The Bikeriders: Jeff Nichols, Austin Butler and Jodie Comer on Their Mad Love Triangle on Wheels

Jeff Nichols fell in love with the bikers of Chicago through Danny Lyon’s nonfiction 1967 book The Bikeriders. Full of gritty black-and-white photos and honest, firsthand accounts from the real-life members of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club, its stories jump off the page — Midwestern accents and all. 

But Nichols knew he only wanted to use the real people Lyon interviewed as a jumping off point for a fictionalized story loosely inspired by them. He just didn’t know what the crux of that story would be.

“I didn’t want to make a historical piece about the Chicago Outlaws. I knew that whatever their trajectory was, specifically, that wasn’t for me, so it was going to be heavily fictionalized. And there are lots of reasons for that, but partly because I just didn’t want to be beholden to their facts and their truth of things,” Nichols tells MovieMaker

(L to R) Actor Jodie Comer, director Jeff Nichols and actor Austin Butler on the set of The Bikeriders, a Focus Features release. Credit: Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features. © 2024 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

He cracked the story thanks to Lyon’s forward to a 2003 reissue of the book.

“He speaks specifically about the ending of Johnny, the guy that started the club, but also really about the end of the club as he knew it. The way he wrote it was really beautiful. It gave you the sense that, okay, there was a shift from a small social club, really a regional club of just guys through the course of the ’60s, into something else — a more proper gang,” Nichols says.

“That actually gave me, for lack of a better word, a plot, which is, okay, now we’re going to follow this shift from a group of friends to an unwieldy gang over the course of the ’60s.”

The film tracks that evolution through the deliciously tense dynamics between Austin Butler as the wild and mysterious Benny, a member of a fictional motorcycle club called the Chicago Vandals;  Tom Hardy as the cool and confident club founder and president, Johnny, and Jodie Comer as narrator Kathy, Benny’s wife and Johnny’s constant rival in their shared quest to pin down the ever-elusive Benny.

“The third most important component of it all was the love triangle between the three main characters, and I can’t really tell you where that came from. I just made it up, obviously,” Nichols says.

Also Read: 11 Movie Motorcycles to Make Your Heart Go Vroom

It’s not a love triangle in the strictly romantic sense — though there is one scene between Butler and Hardy sure to inspire some fan fiction. 

“It felt like Benny was an object. Benny was a thing that people would covet, kind of in spite of themselves. And it made sense, then, that Johnny, the leader of this club who was probably wanting to get out of it — this is my Johnny, all fiction — would be drawn to this young man as well,” Nichols says. “I was off to the races at that point.”

Austin Butler and Jodie Comer on Working With Jeff Nichols on The Bikeriders

Jodie Comer as Kathy in director Jeff Nichols’ The Bikeriders, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features. © 2024 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

Butler is well-cast as the handsome and elusive Benny, given his reputation as both a heartthrob and craftsman.

“I was really drawn to that lone-wolf mentality and certain parts of myself that I wanted to explore,” Butler says.

Both he and Comer jumped at the chance to work with Nichols, the writer-director behind gritty but grounded thrillers like his 2007 directorial debut Shotgun Stories,starring Michael Shannon, who also starred in Nichols’ second feature, 2011’s Take Shelter and Nichols’ 2016’s Midnight Special. Shannon plays biker Zipco in The Bikeriders. 

Nichols’ other features include the critically lauded 2012 adventure drama Mud, starring Matthew McConaughey as an endearing fugitive, and 2016’s historical drama Loving, starring Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton as the real-life couple behind the Supreme Court’s 1967 historic decision on interracial marriage. 

“He’s a philosopher in many ways, and he thinks very deeply, but has no ego and is unpretentious — and somehow manages to balance that with being a great artist, which is an amazing thing to witness,” Butler says.

“What always struck me about Jeff’s work is how authentic it is, how character driven and emotional,” Comer adds, “while simultaneously being so visually beautiful and always very much rooted in a deep sense of reality.”

Also Read: The Bikeriders‘ Jeff Nichols on Anchoring a Masculine Story Through the Eyes of a Strong Woman

Butler, Comer and Shannon had the benefit of listening to interview recordings from the people who inspired their characters.

Kathy’s whole opening monologue is taken word-for-word from the book, but Hardy didn’t have the benefit of seeing his character come to life on the page. Nichols recalls being overwhelmed by the Mad Max: Fury Road star’s questions during their first in-person meeting about The Bikeriders

“He was funny. The first thing he said was, ‘Can I play Kathy?’ And he was taking a bit of a shot at me, because Kathy is completely alive on the page because of all that dialogue. I was like, well, Johnny’s like the other characters I typically write. He’s actually alive — you’ve just got to find him, because you’re not going to find him through dialogue,” Nichols says.

“At some point, he was just kind of like, ‘Well, I just don’t want anybody else to do this.’ And so he showed up — and I have to say, Tom truly made that character more interesting than it was written on the page.”

Shooting The Bikeriders

Tom Hardy as Danny and Austin Butler as Benny in director Jeff Nichols’ The Bikeriders, a Focus Features release. Credit: Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features. © 2024 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

Nichols and his longtime cinematographer and fellow University of North Carolina School of the Arts alum Adam Stone have shot each of their six feature films on 35 mm film.  

“I don’t shoot on film because I’m some kind of crazy purist. I shoot on film because it represents the human experience better than digital,” Nichols says. “It takes a thing that is artificial, which all movies are, and it just smoothes them out in a really beautiful way.”

That approach brings glamor to the violent, gritty biker culture of The Bikeriders

“We shot this the exact same way that we shot Midnight Special. It’s a Panavision camera with G Series lenses,” he says.

He praises production designer Chad Keith and costume designer Erin Benach for their layers of detail. 

“Mitch Paulson and Company 3 did our color-correct, and it’s not like we put any filters on it,” Nichols says. “We kind of color-timed it the same way we would do for other films, but when you add all of the density of the sets and the set dressing and the costumes and the hair and the makeup and the period-correct bikes and the locations, everything — it all worked in concert together to, in my opinion, look like you were shooting something in the ‘60s.”

Nichols’ influences included classic biker movies like Dennis Hopper’s 1969 Easy Rider, as well as Martin Scorsese’s time-jumping 1990 mob masterpiece Goodfellas

“I always wanted this film to have a density to it. The book has a density to it. You just get these kinds of layers and layers of humanity and this subculture. You just feel it,” he says.

“It feels like it covers a lot of time,” he adds. “Even though you’re only in there for two hours, it feels like more in those films. We’re not talking eight episodes or 12 episodes. Like, the fact that you can have a dense narrative or rich narrative that feels lived in the course of a feature film — that’s my goal in life, is to make movies that feel that way.”

The Bikeriders is now in theaters, from Focus Features.

Main image: Jodie Comer as Kathy and Austin Butler as Benny in director Jeff Nichols’ The Bikeriders, a Focus Features release. Credit: Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features. © 2024 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

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