Andrew Dominik: Twenty Year Reflections On Chopper

August 26, 2021
As his bloodstained classic Chopper roars back into cinemas on its twentieth anniversary, writer/director Andrew Dominik revisits his often bruising experiences making the film.

“At the moment, I’m kind of like a homeless gypsy,” Andrew Dominik laughs to FilmInk on the line from London. “I usually live in LA, but at the moment, I’m here in London. I’m cutting a music film that I’m doing for Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. It’s a film of a little concert that they did.” Is it easy being a country-hopping cinematic gypsy in the COVID era? “It’s actually not that difficult,” Dominik replies. “There’s a bit of a process but it’s not that complicated. You have to be COVID tested three times and you have to quarantine for three days, but that’s about it. London and New York are pretty much back to normal now. Some people wear masks, but that’s about it. Everyone’s vaccinated there, unlike in Australia…for some reason, Australia can’t sort out how to vaccinate 22 million people.”

With truisms like that, there’s no better time to take a trip down memory lane. Andrew Dominik is on the line to talk about his debut feature film, Chopper, which bashed its way into cinemas twenty years ago. The film will now be re-entering theatres to celebrate, giving those who have only discovered the film on DVD and television in the ensuing years the chance to see it loud and large on the big screen. The filmmaker will even be teaming with the film’s leading man Eric Bana for a via satellite live Q&A session to reminisce.

Andrew Dominik with producer Michele Bennett on the set of Chopper.

Dominik remembers the release like it was yesterday (“It’s like we blinked, and we’re twenty years older,” he laughs. “How did that happen?”), even though he’s had a fascinating if not exactly prolific career since. He’s made two superb films with producer and leading man Brad Pitt (the 2007 western The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford and the 2012 crime drama Killing Them Softly), as well as the bruisingly intimate 2016 Nick Cave doco One More Time With Feeling and a few episodes of David Fincher’s excellent TV series Mindhunter. Right now, Dominik is sitting on the feature Blonde, which is cut and ready for release next year. “It’s amazing,” the director says. “I’m so happy with it. This was supposed to be my second film…I’ve been trying to make it for years. Everything else was sort of a plan B.” Originally slated to star Naomi Watts, Ana De Armas now takes the title role in this adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ fractured telling of the story of Marilyn Monroe, which also stars Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale and Julianna Nicholson.

For Dominik, however, it was Chopper that started it all. His first feature after a successful career in music videos and TV commercials, the film boasted the breakout turn from comedian Eric Bana, who disappeared into the character of real life criminal and author Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read. “It was my first feature, and I didn’t even know if I could do it,” Dominik says. “I thought that I could it, but I didn’t know that for sure. I made a lot of mistakes on that film with the way that I did things, but I managed to get rid of them or cut around them or whatever. I remember being scared a lot of the time that what I was doing was crap, but it wasn’t.” When FilmInk asks Dominik if he would in hindsight reconsider taking on such a complicated film for his debut, he answers with a very simple, “No…no, I wouldn’t.”

Eric Bana, Simon Lyndon and Dan Wyllie in a scene from Chopper.

As with the film’s subject himself, a huge mythology has grown around with the film, with reports now common knowledge of its temporarily halted production, the various difficulties that arose during its shoot, and the anger that raged from certain groups that the film was even being made. [Much of this is documented in FilmInk’s exhaustive making-of feature on the film, which you can read right here.] With the now passed Mark Read actually involved with the film in various capacities, it’s no surprise that Chopper became so controversial. “He didn’t want to speak to me at first,” Dominik explains. “I wanted to go and meet him as soon as we got the rights. He was in gaol and he didn’t want to meet with me. I remember him saying, ‘I’m not interested in what I think of me, I wanna know how someone else sees me.’ I kind of took him at his word. But after doing just a little bit of research, it became obvious that a lot of what was in his books was patently bullshit. They were great criminal yarns that he’d gathered from all sorts of sources and then he’d stitched them together with himself as the central character.”

When Dominik began researching the film in earnest, he talked with the various police officers that had arrested and dealt with Read, many of whom he’d accused of being corrupt. This meant that they’d kept a very close eye on the career criminal when he was outside of prison, pretty much marking down his every movement. “Somebody had this document in their garage,” Dominik snickers. “That’s when I got really interested, because you could see that his behaviour was so strange…all that stuff about shooting people and taking them to the hospital, and three different stories about what happened on this occasion and that occasion. Then I really started to get into it, and I started to make a much more realistic film. The first version of the film in my head was more like a Tarantino film or something like that. That’s what the first draft was like.”

Andrew Dominik on set.

Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read did, however, eventually deign to meet the man who was going to make a film based on his life story. The pair finally met up in Tasmania, where Read was serving a sentence in prison. “He just told story after story after story,” Dominik says. “Meeting him was so important. I could get a real sense of him, because he would get very emotional about certain things. So much came out of those initial hours that I spent with him. It was such an extraordinarily valuable experience for me at that point. The script was very much drawn from that. And then, just before we were about to shoot, he got out of prison, which raised everyone’s hackles. When we got the rights, he was supposed to never be released from prison. I was a bit worried because I was doing things in the film that I knew would upset him. But he ended up keeping his distance.”

Chopper of course famously suggested that Eric Bana – then a TV comedian with no real dramatic acting experience – play him in the film. Dominik also famously relented, but once veteran casting director Greg Apps got Bana on tape, the deal was immediately sealed. “As soon as I saw the tape, I was like, ‘Fuck, this is a good idea!’” Dominik laughs. “So Chopper was always there…he was always in the background. He was never on set though. He didn’t contribute to what the story should be, apart from the fact that it was his life. So much of the film was just verbatim dialogue that just came out of his mouth. Eric and I spent a weekend with him in Tasmania where he just talked and talked and talked, and a lot of that stuff found its way into the movie.”

Eric Bana in Chopper.

Despite the litany of aforementioned problems that plagued the film, Dominik has no trouble when asked to name the biggest challenge that Chopper – which ended up taking up seven years of the director’s life – presented to him. “Raising the money,” he laughs. “Raising the money is always hard. I mean, everything about making the film was hard, but the one thing that you have no control over is whether someone is going to finance the film or not. That’s always very tough. It’s also very tough if you’ve got a certain way that you see the film, but there are other avenues to getting it made that you have to resist, and it means that you don’t get to make your film, you know? There might be a way to do it, but you know that it’s not going to be the best film, so you have to say no…and it ends up costing you two years of your life, or something like that. That’s always the hardest thing.”

Without one question one of the most quoted Australian films in cinema history, Chopper is packed-to-busting with both seminal scenes and slabs of dialogue that have literally entered the cultural lexicon. Did Dominik foresee any of this kind of thing happening? “Eric and I both had a real sense of how funny Chopper was,” Dominik replies. “But certainly nobody else working on the film thought that we were making a comedy. It always seemed pretty funny to me. The whole ‘no cash here’ scene just happened on the day. Phil Jones, the first AD, suggested that he parrot the lines. We went to dinner the night before and we were all just shouting the lines, drumming them into Vince Colosimo. Obviously you never know that your film is going to enter popular culture. My favourite thing was a political cartoon in one of the newspapers. It was John Howard on the phone to George W. Bush talking about sending military aid. He says, ‘No, we’re not sending choppers, we’re sending Chopper!’ I loved that! That’s when I knew that I’d done something that had really cross over. But it’s a pretty weird movie really when you look at it. There are a lot of long scenes with people sitting around talking.”

Eric Bana in Chopper.

Though other actors have played Chopper since, Andrew Dominik gets most excited when FilmInk mentions Aussie comedian Heath Franklin, who has pretty much made a career out of impersonating Eric Bana embodying Chopper to great comic effect. “I fucking love that guy,” Dominik howls. “I love that guy! Chopper’s weather report! ‘It’s gonna be fuckin’ hot!’ He’s hilarious. I love that stuff like that has sprung up around the film…it’s much better than making a film that nobody cares about!”

Does Andrew Dominik have any thoughts on why Chopper has embedded itself so powerfully into the national consciousness? “I don’t know, but I think there’s just something so distinctly Australian about it…it’s like AC/DC or something, you know?”

Chopper: 20th Anniversary with bonus extra footage is in selected cinemas in WA, SA, NT and QLD now and opening in VIC, NSW (regional), ACT late September. Check cinemas for details. To read FilmInk’s in-depth feature on the making of Chopper, click here.

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