Jeff Nichols on The Bikeriders | Interview

The director of Mud, Midnight Special and Loving hits the open road with The Bikeriders…

James Mottram

20 Jun 24

Born in Arkansas, writer-director Jeff Nichols has chronicled the lives of American Midwesterners since his 2007 debut, Shotgun Stories. Since then, films like Take Shelter, Mud and Midnight Special have seen Nichols positioned as one of US indie cinema's most distinct voices.

Now, eight years on from the release of his last feature, Loving, he roars back into cinemas with The Bikeriders. Inspired by Danny Lyon's 1967 book of black-and-white photographs that depicted his time with a Chicago biker gang, Nichols creates a fictionalised version, centred around a motorcycle club called the Vandals MC.

Led by Johnny (Tom Hardy), the gang includes the volatile Benny (Austin Butler), whose girlfriend Kathy (Jodie Comer) narrates this electrifying story of bar brawls and bike meets. With a remarkable supporting cast that includes Michael Shannon, Norman Reedus and Boyd Holbrook, The Bikeriders marks a thrilling return for the 45-year-old Nichols – a filmmaker who was clearly born to be wild.

The Big Interview

When did you come across Danny Lyon's book?

In 2003. I immediately thought it had the ingredients for a great film. I mean, when you combine these photographs with the interviews in the book, it felt like the ingredients to this delicious meal. I guess I'll use another was like walking into a room and there's no Christmas tree but all the ornaments are laid out on the floor in front of you. So it's your job to build the tree – though you can see all these beautiful things that are going to be a part of it. But it took a while to figure out how to build that structure to hang all those ornaments.

Did you contact Danny?

He was the first person I really reached out to, in about 2014. I sent him an email. And at that point, I had made enough films… I had a bit of a reputation. And then I flew out to New Mexico, where he lives part of the year, and I sat down and I went into this long, long speech about subcultures and society and how The Bikeriders represented this cycle and what it could mean in terms of a conversation about masculinity and about outsiders. And he shook his head, and he said, "Ok, so you don't want to make a movie just about a photographer?!"

How important is the biker movie in the mythology of American cinema?

I mean, if you look at The Wild One, it opens with this kind of cheesy [shot of] Marlon Brando on a fake motorcycle with rear projection. It's very stilted. And then you get Easy Rider, which is this really organic, bizarre art film, trying to express the feeling of the late '60s and early '70s. You couldn't get two more aesthetically different films. And they're only a decade apart. But I thought they were perfect signposts of where the zeitgeist was in relation to biker culture.

What's your knowledge of bikes?

I'm not really into biker culture. I learned to ride before writing this film, just so I wouldn't be a complete fraud! And I love it. I've been bitten by the bug. I have a Royal Enfield INT 650. And it's a beautiful bike. But I got a wife, I got a kid, I got a family I got to take care of... the last thing I need to do is do a header off of a bike.

As the narrator, Jodie Comer's Kathy is our eyes and ears onto the world of the film. What gave you that idea to use her interviews as this framing device?

Well, her interviews were the most compelling. And so from her description of walking into that bar for the first time to Benny sitting outside of her house all night, that's in the book. And it's extremely compelling, and a great way to enter the world, right? So if I'm looking for an introduction to the world that seemed the most complete, so that was there. And it was like, "Well, ok, if that's where we're going to start, then that makes sense to use her as this framing device, this lens, to observe this world." But I don't want her to just to be an observer, I want her to be a participant...she's in it. And ultimately, what she ends up representing is really the tension of the whole thing, which is this tension in masculinity, it's a tension, really, in the subculture. There are all of these negative things that are actually pretty obvious: the violence, the lack of stability and everything else. But then there are all these beautiful romantic things. And Kathy's the centre of that tension.

How do you see Johnny? As the leader of this gang?

It's too harsh to say he's a fraud but he's definitely putting on an act, right? The reason he's so attracted to Benny is because he's not Benny. There's the scene by the campfire, when he says, "You're what all these guys are trying to be" and he's really talking about himself. The truth is, he's a pretty straightforward normal [guy]...he's got a house, he's got kids, he's got a job. And he's really not built for this world.

Was it hard to lure Tom Hardy to play Johnny?

It took months, not years. I was friends with his manager, Jack Whigham, because Jack's brother Shea is an actor that I worked with in Take Shelter... a fantastic actor. Jack's now a manager and also co-manages Michael Shannon, so we've known each other for decades. It was by no mistake that I gave him the script and he called and said, "Tom's got to do this. Tom just got to do this. It's the new Marlon Brando. He's got to do it." And I said, "I agree." So I flew to London and sat with him. And he had a million questions. It was a very intense meeting. At some point you could see him almost in real time working out whether he was going to do it. He was like, "I just can't imagine letting anybody else do this." I think that's kind of what finally got him.

What about casting Austin Butler? Had you seen him in Elvis?

A trailer had just come out two days before I met him. So I'd already had the meeting on the books but I could just see from a couple of shots in the trailer, like, "Oh, this guy did some work. Ok, this is interesting." I had no idea it was gonna blow up into the zeitgeist the way that it did but I really just cast him off the feeling I got from being with him in the room. I've met a handful of famous people at this point and the temperature would change if he walked into the room now. He's got it. Whatever it is, he's got it.

Can you talk about the influence of Goodfellas on The Bikeriders?

It is one of the greatest films ever made, and there are those aesthetic touch points but I think that's missing something bigger. The narrative structure of the first hour of Goodfellas is one of the most brilliant things I've ever seen. Because if I were to ask you what it's about, probably you wouldn't say it's about the guys that pulled off the Lufthansa heist. The first hour of that film is really just about dipping you into a subculture, to the world of the mob. It's romantic and it's glorious and that is very much what I tried to do with the narrative structure of the first hour of this film. I wanted to establish a world and establish a subculture. I thought it was really fascinating when you start to break down Goodfellas, how there really is no plot for that first hour. I can watch that hour on any day of the week. It's so great and I wanted the first hour of this film to operate like that and to feel like that. It's one thing to just watch it and kind of get that feeling; it's another thing to actually try to build something like that. It took a lot of work.

Where do you see The Bikeriders fitting into your body of work?

I mean, they're all attached because they're all attached to me. I make really personal films, even the ones that are like this, that are inspired by something else. In that sense, I feel close to all of them. This film feels very much like the film made by a man in his mid-forties, a guy that for the first time is starting to look back in life as much as he's looking forward. It feels like it's written by a person who for the first time can actually understand the term "nostalgic" and what that means and the impact it has on your life. And so in that sense, it's a personal film.

Interview by James Mottram.

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The Bikeriders is in cinemas from 21 June Book Now!