Entertainment

Rebellious. Cool. Nostalgic. Bringing ‘The Bikeriders’ to life, and movie theaters

Jeff Nichols had dreamt of making a film about a 1960s motorcycle club for over 20 years.

The obsession started in his brother’s apartment, when he first cracked open Danny Lyon’s book “The Bikeriders,” a New Journalism-style account of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club in the mid-1960s. He could see the movie in his mind: A story about rebels, romantics, frauds and the end of an era.

But he didn’t quite realize just how terrifying it would be to film the motorcycles in motion.

The bikes were vintage. The actors, including Austin Butler and Tom Hardy, would be riding at high speeds. And there would be no helmets. At some point, one of his stunt coordinators just came out with it: "There is no way to make this 100% safe."

They went for it. The danger was kind of the point. And everyone made it out unscathed.

Their motorcycle expert (and amateur philosopher) said something that stuck with Butler. It is dangerous, but it can also be empowering.

“Your life is in your hands,’” Butler said. “But it’s also an incredible act of self-love. You have to look out for yourself. Nobody else can do it for you.”

"The Bikeriders" ( racing into theaters nationwide Friday ) is a rare summer gem: An original film with stars (including Jodie Comer, Michael Shannon, Norman Reedus and Mike Faist), cool cred, pathos and a clear-eyed wistfulness for a moment, and a type of guy, that was vanishing even as it was happening.

“There is all this romanticism around this subculture. It’s easy to become ‘Grease’ really quickly,” Nichols said. “This is a film that’s really about nostalgia. There is a sadness that comes with that. But there’s also a joy in remembering it.”

Catching a star on the rise

Nichols has always had luck with casting, getting movie stars in his films right as they're about to break big. Before he made "Take Shelter," he remembered a producer asking, "who this Jessica Chastain was." For "The Bikeriders," it was Butler. " Elvis " had yet to come out. He didn't yet know about " Dune: Part Two." But when he met him, he was certain. "This guy's a movie star, you know?" Nichols said.

“I read a lot of scripts and this one just felt different,” Butler said. “It felt full of humanity and these cinematic moments I could see in my mind’s eye. … I felt like I was being invited into this other world. And he was one of the coolest characters I’ve ever read.”

Butler's Benny is also the most enigmatic of the bunch: A guy whose face is never shown in Lyon’s book and who is never interviewed — just talked about.

“I love how Jeff talks about him as being this empty cup that everybody wants to fill with their own expectations and their own responsibilities. He doesn’t want any of that,” Butler said. “That’s when he wants to cut loose and be free.”

And Butler brought an element to Benny that Nichols hadn’t originally envisioned. Nichols wanted Benny to be bottled up until the end and remembered telling his star to “pull it back” a few times.

“Like, stop smiling,” Nichols laughed. “When that kid smiles the whole world smiles.”

But he soon realized that was missing the point of casting someone like Butler — an emotive actor with a big heart who would go over to apologize to Hardy after a fight scene.

“At some point you have to find a balance between the character that’s on the page and the human being you have playing that part,” Nichols said. “And that character got better because of him.”

A different point of view

In his many years of thinking about how to make “The Bikeriders” work one of Nichols’ biggest breakthroughs was when he realized who the narrator should be: Kathy.

Based on a real woman, she falls for Benny at first sight and gets wrapped up in the club.

“If you ask Danny, Kathy was one of the most interesting people there. She just pops off the page,” Nichols said. “She’s witty, she’s introspective, she’s self-deprecating, she’s infuriating at times. She is a real person. And honestly, I just kind of fell in love with her.”

Comer saw in her a fascinating character, an “ordinary” but still extraordinary person: Strong willed and funny and authentic. She worked tirelessly to nail Kathy’s very specific Chicago accent, using the hours of taped interviews with Lyon as a roadmap.

“I could see so many older women who I’ve had in my life in her,” said Comer, who was raised in Liverpool. “The way in which they tell stories and have a kind of magnetism.”

But on another level, she was just a better storyteller both as an outsider with insider intimacy and for what he wanted to say.

“The ultimate truth, and a subtext of the film, is that men are really bad at sharing their emotions,” he said. “Observing this group in the hands of a male narrator I think would be really boring.”

Fact, fiction and telling a good story

“The Bikeriders” is a work of fiction. Nichols didn’t want to be the historian of the Outlaws, a group that still exists. He mostly wanted to capture this time and culture and evoke the feeling he got when he opened that book so many years ago.

But he also draws heavily on Lyon’s images, some of which are recreated, and reporting. Much of Kathy’s dialogue are things the real Kathy, who was married to Benny, said. Hardy’s character Johnny was also apparently inspired by the Marlon Brando film “The Wild One” to start the club. He was the leader and also a bit of a fraud — a suburban dad with a real job on the side.

Nichols also chose to make the film in color, instead of mimicking Lyon’s famous use of black-and-white photography.

“They’re beautiful, but they are romanticized,” Nichols said. “I think when you put them in color, they become less affected. They become more realistic.”

Getting it to the big screen

“The Bikeriders’” journey to theaters was not without its bumps. Last fall, it had a triumphant debut at the Telluride Film Festival, often a launching pad for Oscar hopefuls. But as the December release date approached, it became clear that the actors strike was not going to be over in time for the stars to help promote the film. Headlines said that The Walt Disney Co.’s 20th Century Studios had dropped “The Bikeriders” instead of just holding it for a post-strike release.

“It got misreported,” Nichols said. “It was frustrating. It was like, you all have a fundamental misunderstanding how this film was made.”

The truth, Nichols explained, is a little more complicated and nuanced because New Regency finances their own films and distribution, often working with partners at studios to do so. After the drop-dead date came and went for the December release, another opportunity arose with Focus Features, the arthouse arm of Universal Pictures, who envisioned a splashy worldwide summer release.

The joys and pains of riding those bikes

Like Butler, Hardy came into the film with some motorcycle know-how. But neither would describe it as a leg up — antique bikes are a different beast.

“It just happens to be a convenience because I can ride as opposed to lying about skiing,” Hardy said. “But it quickly became an inconvenience. You’re busy and you’re trying to do the other job, which is the face pulling piece where you’re trying to act, and the bike is unpredictable.”

Still, once they got it down it could be rather exciting.

“It was exhilarating riding in a giant group,” Butler said. “You feel the energy of every motorcycle coming together.”

Comer said riding on the back of Benny’s bike for the first time was “a really magical kind of movie moment.

“We were on a night shoot in Cincinnati and freezing, wind in your hair,” she said. “You see the twinkle of the lights, the street lamps. You hear the roaring of the engines. I was like, Oh my God, this is exactly what she spoke of.”

And of course the danger was ever-present. But it also resulted in some real movie magic, like the near-impossible recreation of one of Lyon’s most famous photographs with a single bikerider speeding across the Ohio Bridge, looking over his shoulder.

In the film, the rider is Butler. They had shut down the bridge. The police were there. They couldn’t do it more than twice (both logistically and because they couldn’t risk anything with their star). They had a 35mm film camera mounted on a car with a crane attempting to speed alongside Butler but also definitely going at a different speed.

“All of a sudden we lock in the cameras in the right spot, the bridge is in the right spot, Austin looks back, then he drives off,” Nichols said. “And you’re like holy (expletive): ‘We got it.’”

___

This story was first published on June 18. 2024. It was corrected on June 25, 2024, to correct the studio that was originally slated to release “The Bikeriders” to Disney’s 20th Century Studios.

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