Jeff Nichols on his film The Bikeriders: ‘For me it’s a combination of two things – Danny Lyon’s book and GoodFellas’

Director on getting out of his southern US comfort zone and his plans to adapt Cormac McCarthy’s final two novels

The Bikeriders: Jodie Comer and Austin Butler in Jeff Nichols’s film. Photograph: Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features

Jeff Nichols wrote the script for his first movie, Shotgun Stories, a tale of warring half-brothers in the director’s home state of Arkansas, with one actor in mind: Michael Shannon, whom he had watched in 8 Mile and High Crimes. Nichols decided he wanted to work with Shannon in every movie he would ever make. Six acclaimed features later, Shannon steals the show with his supporting role in The Bikeriders, Nichols’s handsome summer movie about a 1960s motorcycle gang. A fireside scene in which Zipco, Shannon’s enigmatic Lithuanian, tells a story about failing the draft for the Vietnam War is an instant classic.

“Before we filmed the scene Mike came up to me and said, ‘You think this scene is pretty funny,’” says Nichols. “I did. But Mike didn’t. Those are the same words I wrote. But when Mike Shannon does it, it means more. He deepens it. I think about Mike a lot any time I read a book or do something that somebody wants me to do. I wouldn’t be here talking to you if Mike didn’t show up for Shotgun Stories. If he wasn’t in Take Shelter the movie wouldn’t be as good as it is. That’s a really terrifying cliff to look over the edge of. Oh boy, it might have been a different outcome. I want to make sure he’s still around, because I know he makes my stuff better. He understands it.”

The spine of Nichols’s new film was provided by Danny Lyon’s book The Bikeriders, a chronicle of the years that the photographer spent on the road with the Outlaws Motorcycle Club. “The interviews gave you enough of their psychology and plenty of anecdotes,” says Nichols. “Here’s a bike rider talking about being chased by the cops and eventually running out of gas and just pulling over and lighting a cigarette and waiting for them to come arrest him. That’s a cool moment in a movie. But it’s not a plot or dramatic conflict. For me it was about going through these anecdotes, and all these great lines that show you the thinking behind the subculture, and finding a structure to hang it on.”

Nichols’s screenplay unfolds as a kind of love triangle between Benny, a hothead played by Austin Butler, his girlfriend, played by Jodie Comer, and the gang leader, played by Tom Hardy.


“I’ve had the book so long – and been listening to the interviews, because I got the actual tapes from Danny Lyon,” Nichols says. “There are things I’ve made up that I think are in the book and things that are in the book that I think I made up. It’s hard to separate it. But, as a general rule, the majority of the dialogue – not all: probably about 70 per cent of it – is taken directly from the book.”

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Nichols, born and raised in Little Rock, admits he’s an unlikely candidate to become a regular fixture at Cannes and Berlin. “My dad loves movies. He didn’t have many friends, and he owned a furniture store. Every Wednesday we went to the movies. It was back in the day when you would open the paper to look at the movie listings. I’d seen them all sometimes, maybe twice, because we just always went. It was more regular than church. It was not a plan: he was not trying to grow a film-maker. But it is certainly the reason that film-making was instilled in me.”

The skirmishing half-siblings of Shotgun Stories recalled the historic feud of the Hatfield and McCoy families of the late 19th century. Nichols’s film Mud riffed on Huckleberry Finn, with Matthew McConaughey playing a wanted criminal who befriends two boys. The romance of The Bikeriders, with its references to The Wild One and good-looking folks on motorbikes, is a northern journey away from the writer-director’s typically southern gothic milieu. What it shares with other Nichols projects is Americana.

“In the other films I’m using literature, I’m using music and I’m using my own life experiences,” he says. “Certainly, Mud and Take Shelter are my life experiences mixed with the music in the books that I’m reading. I didn’t grow up around motorcycle culture. I didn’t really know anyone that rode. And I have to be honest: I don’t really have much of a going concern for contemporary biker gangs. They don’t really interest me. For me, this is really a combination of two things: it’s Danny’s book and it’s GoodFellas. Both of which are very foreign to me.”

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Nichols is philosophical about the projects that got away, including the imminent Quiet Place prequel, Day One. He remains hopeful that his Alien Nation reboot and Yankee Comandante, adapted from David Grann’s New Yorker article about William Alexander Morgan, the American who joined Fidel Castro’s rebellion in Cuba, will still come to pass. “That will either happen or I’ll be on my deathbed thinking about how I can make it happen,” says Nichols.

Last month it was announced that he will adapt Cormac McCarthy’s final novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris. “They’re extraordinary books,” he says. “They’re completely off the wall. I can’t imagine a more difficult assignment. But I cracked it. When you get to the end of the second one you can start the first. I think it’s meant to circle back. I figured out an ending about a month ago. Which has no representation in the book. It’s my interpretation, because who knows what was in Cormac’s mind? I’m very excited about it. I think it’s an ending people will definitely talk about.”

And, of course, there’ll be a juicy role for Michael Shannon.

The Bikeriders opens in cinemas on Friday, June 21st