Spielberg and Scorsese and Coppola, you're not going to find too many guys like that getting to make movies any more. And if you do find them, they're working on such low budgets that it's hard to find any screens to put it on.

Movies.com: It's a shame and it's been heading in that direction for a while now. From an acting standpoint, did you ever notice that shifting landscape?

Biehn: Only recently, really. I would say about four years ago I started noticing the movies that were nominated for Academy Awards and movies that were winning Academy Awards would never have been nominated in the years of Taxi Driver and Network and when so many great filmmakers. There were so many great films and so many great filmmakers, they'd just never have been nominated. You look at the stuff that's nominated and it's just crazy.

I mean, I don't want to sound like the old guy going, "Films aren't what they used to be!" It's interesting that kids these days can get cameras, which are cheap, and write stories themselves and go out and make movies themselves. So there might be a whole new generation of low budget movies that come out and really surprise people. The ability of what you can make now is so much easier than when I was 20-years-old.

When people ask me now how to get into the business, I tell them to write something, find a friend who has a camera, find someone who wants to direct it – and you'll always find someone who wants to direct – and just go do it. That's what Robert Rodriguez told me, that's what Jim told me. When I talked to Cameron about Rodriguez, he said that's the brilliant thing about Rodriguez: He doesn't think there's anything he can't do, he just goes and makes it.

You don't need to get in to the business, you are the business. You can do it yourselves, and so that might turn things around a little bit. I'm not sure, but it could. I'm kind of getting sick of the Fast and the Furiouses, to tell you the truth. I like it, I like the actors in it, and I'm not putting it down, but how many are we going to do? 6? 10? 12? They seem to get thinner and thinner every time, as far as their story goes.

Movies.com: The director of the last few is now the one in charge of the Terminator reboot, oddly enough.

Biehn: [Laughs] Well, you know, whatever. I don't want to sound like that old guy. I'm happy. I'm making movies, I'm acting in them. The one I directed I was able to do because it had such a low budget. I told the guy who gave me the money that since it was so low I had to have control over all the production decisions, including who we sold it to, as well as all the artistic side, who was cast, locations, everything. And being in charge was fun. I'd really like to go out and do it again. But, I'd also like to do more movies where I'm in charge of the character and can really shape them. That's a lot of fun. I don't want to sound like the old guy complaining.

Movies.com: I don't think you do, and I only bring up those topics because you're an actor who has had a career that's spanned large, interesting, and very important films and you've been able to observe how they've lived on past their initial release. That's not something you can say of a lot of actor's careers.

Biehn: No, it's not, and I know I've been lucky. It's all Jim Cameron. The other one I get a lot, especially if I'm in Texas or Arizona, is Johnny Ringo and Tombstone. I think The Unforgiven is maybe the best Western ever made. It's hard to compare to a movie like The Unforgiven that was made 40 years earlier, but I think Tombstone is up there with it. And people just love Johnny Ringo. They just love him. I get approached about Johnny Ringo all the time. It's nice to know that when I'm gone that people will still be enjoying work that I did during my lifetime.

Movies.com: Do you have any favorite unseen or under-appreciated movies you've been involved? My favorite role of yours is Coffey in The Abyss, but is there one you cling to?

Biehn: Here's the thing, Cameron is a brilliant guy. You can't say anything other than positive things about Jim Cameron, except for the ending of The Abyss. I think the ending of The Abyss was a bit unfulfilling, because the rest of it is so good and so exciting and I think people were a little confused by the end of that movie. And I think that's the reason why that movie is not in there with his other ones. There's some great performances in that movie, especially with Ed Harris.

There's one scene, you know the sequence. The one where they decide who has to wear the mask, and he has to bring her back to life. Those eight minutes of film are as good as anything you get on film. But I think the end of the movie was troublesome, always. Maybe it didn't affect you, but I hear that from a lot of people. And I always like to say, "Well, it's after I died that everything falls apart." [Laughs] Jim would be unhappy to hear that.

Movies.com: You have a very distinct way of playing, and I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but you're great at playing scumbags that you sympathize with. Mickey in The Divide, for example, is a horrible person who says and does horrible things, but you always understand why he does them and where he's coming from. Normally that role would be too over the top or too angry and you don't do that. What was your approach to that?

Biehn: My approach to Mickey was that I wrote Mickey. Xavier [Gens, the director] came to me with a script and said, "Do you want to be in this movie?" I read it and thought it was okay, but told him I thought I needed to make some changes and Xavier basically turns out to be the make any changes you want king. He said you can re-write it, you can change it, you can do anything you want.

Mickey originally was the bad guy all the way through. He was the antagonist who ends up getting it in the end. I ended up working with a writer by the name of Aaron Sheen for about half the movie. We shot in sequence and I kept sending him notes and he'd send stuff back and I'd add more notes and about halfway through he said, "Look Mike, just write it yourself. You can do it." So I ended up creating the whole character by creating the back story of 9/11 and creating the wife and kids and creating the redemption at the end of the movie for the character.

There's nothing from the original scrip that's in the movie. Mickey was just a racist, crude, ugly, cowardly bully. Just a nasty guy. And it didn't appeal to me. I saw the movie as a bunch of people losing their humanity, so I thought we should take a guy who has already lost his humanity because on 9/11 he was a fireman who basically went in with a bunch of guys and was the only one who came out. So he ends up with post-traumatic stress disorder and his life falls apart and he loses his wife and kids. He starts drinking, loses his job and ends up coming a racist with Muslims. And that's when we find him. That's who he is. I wanted to take this guy who had lost his humanity kind of find it. So toward the end of the movie who's the type who will put a blanket, which is really a fireman's jacket, over another character. So when he goes out, he's happy. He's going out like his boys went out. I wrote that character. That was a character I identified with.

Michael Eklund, who kind of ends up playing the heavy bad guy, Michael didn't have anything to do in that movie! If you read the original script of that movie you'd see he had maybe ten lines in the whole movie. But because he was so talented at improvising and creating his own character, that Xavier kept saying, "I like this, I like that," and he ended up becoming the antagonist. Some of us did more writing than others. Others stuck to the script the way they thought they felt that should, but I kind of created Mickey and I like him.

Movies.com: It sounds like all the changes were for the better. Have you had any experience on films where you've attempted do that and egos come into play and a writer, director, anyone, says, "Go back to my way"?

Biehn: Yeah. A guy like Cameron will listen to me. A guy like Robert Rodriguez will listen to me. A guy like Billy Friedkin will listen to me. It's usually people who aren't as good a writer as I am and who are intimidated that I'm coming up with better material than they did. I'm working with writers who don't have any backbone and who don't have any confidence and there the ones who say, "No, go back to what I did." Or it happens if you're working on episodic television where it has to go through NBC or whoever, and that struggle isn't really worth it. So it usually just happens with bad directors that give you troubles.

But I've been polishing turds all my life. I've got kids, I'm trying to put them through college. I've been in a lot of bad movies. A lot of movies I thought I could make good. I thought I could make Navy Seals good. I though I could make a lot of them good, so I was polishing turds or putting lipstick on a pig or whatever you want to call it. But that's how I learned to write, by rewriting characters that originally didn't make sense the way they were written.

Movies.com: I think your career has withstood all the turds, polished or unpolished.

Biehn: [Laughs] I like to think so. I think the worst thing that ever happened to me was IMDB. I used to be able to put just my good stuff on my resume, but now it all shows up.

Movies.com: What is next for you? And I have to ask the obligatory, both out of professional need and personal interest, question about the possibility of you in Avatar 2.

Biehn: I showed Jim The Victim about two months ago. I had lunch with him. There's a history of Jim and I on Avatar, you know, and the subject didn't come up and I wasn't going to say, "Hey, what's going on with Avatar 2? Is there any part in there for me?" That's just not our relationship and I'd never say anything like that. I don't expect there to be anything in Avatar 2 for me, but if Jim ever asks me to do anything for him... I basically say of the movie I directed that Robert Rodriguez inspired me to make the movie, but I'd take a bullet for Jim Cameron. And I would, because Jim Cameron has made my life and my family's life comfortable. He has always been there for me and he means an awful lot to me. If he wants me in the movie, he'll put me in the movie. And if not, that's fine. He's already done enough for me.

Movies.com: I think that's a very humble attitude to have. So what is next for you?

Biehn: I'm going to be selling The Victim, I think, for the next three or four months. This opens here on the 13th and then it opens in Canada a week later, so I think I'll be doing press on this for the next couple weeks. I think I'll be going to a lot of college campuses to do press for this, so I think for the next six months I'll probably just be doing press for the movies I've made. And then from there, I'm working on something with Xavier. Actually, Jennifer [his wife] is putting something together with Xavier that's kind of a three picture, grindhouse type deal. We don't have the money for that yet, but I'd like to be in charge of my own destiny. I don't want to go work on a television series. I don't want to go work for somebody else. I'd like to work for myself from here on, so I may not do anything until I get a chance to be in charge again.

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