At the trendy SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills, Michael Biehn and his wife and producing partner, actress Jennifer Blanc, greeted the press to talk about The Divide, his new post-apocalyptic thriller from Anchor Bay Films.
Set in New York in the aftermath of a nuclear attack, The Divide centers on nine tenants of a high-rise apartment building trapped together in a makeshift bomb shelter.
Biehn, a veteran of genre films like The Terminator and Aliens, explained that while he was intrigued by the role of the racist, domineering Mickey, when director Xavier Gens sent him the script, he wasn’t ultimately satisfied. “I said, ‘You know, Xavier, I’d kind of like to do little tweaks on the character.’ He said, ‘Michael. You can do anything you want. Change it. Do anything you want.”
This creative freedom wasn’t afforded to every member of the cast, but as Blanc explained, Gens was pleased to be working with Biehn. “He just was so excited that Michael was doing this project with him,” Blanc said. “And you know, Michael was in The Terminator — I mean, he was acting out scenes from The Terminator when he found out Michael was going to be in his movie. He’s just a fanboy at heart.”
Working with screenwriter Eron Sheean, Biehn created Mickey’s tragic backstory as a 9-11 firefighter. “I wrote basically most of everything that I did. So did Michael Eklund,” Biehn said. “First of all, I was the antagonist and he was more of the goofy guy, and Michael Eklund created out of thin air that role. That was not written at all. That was Michael Eklund writing that role.”
Once the cast was assembled and rehearsals began, Gens encouraged the actors to flesh out their characters. “When we got into the rehearsal stage,” Biehn recalled, “Xavier said to all of the actors, ‘You can improv anytime you want. You can do any kind of improvisations any time you want. And you can write anything you want.'”
This free-for-all environment began to influence big changes in the direction of the script. “Somebody would be doing an improv of something over here and he [Xavier] would go, ‘I like this. I want to shoot this,'” Biehn explained. “Then this actor would get pissed off because this was his day to do his big fucking scene.”
“People ask me about Jim Cameron, people ask me about Billy Friedkin, people ask me about Michael Bay,” he continued. “There was more tension on this set than any other movie that I’ve ever worked on.”
The heavy subject matter coupled with the resentment some actors felt about their characters being radically altered changed the atmosphere on set. “The actors hated each other — fucking hated each other — and they hated each other to the point where there was many times on the movie where I thought there was going to be, like, physical violence that was going to break out,” Biehn said. “Producers were being called to the set constantly — like two, three times a day — arguments, fights, and so on and so forth.”
Biehn’s character is alone for much of the film, which ultimately shielded the actor from much of the on-set hostility. “I didn’t have to take part in any of this — because I was on my own. So I didn’t really have to take sides. But, I’d go back to the hotel and these actors are still sitting around going, ‘Fucker! Fuck her!'”
Adding fuel to the fire was that all of the other actors were desperately trying to lose weight because their characters were supposed to be starving. “They all lost weight,” he said. “I think that Milo [Ventimiglia] lost 20 pounds. I think Michael lost 20 pounds.”
When Blanc added that Lauren German and Rosanna Arquette also lost weight, Biehn agreed. “They lost a lot of weight, but I didn’t, you know, I was just — I had my stash, so I didn’t.”
When one reporter asked Biehn if he believed the tension on set made for a better result on-screen, the actor was candid: “I think this was something that, like, Xavier knew all along was kind of going to go on, and I think that most of us felt that this was good for the movie, and I think there were a few people that felt that, uh, they didn’t know what the fuck was going on.”
Despite the hostile environment, Biehn was quick to praise Gens and the performances he elicited from the cast. “The music, the cinematography, the performances that he got from, I mean, everybody in the movie — I think it’s the best ensemble cast I’ve ever worked with.”
Considering his impressive list of credits over the past 35 years, that effusive statement was met with some surprise. But Biehn explained what he meant: “I mean you can look at Tombstone and go, ‘Okay, well there’s all these guys in Tombstone, but like Billy Bob Thornton did not have a chance to shine in Tombstone, and a lot of people did not have a chance to shine,’ but I think this is the best ensemble piece I’ve ever worked on.”
He was especially complimentary of the performances of Eklund and Ventimiglia in The Divide. “Milo, who’s just this — in real life — just this great, great guy, you know, and he was on Heroes and he plays a hero or whatever, and I just thought Milo’s like, you know, evolution into this like crazy guy was, like, just brilliant.”
Blanc and Biehn were also excited to announce that Anchor Bay Films has picked up a movie Biehn wrote, directed and starred in called The Victim.
“Basically, we just got picked up by North America. Literally like signed it, sealed it, delivered this week,” Blanc explained. “We’re talking about a small theatrical release – very limited – in March or April.”
To build excitement for the film, Anchor Bay will test a new type of distribution. “We have something that’s never been done before called: First Run College Release,” Blanc said. “They [colleges] are going to show it when we do our theatrical release starting in February. And that’s the first time, I think, any colleges have ever done that with a film.”
“It’s almost impossible these days to find a screen,” Biehn continued. “So, it turns out there’s a couple hundred screens at these college campuses and we’ve tapped into that. We’ve been promised 50.”
The Divide opens Friday in select cities.