Michael Biehn revisits Johnny Ringo in Tombstone
The classic 1993 western Tombstone, starring the incredible ensemble cast of Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, and Michael Biehn is set to make its highly anticipated Blu-ray debut on April 27th. This iconic and much-loved film follows Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) and Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) in their heyday leading up to the gunfight at the OK Corral. Genre favorite Michael Biehn stars as Johnny Ringo, the fastest gun in the West and perpetual thorn in Doc Holiday's side. We recently caught up with the actor, who has appeared in such hits as Aliens, The Terminator, and Navy Seals, to reminisce about this truly great film. We chatted about moustaches, the firing of first time director Kevin Jarre, and why Biehn will never reunite with his co-star Bill Paxton on Big Love. Here's what the actor had to say:
Tombstone has, hands down, the most handsome and manicured group of mustaches I have ever seen assembled in a film. What was the atmosphere like in the mustache-grooming trailer, and were you ever a little disappointed that your mustache didn't carry as much flair as some of the other guys? Or were they just trying to overcompensate for something else?
Michael Biehn: I don't know. Everyone just grew a moustache. When it comes down to it, this goes back to Kevin Jarre, the film's original director. He was very specific about how he wanted the moustaches. He wanted them to curl up on the end. Which means, if you grow a moustache, and it grows long enough, you have to use wax on the end of it. Everyone was pretty proud that they grew their own moustache. There was one guy, Jon Tenney. He didn't get to grow his own moustache because he had a job right before that. They had to put a fake moustache on him. I think he always felt a little bit like the small dog of the group. Because it wasn't his real moustache. He had to take his moustache of everyday. It wasn't like a moustache styling competition. I don't think anyone paid much attention to his moustache. Unless Kevin said, "Someone work on Michael Biehn's moustache!"
At the time Tombstone was being made, the Western had been written off by Hollywood. But this film, along with Unforgiven, really reestablished the genre as something that should be taken seriously. How do you personally define the importance of this film to the 90s era of filmmaking, and why do you think it still resonates so strongly with audiences today?
Michael Biehn: First of all, the Western is dead. It has been dead for a long time. I think Unforgiven is the best Western ever made. That is my feeling. You can go back to films like Shane. That, to me, is a great Western. Maybe things like The Outlaw Josey Wales, and a few others. But for me, Unforgiven is the greatest film that was ever made. Our film was more pop oriented. Our movie had so many stars in it. And it was so well groomed. It looked so pretty. It made it look fun to be back there. Living back in Tombstone? I'm from Arizona. In Tombstone it is one hundred and ten degrees every single day during the summer. You didn't get cold beers in Tombstone. The hotel rooms were not air-conditioned. They didn't have fans. It must have been pretty brutal back then. At one point, it became a bustling city. The reason Tombstone was such a good movie is because it had a great script by Kevin Jarre. It had great characters. And it had great actors to play them. Kurt was great. I don't think Val has been better in any other movie. It's his greatest performance. You have Sam Elliott, you have Bill Paxton, you have Powers Boothe, you have Thomas Haden Church. You've got Jason Priestley and Billy Zane. Billy Bob Thornton and Frank Stallone. Everywhere you look, there is a new face that pops up. They are a celebrity, but they fit into this world. I think our film was the bubble gum version. It's like when you listen to music. Some people listen to Bob Dylan. My brother always listened to Bob Dylan. That is kind of like Unforgiven. I used to listen to the latest pop hit, whether it was Bobby McFerrin with 'Be Happy'. Or Sugar. Whatever was the current pop hit. It's easier to watch an enjoyable movie with a lot of quotable lines. But it ain't history. I'll tell you that.
It's interesting that you bring up the pop connotations of the film. At the time of its release, Tombstone was going head to head with another Wyatt Earp film. And critics started to write off Tombstone before its release as the lesser movie. But as history tells us, it was Tombstone that really struck a chord with audiences. What were your feelings about the film before it came out, and were you at all worried about the competition?
Michael Biehn: I don't think so, man. We knew that we were going to come out first. We had a lot of problems on our movie with Kevin getting fired. It was a great script. And there were some great performances in it. By the time it got cut together, and I saw it, I thought it was really good. In terms of being fun. It's a fun movie. Some movies are really good, like Unforgiven. It's a brilliant film. But it's not a lot of fun to watch. Our movie, for some reason, was a lot of fun. It kept people laughing. The quotes were something that a lot of people enjoyed. We had the gun twirling. The Latin. The characters were fun. I don't think anyone on our set ever gave that other movie a second thought. We knew it was out there, but I don't think anyone ever cared about it one way or the other.
You bring up Kevin getting fired. What was it like for you guys to have a director that is fired midway through a shoot? What kind of effect did that have on the atmosphere of the set?
Michael Biehn: It was sad for me. I liked Kevin a lot. He was the one that wrote the script. He really wanted that script to be the way he wanted it to be. He wanted to cast it the way he wanted to cast it. He wanted the saddles to look the way he wanted them to look. He wanted the spurs to be a certain way. He wanted the moustaches to be a certain way. He wanted the dialogue to be a certain way. He wanted it shot in a certain way. He wanted everything exactly the way he wanted it. And, you know? The filmmaking business is a little more collaborative than that. When you have a DP like William A. Fraker on the set? He makes a suggestion, and you have a first time director, like Kevin was, saying, "No! I want to shoot it like this!" He wanted to shoot it like John Ford. He wanted everything in this long master shot. That's the way they used to shoot in the 40s, and that's the way he wanted to shoot his movie. Val and Kurt, and Jim Jacks were looking at dailies thinking, "This is not a modern retelling of an old story. This looks like it's an old Western that is being shot back in the 40s." That's what Kevin wanted. That's what he fought for. And that's what he eventually got fired for. We had to take a hundred and thirty-five page script and shoot it in twelve weeks. Kurt Russell and Jim Jacks really saved the movie. I believe they did it by tearing scenes out. So Powers Boothe would lose a scene. I would lose a scene. Bill Paxton would lose a scene. Or two scenes. Or three scenes. Everybody's ego had to be messaged at that point. We were watching our characters disappear. Without Kurt's leadership, that movie would have folded at that point. We shot for four weeks. And we didn't use any of that footage. I believe we shot a twelve-week schedule, which included those four weeks, and made that movie. It turned out to be ninety pages, or ninety minutes. I give Kurt Russell a lot of credit for managing everybody's egos. And making the right decisions on what needed to be cut and what didn't need to be cut. I had a couple of great scenes with Charlton Heston where I am nose to nose with him. I wish I had those scenes. You know? Just for my grandchildren. Or my grandchildren's grandchildren. Where they could see me going nose to nose with Charlton Heston on this porch. At one point, the cowboys ride out and try to break into his house. Charlton Heston says, "You guys aren't coming in here!" I go up on the porch and have a conversation with him. Its something I would really liked to have had in the film. I wanted to have that in my library. It's gone. But that was the casualty of Kevin being as passionate, and as ridged as he was. I had a conversation with him a couple of days before he was fired. I said, "Listen, Kevin, its collaborative. Kurt's been in this since he was three years old. He knows what he is doing. Listen to him. Or listen to Frank. Listen to Val Kilmer. These guys are smart. They are filmmakers. They know what they are doing. Listen to them. Don't just turn your back on them like their suggestions don't mean anything. But he very strongly felt that this had to look a certain way. It was very sad. I saw him the night he was leaving. I was devastated, because I liked him a lot. At the same time, I understood why they had to move on. They ended up hiring a guy that was great visually. He didn't know diddly about the story. He couldn't really direct actors. But he ended up having this great script, and some great actors to work with. And he had a guy that knew how to shoot it. George P. Cosmatos was known for making movies look good. Like Cobra and Leviathan. Things that really never made any sense. But they looked great.
Its interesting that you bring up the missing footage. Do you know where that footage is? Is it something you'd want to personally find and restore?
Michael Biehn: No. I have never inquired about it. It is probably gone. Maybe it's around someplace. When I say I'd like to have it, I would like to have it. But I don't need it so badly that I am going to call up Disney and ask them if they still have it. I don't care that much about it.
You and one of your co-stars in the film, Bill Paxton, always have such great chemistry on screen. And you've been in quite a few films together. Is there any chance we'll see you reuniting with him on Big Love?
Michael Biehn: I don't think so. I went out and met the producers about being on the show. It was a part that Brian Kerwin ended up playing. I went out there, put myself out for them, and they went in a different direction. Which didn't sit that well with me. I've never seen the show, but I didn't like the way I was treated by the producers. They enticed me to come out there, meet, and talk, read through stuff. Then they turned around and gave it to Brian Kerwin. I was like, "Ugh!" Big Love? The producers on that show left a bad taste in my mouth. I love Bill. He had nothing to do with it. He is a great company man over there. We've done five movies together. Once he gets off that show, he is going to be directing again. He likes directing. And I'd love to work with him. We go all the way back to The Lords of Discipline. He is a great, fun, knowledgeable guy at this point. Filmmaker wise, acting wise. He has done some great movies that you sometimes forget that he was in. Like Apollo 13, and A Simple Plan, and Frailty. He is a great guy. Its not Bill that I hold any resentment against. It's just how the situation was handled. I'm not that interested in Big Love anyway. The whole concept to me is a bore.