Film

Jeff Nichols on The Bikeriders, punk rock and what makes Austin Butler a 'stone cold movie star'

As The Bikeriders roars onto the big screen, director Jeff Nichols sings the praises of Austin Butler and Jodie Comer – and recalls his own subcultural heyday in the punk bands of Little Rock, Arkansas

Jodie Comer and Austin Butler in The Bikeriders

Jodie Comer and Austin Butler in The Bikeriders. Image: Kyle Kaplan / Focus Features

“I was the drummer in a bad punk rock band.” Director Jeff Nichols is in London to promote his new film The Bikeriders. It’s a remarkable depiction of a biker gang in Chicago, set across the years 1968-1973. The film – which stars Austin Butler, Jodie Comer and Tom Hardy – is set to propel Nichols into the biggest of the big leagues. It feels like an instant classic. Expect comparisons to Goodfellas, major awards, five-star reviews.  

It deserves all this and more. Brooding, stylish, intense and beautifully filmed and acted, The Bikeriders is based, unusually, on a photo-series and non-fiction book of the same name by Danny Lyon. 

“You look at the photos and they are awesome. The clothes, the hair and the bikes are super cool looking,” says Nichols. “But then you get into the text of the book, which is interviews with the bikers and their wives. And you realise this guy is not just a photographer. He’s almost an anthropologist. He wants to get to the totality of this subculture. He had collected all the detail you need as a filmmaker to build this world so it feels real and tactile.” 

We access the story via interviews with Kathy, played by Jodie Comer, who was very much real and is based on Lyon’s real-life interviews. “Kathy is flesh and blood. Audiences will identify with her,” says Nichols. “She’s introspective, thoughtful, funny and at times infuriating and confounding.”  

Mike Faist and Jodie Comer in The Bikeriders
Mike Faist and Jodie Comer in The Bikeriders. Image: Kyle Kaplan / Focus Features

Kathy first encounters fledgling Midwestern motorcycle club The Vandals in 1968 when she reluctantly joins her friend in a biker bar. When she spots Benny (Austin Butler), all charisma, cheekbones and caged fury, she’s captivated. Soon she’s riding with him alongside Tom Hardy, channelling Marlon Brando as The Vandals’ softly spoken founder Johnny, and Michael Shannon as grizzled biker Zipco. Shannon has appeared in all Nichols’ films to date.  “We’re not just collaborators, we’re like brothers. I truly love him,” says the director. 

While the setting and era might be half a world away from the smalltown music scene of Nichols’s teenage years, the story remains the same. It’s one repeated through the ages. A group of misfits coming together over a shared obsession and finding their tribe.  

“I grew up in Arkansas, which is a rural state in the United States. And in the 1990s, there was a pretty great homemade punk rock scene that I was part of,” continues Nichols.  

“And I recognised that in The Bikeriders. We were writing our own songs, going to shows every Friday night at some house where you’re listening to your friends’ bands. Then a band would come down from Memphis or wherever. And it just felt like ours.

“I bet these guys, when The Vandals started, felt that way 100%.” 

The UK trailer for The Bikeriders, directed by Jeff Nichols

Cultural theorist Dick Hebdige, in his classic book Subculture: The Meaning of Style, talked of the ‘self-imposed exile’ of these style tribes. The bike, the biker jacket, the gang colours acting like a form of stigmata – a uniform that both symbolises and ensures continued outsider-dom. You can never be fully part of mainstream society when your signifiers are showing so brazenly. Ultimately, The Bikeriders is a film about identity and a human need to belong.  

“Humans are drawn to tribes,” continues Nichols. “We’re drawn to groups. And we like to see the identity we’re searching for reflected in others. It can be a powerful force in your life. And it can be a force for good or very, very dangerous.  

“And in The Bikeriders it is both. The film shows the transition. Initially there is a purity to it. The guys joining later, now it has been defined as violent or rebellious, are purposefully seeking that out. It becomes a projection of the original thing. So we also see a biker sitting outside the movie theatre trying to get people to go in to watch Easy Rider.” 

Like a postcard punk in Piccadilly Circus, posing for tourists’ pictures, we see the subculture reduced to empty symbols. Now a pale shadow of the subversive original idea. 

But what a ride, soundtracked by the Sonics, the Shangri-Las, Cream and Bo Diddley. What a journey Nichols captures over the years of Kathy (Comer) being interviewed by photographer Danny Lyon (Mike Faist), as The Vandals grow from a small gang of motorcycle fanatics with a propensity for punch-ups into something much bigger, darker and more out of control. By the end, the drugs are harder, the fights more deadly.  

Austin Butler in The Bikeriders
Austin Butler is a “stone cold movie star” says The Bikeriders director Jeff Nichols. Image: Focus Features

For The Bikeriders to work, for this style tribe to be as compelling on screen as it appears to Kathy in the film, you need big performances. And in Austin Butler, fresh from an Oscar-nomination as Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrman’s biopic, Nichols finds a genuine movie star at the height of his powers. Here, he’s one part Elvis, one part James Dean.  

“Stone cold movie star,” agrees the director. “Benny is interesting. There are several pictures of him in the book, but you never see his face and he’s not interviewed. There’s a news headline about this young bike rider getting arrested for running all these stoplights and there is Kathy talking about him. But he’s a bit of a myth. A bit larger-than-life.  

“I needed someone that could bear the weight of that attention. And Austin is beautiful, he’s got that magnetism to him, but he’s also got gravity. I love that our film is going to be a piece of the original film DNA of this guy.” 

Similarly, if Killing Eve established Jodie Comer as an actor of astonishing ability and Prima Facie showed off her acting chops on stage, then The Bikeriders will establish her as a genuine film star.  

“She’s one of the best actors I have ever worked with,” says Nichols, who shot Mud with Matthew McConaughey, directed Kirsten Dunst in Midnight Special, and saw Ruth Negga nominated for an Oscar for her role in Loving.  

“It’s funny how we’re so balkanised now. You’ve either seen Killing Eve and think Jodie Comer is a genius or you haven’t and may not know her name. That’s all going to change. I want the rest of the world to catch up. 

“And if you think about this film without the female point of view, it just becomes too heavy. One of the subtexts of the whole thing is that these men are not capable of expressing themselves truthfully or emotionally.” 

Director Jeff Nichols with on set the stars of The Bikeriders
Director Jeff Nichols talks with Jodie Comer and Austin Butler on set of The Bikeriders. Image: Kyle Kaplan / Focus Features

So why are we still so enamoured of this group of rebels and misfits? Why are the clothes still the essence of movie star cool? How do we square the apparent contradiction of their rebellion with their adherence to such strict rules of style and conduct?  

“When you look to outsider culture, that’s where the cool stuff happens,” says Nichols.  

“That’s where the best art and music and fashion is created. It makes sense that mainstream society would come for it, because it’s appealing, it is different, it has a unique point of view, it is daring and challenging. But that that sets up a cycle. You don’t feel you belong in the mainstream, so you step out, create something cool and the mainstream comes for you. It’s like a snake eating its own tail.  

“I saw that cycle in The Bikeriders. And I very much identified with it because of my relationship to this really homegrown, really beautiful punk rock community in Little Rock.” 

The Bikeriders is in cinemas now. 

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