Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Michael Biehn Comes Clean

August 21, 2013
   At the Second Annual True West Railfest last weekend I got to sit down with the actor Michael Biehn who portrayed Johnny Ringo in Tombstone. It has been 20 years since Val Kilmer, Kurt Russell, Sam Elliott, Billy Bob Thorton, Billy Zane, Thomas Hayden Church, Dana Delaney, Buck Taylor, Bill Paxon and Michael Biehn filmed this, now classic Western in the hot Arizona desert sun. All of these amazing actors and actresses were hand picked by Kevin Jarre.

   Thanks to Jeff Morey, the historical consultant on the film I got to visit the set on June 9, 1993. What I saw impressed me: great hats and costuming (the best I have ever seen) all chosen by Kevin Jarre.

   Kevin Jarre's script is the best Wyatt Earp script in terms of historical references (virtually every scene has a historical reference). The script is also the most erudite Western ever, channeling the bible, Shakespeare, latin and Stephen-Stinking-Foster. The script also shows how gray the lines were between the cowboys and the Earps. For example, in one scene, Wyatt rides into the cowboy's camp looking for his stolen horse. This is taken right from the historical record. Earp did, in fact, have a horse stolen by Billy Clanton and Wyatt rode to Charleston looking for it, ran into the young Clanton who basically told the gambler he hoped he had more horses to steal. In Jarre's script, he has Earp saying to Billy Clanton (Thomas Hayden Church) "Look kid, I know what it's like, I was a kid, too. Even stole a horse once."

   This is also straight from the historical record where a young Wyatt was arrested for stealing a horse and he jumped bail. In Kevin Costner's three-hour-long opus Wyatt Earp Costner takes 20 minutes to tell this story and Jarre nailed the entire back story in one line of dialogue!

   At the end of this sequence, Curly Bill (Powers Booth) arrives and commands Billy to give back Earp's horse. The outlaw leader and Wyatt then ride off together and have a conversation where Earp asks Curly to go easy on Tombstone because his brother Virgil is now the City Marshal. After some bantering, Curly Bill says, "We're gonna get along fine." None of this made it into the final film.

   What I wanted to find out from Michael is: how much of the original script did Kevin Jarre film before he was fired? How much of that footage made it's way into the final film? How tense was it on the set when the new director arrived? And, does he believe, if the studio had stuck with Jarre's brilliant screenplay and filmed it as is, would the resulting film have been successful?

Saturday night, August 17, in the Henry Strater Theatre in Durango, Colorado: actor Michael Biehn reading from his notes which he scribbled on a newspaper.

And here are a few choice answers Michael gave to my questions:

"Kevin filmed for four weeks. Some of the scenes from the Hooker Ranch sequence are Kevin's, but not much else."

"Disney wanted a film with clear good guys and bad guys. As good as Kevin's script is, it was too gray. People don't want to see gray."

"If I was fired I would have gone straight out the door and they would never see me again, but after I heard the news [of Jarre's firing] I came down to the lobby of our hotel [The Holiday Inn in east Tucson] and saw Kevin at the front desk settling up his bill. He was such a nice guy."

"After the new director [George Cosmotos] came on the set we all buckled down to finish the film. There wasn't that much tension. I have been on sets where you had real tension. I've worked for Billy Friedkin (Jade) and Michael Bay [The Rock] where you had real tension and Tombstone wasn't one of those."

"Today it is seen as a classic, but you have to remember, when Tombstone was released it had mixed reviews and it wasn't viewed as a success in Hollywood."

"I don't believe Kevin Jarre's wonderful script would have made a successful movie. As brilliant as it is, it was too gray and the studio was right to turn it into a good guy-bad guy movie. But, you'll notice they kept all the good lines Kevin wrote."

"Of course, that's total bullshit!"
—Michael Biehn, after watching a clip of the climatic showdown between Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) and Johnny Ringo (Biehn)