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There are few Australian films more quotable than Chopper.
“He couldn’t knock the fluff off a cappuccino.”
“It’s a bit early in the morning for Kung Fu isn’t it, Jim?”
“Keithy seems to have done himself a mischief”
Just to list a few memorable one-liners.
In fact, everything about Chopper is memorable: From Eric Bana’s intense performance as Read, to an unforgettable lineup of supporting characters like Vince Colosimo’s Neville Bartos, David Field’s Keithy George, and frenemy Jimmy Loughnan – performed brilliantly by the criminally underrated Simon Lyndon.
Chopper hit like a sledgehammer when it was released in 2001. The film transformed Bana into an international superstar, and made director Andrew Dominik one of the world’s most sought-after directors. Dominik’s next two films, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Killing Them Softly were made with Brad Pitt – an astonishing achievement for the New Zealand-born filmmaker coming off his first film.
On August 26, Australian audiences will get the chance to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Chopper with an exclusive, digitally remastered re-release in cinemas across the country.
Cinema Australia recently caught up with Dominik to discuss the film.
“I got accused by a radio talk show host for glamorising Chopper Read. But at the same time, I’m on a radio show where the anchor wants to talk about it. So he’s doing the very thing he’s accusing me of.”
Interview by Matthew Eeles
When did you last see Chopper?
I guess that was a year ago, something like that. I saw it in the theater actually. I have a lot of affection for Chopper, the film. I was looking at it very technically. That’s the other thing. I was worried about how much the negatives had aged and all that stuff, and I was very relieved that we were committing it to some sort of digital master so it would survive. Look, I love Chopper. I love Chopper. I mean I haven’t watched it a lot since I made it. But yeah.
How critical are you of your work when you re-watch it?
Dude, I’m critical of a lot of stuff. You know what I mean? Looking at it retrospectively, but I also recognise that nobody sees that stuff except me. I’m talking about technical things, stuff where I can see the screen, so I can see behind the puppet show a little bit. And there are weird moments. Sometimes when you watch a film, when you get these flashbacks of what it was like in the room. Like I’ve been looking at the film and I can remember the way each division smelled. And I can remember the mood of the day and that kind of thing. But, as a film, it’s hugely a very uncomplicated experience watching it. And I tend to get caught up in it and follow it and be entertained by it.
How does a re-release of Chopper sit with you? What was your reaction to the news?
Amazing. It’s amazing. It shows that the movie has stood the test of time I guess. Or, I guess we’ll find out if people come to see it.
On paper, we know Chopper had a huge impact on your career following that film. Can you share that journey for us from a personal perspective?
Well, I guess a lot of people in Hollywood had seen the movie. Do you know what I mean? I think it actually started before anyone had seen it. Because I think it was number one at the Australian box office. And various agents in Hollywood who track that shit, like what’s going on in the world. And there was this movie that no one had ever heard of that was number one. And people started calling me because of that.
But also, it went to Cannes. It wasn’t in the festival, but it was in the market place. And it made an impact over there from that point of view. I think they sold all the territories and everybody who went and saw it was really blown away by it.
Then I went to America with it on the festival circuit and I got chased around by agents and stuff like that. And that was really strange. That was like how you read about in stories you read about where a crowd of people following you down the street. I remember moving hotels to get away from all the phone calls. There was a guy who actually ended up becoming my agent, but basically rang every hotel in Los Angeles until he found me.
Is that true?
Yeah, that kind of stuff. I mean the best thing about it was a lot of male actors loved the movie, movie stars and stuff. And they wanted to meet me. I’d be on the list of pre-approved directors for certain actors. There’d be like nine famous directors and this guy no one had ever heard of. And they’d always think, he’d be the easiest one to get and to do the film. [Laughs].
But I didn’t really capitalise on it. Not immediately. Because the kind of things I wanted to do I couldn’t get financed or I couldn’t find actors to play the parts. And it was only when I came up with Jesse James and Brad wanted to do it that I got… I mean, people will hire you and people do want to work with you, but it doesn’t mean they’ll just do whatever the hell you want to do. You get a foot in the door. It’s not like being an unknown person, but I don’t think it changes. I don’t think it changes for any director.
There’s so many directors that we think of as being like that guy must have it all or must have it easy. But they don’t. Every film is like starting from scratch. I mean it makes you feel good.
Take us back. Why Chopper Read?
I thought it’d be a good movie. It’s like I read the book. I read the books and they were entertaining. And the more recent tribunes, the more interested in him I was. And it’s just a certain thing where you just find yourself thinking about it all the time. Some ideas give. Some ideas just keep on giving. You just keep having ideas about something. And other ones have a very limited life. You get excited about them for minute, but then pretty soon the creative energy around them wears thin. Or you stop wanting to think about it. But Chopper I wanted to think about.
I mean, it was the way he organized language primarily that I was interested in. And I find that that’s often my attraction to something is the way language is organised. Not like the truth people tell you, but the way in which they put words together that you can see a conflict within them.
The source material must have been a big help. As in the books.
Oh, yeah. I mean the books were amazing. Yeah, the books were amazing. But that’s what I mean. It’s like Chopper was always hungry to see himself. I mean he was trying to present himself as this Robbin Hood character who robbed drug dealers and was good hearted vigilante with a moral code. But it’s clear that despite his projectations of that he had really done what he did, he did forget things. And that his moral code didn’t really exist. And that was what I got really interested in.
But also, he’s architecturally a creative guy. He’s a frustrated artist if you like. And I think by writing, he actually had to come to grips with himself. It’s interesting that he never went back to jail after he wrote those books. I think he found some other outlet for himself. So everyone thought that it was very unfair that people got up in arms about him making money from his writing or making money from the movie, which he couldn’t.
It was Chopper Read who suggested Eric Bana’s casting. Did you have anyone else in mind while you were writing the film?
No, I had no one.
Yeah, no one in mind.
So while you were writing, you were visualising Mark Chopper Read, and no actor in particular?
That must have worked out great for you when Chopper suggested Eric?
Well, it didn’t seem like that at the time. I remember I used to tell people that I’m casting Eric within the movie. I’d say Eric Bana and people would just look and be embarrassed for me. Eric at that time was just a guy who was on Full Frontal. He wasn’t somebody that people thought was a good actor. And even when Chopper suggested him, I kind of thought, oh, that’s a stupid idea. But [producer] Michelle Bennett asked to test him and he was good. He was really good. He was at the top. So I went down to Melbourne and spent a day working with him. And it was clear there was no one else for the part. Because I had to pick someone who could be Mark. I just couldn’t cast an actor. And I couldn’t cast an actor unless they were funny. It’s somebody who had to be able to make you laugh the way the real guy did.
Even Chopper’s dad, Keith Read, when he saw the movie, he though some of it was actually Mark. He thought we’d somehow gotten some sort of unique footage of the real guy. He thought some of the person in the movie was actually his son which is pretty good.
How much of Bana’s dialogue was improvised compared to what was written on paper?
It was all written on paper. I mean there was a lot Chopperism. We had Chopperism. But we worked hours and hours with the guy. And I’d say maybe there’d be a couple lines in the film that came out of Eric’s mouth when the camera was rolling. And it was written very specifically because Mark had a way of speaking. Yeah, maybe there was a bit more. I don’t know. If I look at the movie, I think there’s maybe 10 moments or something where he’s saying something. But it’s always something that Mark had said.
Eric, he’s a mimic, or he was a mimic, a natural mimic. He imitated people for a living. And it was interesting because he’s different from a lot of other actors who work from the inside out. People have a feeling about a character and then what they’ll do is they’ll create mannerisms and such. Whereas Eric is looking for a rhythm of speech and something to say, a way of saying it. And in order to make that speech rhythm work, he creates a thought process that makes that work. Which is different, but it was the best way for him to do it.
Can you tell us about the decision to use two cinematographers on Chopper? Geoffrey Hall and Kevin Heyward.
I didn’t get along with the first guy so I fired him.
I couldn’t find much about this in my research.
I haven’t spoken much about it.
Do you want to talk about it?
Kevin was great. It’s just that we didn’t get along.
Did he shoot much of the film?
He shot the jail stuff. What happened was we shot four weeks and then we took four weeks off for Eric to eat, get fat. And yeah, so I had four weeks to replace Kevin. It was just a personal thing. We didn’t get along and we fought a lot. I mean, sometimes there’s creative friction that’s good. But sometimes there’s creative fiction where you start to lose confidence in your ideas because you’ve got another person who’s just always poo pooing everything that comes out of your mouth.
A film set needs to be a safe environment. And in any case, it’s fairly useless to argue with me. If I’ve got an idea about how I want to do something, that’s the way I’m going to do it. I’ve thought about it a lot. It’s not just something I’m making up. Or at least in those days, it wasn’t something I was making up on the go. I had an idea of why I was doing something and why I wanted to do it. And some of those ideas would be wrong, but those were my mistakes to make. I’m the one that went through it. I managed to make the movie. It’s my film. I’m going to do what I want.
What was it like for you when Chopper died?
I remember just thinking about him for a few days afterwards. It’s a weird thing. You think about it. I thought about Mark every day for seven years. So much of my time was spent thinking about this guy and what he might do. Why he did certain things that he did. How he felt, all that kind of stuff. Spent a lot of time thinking. And then you make the movie and it’s over.
But then occasionally I’d talk to him on the phone. He used to give me some advice and stuff like that. [Laughs]. And when he died, I felt sad. Chopper was made of love. It was sincere for him. I took him seriously as a person, and the film is very much on his side though he had acted in an appalling way. But still, we’re looking at it all from his point of view. And he gave me a gift in a way. And I remember looking at photographs of him that I had. I still think about him.
What were those phone conversations like?
Sort of pep talks like get to Hollywood, make a movie, that kind of thing. Just go and fucking do it. Just do one. That sort of stuff.
Did he like the film?
He loved the film. I mean he got back together with Mary, his girlfriend from the ’80s and she hated the movie. And so publicly he turned on it. But I know some people have done documentaries and stuff with him that whenever she left the room, he’d sneak the movie in. He loved the film.
And I was hugely relieved, because the movie had all kinds of things that if I’d told him I was doing it, he would have been really upset, like him using drugs and beating women, all that sort of stuff. He took a very anti-drug stance, but he did use drugs. So I was really nervous when he first saw it. And he told me the first time he’s watched the movie he watched it from the kitchen. The film was playing on, I assume a video tape, and it was playing on his TV in the living room. And he was hiding behind the kitchen wall watching with one eye. But he really liked it. And he said, “When I was inside myself doing those things, I felt that was normal. But looking at myself from the outside, I can see that I was crazy.”
What about the other real life characters in the film?
I talked to some cops. I don’t know what they thought about their on frame counterparts. And I spoke with Billy Longly who I think was dead by the time we shot the movie. Those were really the only people I talked to.
I find it interesting that Chopper Read killed 19 people that we know of, and Martin Bryant killed 35 people. But as a society we view them as totally different beasts. Chopper’s a modern day Ned Kelly or Robbin Hood, like you said, while Bryant is considered a monster who no one wants to talk about. Do you feel like your film plays into Chopper’s notoriety?
Well first off, he didn’t kill 19 people. Most of those crimes of his are largely a figment of his imagination. He’s basically appropriated a lot of famous criminal stories and put himself in the middle of them. But I think the difference is that Chopper, he’s generally killed people where they get to be considered natural causes, because it’s natural to the line of work they’re in. He’s not killing anybody. He’s killing other criminals. And the other thing is that Chopper is charming and that charm goes a long way. I don’t know if Martin Bryant’s charming.
But I certainly find the kind of ideas of criminals shouldn’t be able to profit from writing about their crimes and all that stuff a little bit unclear and a bit hypocritical. It’s often people accused for glamorising crimes doing exactly the same thing themselves. They’re seizing upon some criminal to draw attention to some moral point of view of their own. But at the same time, also increasing that person’s notoriety. They’re just doing it much more disingenuously.
I got accused by a radio talk show host for glamorising Chopper Read. But at the same time, I’m on a television show or a radio show where the anchor wants to talk about it. So he’s doing the very thing he’s accusing me of.
I feel like Mark is actually, he’s a creative person. In his own way, he was an artist. And I always think that creativity should be encouraged.
Do you keep up with Australian films, and have you seen anything lately that has stood out for you?
I think the last one I saw was probably The Babadook. Oh, no. I saw The Nightingale. It was pretty good, yeah.
To celebrate its 20th anniversary, Chopper will re-release in cinemas across Australia from August 26. Tickets on sale now from all participating cinemas.