”The golden age of motorcycles and that life is now gone”: Jeff Nichols on his biker subculture movie The Bikeriders

The Midnight Special director tells us about The Bikeriders, his immersion in the world of a 1960s motorbike gang, and the influence of films like Easy Rider and Scorpio Rising.

The Bikeriders (2023)Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features

For his sixth feature outing as writer-director, followings films including Take Shelter (2011) and Midnight Special (2016), American auteur Jeff Nichols brings his intimate, emotive filmmaking to the world of a 1960s Chicago motorbike club named the Vandals. The Bikeriders focuses on charismatic club leader Johnny (Tom Hardy), punkish upstart Benny (Austin Butler) and Kathy (Jodie Comer), a young woman who falls for Benny and is seduced by the club’s rebellious lifestyle and ragged companionship.

Nichols named his film after Danny Lyon’s eponymous 1967 book about a real-life gang called the Outlaws, having stumbled across a 2003 reissue of the book with colour photographs and a new foreword. Nichols’ brother Ben had wanted to use an image of Benny for the cover of his band Lucero’s 2005 album Nobody’s Darlings, but came up against record label opposition. But Ben’s correspondence with Lyon meant at least Jeff had a useful email address when he came to approach Lyon about developing a film based on his book in 2014.

In London to promote the UK release of his film, which premiered at Telluride in 2023 before its first European screening at BFI London Film Festival in October, Nichols gives us the low-down on what he saw in Lyon’s book, which other motorbike films influenced him, and how his actors created the film’s distinctive voices.

Within the book – its images and stories – what first grabbed you? And then what made you think, here’s a film I can make, something that we can get audiences to experience?

Jeff Nichols: The first thing that grabs you are the faces and the photographs. It feels like a cool world, a real specific world. The second thing that leads you down the path to a film are the interviews in the centre of it; they complete the pictures. The pictures could just be romantic and cool looking, but then you read these interviews and they’re unvarnished. At times, cruel. They’re people talking as they are. All of a sudden you’ve got this complete picture of a subculture and that becomes very interesting to me as a filmmaker.

Danny collected all that, so as a filmmaker, it’s a tremendous toolkit to have access to. The third thing is the foreword in this 2003 reissue. Danny now is later in life and he’s looking back on the bike riders and trying to find out what had happened to the club. He didn’t really know, but he says he realises that was the golden age of motorcycles and that life is now gone. It made me understand that there’s your beginning, middle and end. The beginning and middle’s contained in the book but the end is really contained in Danny looking back on it and saying that this was unique to this place at this time and it can’t exist again. That’s ultimately what the film feels like at the end. This idea that we can’t return to this place in time, and that’s kind of beautiful and kind of sad.

Were there motorbike films, whether The Wild One (1953), Easy Rider (1969) or even something like Scorpio Rising (1963), that were influences that helped you on your way?

All three of those. Scorpio Rising is not represented in the film specifically, whereas The Wild One and Easy Rider are, but Scorpio Rising we looked at and studied just to look at the bikes and listen to the music. Obviously, there’s a really overt sexual nature to Scorpio Rising, which we put in in a subversive way, under the skin of the thing. It’s hard to make a movie with beautiful guys wearing leather and not have some of that start to permeate through the surface. 

Scorpio Rising (1963)

The Wild One was represented in the book. There was a real guy named Johnny that started a club, and he had a scrapbook with a TV guide with Marlon Brando on it, and supposedly that’s where he got the idea for the club. If you look at the Chicago Outlaws and their patch, it is inspired by the patch in the back of Marlon Brando’s jacket in that film.

I found that interesting because even at the beginning of this club, it’s a projection of something. It’s like this real motorcycle event happened for The Wild One to be based on it, and now you’ve got another guy watching that and being inspired by it. It starts to feel like a meta-exercise of popular culture absorbing something and then recreating it and recreating it and recreating it. That cycle interests me. Then you get all the way to Easy Rider and, well, what the hell happened between 1953 and 1969? You’ve got 15, 16 years and you couldn’t get two more different movies when you talk about the aesthetics of them.

Thematically, both are trying to define a contemporary rebellion, and certainly The Wild One does that beautifully. “What have you got?” – I mean, is there a better distillation of rebellious behaviour? There’s a teenager in his mom’s basement today trying to put that into words. Easy Rider, though, is using bikes and this idea of freedom as a new way to interpret where they’re at in society. It’s returning to biker movies as a way to define freedom for each generation.

Easy Rider (1969)

One of the poster quotes is “Goodfellas on Harleys”. Not that I want to compare The Bikeriders to Goodfellas but in Mafia stories one common theme is the idea of an alternative family being almost as important as the biological family. What were you trying to say about the nature of families and alternative families and what binds them together?

We’re built for tribalism. We’re built to be part of a group or in some cases a gang; it’s in our nature. Our identity seems further defined by the groups that we choose to be a part of, and that’s different than family. You don’t choose to be a part of your family, you’re just born into it, and you have to accept what it is and what it isn’t. But a group offers you a choice, and by making that choice, you are helping to define your identity. 

That’s certainly represented in The Bikeriders. I have to say that emotionally, thematically, I don’t really relate to that choice by these characters. I have a wife and a son and all my other films are actually about men feeling the responsibility – sometimes the burden – of family and committing to it and making major choices, maybe dramatic, to fulfil that obligation or responsibility.

These guys aren’t like that at all. What’s fascinating is we talk about identity and the individual and freedom. Freedom really doesn’t exist in an organised group. It’s what makes Benny so attractive to these people. These other people need these rules in these organisations. Kathy has the rules of marriage, and Johnny has the rules of the club that he has formed and defined, but the reason they like him is because this guy doesn’t give a shit about the rules. That’s why he’s so attractive, and he’s Austin Butler. But it’s really because he represents freedom; he’s not looking for those strictures. 

I find it interesting that people feel like they don’t belong, or they don’t want to be a part. They don’t want to have the burden of mainstream society’s rules, but there they go off to the outside to join another group and start making up more rules. It just seems to be one of the ironic parts of human nature.

Cinematograper Adam Stone, star Austin Butler and director Jeff Nichols on location for The Bikeriders (2023)Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features

How did you work with Jody, Austin and Tom to get the richness and cadences of the voices?

It’s funny, it was different with each one. Jody had the most to work with in terms of an example: we had about an hour’s worth of this real woman speaking, which is the most unique thing you’ve ever heard, and she just nailed it.

[At this point, Jeff plays an audio file of the real Kathy stored in his phone – a remarkable voice that could strip paint off walls.]

It’s pretty uncanny. She has this example that she just threw herself into. 

Tom’s character is not represented in the book that way; he’s the most fictionalised, so he really took it from this very pragmatic approach. But it also feels thematic because I think this guy is – my words, not his – a bit of a fraud. He’s a guy playing the part of a biker club leader, projecting this idea of himself onto the world, probably borrowing from Cagney and Brando and all these other things. I didn’t hear any examples of his voice until the first day, but as soon as I heard it’s like the dominoes fell backward to all the conversations we’d had about it; I know exactly what he’s doing, and I think it’s fricking genius. 

Austin, we didn’t talk a lot about it. I shared with him a lot of different samples of audio from other guys, but again, Benny was never directly interviewed in the book, so he didn’t have a source like Jody had, so he just found this really nice place to live in his voice.

Did you have any involvement with any real life motorbike gangs as advisors?

No. Honestly, every time I went to do research, I just got terrified and I wasn’t that interested. It didn’t give me the feeling I got from Danny’s book, so I pretty much put that to the side. What we did have experts on were the bikes themselves. Jeff Milburn was our co-stunt coordinator, and the bikes are all very accurate to the time, to the people, the way that they would’ve ridden them.

Finally, can you tell me anything about your project to adapt Cormac McCarthy’s books The Passenger and Stella Maris?

Yeah, I’m working on it now. I’m writing it and I cracked the ending – finally – which was not an easy thing to do. It is a challenging couple of books. It’s going to be one movie. The script’s not done yet, but I’d love to make it. I’ve already seen the way it’s going to end. I hope it works out.

The Bikeriders is in cinemas from 21 June.