Actor and budding multihyphenate Michael Biehn is on the line, along with the lovely and talented Jennifer Blanc, his wife, artistic collaborator, occasional co-star and, on days like today, traveling companion. They’re multitasking during a long stretch of driving by calling CultureMap to promote The Victim, an exuberantly over-the-top indie production that marks Biehn’s debut as a feature film writer-director, and will have its Houston premiere Wednesday at the River Oaks Theatre.
And if the ensuing conversation is a bit, shall we say, unrestrained, that’s entirely appropriate: The Victim is the sort of unabashedly lurid exploitation flick — an exuberant mash-up of sex, drugs and ultra-violence — that strives mightily to put the “guilty” back into “guilty pleasure.”
The plot pivots on the misadventures of a taciturn hermit (played by Biehn) who reluctantly shelters a feisty stripper (Blanc) after the distressed damsel witnesses a crime of passion committed by a crooked cop. Unfortunately, the cop and his partner track the stripper to the hermit’s humble abode. Nothing good comes of this.
Biehn — arguably best known for his stand-out performances in The Terminator, Aliens, Tombstone and the cult-fave TV series version of The Magnificent Seven — cheerfully describes The Victim as “a grindhouse movie,” a low-budget mongrel very much in the vein of ‘60s and ‘70s drive-in fare.
So I said to myself, “OK, I’m going to make this grindhouse movie. Do it really cheap, do it my way. What can I exploit?” And so I looked over at my wife, and I asked her if she’d get naked and do dirty things for me on film. And she said, “Sure.”
In fact, he says he was inspired to direct, write and star in the film while working in a similar homage, playing an ill-fated lawman for Austin-based auteur Robert Rodriguez in — yes, you guessed it — Grindhouse.
Biehn and Blanc recently worked together in Puncture, a somewhat more restrained indie feature filmed in Houston. Come Wednesday, they return to H-Town for the River Oaks Theatre premiere of The Victim. They’ll stick around afterwards for a Q&A session – which, judging from their banter during a recent drive-time conversation, promises to be amusingly uninhibited.
CultureMap: A few years ago, after actor Klaus Maria Brandauer directed his first feature film, he told me he felt like he now owed a letter of apology to every director he’s ever worked with. When I told Sean Penn about that after Penn directed his first feature, he told me, “Can I sign the letter, too?” And when I told Tom Hanks after he directed his first feature, he said, “Do you have room for a third signature?” So, Michael, do you want to be No. 4?
Michael Biehn: [Laughs] Well, I think I have a different perspective on it. Basically, when I signed on to make [The Verdict], I did it at such a low budget that the people who gave me the money had to agree to let me have full creative control, all production control, and all control of who we sell it to and how we sell it. So I didn’t have anybody who could really speak up to me. I didn’t have any actors who could…
Jennifer Blanc: Except for me.
MB: That’s true. Jennifer and I are lovers, and we fight like cats and dogs. And we did on the set. But I had total control of everything else. And everybody kind of had to put their trust in me.
CM: So you had no trouble with temperamental actors wanting to make suggestions?
MB: You know, people have always asked me about having to work with difficult directors. And, well, I have done three movies with Jim Cameron, I’ve done two movies with Billy Friedkin and I did a movie with Michael Bay. And my style of directing is, if you take all three of those guys and put them together and take their worst moments — that was my style of directing the entire movie that we shot. I was like a drill sergeant and a raving lunatic at the same time.
We were doing 35 set-ups a day. And we shot it in 12 days. There was a pre-production period of three weeks. And during that three-week period of time, I was writing the script. And as I was writing the script, I was crewing up, and casting it, and location scouting. And because there was no script yet while we location scouting, I just had someone from the crew standing behind me. Every time we went somewhere, I would just turn around and say, “OK, tell the prop department I’m going to need this, and this, and that for this scene.” And they would just write it down. I didn’t finish the script until the day we started shooting. And that’s how we rolled into a 12-day shoot.
So it was kind of this one-man operation where nobody questioned me. And no one really had the right to question me…
JB: Except for me.
MB: Except for Jen. And so my experiences were a little different. But I understand what Sean Penn and those other guys were talking about. I do know there have been times when I’ve been working as an actor and the directors saw me coming, and they thought, “Oh, boy!” Because probably like those guys, I had an opinion about everything. So I understand where they’re coming from. I was one of those actors who had, like, 20 notes on every scene.
CM: Jennifer, were there times when you may have looked at the script, and saw that it required you to be very, well, revealing…
CM: Or maybe times where you were required to do things that maybe you don’t normally do on screen…
MB: You mean like sucking cock?
CM: No, I’m not talking about what may have happened off camera. I’m talking about what Jennifer did on camera.
JB: [Laughs] And?
CM: Hey, at least I didn't make a joke about you having to sleep with your director.
JB: But I did! And I loved it!
CM: Still, did you ever look at the script, and then look at Michael, and then ask, “Er, honey – are you sure you want me to do this on camera?”
JB: Oh, no. He knows I like my body, and I wanted to show it off. And I wanted people to know that a girl who’s 37 can look just as good as a girl who’s 25 on screen. I mean, look, it was clear when we read the first story that the script is based on that this girl was sort of a sexual being. But Michael really took [co-star Danielle Harris'] character and my character — all the characters, really — to a completely different level.
MB: See, I knew I’d have such a small amount of money that I couldn’t really afford to make a zombie movie, or a vampire movie, because I wouldn’t have the special effects or the makeup. So I said to myself, “OK, I’m going to make this grindhouse movie. Do it really cheap, do it my way. What can I exploit?” And so I looked over at my wife, and I asked her if she’d get naked and do dirty things for me on film. And she said, “Sure.” So then I asked, “Do you have any friends who’ll get naked and do dirty things for me on film?”
CM: Something every husband dreams of asking his wife.
MB: Right. And she said, “Well, I think Danielle Harris might.” And Danielle is a good friend of ours, and has been for a long time, so she agreed to do it. So then I had two really, really hot chicks doing dirty things on film for me. And I said, “OK, that’s a great start. But what else can I do without any money?”
So then I thought dirty cops are always kind of good for an exploitation movie. And drugs. And I had enough money to do a little bit of action. And enough money to do a little bit of torture. And then I thought, “Aw, fuck it, I’ll just toss in a serial killer, too.” Because serial killers are always good for a movie like this.
Then I just mixed it all up, and wrote the script in three weeks. And it’s turned into something that we think is a little gem.
(The Houston Film Critics Society and Odysee Pictures will present the Texas premiere of “The Victim” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the River Oaks Theatre. Michael Biehn and Jennifer Blanc will be on hand to introduce the film, and conduct a post-screening Q&A.)