Director's Chair: <I>The Bikeriders</i> - Jeff Nichols
Issue: May/June 2024

Director's Chair: The Bikeriders - Jeff Nichols

Indie auteur Jeff Nichols made his debut in 2007 with Shotgun Stories, a revenge story full of menace and foreboding, and followed that up with Take Shelter, another dark tale that danced around themes of love, madness and the apocalypse. Then came Mud, a coming-of-age story starring Matthew McConaughey as a fugitive. After those three ultra-low budget films, the writer/director upped the ante with the ambitious and smart sci-fi thriller Midnight Special and the Oscar-nominated Civil Rights drama Loving, both released in 2016.

His new film, The Bikeriders, is another period drama, inspired by Danny Lyon’s iconic book of the same name, which chronicled the four years in the ‘60s that Lyon spent with the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club, interviewing and photographing bikers. Starring Austin Butler, Jodie Comer, Michael Shannon and Tom Hardy, it follows the rise of a fictional 1960s Midwestern motorcycle club through the lives of its members, and immerses the audience in the look, feel and sounds of the bare-knuckled, grease-covered subculture of ’60s motorcycle riders. 

To bring those sights and sounds to life, Nichols assembled a roster of creatives that included such longtime collaborators as director of photography Adam Stone, editor Julie Monroe, production designer Chad Keith and composer David Wingo. Here, in an exclusive interview for Post, I spoke with Nichols about making the film and his love of post.

You first told me about this project years ago. It’s obviously been a labor of love. What took so long?

“Just me getting over the fear of telling a story like this. I didn’t grow up around motorcycles and that culture. There was pretty much nothing in this film that I felt comfortable with, so it took me a while to figure it all out. I also wanted to do this strange narrative hybrid that was inspired by The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, directed by Michael Ritchie back in ‘93, which used the real taped conversations of the mother, played by Holly Hunter, to build the script, and then Holly based her voice and her portrayal of the mother on those tapes. When I saw that, I thought, 'This dialogue doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard in a film before.' It was unique and real, because it was. And so with this, I was able to get all the interviews and audio that Danny Lyon did in the ‘60s, and I had them all digitally transferred from the original tape, and I had hours and hours of these bikers talking in bars with the jukebox playing in the background. It was like this anthropological treasure chest.”

What sort of film did you set out to make?

“I didn’t want to make a documentary, and I was terrified of the Chicago Outlaws, and didn’t want to make a film about them and their history. But I loved the arc of the material and the idea of this social club for truck drivers and regular guys who started this motorcycle club over the ‘60s and early ‘70s, and it reflects what’s going on in the country at that time. Then the whole thing mutates and becomes more aggressive and violent, and turns into a real bike gang, as opposed to the original idea of a biker club. So I had all these moving pieces and ideas in my head, and it took a while for me to decide how much fictionalizing I’d do and how much of the real taped dialogue I’d use. And it’s not a straightforward narrative. I wanted to move through different eras and jump around, say from ’59 to ’73, so it took a lot of meticulous planning.”

Fair to say that the themes of belonging and identity are central to the film?

“Yes, the idea was to make a personal, regionally-specific film set in a specific time and place that still resonates with a broad audience, and it’s really about our search for identity. I think that’s one of the biggest animating forces at work in our society right now.”

The film was shot by your usual cinematographer Adam Stone. What did he bring to the mix?

“We shot on 35mm film, anamorphic with Panavision G Series lenses, which was exactly same setup we used on Mud and Midnight Special and the other films. We didn’t change anything filmically in-camera. We got all the key department heads — the production designer, costume designer and so on — together, and they all studied the same source material, every photo of Danny’s, along with tons of others, and they built this whole world so completely that when we put the camera up it looked exactly like one of Danny’s photos. And Adam works closely with Michael Roy, who’s been our gaffer since Take Shelter, and they have a language together, and have grown as artists and really craft the look of all my films, so a big part of this is due to Adam. We use a lot of natural light, and I totally rely on their skills and process for the look of my films.”

How did you shoot the bike scenes and manage to keep it looking so authentic? It must have been tricky?

“Very tricky, and we spent so much time figuring out the best way to do it. Yes, there’s a chase sequence, but we weren’t making an action film, and for most of the riding you just want to feel what it’s like to be in a pack of motorcycles. I’d done a lot of car sequences in Midnight Special, and I’d found that the best way to approximate the experience of riding in a car is pretty damn simple: shoot handheld at a three-quarter angle from the backseat. On this, our co-stunt coordinator and motorcycle guru Jeff Milburn came up with a solution for shooting handheld on the bikes: a very stable, three-wheeled camera trike that could support platforms off the sides, back and front. This allowed us to tie our camera operator on the front of the bike with a handheld rig, so he’s shooting just over the handlebars. And that gave us this natural movement that’s not too affected, and that rig was invaluable in getting all the pack coverage we wanted. Then we combined all that with just enough camera car coverage using various arms, but nothing too crazy.

“I guess my directing style is quite controlled, as I’m trying to capture and represent the human experience in some way, and I don’t want the camera to be a character in that. I think the hardest scene to shoot was the one with Jodie’s character on the back of the bike at night. It was so tricky to light and we ended up shooting it digitally, as we just couldn’t pull it off on film. All the other night stuff was shot on film.”

Where did you post?

“I always do all my offline editing in Austin, where I live, and I do it at Stuck On On Post Production. It’s probably the closest I get to having a regular job, and I work on all the sound with Will Files, the supervising sound editor, who began at Skywalker. We went to college together and he’s a phenomenon, and he really understands my aesthetic. I love everything about post and it’s where the sausage gets made.”

You edited the film with Julie Monroe, who’s cut all your films. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked. 

“She’s not on the set. She gets the dailies and I leave her alone while she does a pass without any notes from me, while we’re still shooting. She just has the script and the footage, and we’ve worked like that since Mud. She may call and say, ‘I’m a little worried about this scene and how you’re going to put it together, and I think you need another shot here,’ and I’ll either agree or tell her it’s covered the way I’m going to do it. The cool thing is, by doing her own pass, she learns the film for herself, and then when I show up, she puts that in a drawer and we start from frame one and work through all the footage. And if a scene doesn’t work, she pulls out her version and bails me out when my plans don’t work. I plan it all out meticulously, and I dream the shots and then collect them, and she’s very patient with me, as I have to see the version that’s been in my head before I can look at another version of a scene.”

What was the most difficult part of the edit and why?

“We had a lot of coverage and then we also had lots of multi-camera footage, as we had so many characters, which was very tricky. I’m not a fan of multi-camera coverage, but we had to use it, and I’d plan out all the beats of a scene very carefully, and then she’d take my version and use cut-aways to bring it to life and add depth and character, and really capture the big ensemble cast we had. She took this to a whole other level.”

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film? The classic bike sounds are amazing.

“Sound is so important and I’ve been very fortunate to work with Will Files. For a start, we had so much period music — something like 32 needledrops, and no real score, just a couple of pieces. And the way he mixed those songs was amazing, as even hit tracks by The Shangri-Las were just in mono. They’re great songs but not great recordings, and the way he wove all the songs and the bike sounds into this incredible dense and detailed soundscape was magical. He knows what sounds real or not, and he knows that I never want sound to be dishonest or unrealistic.” 

This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece, but the VFX play a role. What was involved?

“We had a great VFX supervisor, Allen Maris, who was really key in helping us deal with all the VFX shots. We shot the film in Cincinnati in just 41 days, and at the fast pace you’re moving, and when you’re outside with lots of moving bikes, you just can’t make it all perfect on the day. So in post we had to do a bit of scrubbing and clean up, as well as more complex VFX, like the scene where a guy’s head hits the car windshield. All the VFX shots were done by Vitality.”

How important was the DI on this and where did you do it?

“It’s always very important, and we did it at Company 3 with colorist Mitch Paulson, who’s done all my films since Mud. He’s pretty quiet and a genius, and I’ve learned to just get out of the way while he and the DP do all the work, and then I give my notes, and we do a couple more passes. I’m very happy with the way it looks and how it all turned out. It’s pretty darn close to how I dreamed it would look.”