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Michael Biehn Talks About On-Set Tension on The Divide

Actor Michael Biehn has had a long and varied career, but to hear him tell it, his experience shooting his new film “The Divide” and other events surrounding its production have marked a change in his professional attitude and outlook. In addition to starring as ex-firefighter turned survivalist Mickey in the post-apocalyptic thriller which finds a group of New York City neighbors trapped together in the basement of their apartment building in the aftermath of a possible nuclear strike, Biehn has also turned his attention to life behind the camera. With Jennifer Blanc-Biehn, his wife and producer/costar, Biehn’s recently completed directorial debut, “The Victim,” just sold to Anchor Bay Films, and will now see a release later this year. On Friday, ShockYa had a chance to participate in a press day for “The Divide,” talking with Biehn about his instincts and reasons for jumping behind the camera as well as the incredible on-set tension on “The Divide,” and also marveling at his tangential connection of the latter to ousted Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi. The conversation is excerpted below:

Question: The sale of your directorial debut, “The Victim,” was announced today in the trades. What was the genesis of that project, and was directing something you’d been wanting to do for some time?

Michael Biehn: I did the “Grindhouse” movie with Robert Rodriguez, [which sparked a thought], and when I was doing “The Divide” I saw a guy on the crew reading a script and I thought maybe I’ll just go make a little movie too. {Gesturing to Jennifer Blanc-Biehn, sitting nearby} She found us a very, very small amount of money, and I said, “OK, I’ll make a little exploitation movie, have her get naked, and see if she has any friends that will get naked.” I didn’t have any money for special effects make-up or visual effects or stuntmen, so I’m thinking, “OK, I’ve got naked women and dirty cops, drugs, a little bit of action and some torture, plus a serial killer, I’ll just mix all that up.” I wrote it in three weeks while we were in pre-production, we shot it in 12 days, and it turned out pretty well.

Question: How did you come to be involved in “The Divide”?

MB: Xavier Gens, the director, sent me the script… and said [I could] make any changes I want. By the time the whole cast and crew showed up, he said you can improv anything you want, you can write anything you want — anything you want to do with your characters, you can do. So the Mickey that was written in the script of “The Divide” has nothing to do with the Mickey that was in the [finished movie], which is what I wrote with Eron Sheean, who was a writer that helped all the actors if they wanted to write scenes and so forth. …So what happened was that we all started writing and improvising stuff, and people would come into work and have their big scene and someone else would be improvising something over here. So the other actors started getting pissed off, and fighting — fucking really going at it. They were upset. I’ve worked with (William) Friedkin, I’ve worked with (James) Cameron, I’ve worked with Michael Bay, and I’ve never been on a set that had this much discord, this much tension — producers being called down two or three times a day to break up fights and what not. It was really, really nasty. And the actors hated each other. Well, there were different little groups… but I think Xavier kind of set all that up. It was pretty hardcore.

Question: If there were factions and shifting alliances on set, it sounds a lot like the characters in the movie, actually.

MB: It was a gnarly shoot, no question. It was shot in sequence, and the story would change since there was so much writing and improvisation going on. It would start in one place and then kind of go over here {gesturing}, and people would have to trade sides with whom their characters were with. It was the most bizarre, exhilarating, fun film I’ve ever worked on as an actor, because we were totally indulged — “Do anything you want, and if we like it we’ll film it!”

Question: Are you a fan of these sorts of post-apocalyptic movies in general?

MB: I don’t know. The only post-apocalyptic movie I can think of that I really love is “Blade Runner.” But a good film is a good film, whatever its genre — action, romantic comedy or drama. But I’m seriously worried about what’s going on in the world today — from when I was growing up to where I am now, the world has gotten so small. And when you watch and see on YouTube what they did to (Libyan dictator Muammar) Gaddafi, you know that that’s going on all over the world. To me, I’m scared — I’m frightened for my children and my grandchildren, because I don’t think we’re that far away from what’s going on in “The Divide.” That’s mankind, man. It’s scary, and I think it’s coming faster than we know.

Question: You called “The Divide” fun, but it sounds pretty turbulent in a lot of ways.

MB: There was more tension on that set than any movie I’ve ever been on before. It was dark, dank, it smelled and it was nasty. There was so much ill will and bitter feelings between the actors. You walk out of the room and before you know it they’ve shot something that yesterday was your scene. You kind of had to hang around to make sure your character was still going to be in the movie by the time it all came together.

Question: What might it be like having to work with some of these folks again, then?

MB: Well, Mickey was a loner in the movie, so I was more involved in trying to keep peace between certain factions. And factions changed at certain times. I was trying to keep physical violence from taking place, really. From what I’ve heard, the two people that really had it out for each other the most have run into each other since then, and one told me they shook hands. I really couldn’t believe it, because I had to sit there and listen to them for two months go, like, “I’ll knock this motherfucker out in a second if he walks out that door!”

Question: You talked about the writing experience on this film, which sounds very atypical, obviously, and the forthcoming film you’ve directed, but have you written a lot in your life, previously?

MB: Yes. What I’ve done all my life — well, I’ve been in about six or seven really good movies, I’ve been in a lot of average stuff, and then I’ve been in a lot of garbage. And so what I’ve always tried to do is polish a turd. I have a family, and had to put kids through college and what not. It’s expensive. And I lived a certain lifestyle, though never anything that extravagant. But I did a lot of terrible movies and television shows, so I could pay for, you know, my children’s upbringing. It adds up, you know? So I’d take these movies and try to make them better. “Navy Seals” is a perfect example of a movie that Bill Paxton and I thought we could make better, and rewrite and change. It’s putting lipstick on a pig and polishing a turd, you know? I’ve been doing that all my life, but I’d never written a full script until I did “The Victim.” …And if you go to our website, you’ll see we’ve gotten about 12 or 15 reviews that have come from good places — Ain’t It Cool News, Fangoria and Huffington Post. If you read the reviews you’ll see it’s [been well received], and has the possibility to maybe even be [a franchise]. And the reason I liked doing “The Victim” so much is that it was such a low budget that I said to the people that gave me the money, “If I’m going to do this, I have to make all of the creative/production decisions, including who we sell it to.” I was the boss, and that’s how I want to work from now on. I don’t want a director or a network or a studio telling me what I have to say and when I have to say it.

Written by: Brent Simon

Michael Biehn

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A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.

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