I recently had the opportunity to chat with cult icon Michael Biehn about his cataclysmic new movie The Divide. Under the unconventional and often claustrophobic watch of director Xavier Gens, Biehn crafts one of his most interesting and complex roles in recent years.
He plays Mickey, a paranoid tough guy who finds himself stuck with a handful of survivors who have sought shelter in a tenement building basement after a nuclear attack. It’s not long before the fists start to fly as this stressed situation reaches boiling point. From there, things go from bad to worse as the group slowly discovers the dark fate of the world they once knew.
Check out the full chat below in which Biehn discusses Xavier’s unique directing style, developing his character Mickey and what qualities he looks for in a director and a role. What’s more, The Terminator star also explains whether or not he’d consider joining Stallone’s Expendables team and reveals what he has planned for the near future. Enjoy!
I’m aware that when you read the script you wanted to change your character slightly. What was it that you wanted to change?
Well I liked the idea of the whole story. I liked this idea of eight or nine people stuck in this bunker who’re unable to get out because of radioactivity and I liked the Lord of the Flies mentality about the script but as with most scripts that I read I like to make changes to my character. Xavier Gens on the other hand is a director like no director I’ve ever worked with before, he basically said he felt the script needed a lot of work and he wanted all the actors to come in a week or two early before we started shooting. He wanted to rehearse, he wanted to do improvisations, he wanted us to write scenes for our characters and if he liked the scenes he would put them in the movie but the script itself was kind of a blue print, he called it a sandbox for us to play in.
So you were allowed to make up your own scenes?
The movie was shot linearly – they wanted to shoot it in sequence so the script was always evolving. Things were constantly changing because during the entire process of making the movie we were still continuing to re-write the script and do improvisations. So what would happen a lot of times is you would come in to work one day and you’d think you were doing a scene that you thought was important to your character and while you were doing that scene somebody else was doing something else that wasn’t even scripted, you know, just improving and then the camera would kind of drift over to that person which would cause a lot of angst amongst the actors.
How did that affect the atmosphere on set?
The actors started turning on each other because they felt they were loosing screen time to the people who were better able at doing improvisations and not just sticking to a script. You know, when you take somebody like me and Rosanne Arquette, Courtney B. Vance, Michael Eklund and you throw in a big chunk of meat into the middle of the arena and say ‘Go get it, whatever you get’s going to be in the movie,’ it gets pretty gnarly. So there was a lot of tension on the set, a lot of fighting on the set and the producers were always being called down. It was very, very intense.
How was it working with such a diverse cast?
Milo (Ventimiglia) and Michael were on diets, they were all on diets but Michael and Milo really went for it, both of them I think were very good actually. 35 years in the business I think it might be the best ensemble cast I’ve ever worked with. I was in Tombstone but Tombstone didn’t give people like Billy Bob Thornton a chance to show what he can really do so I just thought from an acting stand point that everybody was spot on and there was a lot of it that I think was fuelled by anger and jealousy and survival of the fittest as far as your character went and I think Xavier planned that right from the very beginning, I think he knew what he was doing he just kind of threw us into this mish-mash and said ‘I’ll put on screen whatever I find most interesting,’ so everyone was clawing away for their piece of character,
Was it quite liberating to be able to make your own creative decisions?
Yes, it was the most liberating movie I’ll ever be on, I’m sure. I fought many times with Milo and a couple of the other actors. There’s never, ever, ever been a movie like this before – first we shot it chronologically so the movie would start in one place and it would move off to where the next days work wasn’t what you thought it was going to be and that days work would turn the third days work into something else. We knew we had to get somebody out at the end of the movie but in between it zigzagged all over the place, it didn’t follow a linear script line at all, it just went crazy. People were just doing things off the cuff and during other people’s scenes and from an acting stand point it was as liberating as any movie I’ve ever worked on or will work on.
How different was it from some of the other sets you’ve been on?
I’m use to working with guys like Cameron and Robert Rodriguez and so on and so forth who are great writers in their own right and if you want to change you really have to have some good reasons to come up and say ‘Jim, what do you think about this idea or that idea,’ and when you work in television and stuff over here in the United States you can hardly change a word without the producer on set not knowing if you can do it or not, for him making a call to the network and the network trying to make a decision and by the time they make a decision you’ve chopped the scene. So yes this was without a doubt the most liberating feature I’ve ever been on. It was like taking eight actors, putting them in a room and saying ‘Do anything you want, what would your character do under these circumstances?’
Do you think all the tension worked out for the best? Was it very much controlled chaos?
Oh, without a doubt. There was pure hatred on that set. Everybody talks about ‘Ooh Jim Cameron’s so tough!’ or ‘Ooh Michael Bay’s so tough!’ and ‘Ooh Billy Friedkin’s so tough!’ and ‘I hear you’ve worked with Val Kilmer and he’s tough,’ but I’ve never been on a set before that had so much tension. Producers were called down to the set two or three times a day, fights were breaking out, it almost became physical at times, it was real, real, real angry people and very, very hostile feelings towards each other and it kind of broke into camps where one camp protected their own and the other camp protected their own and if you watch the movie you can see who and where those camps were but it was a very, very gnarly experience and again like I said I think it was something that Xavier planned from the very beginning but he definitely put the actors in a position right off the bat where they were going to be fighting for screen time and therefore jealous of people who were stealing their screen time and stuff.
Your character Mickey seems very much at ease in this tension. Do you think the off-screen tension helped to form your portrayal of his character?
Well the thing about Mickey is I think he was above all this. I think that the back story on Mickey that we get glimpses of was that he was a first responder at 9/11, lost all of his guys and he was the only survivor and maybe went through post-traumatic stress disorder, started drinking, lost his wife, lost his family turned into this paranoid racist who built this bunker in case this ever happened again. The thing that happened with Mickey which was interesting was, because of this process that Xavier threw us into, Mickey really was the antagonist of the movie all the way through. My character really is a character who’s kind of neutral. He hates everybody so I was not part of the tension on the set, I was always kind of in the middle and if it got too nasty, Michael Biehn as the person would say ‘Okay lets slow down a little bit here’ but my character ended up being the only character I think in the movie that planted a little slither of the humanity that he lost. Everybody in the movie loses their humanity. Everybody. And my character is a character who didn’t have any humanity to start off with but ends up with a little bit. It was not written that way at all. None of the 9/11 stuff was in there, he was just a prick right from the very beginning, a racist prick, cocksucker. He was just a real asshole and it ended up just being that way because of all the different rehearsals and improvisations and it’s where the story took us.
What kind of characters do you enjoy playing? What kind of qualities do you look for in a role or in this case, try to inject into a role?
Well that’s kind of hard to say. So many roles are so different. I just usually look for honesty when it comes to the character; I like to come up with ideas to help the director put on screen what he envisions that sometimes isn’t on paper. I’m the kind of actor who’s bugging the director all day ‘well what about this, what about that? How about this line? How about that line? Can we do this, can we do that?’ and I think that the two characters in my career that I really identify with the best are Kyle Reese which is the character I played in The Terminator, he’s my favourite good guy and then Johnny Ringo is an antagonist I played in Tombstone and he’s my favourite bad guy and I love playing them both for different reasons. I enjoy playing an antagonist because I like to rationalise why these people are the way they are and if you say something bad about Johnny Ringo or about Coffey in The Abyss I’ll immediately jump all over you and tell you why you’re wrong and that this is his point of view and have a discussion or an argument with you about why the guy in The Abyss was not a bad guy. He’s just a guy that got sick and was cut off from his chain of command and was told there were little monsters running around down there and he didn’t believe it and blah blah blah he was wrong but that’s kind of the fun in acting,
On the flip side of the coin what do you look for in a director? You’ve obviously worked with some great directors…
Well I look for directors that first of all are open to your ideas, to your suggestions about the character, even if it means changing lines sometimes. I look for directors that know what they’re doing, know what they want at the beginning of the day, know how to achieve it, who are confident, who are not frightened. My favourite directors have been really strong personalities like (James) Cameron, Robert Rodriguez, Billy Friedkin and Michael Bay. I like these guys who basically come in and they’re George Patton man, they come in and take over a set, they know what they want, they know how to achieve it and it’s like ‘I’m making a movie here and this is what I’m making and if you’re not making the same movie then get out of the way’ but at the same time if you have an idea that’s going to make their movie better they care about their movie more than they do their ego, I like strong personalities, I like people who know what they want to do, I like people who challenge me. I want people who really expect the most from me and I like it to be like I’m an athlete – I like them to be the coach that says ‘I want you to run over that damn wall and I want you to do it repeatedly over and over and over” and if I don’t he kicks my ass a little bit,
There are a lot of people online wanting you to appear in The Expendables, would that be something you’d consider?
Sure, I’d have to see the script. I’d be interested in just about anything until I read a script and when I read a script if its good then yeah sure I’d be interested in doing The Expendables. I just like acting and so I’m interested in just about anything that makes good sense and I saw the way Stallone on the Making Of – just how much passion he had for The Expendables so I could tell how badly he wanted to make that movie good and I would like to try to help a guy like that make a movie that he’s working on better because I was just blown away by how hard he had to work to get that first one done,
You’ve recently stepped behind the camera to direct The Victim. Do you have a dream project?
Well what’s important really, more than anything else, is the story and I don’t want to be a director for directors sake, I don’t want to go in and start directing episodic television, I don’t want to go in and start directing other people’s movies. The good thing that I had when I did The Victim was that I had such a small amount of money; I shot it in 12 days, I had three weeks of pre-production, I had to write it during those three weeks of pre-production. I basically said to the guys, ‘look, there’s no money here. I don’t want to look like a jack-ass so I’ll only do this movie under these conditions; ‘I make all the creative decisions, I make all the production decisions and I make the decision of who we sell it to and when we sell it’ and they all agreed to that so under those conditions I had the Jim Cameron version of a contract that lets me do whatever I want. Do I want to direct movies where I have a studio telling me who I have to cast, how long the movie has to be, what music has to be played so on and so forth? No, not really. I think I’d rather just stick with acting at that point but what I’m working on now is putting together these small budget Grindhouse movies where I don’t necessarily direct them all but I will be producing them and again have the control to say ‘yeah that works or that doesn’t work’ because I think I have a pretty good eye for movies that I think other people enjoy and ones where people say well that doesn’t really make any sense and I don’t really like this movie.
Words and interview by Simon Bland.
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