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The man who immortalized the often repeated "Come with me if you want to live" in James Cameron's now iconic The Terminator, Michael Biehn appeared in some of the most notable science fiction films of the 1980s. In addition to The Terminator, he had prominent roles films such as Aliens and The Abyss, all three of which were directed by James Cameron.
Biehn will be making a special guest appearance at an Aliens screening to be held in Omaha, Nebraska on May 24. In anticipation, SYFY WIRE spoke with Biehn about his work in James Cameron's science fiction pictures of the 1980s as well as his work in a forthcoming audio drama based on an unfilmed alternate script for Alien3.
You've often said the first Terminator probably would've been a lesser film had it been directed by someone other than James Cameron. What did Cameron do, specifically, that elevated this into a great movie?
When I first read the script, I thought it was okay, but I felt it had the possibility of being a really cheesy, silly science fiction movie if the wrong person was directing it. And in the hands of anyone other than Jim Cameron's, it probably would've been a silly movie. This story about a man sent from the future to 1984 to save a woman from a robot also sent from the future.
The reason I took the role was because I really liked the character of Kyle Reese and I knew I could play that character really well. Even if the movie didn't do well, that was a really good character: a great fighter in love with the woman he was sent to protect. That part made me think, "Well, I can probably come out of this unscathed."
My outlook started to change after Arnold Schwarzenegger's option to make the sequel to Conan the Barbarian got picked up. Production on The Terminator got pushed back about three months, and during those three months, I got to spend a lot of time with Jim Cameron and I knew right away I was dealing with somebody who was really taking this seriously. He could answer any question I had about the story and how he was going to shoot it. When you're around Jim, even for a little while, you're quickly aware of how extremely talented he is. And so I had a little more confidence when we started making the movie than when I first read the script.
The Terminator made good returns, but it wasn't one of the top 10 hits of 1984. I imagine few would've suspected it would go on to produce a long-running franchise.
Not only was it not in the top 10, it wasn't even in the year's top 20, box office-wise. It was produced for $6.5 million and I think it made about $40 million. It was successful, but there were other movies that year that made a lot more. And it didn't get good reviews; I know the Wall Street Journal hated it, for instance. We set up a screening in town before the movie came out, for agents and producers and directors. And I don't think even at that screening people walked out thinking they had seen a movie we'd be talking about 30 years later.
Also, just to give some perspective, Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn't a star at the time. He was known for being Mr. Universe — the best Mr. Universe ever, if you ask me — but nobody, and I mean nobody thought he had a chance of becoming a movie star. His career is just astounding. He's like a terminator himself. "He can't be stopped, he can't be reasoned with, you know." [laughs]
However, VHS was really becoming a thing in the 1980s, and people saw The Terminator more through VHS. And, of course, Jim went on to do Aliens next, and that won two Academy Awards and was nominated for five others (including one for Sigourney Weaver in the Best Actress category, a breakthrough for women in science fiction at the time). I think it was probably around then that people started to realize how great The Terminator was. I've always thought it was good. Everybody I've ever talked to has told me they thought it was good. But the idea that it was some kind of overnight hit…it just wasn't that at all.
Here's a good story. We worked eleven weeks on The Terminator, and they were hard: streets of Los Angeles, night shooting, etc. We finished shooting on a Saturday morning (when the sun was coming up) and I got a call from our producer, Gale Anne Hurd, on Sunday. Jim had a rough cut of the Tech-Noir scene and he wanted me to come to see it. I wanted to stay in bed all day, but I went over to his office. When I arrived, he was manically typing something, and he didn't even realize I was standing in his doorway, watching him for about thirty seconds. Before he showed me the rough cut of the Tech-Noir scene, I asked him what he'd been working on. He said, "Well, 20th Century Fox is interested in doing a sequel to Alien, and they've asked me to write a treatment." That's Jim Cameron for you. He doesn't have an extra 10 minutes.
Let's talk about Aliens next. Was the working environment different on this film than on The Terminator? It had a much more elaborate production and bigger names in it than the first one did.
Anytime actors and crew and directors and producers and studios start a film, they want it to be good and Aliens seemed to have a lot going for it. It had Jim Cameron, first of all, and it had some incredible sets out at Pinewood Studios in England.
And it had Sigourney Weaver, who is not only one of the best actresses of our generation but kind and very welcoming. She's funny and fun to be around, but the one thing that Sigourney does (and I think this is why Jim and Gale liked her so much) is she works real hard. She has a very good work ethic. She wasn't just sitting in her trailer. We didn't have incidents on the set like "We're ready for you, Miss Weaver." "Okay, I'm on the phone! I'll be there in ten minutes!" And so instead of getting 10 shots a day, we'd get 12. Instead of 18, we'd get 24.
And everybody worked really well together. You know, a lot of times on movies, you have people who don't like other people… jealousies and backbiting, bitching and moaning… but that didn't happen on Aliens. That set is the only set I've ever been on where I never saw any of that.
You made several movies with the late Bill Paxton, including Aliens. What are some of your favorite memories of him?
It's not surprising that he gravitated to Hollywood, because he was just this big personality. When he entered a room, you knew he was there. He always seemed to be just full of fun and excitement and happy to be alive and happy to be working. And he was very, very funny. But when it came down to work, he was a true professional. People often ask me who was my favorite actor to work with — and I've worked with a lot of pretty interesting people — and Bill Paxton was the guy I had the most fun with.
Can you talk about the upcoming Alien3 audio drama you are lending your voice to? Just so the readers know, this is based off an unmade script in which the character of Colonel Hicks from Aliens was not killed off.
When they made Alien3, supposedly Sigourney Weaver didn't want to make the film. And while they were negotiating, they wrote an alternate script that didn't have Sigourney's character in it very much, and it didn't begin with Hicks and Newt being killed off. Sigourney ended up making the movie, of course, but there was kind of an allure about this unused script and what the movie would've been had Hicks and Newt lived.
In working on the audio drama, I voiced it word for word as it was written, to help show what the script might've been like had it been filmed. But there were a lot of things about it that I felt uneasy with. For instance, they had Hicks using a lot of profanity. And if you look at Hicks in Aliens, he's not someone who uses a lot of foul language. In fact, he doesn't talk much at all. If you took all of my dialogue from Aliens, you could probably fit it on about six pages (as compared to The Terminator, where I was constantly gabbing away).
There was something about the quiet strength of Hicks in Aliens that made that character so wonderful. And here, all of a sudden, he's gabbing and cussing and telling people what to do…. Had someone approached me with this script back then with the prospect of making it into a movie, I would've said, "Let's work on this character first. Let's find out why people liked Hicks in the second film and try to emulate that."
Like I said, I read it the way it was written because the point of the project was to show what the unused script would've been like. It's not bad and I think people will find it interesting, but Hicks is nothing like I would've played him in a movie.
Any last comments you want to make on the legacy of these movies we've talked about?
You know, a lot of movies have been made throughout the years and a lot of them have been forgotten. But The Terminator, Aliens, and another movie I did called Tombstone… people still, to this day, come up and tell me how much they loved them. And their children love them, too. I can't tell you how many times I've had some kid come up to me and say, "My name's Kyle. My parents named me after your character from The Terminator." It's fun to see those kind of movies pass from generation to generation.