Categories: Interviews

On the Road Again: Jeff Nichols Talks About Crafting ‘The Bikeriders,’ Collaborating with Actors, and his Hope for the Future of Cinema

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In the last twenty years, it is hard to find an American director that has been able to capture the beauty, soul, and forgotten untold stories of this country like Jeff Nichols. From his directorial debut Shotgun Stories in 2007, Nichols has explored the fabric of the American South through the eyes of a paranoid, end of the world thriller (Take Shelter), a coming-of-age drama (Mud), a sci-fi tale of a father and son (Midnight Special), and a bio pic about the romance surrounding one of the most influential cases in U.S history (Loving). Each film comes not only with a unique visual perspective of our country, but are also patient, compassionate character studies that elevate his films because of his empathic writing and the remarkable, committed work he is able to get from his actors.

It’s been eight years since Loving was released, and in that time, Nichols has been working on bringing us his next story to the big screen, while doing a couple of cool side projects and events along the way. In 2018, he directed a short film Long Way Back Home, inspired by a song his brother Ben wrote for his band, Lucero (and yes, it starred Michael Shannon, a staple within every Nichols project). By this time, his name had been attached to several different projects, with him even signing up to take on the next installment in the A Quiet Place franchise, though he stepped away from that project in October 2021 after pivoting to work on different sci-fi project for Paramount Pictures. At a screening and Q&A event for the film The Tender Bar in Austin, TX (where Nichols resides) in 2021, I got to meet Nichols for the first time, shortly after the news of him stepping away from the film broke. We spoke about his craft, and his desire to make another movie, especially since he’s had an idea rattling around his head for a little while to make. But as he told me, he understands the nature of the business, and that it requires patience to create the movies he wants to make nowadays. All good things come to those who wait, and Nichols, shortly after being a member of the Cannes jury back in 2022, announced his next project, The Bikeriders. 

Nichols returns to the big screen with his latest film, The Bikeriders, which is a fictionalized account of a motorcycle club founded in Illinois in the 1960s. Inspired by the photo-book of the same name by author Danny Lyons, we follow the Vandals as they rise their group of misfits and outlaws into club that stretches beyond anything they could’ve imagine, leaving this once safe-haven for lost souls vulnerable to outsiders with more sinister intentions. At the core of the film lies a love story between Kathy (Jodie Comer), a young woman who falls in love with one of the bikers in the gang, Benny (Austin Butler), who is being looked at as a replacement for the leader of the Vandals, Johnny (Tom Hardy). Love, corruption, temptation, freedom; all tools that Nichols uses to invite us into this wild yet lonely world.

The film played to critical acclaim on the fall festival circuit last year but was delayed because of the 2023 WGA/SAG strikes, and even moved studios from 20th Century Studios to Focus Features, thus landing it’s released date this summer instead of last fall. I recently sat down with Jeff Nichols at a local dive bar in Austin called The Lost Well, which is described as an “Austin dive bar with a lust for rock and roll and motorcycles,” which expertly describes the vibes of the director’s latest film. We talked about crafting the film’s central love story, what his process is like working with actors, his future projects, and the sense of individual loneliness found in The Bikeriders. As we sat down, across from one another at this table in a bar contained the smells of beer, cigarettes, and pool table chalk coming together at once, we circled back to the last time we saw each other, at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival, where the film premiered as the opening film of the festival.

Ryan McQuade: I got to say hello to you really quickly before you premiered the film at Telluride. How did you feel that day?

Jeff Nichols: I was really nervous. I’d never been at Telluride before, which I didn’t really know how it worked. I didn’t really know how the audiences would react or not react, because all these festivals were a little different and Telluride was strange. I really enjoyed the experience by the end of it, but I was the first up, so when the movie ended and people just got up and left and I was like, “well, wait a second.” When I’m in France, they clap for 15 minutes.

RM: We’ve got to see something else in less than an hour is why everyone leaves. (Both laugh)

JN: That’s when I realized it was like, oh, everything’s programmed like that. And maybe people just wanted to get up and leave. But it was weird. At the end of it, I felt really bad. I really did. I was like, “oh man, maybe my movie doesn’t work.” And I don’t know. I went home and called my wife and was like, “Don’t make me do this anymore. I don’t want to make movies anymore. Come on.” She was like, “Just have a drink. Go to bed. Wake up tomorrow, you’re going to be fine.” And I was.

RM: Well, the film took an unusual journey for you. I mean, it goes through these festivals. We think we’re going to have it released in theaters last year. But obviously because the strike and everything else involved, it gets moved to a different studio.

JN: To Focus.

RM: To Focus. And so now that it’s finally being released, how does it feel to be able to get this in the theater finally?

JN:  I’m really excited, and people were telling me this back in November when all those changes were happening. Just, my wife especially, just be calm. The universe will work out the way it’s supposed to. The strike was pretty devastating to that push, but then it really became this other thing. I mean the strike’s the main reason, but it was also New Regency. It’s funny because, it wasn’t a Disney film, it was a New Regency film, and it still is. They basically have an overall deal with Disney. And they had released a Robert Eggers film, The Northman. They had done a co-financing deal with Focus, and they were really happy with it. It had, because of their… It has to do with money stuff.

RM Their model? Their way of releasing on home video?

JN: Yeah, because they have access to Universal and Peacock, the way their payouts worked made that movie break even when maybe it wouldn’t have in this other model. And I think New Regency, kind of after the fact, was looking for that again, honestly, to just shoulder their risk, partly because of the strike, partly because of the state theatrical release and everything else. So actually, that conversation had been going since September. So, I knew about it. I wasn’t in charge of any of it, and I was hoping. And of course, I loved the folks at Disney. They were great and they were really excited about releasing it. But then I loved the people at Focus too, because they had released Loving. So, I was going to be happy kind of either way. It was really just about New Regency becoming comfortable with the economics.

RM: When we talked the first time we met, you were in between projects-

JN: A long time ago. (Both laugh)

RM: And I asked you, “Well, what are you going to do next?” And you said, “I got this great idea.” And we joked about the finance and everything, and then this came to be, but this is not just an eight-year wait since you last film, but this is a 20-year project from when you first read this book.

JN: Yeah, 100%. We were ready to tell another story.

RM: So I want to go back to when you first found the book, and when you saw those images when you were reading it. What was it that struck you then to be like, this is something could special if I got to make it and what kept you coming back to the idea over the years until we finally saw this film?

JN: I mean, I don’t know why, I’ve just kind of always been obsessed with this time, and this music, and this look, and the greaser look and everything else, but that’s not really it. The truth is, when you look at Danny’s book, it’s like a how-to for an anthropological study of a subculture. It gives you everything you need to examine a subculture. It gives you the visuals, but it also gives you their psychology with the interviews. All you’ve got to do is come up with a story to hang all this stuff on. Easier said than done, but it felt like a real examination of outsider culture. And that really spoke to me.

I’m not a biker. I didn’t grow up in this world. I’m not really interested in biker culture. Contemporary biker culture doesn’t really interest me very much. Danny’s book interested me. And the movie really is a manifestation of that book. The feeling you get looking at it, the feeling you get reading it. That’s what I carried around for 20 years was that feeling of like, man, this is cool. Because it’s not all just even the biker gang stuff, it’s the dirt track races, it’s the women, their style, everything else. I was just kind of fascinated by the whole world.

RM: And then once you have this book and realize this is going to be your next project, what’s the research process been like for the rest of it? I mean, obviously you have this great book and it’s a testimonial piece of work. You’re just going to be able to use that as a important reference point. But to get to those specific details like the bar, or what type of music, or the clothes, the hairstyles, the accents, because the accents are such a big part of the film, too.

JN: They’re huge.

RM: What was the creative process like with your creatives, but also for yourself to see the vision that you wanted?

JN: The research all really came from Danny (Lyon). Every time I Googled “biker stuff” outside of Danny’s book, I just got freaked out. It was gross. And I just like, “ugh, this is scary.” I was like, “ugh, I don’t want any of that.” I want this book that makes me feel good. And so, Danny was great. He gave me tons of outtakes, because obviously you choose reasons for those photographs to be published as a photographer, there’s lots of reasons you choose those, but there were a bunch of others that didn’t make the cut, but that to me now, studying these things, it’s like you got to just see around the corner. All of a sudden, you’re like, oh, shit, that’s what that looks like. And he showed me outtakes of the bar. For instance, the fact that the front of the Stoplight Bar has all of that Midwestern glass block. That’s just a really particular thing to that part of the country. And we just feasted on all of those details.

But then he gave me all of the audio. He’d never transferred it from reel to reel. So, I paid to have it transferred and made digital. And I would just drive around and just listened to hours of these people talking. I mean, he would do things where he would set the reel to reel up in the middle of a meeting and just let it play. I could hear the music on the jukebox and you’re like, that’s the fucking Beach Boys. That’s Sloop John B playing. What a strange anachronism. And I would talk to him about music. But I have to say the research, it was all centered around the stuff he had. I didn’t really go outside of that. I didn’t really want to. Partly because I was terrified.

RM: You didn’t have to.

JN: And I didn’t have to. And it’s all I wanted. It’s all I needed. And so, when I called Jodie Comer, who’s read the script is like, “Yeah, this is really good.” I’m like, “Wait till you hear this.” And then I give her an hour plus of the real Kathy speaking, and she sounds just like her. Just like her. When I give Michael Shannon all of this audio of Zipco giving those speeches, and it’s like, well, you already sound like this, so that’s easy. But every character, I have this digital kind of grab bag of goodies and I was like, here’s your character. Here’s your character. Like Damon Herriman who plays Brucie. That was an amalgam character. I was like, so here’s five different things to listen to. And these actors, I mean, it was like Christmas for them, because they have all of this stuff. And it’s not just a photograph, although that’s a big deal. Brucie wearing white socks and loafers. It’s also, here’s how their brains work. Here’s how they regard themselves in society, positive and negative, because they talk about it, because somehow Danny got them talking about it.

RM: The vulnerability in those conversations is great.

JN: I loved it. I just loved it. It felt like real people. Because it was.

RM: The movie is a biker movie, but it’s a romance and most of the film is told and seen through Danny’s conversations with Kathy. She’s the lead but it’s Benny who is in the middle and he is caught between finding his paradise with the gang, but then finding maybe a way out with her. Could you talk a little bit about forming Kathy, Benny, and Johnny’s relationships to one another?

JN: It certainly is a love triangle in a non-traditional sense, because it’s not two guys fighting over a girl. It’s an older man and a younger girl fighting over this younger man.

RM: And for his soul, really.

JN: Absolutely. And what makes it tragic for both of those other characters is that I built a character inspired by a real woman’s words about a real guy. I built a character that was not made to hold other people’s aspirations. I’ve often referred to Benny as an empty glass. People pour things in him, they want things from him, and he can’t hold that. He can’t hold your wishes. He can’t hold Johnny’s needs, and he certainly can’t hold Kathy’s. He’s just not built that way.

And yes, I think it’s a bit of an oversimplification to be like, yeah, he’s the bad boy. Oh, yeah. It’s not really that. The guy, he’s weird. He’s got a weird psychology, kind of, of how he approaches life and a very ill-defined one because he’ll go fight and beat somebody up for this club, but he’s also not going to, he doesn’t want to take it over. I don’t want that responsibility. He says it. I mean, he says it very clearly. And so the idea that you would create this kind of empty vessel to be the center point of a love triangle, you’re just setting up trouble from page one.

RM: And the groups arc is honestly tragic. When Zipco, Michael Shannon’s character, is doing his monologue, and he’s bearing his soul, which is a lot of what, like you’re saying, was what Danny captured, but it feels very relevant in terms of whether it’s good or bad. There feels like people, outsiders right now, immensely throughout the world that just feel as if they’re detached, and they need a place to call home.

JN: One hundred percent. I mean, now more than ever, we’re in search of identity. Everybody wants it. Everybody wants to be unique. But because we’re humans, and we’re born of the herd mentality, we want to be around friends. We want to be around others that make us feel good, that further define that identity. Like the stranger the group is, the more unique your identity is. But I also think then you’re watching this other social structure happen on top of that. It feasts off of that individuality. It feasts off of that feeling of being not in the mainstream and wanting to be on the outside.

But it’s this other part of social structure where we can’t help ourselves and we start to make rules around it. And the whole reason why you left mainstream culture was because you didn’t like their rules. So you make up your own? That seems odd, but we do it all the time. And disaffected, I guess is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days, which is just new verbiage for outsider. And I think people feel like outsiders because they want to feel unique. And that’s okay. That’s a good impulse. But it sure can lead to some difficult things.

RM: And some really scary things. Like The Kid character played by Toby Wallace in the film.

JN: He’s of a different ilk. (Both laugh)

RM: Well, he takes the central idea of a broken family and a set of rules and then creates, kind of forms a monster out of it.

JN: Right.

RM: And there’s a corruption that happens a lot within the structure of a group like this, and when it’s broken, these characters have to survive. It feels very cautionary; be careful what you wish for when you create this crew or even try to go for this kind of life because it could still be taken by dangerous individuals at a certain point.

JN: It feels to me a little bit like Frankenstein, like Tom’s character builds this monster that comes to get him eventually. But it’s also interesting, I love Toby Wallace as an actor too, but I love that shot, that introductory scene of him seeing the club ride by when he’s stealing hubcaps with his buddies. But that same thing is basically what Kathy sees in the beginning when she goes on that ride with Benny. And the fact that you basically, it’s the same impulse but filtered through two different minds. One mind is quite damaged, and the other’s Kathy. That she could see this and be kind of brought into this romance and this beauty and he can see it, he just sees something entirely different. Power and violence.

RM: When looking through all of your films, and why I think The Bikeriders works the way it does is because of these wonderful actors that you have in it.

JN: It’s no joke.

RM: Can you talk about your approach of when you’re working with these actors and the relationship you have in terms of when you’re prepping a movie like this and the overall collaboration experience? Is it sacred to the text? Do you invite a lot of their thoughts and opinions into the process to then morph and change your characters as your filming?

JN: The text is pretty sacred. It doesn’t mean we’re not open on set. You have to be, you’d be foolish not to be. But I think the reason I get to work with great actors is because of my writing. Because I spent so much time outlining it. I’ll tell this anecdote. I don’t think Tom would be upset that I tell this. So, he’d just gotten a set and we were a few days out from shooting and we’re in the makeup trailer. We’re kind of figuring out how much stubble to have on his face, and his hair, and kind of stuff like that. And he has this wonderful makeup artist who’s this Irish woman who’s been with him forever. She’s lovely. And Tommy knows kind of, we’re feeling each other out like, “Ah, I think you should be clean-shaven.” He’s like, “I don’t really want to be clean-shaven.” Like, “Okay. What hill am I going to die on here?”

But then it kind of segues into him talking about that first scene with Kathy in the bar. And he’s like, “She gets up and leaves.” He’s like, “I’m the leader of the club. I should get up and leave her.” I was like, “No, no, no, no. You can’t.” And he’s like, “Well, why not? What are the lines?” His makeup artist starts flipping through the script trying to find it, and I just go, “ba da da da, da da da da, ba da da.” I was like, “And then the next scene with Kathy that you have is this.” I say those lines. Then I say the next lines. And I basically take him through the entire arc of that character. And he sits there, and he looks at me. He’s like, “You have all this memorized.” I was like, “I do, because I wrote it.” He was like, “So I should just do everything you say.” And I laughed and he didn’t laugh at all.

And I was like, “Well, it’s not a bad place to start.” But what he was giving me on that was recognition that I’ve done a lot of the work. And I told this to Austin as well. I was like, “Look, we can go out here and we can go find whatever you need to find in this character, but anytime you get lost, just ask me, because we always have where I started. That doesn’t mean it’s the best thing, but it’s always there and it’s for every single character, because I’ve done that, I’ve done that work. That’s my job.” Directing is the fun part, picking the shots and all that, that’s just fun. The writing is the work. And I think Michael Shannon has said it from the beginning. He showed up and did Shotgun Stories, not because of me, because of the script that he read. And I’ve been very, very lucky that actors look at my scripts and they see character in them.

RM: I think your filmography is one of the most fascinating ones we have because they are movies we don’t see a lot anymore.

JN: Thanks man.

RM: Your films are depicting moments of the soul of America in places and stories that we don’t talk about. For you going forward, is that something that you are consciously looking for in the next project? Are there particular things that you have found, or they’ve just found you along the way that you’re looking to creating as the next chapter of Jeff Nichols’ storytelling?

JN: I do want to make one more 1960s movie. It won’t be next, but it’s based off a David Grann article, Yankee Comandante. And it’s about the Cuban Revolution and it’s about an American from Ohio going down and fighting in the Cuban Revolution. That’s a movie I really want to make. I think, to answer your question though, the first thing that comes is some personal emotion. Some idea that I get really emotional about. When I think about Loving and him sitting on the edge of that bed saying, “I can take care of you,” even though we know he can’t, that gets me.

So, these movies are always going to have some emotional thing. But then I try and layer in a bigger thematic idea. The Cuban Revolution film has a big thematic idea in it. I’m working on adapting the last two Cormac McCarthy novels right now. The Passenger and Stella Maris. Talk about heady stuff. And that’s for New Regency, and then I’m trying to make this giant sci-fi film still. And it’s got a beautiful sentiment about the nature of home and what that means in real terms. So yeah, hopefully they’ll let me keep making movies.

RM: Do you worry about that? With the landscape of filmmaking changing? It’s different from when you made Shotgun Stories to now.

JN: Sure. It’s different. I mean, I certainly worry about it, but it’s one of those things too, I realize the only thing I can do is just sit down and write. I’ve just got to sit down and write. It’s the only solution. And so yes, the landscape’s changing, but also, I hold out a lot of hope for cinema. I really do. Not just because I love it, but because I’m from a place where there was nothing else to do on Friday night. And I think the coastal parts of this industry forget that. There are plenty of places where people want to go out and do something. And in a lot of places, one of the only things to do is go see a movie. And now that we’re over this pandemic, I hold out a lot of hope for the future of the cinematic experience. And I needed to hold out to it, because that’s what I write.

Focus Features will release The Bikeriders only in theaters on June 21.

Ryan McQuade

Ryan McQuade is the AwardsWatch Executive Editor and a film-obsessed writer in San Antonio, Texas. Raised on musicals, westerns, and James Bond, his taste in cinema is extremely versatile. He’s extremely fond of independent releases and director’s passion projects. Engrossed with all things Oscars, he hosts the AwardsWatch Podcast. He also is co-host of the Director Watch podcast. When he’s not watching movies, he’s rooting on all his favorite sports teams, including his beloved Texas Longhorns. You can follow him on Twitter at @ryanmcquade77.

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