Texas director Jeff Nichols on ‘gaining the courage to tell the story’ of ‘The Bikeriders’

The film, based on a photo book about a Midwestern motorcycle club, hits theaters Friday.

By Laura RiceJune 20, 2024 4:01 pm, ,

Austin-based writer-director Jeff Nichols is known for his moving storytelling in films like “Mud” and “Loving.” He released back-to-back films in 2016 and now is preparing to hit the big screen again with a story that he’s been aching to tell for a while.

“The Bikeriders,” starring Austin Butler and Tom Hardy, is a time capsule of sorts of late 1960s Chicago and the rise of motorcycle clubs.

Nichols joined Texas Standard with more about his latest project, which hits theaters Friday.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: This story is actually based on a photo book you discovered years ago. Can you tell us what you first thought when you encountered this book by photographer Danny Lyon? 

Jeff Nichols: Pretty much everything cool in my life has come from my older brother Ben, who’s in a band called Lucero. He had an apartment in Memphis, and I looked down on the floor, and here was this incredible-looking black-and-white photo book by Danny Lyon called “The Bike Riders.” I picked that up in 2003, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

The photographs depict this Midwestern motorcycle club that Danny actually rode with. And the photos themselves are worth the price of the book. They’re beautiful; they’re romantic. You’ve got greasers, you’ve got dirt track races. You’ve got the entire subculture of Midwestern biker culture happening in them.

But Danny was into new journalism at the time, and he just rode around with a reel-to-reel recorder and recorded people talking – and he was very good at getting them talking. So the only text in the book are these interviews that he conducted with some of the riders, in particular the wife of one of the riders, this woman named Kathy.

And the interviews are unvarnished. If the photos are romantic, the interviews are quite realistic as a whole. This is just an amazing portrait of a subculture. It’s kind of everything, as a rider, you would need to kind of get to the full breadth of this very particular subculture in this very particular time.

I just had to come up with a story. That’s really what took me so long. It was almost like a party trick: I could go out to dinner with an executive or something and say, “hey, you want to hear my 1960s motorcycle movie idea?” But eventually, you know, in the late teens, I had to sit down and put pen to paper and really start to come up with a story structure that would allow me to use all of these great images and allow me to use all these great lines of dialogue that really came from Danny’s book. 

Well, maybe I’m projecting: Sometimes when I really want something to be really good, I never start it, because if I don’t do it, then it can still be perfect in my imagination. Was that something you struggled with?

One-hundred percent. You know, because without knowing the details, I knew what I wanted it to feel like, but I didn’t exactly know how to execute that, and I may not have had the chops to do it yet as a writer or as a director.

There were also other things. You know, I grew up in Arkansas. I tell southern stories. I don’t tell Midwestern stories. This voice was something that was very foreign to me. This dialect was scary. I didn’t grow up around motorcycle culture. I’m really not very interested in contemporary motorcycle gangs or biker gangs or that whole thing. I’m not into it.

So I was really entering a world that was completely unfamiliar to me. And that’s really scary because at the end of the day, I’m the one that’s supposed to know, as the writer and director, as the creator of this project, I’m the one that’s supposed to have all the answers.

So that really started to shift around 2014 when I reached out to Danny Lyon. I introduced myself, I told him what I wanted to do, I got his blessing. I got all of the outtakes of photographs that he took. I got all of the original recordings. This really was probably a three- or four-year process of me just kind of gaining the courage to tell the story.

Also, the club that Danny rode with in the mid-60s were the Chicago Outlaws. Since then, they have grown to become the second largest motorcycle gang in the world.  I didn’t want to offend those guys. I didn’t want to step on any toes. So I had to figure out what I was going to fictionalize as a way to represent the book, but also kind of step out of the way of any of that trouble.

Well, you really created space for your actors to shine in this film. And I’d like to talk first about Tom Hardy, who stars as a sort of motorcycle club boss. There’s a nod to the 1953 film “The Wild One” starring Marlon Brando, which is said to have inspired the club idea. How much, though, was Hardy channeling Brando for this film?

Pretty heavily. I think. There is a photograph in Danny’s book, believe it or not, it’s from a scrapbook that the guy who originally started the club kept, and he had a TV guide in it with Marlon Brando on the cover, and it was from a television screening of “The Wild One.” And that’s where he says he got the idea for the club. So we lifted that, exactly – in fact, we remade the TV Guide and it’s sitting on his TV dinner tray.

And Tom, he really took that to heart because it has a much bigger implication to the film, which is the idea that these guys didn’t join a biker gang. These guys created a social club. It was just a riding club. They’d all been in racing clubs before. This guy was a middle-class truck driver, had a wife, had two daughters. He was just kind of a normal guy who just loved motorcycles and wanted to hang out with his friends and drink beer and ride motorcycles.

Little did he know that in over a decade, this whole thing would metastasize into a true blue biker gang. But that’s part of the story that Tom really latched onto. I can’t do his British accent, but he would always say, “you can’t be half a gangster. You can’t be half a gangster.”

And he thought that maybe this character grew up watching James Cagney, grew up watching Marlon Brando. So his voice is 100% an interpretation of these actors that he felt like this character would have grown up watching. And the whole thing is a bit of a performance within a performance.

Well, I mentioned Austin Butler, the other male lead, and he truly falls deep into character to this, like “Rebel Without a Cause.” But as much as this film is about bike riders, it’s much more about one woman. And you sort of alluded to this. Can you tell us about choosing to center your film from a female perspective?

There are a couple of reasons. One is if you just had this hyper-masculine film told through the eyes of these men, I think it’s just too much. I think it would have been boring – one, because they all probably would have lied about what was going on.

The real reason, though, is because Danny interviewed this woman named Kathy, and Danny will tell you she was by far one of the most interesting people that he interviewed. She is smart, she’s introspective, she’s self-deprecating, she’s funny. She speaks in this incredible thick 1960s working-class accent.

She had this very particular status where she was an insider in the club because she was married to this guy, Benny, but she was an outsider because she was a woman. And she was very quick to call them out on all their shenanigans and everything else. And so it really did feel like a natural fit to have this thing narrated by this woman.

It felt like a balance to the whole thing, and it also held a complexity that I think is kind of at the center of the film. When you look at a motorcycle, I think they’re beautiful. They’re definitely compelling. You want to get on them, you want to ride, but they can also kill you.

So there’s a complexity in Kathy and her approach to this club and this man Benny that she marries. She loves him. She is romanced by this subculture, but she also understands it’s very dangerous. And that complexity is kind of at the core of the film.

Focus Features

Jodie Comer as Kathy in "The Bikeriders."

Well, I have to ask, as fans of your work know about your longtime collaboration with another actor, Michael Shannon, and he gets sort of a goofy assignment in “The Bikeriders.” I know you love working with him. At what point in your writing are you thinking “this is going to be Michael Shannon’s role,” or does he get a say? How does that work out?

Sadly, he doesn’t get a say anymore. I’m very fortunate that I can call Michael Shannon and he’ll actually show up and do things in my movies. But the truth is, I was kind of stalking Danny Lyon on his website, Bleak Beauty, and it must have been 2012. All of a sudden, these QuickTime files showed up on his website and they were of the real audio recordings, and one of them was of a guy named Zipco, and I hit play, and it sounded like Michael Shannon.

Mike spent a lot of his youth growing up in Chicago, and if you catch him on the right night, he can fall into a pretty thick Chicago accent. And this guy sounded like Mike Shannon.

And it happened that he was giving these incredible monologues about the draft board and pinkos. And, I mean, they really feel like part of the vernacular of the 1960s, but also kind of help enunciate the psychology of these guys. And so I got to write, really inspired by real dialogue, these two big monologues for Michael Shannon to speak in the film.

Which, at some point it wasn’t lost on me, I’m sure Mike was like, “why aren’t I playing Tom Hardy’s character?” But he was always meant to play Zipco. The same as in “Mud” – he also asked me, you know, “why aren’t I playing Matthew McConaughey’s character?” Like, well, no, you’re meant to be Galen. Sometimes he’s okay with that.

Well, you alluded to your brother earlier, and I noticed for the first time in watching your films, and maybe this is just me being dense, but I hadn’t made this connection before that your brother is this big-time musician. He wrote a song that rolls in the credits of the film. Is this your first collaboration, or have I missed this before?

No, it’s not our first collaboration at all. And actually, the song that’s over the credits is a song called “Bikeriders” that was off an album that Lucero did called “Nobody’s Darlings,” which came out in 2005.

Oh, so he beat you to this?

He absolutely beat me to it. And I saw this book in 2003 and decided I would write a movie one day; he saw it and decided he’d write that song.

My very first film, “Shotgun Stories,” which is a very small independent film we shot in Arkansas, Lucero did the entire score for. “Take Shelter,” he did a song over the end credits that he wrote specifically for that film. In “Mud,” my brother did a solo album absolutely inspired by “Blood Meridian,” and we took some of those songs and instrumental versions we used in the score of “Mud” that my composer, David Wingo, also kind of fleshed out.

And in “Midnight Special,” they do a song over the end credits. I made them cover “Midnight Special,” which he wasn’t that thrilled about. And then in “Loving,” he wrote a beautiful original song that’s over the end credits. So they’ve been on the end credits for pretty much every film, and it was kind of a no-brainer that “Bikeriders” would be on the end credits of this.

Oh, I’ve got to pay closer attention. You’ve got to watch them scroll all the way through.

Well, I’m also kind of shy about, you know, I think he’s the coolest guy in the world, but I’m shy about promoting his stuff.

You live in Austin, and you have for quite a while now. I wonder if it’s become easier to be a Texas-based filmmaker in the time that you’ve called Texas home, or is there still a big call to travel to Hollywood?

I’m really privileged because I get to write films and go to the places where they take place to make them, for the most part. You know, this film was written for 1960s Chicago, and we found that Cincinnati, Ohio, actually stood in the best because they had all this great older Midwestern architecture.

And so I’ve never felt at all pinned in – quite the opposite – by living in Austin. You get the benefit of a great film community here, a great music community, but also no one really cares what I do. You know, I got plenty of friends in town that they find it interesting, but it certainly doesn’t motivate their reasons for hanging out with me, I don’t think. And it’s really nice.

You go out to LA and it’s all anybody talks about. You’re out at a restaurant, and all the tables next to you, they’re talking about the movie that they’re trying to get made – and it feels a little less special, to be honest. Now, I still have to go out there for meetings and to kind of set things up. But I’m quite content sitting here in Austin and writing these screenplays.

Well, “The Bikeriders” is coming to theaters now. It’s gotten very good reviews on the festival circuit, and you have a huge distributor in Focus Features. What are your hopes now that a general audience is getting a chance to see it?

I just hope they watch it. You know, we’re getting a big release for this film. We’ve got a great cast, and I’m really proud of it. It’s a fun movie to watch. It gets dark by the end; there’s some challenging scenes. But if you go to the movie, it’s the type of film you want to see in a movie theater. The seats will rumble you.

I just hope it breaks through the noise, you know? I’ve had films that have had a lot of success in the past and some that haven’t. And on this one, this feels like a combination of things. It feels like a topic that people are pretty interested in, a cast that’s incredible. And we have a distributor that’s really putting it out into the world. It’s just very challenging right now for movies to break through the noise. And I hope this one does, because I’m really proud of it.

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