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Rebellious. Cool. Nostalgic. Bringing “The Bikeriders” to life and into the cinema

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

The obsession began in his brother's apartment when he first opened 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's eye: a story of rebels, romantics, con artists and the end of an era.

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

The motorcycles were old. The actors, including Austin Butler and Tom Hardy, would be riding at high speeds. And there would be no helmets. At one point, one of his stunt coordinators blurted out, “There's no way to make this 100 percent safe.”

They took the risk. The danger was their point, so to speak. And everyone got away unharmed.

Their motorcycle expert (and amateur philosopher) said something that stuck in Butler’s mind: “It’s 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 take care of yourself. No one else can do it for you.”

“The Bikeriders” (in theaters nationwide Friday) is a rare summer gem: an original film with stars (including Jodie Comer, Michael Shannon, Norman Reedus and Mike Faist), cool credibility, pathos and a momentarily clear-sighted wistfulness, and a guy who was already in the making.

“This subculture is full of romance. It's easy to become a Grease fan,” Nichols said. “This movie is really about nostalgia. There's a certain sadness to that. But there's also joy in remembering it.”

Capturing a rising star

Nichols has always been lucky with casting, getting movie stars to appear in his films when they were just about to break through. Before he made “Take Shelter,” he remembers a producer asking, “Who is this Jessica Chastain?” For “The Bikeriders,” it was Butler. “Elvis” hadn't come out yet. He didn't know about “Dune: Part Two.” But when he met him, he was sure. “This guy's a movie star, you know?” Nichols said.

“I've read a lot of scripts and this one just felt different,” Butler said. “It was full of humanity and these cinematic moments that 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 about.”

Butler's Benny is also the most enigmatic of all: a guy whose face is never seen in Lyons' book and who is never interviewed – he is only talked about.

“I love how Jeff talks about himself as this empty cup that everyone wants to fill with their own expectations and responsibilities. He wants none of that,” Butler said. “Then he wants to let go and be free.”

And Butler brought an element to Benny that Nichols hadn't originally intended. Nichols wanted Benny to be kept in check until the end, and recalled telling his star several times to “take it down a notch.”

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

But he soon realized that casting someone like Butler – an emotional actor with a big heart who goes up to Hardy after a fight scene and apologizes – wasn't the point.

“At some point you have to find a balance between the character on paper and the person who plays that role,” Nichols said. “And that character was made better by him.”

A different point of view

One of the biggest breakthroughs for Nichols as he spent years thinking about how to successfully make The Bikeriders was realizing who the narrator should be: Kathy.

Based on a real woman, she falls in love with Benny at first sight and ends up in the club.

“If you ask Danny, Kathy was one of the most interesting people there. She just jumps off the page,” Nichols said. “She's funny, she's thoughtful, she's self-deprecating, she's annoying sometimes. She's a real person. And honestly, I just fell in love with her.”

Comer saw in her a fascinating personality, an “ordinary” yet extraordinary person: strong-willed, funny and authentic. She worked tirelessly to perfect Kathy's very special Chicago accent, using the hours of recorded interviews with Lyon as a guide.

“I could see in her so many older women I knew in my life,” said Comer, who grew up in Liverpool. “The way they tell stories and have a certain appeal.”

But on another level, she was simply the better storyteller, both as an outsider with inside knowledge and in terms of what he wanted to say.

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

Facts, fiction and telling a good story

The Bikeriders is a work of fiction. Nichols did not set out to be the historian of the outlaws, a group that still exists today. He wanted to capture this time and culture and evoke the feeling he had when he opened this book so many years ago.

But he also draws heavily on Lyons's images, some of which are staged, and narrates. Much of Kathy's dialogue is things said by the real Kathy, who was married to Benny. Hardy's character Johnny was also apparently inspired to start the club by the Marlon Brando film The Wild One. He was the ringleader and also a bit of a con artist – a suburban dad with a real job on the side.

Nichols also chose to shoot the film in color rather than imitating Lyons' famous use of black-and-white photography.

“They're beautiful, but they're romanticized,” Nichols said. “I think when you put them in color, they seem less contrived. They seem more realistic.”

Bring it to the big screen

The Bikeriders' road to theaters was not without its obstacles. Last fall, the film made a triumphant debut at the Telluride Film Festival, which often serves as a springboard for Oscar contenders. But as the December release approached, it became clear that the actors' strike would not be over in time for the stars to help promote the film. Headlines said that The Walt Disney Co.'s Searchlight Pictures had dropped The Bikeriders rather than just holding it back for a post-strike release.

“It was misreported,” Nichols said. “It was frustrating. It was like everyone had a fundamental misunderstanding about how this movie was made.”

The truth, Nichols explained, is a little more complicated and nuanced, as New Regency finances its films and distribution itself, often working with partners at studios. After the December release deadline passed, another opportunity arose with Focus Features, the arthouse arm of Universal Pictures, which was planning a spectacular worldwide release in the summer.

The joys and sorrows of cycling

Like Butler, Hardy brought some motorcycle know-how to the film. But neither of them would call that an advantage – antique motorcycles are a different matter.

“It's just convenient because I can ride instead of lying about skiing,” Hardy said. “But it quickly became an inconvenience. You're busy trying to do the other job, which is the face-pulling, trying to act, and the bike is unpredictable.”

Once they do it, however, it could be quite exciting.

“It was exciting to ride in a huge group,” said Butler. “You can feel the energy of each bike.”

Comer said riding in the back of Benny's motorcycle for the first time was “a truly magical movie moment.”

“We were in Cincinnati on a night shoot and it was freezing cold, the wind was blowing in your hair,” she said. “You see the twinkling of the lights, the street lamps. You hear the roar of the engines. I just thought, oh my god, that's exactly what she was talking about.”

And of course danger was ever-present. But it also led to some real movie magic, like the nearly impossible recreation of one of Lyons' most famous photographs, in which a lone cyclist speeds across the Ohio Bridge while looking over his shoulder.

In the film, the driver is Butler. They had the bridge blocked off. The police were there. They couldn't do it more than twice (both for logistical reasons and because they couldn't take any chances with their star). They had a 35mm film camera mounted on a car, with a crane that tried to race alongside Butler, but was definitely going at a different speed.

“All of a sudden we're pointing the cameras at the right spot, the bridge is in the right spot, Austin looks back and drives off,” Nichols said. “And you think, 'Holy (expletive),' 'We did it.'”

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