1960s rebel cool captured in ‘The Bikeriders’

Writer and director Jeff Nichols wanted to make the motorcycle film for two decades

Jeff Nichols, left, writer/director of “The Bikeriders,” poses with cast members Austin Butler, center, and Jodie Comer. The motorcycle is a 1965 Harley Davidson Pan Head that Butler rode in the film. (Chris Pizzello / AP Photo)

Jeff Nichols dreamed of making a film about a 1960s motorcycle club for more than 20 years.

The obsession started when he first read 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 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 ride at high speeds without wearing helmets. At some point, one of his stunt coordinators just said, “There is no way to make this 100% safe.”

“The Bikeriders” (which raced into theaters nationwide last 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 is really about nostalgia,” Nichols said. There is a sadness that comes along with that. But there’s also a joy in remembering it.”

Nichols has always had great luck with casting and 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 this empty cup everybody wants to fill with their expectations and responsibilities. He doesn’t want any of that,” Butler said. “That’s when he wants to cut loose and be free.”

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

One of Nichols’ most significant breakthroughs was realizing that 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 who 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 boring.”

Nichols mostly wanted to capture this time and culture and evoke the feeling he got when he opened “The Bikeriders” many years ago.

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 they become less affected when you put them in color. They become more realistic.”

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.”