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Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Jodie Comer capture 1960s rebel cool in ‘The Bikeriders’

Jeff Nichols had dreamt of making a film about a 1960s motorcycle club for over 20 years.
Austin Butler, a cast member in "The Bikeriders," poses for a portrait, Thursday, May 30, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

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

The obsession started when he first cracked open Danny Lyon’s book “The Bikeriders,” a New Journalism-style account of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club in the mid-1960s. He saw it as a story about rebels, romantics, frauds and the end of an era.

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

The bikes were vintage. The actors, including Austin Butler and Tom Hardy, would be riding at high speeds. And there would be no helmets. At some point, one of his stunt coordinators just came out with it: “There is no way to make this 100% safe.”

They went for it. The danger was kind of the point. And everyone made it out unscathed.

“The Bikeriders” ( racing into theaters nationwide Friday ) is a rare summer gem: An original film with stars (including Jodie Comer, Michael Shannon, Norman Reedus and Mike Faist), cool cred, pathos and a clear-eyed wistfulness for a brief moment and a type of guy.

“This is a film that’s really about nostalgia,” Nichols said. There is a sadness that comes with that. But there’s also a joy in remembering it.”

Catching a star on the rise

Nichols has always had luck with casting, getting movie stars in his films right as they’re about to break big (like Jessica Chastain in “Take Shelter”).

For “The Bikeriders,” it was Butler. “ Elvis ” had yet to come out, but when he met him, he was certain: This is a movie star.

“I read a lot of scripts and this one just felt different,” Butler said. “It felt full of humanity and these cinematic moments…I felt like I was being invited into this other world. And he was one of the coolest characters I’ve ever read.”

Butler's Benny is also the most enigmatic of the bunch: A guy whose face is never shown in Lyon’s book and who is never interviewed – just talked about.

“I love how Jeff talks about him as being this empty cup that everybody wants to fill with their own expectations and their own responsibilities. He doesn’t want any of that,” Butler said. “That’s when he wants to cut loose and be free.”

Nichols wanted Benny to be bottled up until the end and remembered telling his star to “pull it back” a few times.

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

But he soon realized that was missing the point of casting someone like Butler — an emotive actor with a big heart.

“That character got better because of him,” Nichols said.

A different point of view

One of Nichols’ biggest breakthroughs was when he realized the narrator should be Kathy, who falls for Benny at first sight and gets wrapped up in the club.

“She just pops off the page,” Nichols said. “She’s witty, she’s introspective, she’s self-deprecating, she’s infuriating at times. She is a real person.”

Comer saw in her a fascinating character, an “ordinary” but still extraordinary person that reminded her of women she knew growing up in Liverpool. She worked tirelessly to nail Kathy’s very specific working-class Chicago accent.

But on another level, she was just a better voice for what he wanted to say.

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

Fact, fiction and telling a good story

“The Bikeriders” is a work of fiction. Nichols didn’t want to be the historian of the Outlaws, a group which still exists. He mostly wanted to capture this time and culture and evoke the feeling he got when he opened that book so many years ago.

But he also draws heavily on Lyon’s images, some of which are recreated, and reporting. Much of Kathy’s dialogue are things the real Kathy, who was married to Benny, said. Hardy’s character Johnny was also apparently inspired by the Marlon Brando film “The Wild One” to start the club. He was the leader and also a bit of a fraud — a suburban dad with a real job on the side.

Nichols chose to make the film in color, instead of mimicking Lyon’s famous use of black-and-white photography.

“They’re beautiful, but they are romanticized,” Nichols said. “I think when you put them in color, they become less affected. They become more realistic.”

The joys and pains of riding those bikes

Like Butler, Hardy came into the film with some motorcycle know-how. But neither would describe it as a leg up — antique bikes are a different beast.

“It just happens to be a convenience because I can ride as opposed to lying about skiing,” Hardy said.

Still, once they got it down it could be rather exciting.

“It was exhilarating riding in a giant group,” Butler said. “You feel the energy of every motorcycle coming together.”

Comer said riding on the back of Benny’s bike, in the Cincinnati night with engines roaring and street lights twinkling, was “a really magical kind of movie moment.”

And the danger was ever-present. But it also resulted in some real movie magic, like the near-impossible recreation of one of Lyon’s most famous photographs with a single rider speeding across the Ohio Bridge.

In the film, Butler is the rider. They had shut down a bridge. They couldn’t do it more than twice (both logistically and because they couldn’t risk anything with their star). They had a 35mm film camera mounted on a car with a moving crane, attempting to speed alongside Butler.

“All of a sudden we lock in the cameras in the right spot, the bridge is in the right spot, Austin looks back, then he drives off,” Nichols said. “And you’re like holy (expletive): ‘We got it.’”

Lindsey Bahr, The Associated Press