Killer Instinct: The Making Of Chopper

May 13, 2020
2000’s Chopper now stands as a bona fide Aussie classic, but its path to the screen was long, troubled and tortured.

INTRODUCTION…

It made Eric Bana a star; introduced a dynamic new director in Andrew Dominik; further stoked the reputation of late standover man Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read (who passed away in 2013); became one of the biggest hits of the local industry’s history; and is quoted regularly and passionately by its massive fan base. Chopper is a one of a kind cinema experience.

When Australian cinema was in the middle of a sweet, quiet lull, with the audience coddled into a false sense of calm by a string of light, quirky comedies, Chopper emerged from the darkness and tore into the local cinema scene like a wolf ripping its way through a flock of complacent sheep. Directed by debut filmmaker Andrew Dominik – who had an award winning list of TV commercials and music videos to his name – Chopper is driven by the same kind of hot-wired intensity and warped humour that made Mad Max and Romper Stomper such indelible Australian classics. The story of Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read – a Melbourne crim with a vivid sense of humour and skill for self-mythologising who found fame and fortune as an author and media cause celebre – is one of reckless brutality, uncompromising violence and stunning characterisation. And Eric Bana’s channelling of the now mythic figure is a work of towering genius. But just how do you make a modern masterpiece?

Eric Bana in Chopper.

CAST OF CHARACTERS:

Andrew Dominik: Writer/Director

Michele Bennett: Producer

Al Clark: Executive Producer

Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read: Standover man, ex-con, author, musician, raconteur

Eric Bana Plays Chopper Read

Simon Lyndon Plays Jimmy Loughnan, Chopper’s one-time ally and friend

Vince Colosimo Plays Neville Bartos, Chopper’s friend and enemy

Kate Beahan Plays Chopper’s girlfriend Tanya

HOW TO SHOOT FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE: INSPIRATIONS

Andrew Dominik: “It was mainly Chopper’s book From The Inside. I was initially drawn to the sensational elements. Basically the guy was very funny. The real thing that got me was that he seemed to have mixed feelings. He’d be proposing this ‘I regret nothing’ façade, but then a couple of chapters later he’d be describing these dreams where his victims come back to him. He struck me as someone who had really mixed feelings about the things that he’d done. I wanted to show the consequences of violence for someone who perpetrates violence. We hear a lot about victims of crime and how violence affects them, but violence affects the perpetrator of crime too.”

Mark “Chopper” Read: “I didn’t realise it until I watched the film that I did have this regretful quality after doing these things, and I had this habit of apologising. But you know, it was me or them.”

The real Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read with Anthony Keidis.

PULP FACTION: THE REAL MARK BRANDON “CHOPPER” READ

Mark “Chopper” Read: “I cut my ears off before anyone had even heard of Quentin Tarantino. He should have contacted me for technical advice.”

Michele Bennett: “We spoke to Chopper often and he is a prodigious letter writer. I found him very easy to talk to. He is very personable and quite knowledgeable on a number of subjects. People who disapprove of him wouldn’t agree, but I think he’s quite astute and intelligent in many ways. He also had a spooky, prescient ability to sense what was an issue at any given time. If music was something we were deliberating over, Chopper would ring and mention how much he liked a certain song. It’s difficult to carry the responsibility of telling the story of someone who is alive, let alone a stand over man. It weighs on your conscience, and when you are trying to make a film, this is hard. On the one hand, we tried to be objective and dispassionate so as to get a rounded impression of him, and yet the very nature of making a film requires you to be passionate and obsessive. It helped that he didn’t read the script at all. We didn’t have to consider his input and we could put off thinking about how he would receive the film. This nerve wracking moment came later, just prior to the film’s release.”

Andrew Dominik: “When you trawl through someone’s life, you get past the sensational aspects. What I saw was a very fragile and lonely person underneath all that stuff. That’s when I really fell in love with the whole idea – where you take someone who’s very brutal, and show that they’re very fragile too.”

The real Chopper, as featured in the hilarious special features on the Chopper DVD.

Michele Bennett: “I never felt nervous while making the film except for a few days immediately before filming began when one of [Chopper’s] associates took to ringing me at night suggesting that I ‘do the right thing by him’. I was staying in a hotel in St. Kilda, which was the same prefix which came up on my mobile. I couldn’t really concern the production staff or Andrew about this because we were about to shoot, so I just told my sister what was happening and hoped that it would go away. I was too busy to worry.”

Andrew Dominik: “I tried to give Chopper a script and he wouldn’t take it. I knew the film that I wanted to make. But if he hadn’t liked it, I probably wouldn’t have done the film. I would have adjusted it to suit him. He’s a really complex person and I don’t quite know what his motives are for not reading the script. It could be that if he thought he didn’t like it, the film wouldn’t happen, and he wanted the film to happen. Or it could be that he’s actually interested in how someone who’s not immediately involved in his circle would see him. I don’t know.”

Mark “Chopper” Read: “This film, without meaning to, is almost 95% true. Andrew stumbled into the truth.”

Andrew Dominik: “It basically just boiled down to what I believed and what I didn’t believe. We didn’t really get into that stuff. It’s got to feel true, and it’s got to feel real before I do it. You’ve got to believe that he’s killed nineteen people. But a lot of people don’t believe that. I think Chopper’s a very creative guy, and I think his lying and storytelling is all connected. He’s a good storyteller.”

Kate Beahan: “The truth is I’m not sure it was morally right to make the film in the first place. It’s a great film, but the mere act of making a film about a mass murderer – a film which is based around the cult of his own personality – is glorification.”

Michele Bennett: “Personally, I thought Chopper should have been entitled to some type of payment for giving us his life story. In my opinion, he had served many years in prison and should be given the opportunity to make a fresh start in life. I was also affronted by charities that refused his offer to donate what would ordinarily have been his fee. It’s interesting that they came back later after having had a change of heart once the film was released.”

Mark “Chopper” Read: “What did Kris Kristofferson say [in his song ‘He’s A Pilgrim’]? ‘He’s a poet, he’s a picker, he’s a prophet, he’s a pusher. He’s a pilgrim and a preacher and a problem when he’s stoned. He’s a walking contradiction.’ That just about describes me…describes a lot of people.”

Chopper writer/director Andrew Dominik.

“WHERE’S THE FUCKING MONEY?”

Al Clark: “Michele Bennett and [executive producer] Martin Fabinyi, who had been trying to set it up for some time, called me in 1997 to say that they were stuck and asked if I would consider joining them to help move the project along. The script was terrific, so I talked to them and Andrew Dominik to work out what my job was going to be. The idea was that I might bring a fresh, lateral perspective to things – who to re-approach and how, who to disregard, what combination of finance might work, what casting would generate interest, and so on. Projects lose their lustre after a time in limbo, even good ones, and it’s important to keep them lively and fluid. Once, when Andrew was only making a few changes to the previous draft, I even suggested he change the typeface as well, so that when people who already knew the script received it, there was a subtle shift in the way that they approached reading it. I was particularly preoccupied with how to pitch it to potential financiers. Of course, the function of a pitch is not to encapsulate the story but to excite the imagination. On my way to a meeting with Film Four in Cannes, I was trying to decide how to convey in a few seconds the film’s ideas about celebrity and delusion. An Australian criminal is not that interesting to people in countries that have their own. ‘It’s about a guy who thinks he’s in Goodfellas, but he’s really in The King Of Comedy’ was how I began. I think that got their attention.”

Michele Bennett: “Every film is difficult to fund. Chopper was difficult for a number of reasons. First of all, although I thought it clearly had commercial potential given the local success of Chopper’s books, this same awareness and notoriety also worked against us. There were moral and ethical objections to a film being made about someone who had admitted to killing nineteen people. Victims of crime organisations protested strongly, and this negatively affected funding options. Government bodies in particular were very wary. We had just managed to convince one state funding body about the creative merits of the film when Chopper was released from prison and made his infamous appearance on Elle McFeast’s TV show [where he appeared in a state of drunken belligerence]. Coincidentally, production funding from this organisation was then not forthcoming. Legally, it was a bit of a minefield. There were a few occasions where we reached an impasse and just had to come up with a fresh approach to move forward. Eric Bana was also, for the most part, considered a crazy choice for the lead role and really made it difficult to get an international sales agent. I’d say that added a year to the development of the film. He was definitely worth waiting for though.”

Al Clark: “I was intrigued by the idea of the self-mythologising criminal, but aware that the actor who played him would have the film resting on his shoulders.”

Eric Bana in Chopper.

CHOPPER’S WISDOM: CASTING ERIC BANA

Mark “Chopper” Read: “He looks a bit like me. That’s why I picked him. He’s a good character actor…comedians are good character actors. The person that had to play me had to be a good character actor, and he’s a good character actor because he’s a mimic.”

Eric Bana: “Chopper mentioned my name, and I don’t think anyone actually paid any attention to him. It was actually the casting director, Greg Apps. It was his idea and he auditioned me without Andrew knowing on videotape in Melbourne. Andrew then flew down to Melbourne and we did some stuff together and I got the part, so it was just the normal audition procedure. I was just part of the cattle call. I was more than happy to audition. Greg Apps is not the kind of guy who thinks that because I’ve got a background in sketch comedy that that’s all I could do. He thought outside the square. Thank god! So he was the one, along with Chopper, who thought that I’d be the right person.”

Michele Bennett: “Chopper was getting frustrated with the length of time it was taking to cast the role and he didn’t think it was ever going to get made. He pretty much said, ‘For God’s sake! Cast somebody… anybody! What about that guy that does Ray Martin impersonations?’ I didn’t want to discount anything, so our casting director chased up Eric, who was on his honeymoon. When he came back and tested, we were pretty excited because he delivered a very different performance to most people. It was very ‘still’ – he didn’t clutter it with the usual idiosyncrasies and characteristics of a criminal. He also gave us ‘bigger’ impressions; more like impersonations, I suppose.”

Eric Bana in Chopper.

Andrew Dominik: “Can I believe this guy as Chopper? That’s all that was important.”

Al Clark: “I felt that if we cast Eric rather than one of the usual suspects, he would change the perception of the project – comedian as criminal! – which was the case when we went back to funding people who had already said no.”

Andrew Dominik: “Eric was just the best. I tested everyone you could think of. It’s a very difficult part to cast. It would have been easier if Chopper was an historical figure, but there was a certain anthropology involved in making that part. Eric’s just fucking amazing. He was actually Chopper’s idea. It sounded like the looniest idea. When Chopper suggested him, I looked at his TV show, and thought, ‘What the fuck is he thinking?’ So it was all in his tests. It was only after I’d cast him that I watched his TV stuff.”

Al Clark: “I remember Russell Crowe’s screen test for The Crossing and Guy Pearce’s for Priscilla, and the fact is that when something like that happens, it’s just undeniable. After seeing the first cut of the film, I actually sent Eric a handwritten fax acknowledging his extraordinary performance. I decided that if I phoned, I was going to gush too much.”

Michele Bennett: “Our instincts guided us in standing behind Eric for the role. I never understood why it took so long for other people to see it after they had seen his test. After Chopper, Andrew and I developed a script based on a Jim Thompson novel [The Killer Inside Me] which ran into the same problems that we had with Chopper – we wanted a certain great actor who at the time couldn’t green-light the film at the budget required. You then have to make a decision about whether you want to compromise right from the start or stand firm and hold out.”

Vince Colosimo in Chopper.

HELL HATH NO FURY LIKE A MATE SHOT IN THE ARSE: THE SUPPORTING CAST

Vince Colosimo: “Growing up in Melbourne, you heard a lot about the notorious Chopper Read. I also met a lot of those kinds of people – those crazy, over the top Neville Bartos characters – and I knew roughly what they wanted. When I auditioned for the role, I thought, ‘This is a great part.’ Andrew Dominik let me carry on and ad lib as much as I wanted to. It was a lot of fun. It’s always a problem when you really, really want something. When you don’t want a role, you tend to go in really relaxed, but when you really want something, it can be quite scary.”

Simon Lyndon: “Andrew Dominik didn’t want to see me or Eric Bana! He had other people in mind, and he didn’t have much insight into us. But [casting director] Greg Apps did, and he suggested us. I guess I did an okay screen test. Andrew said that the voice suited the character, so that was helpful. I dyed my fuckin’ hair for the day and tied a towel around my guts to make myself look bigger. I got into character before I went in, and I walked in with that kind of energy. So I wasn’t like me…which was good because Andrew didn’t want to see me. Once I’d been cast, we rehearsed the history. Chopper and Jimmy got up to all kinds of mischief, and we just went back and ran through all of that. When they tried to escape and ended up hiding out in a storeroom for days, when they got up onto the roof of the prison…that kind of shit. We didn’t really rehearse the actual film at all. Andrew was smart like that; when you do all the history, you just know what to do on screen.”

Eric Bana and the real Chopper.

CHOPPER…MEET CHOPPER!

Eric Bana: “I insisted on meeting him. There was no way I was gonna knock it back, and it was extremely beneficial. And not just for the obvious stuff, like being able to pick up every mannerism. When you meet someone, you get a much better idea of their whole being, as opposed to seeing them on a video screen or something. You get a sense of their presence that you don’t get on a TV screen. People go on about the presence of people like Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali, and I watch documentaries, and to me they’re just like anybody else. But when you meet these people, there is something about them. Chopper is one of those people. There’s something very empowering about him. I remember being quite affected.”

Mark “Chopper” Read: “Eric took off the psycho stare really well. He got the way I walk down too. I’m flatfooted. I’ve got this kind of duck walk.”

Michele Bennett and Andrew Dominik on the set of Chopper.

FROM THE INSIDE: SHOOTING CHOPPER

Eric Bana: “The first time I read the script, I knew that this wasn’t being done by some suit out to make money. It’s by someone who really knows the subject matter and who has a really good take on it.”

Michele Bennett: “When development became fraught with public outcry and legal concerns, we were in so deep that I didn’t consider letting go. Besides, we didn’t have anything to compare it to. For all I knew, this was just how difficult it was to make a film.”

Simon Lyndon: “On the first day of shooting, Andrew said, ‘By the end of the week we’ll know if we’ve got a film.’ He had to do a couple of big scenes in that first week.”

Michele Bennett: “The shoot itself was relatively okay, though it was pretty gruelling for Eric and Andrew. We were very lucky with the weather. We did change cinematographers mid-way through the shoot, as Andrew and Kevin Hayward did not see eye to eye. Geoff Hall took over the second half of the film and made that transition very smooth for all concerned.”

Eric Bana and Kate Beahan in Chopper.

Al Clark: “It was clear that Andrew and Kevin Hayward – who shot all the prison scenes – had conclusively fallen out. Geoff Hall really helped to steady things; his considerable competence aside, Geoff has the perfect temperament for neutralising a crisis.”

Andrew Dominik: “Because we didn’t have much money, we really decided to use light instead of art direction. We didn’t want a film that looked boring, so how can we avoid that with the money we’ve got? The intention was to exaggerate the colours, and bleach the film so it all hangs together. But it wasn’t a big priority for me. The priority was the characters.”

Kate Beahan: “Andrew Dominik doesn’t really relate well to women. He didn’t speak to me on set, and didn’t do much in the way of directing at all. I didn’t hear from him for a year after the film came out. Then he told me I was great in the film, and that I had exceeded his expectations.”

Simon Lyndon: “The shoot was pretty smooth. The script was great and everything was kind of done, and we nailed some good scenes. There were a few scenes that didn’t work…it either worked or it didn’t, and there wasn’t much in between really.”

Andrew Dominik: “There were just some magic days there, where Eric disappeared. He was Chopper, and he could do no wrong. He also saw a lot of things in Chopper that I didn’t”

Vince Colosimo: “There were a lot of laughs on the set. Quite often we would have to reshoot a scene over and over just because we’d keep cracking up.”

Eric Bana in Chopper.

BANGED UP: SHOOTING IN PENTRIDGE PRISON

Mark “Chopper” Read: “I miss Pentridge. Some of the best years of my life were at Pentridge. They didn’t like me much there…but I didn’t set out to be liked.”

Michele Bennett: “We shot in the middle of a Melbourne winter and for three weeks we were situated in H Division of Pentridge Prison, which has a corrugated tin roof – it’s very noisy when it rains. Our continuity person had confided in me that she was a white witch and assured us it wouldn’t rain. Miraculously it rained at night and stopped most mornings as we rocked up to set.”

Andrew Dominik: “Filming there was a real priority for me because we couldn’t afford to build Pentridge. You think it’s going to add to the performances. We shot a lot of the stuff where it actually happened. But you’re there for two days, and you just fuckin’ forget. It’s not a jail, it’s a film set. I remember just walking in there and just being so disappointed. I had visions of this grand place, and it’s like walking into a submarine or something. My first thought was, ‘How am I going to move the camera around?’”

Eric Bana: “We actually had access to the parts of the prison where some of the events actually happened. The scene where I get stabbed actually happened right where we shot it, so that was a bit surreal. Recreating that stuff was a bit weird. It was actually a fantastic working environment because there was no one walking past, and it was a very closed set. There’s also something about working in enclosed spaces that sets you on edge.”

Simon Lyndon: “I wasn’t taking much notice of ghosts or ghoulies or anything…we were just trying to get through the day. But looking back on it, we were probably surrounded by them.”

Eric Bana in Chopper.

THE BIG EAT: TRIMMING DOWN AND BULKING UP TO PLAY CHOPPER

Eric Bana: “We shot the prison sequences with the young Chopper, and then we shut down for four weeks so I could beef up to play the older Chopper. I ended up putting on thirteen kilos in four weeks. I just pigged out on milk, beer, donuts and fried food. It was a weird experience. I had a detailed meeting with a dietitian for insurance purposes. I wasn’t that concerned about my health because I knew that it was only for such a short period. It was so good for myself and the character. There’s a real stillness about the character in the second half of the film that I think really comes from me being so big. But then afterwards, I thought ‘Fuck, this is never gonna come off!’ But my wife gave birth to our son just a week after we finished shooting, so I was kept pretty busy. It was just perfect timing.”

The Australian Chopper poster.

THE BREAKOUT: RELEASING CHOPPER

Michele Bennett: “When we were about to release the film, we had an injunction placed by someone close to Chopper who thought that she was being defamed, when in actual fact she was not actually portrayed at all. This gave one of the distributors the jitters, and meant that Palace Films had to carry what was quite a large and potentially risky release entirely on their own.”

Mark “Chopper” Read: “I don’t know why it got an R rating. There’s only one stabbing and a shooting incident. I think that’s why it didn’t win an AFI Award [for Best Film – it lost out to Looking For Alibrandi]…they didn’t want to give it to an R rated film.”

Eric Bana and Simon Lyndon in Chopper.

NO TEARS FOR A TOUGH GUY: CHOPPER IS A HIT

Michele Bennett: “You can’t predict how a film will perform unless you have a megastar actor, and even then it’s not assured. A good film will always find its audience… maybe not theatrically, but at some point. There was a certain level of awareness for Chopper, which was reassuring, but his notoriety might also have worked against us. I remember viewing the film objectively just prior to locking it off and it hit me what a good film it was. I felt sure that others would see that too if they managed to see it. Palace did a great release and word-of-mouth really worked as well. Chopper did well in the UK on a cult level, and then performed well on DVD. In the US, it was critically acclaimed but didn’t set the box office on fire. I think the humour and the vernacular is peculiar to Australia and the UK.”

Eric Bana: “It obviously went beyond my wildest dreams. At the back of my head, I knew that if the film was great, then it was obviously going to do great things for me. I wasn’t so naïve as to think that wasn’t the case, but it even went beyond what I’d envisioned as being wild. There’s no way that I expected people like Jerry Bruckheimer and Ridley Scott and A-list directors and producers to see the film and then want to talk to me. You’d be a wanker to be thinking that kind of stuff.”

Eric Bana in Chopper.

HITS AND MEMORIES: CONCLUSIONS

Eric Bana: “I certainly got a taste of how popular Chopper is when I was in Tassie. [Eric Bana had just competed in Tasmania’s Targa Rally at the time of interview] Chopper plays well down there, let me tell you! I wouldn’t mind having shares in the DVD! I do want to sit down and watch it, but I haven’t gotten around to it…”

Simon Lyndon: “It took us about a year or so to appreciate the film, because it was a bit of a head fuck, you know? For each of us, in different ways. They cut the first third of the film, and that would have been a head fuck for Andrew and Michele, you know? Andrew spent seven years of his life on this, and he’s a really focused motherfucker. Near enough is nowhere near good enough.”

Al Clark: “It’s a unique film. There’s nothing quite like it. I thought it was a completely distinctive film, full of boundary-stretching moments, with an almost supernaturally good central performance – and fun too.”

Simon Lyndon: “Chopper’s a fucking interesting guy and he’s a great storyteller, so to make a good film about him is really something special. It’s just good to see a good film, because so many of them aren’t. It was a big moment to just do something that you’re happy to be a part of…it just took me a while to appreciate it. I was able to go to England, and having a movie out made it easier to get work. I did a movie in Serbia after that, and got interesting jobs. Sometimes I must have a certain look about me, because I either get recognised all the time, or not at all. Sometimes people might say, ‘It’s a bit early in the morning for kung fu, isn’t it?’”

Eric Bana in Chopper.

Simon Lyndon: “I bumped into Chopper in Collingwood. I’d always wanted to meet him, and I tried to before we started filming, but I don’t think the producers really wanted me to. So I went over and introduced myself and he looked me up and down like, ‘Who the fuck are you?’ Then I told him that I played Jimmy in the movie, and he said, ‘Right, right…so why wasn’t I invited to the premiere?’ I must say that I went away thinking, ‘He’s got a point!’ I met his little son Roy Read, but he was mainly grilling me about money. ‘[Co-producer] Michael Gudinski pulled in about 156 million worldwide and I’m going bankrupt!’ But I wasn’t the one with the answers for him!”

Eric Bana: “I look at the film in a couple of different ways. The first half of the shoot was ridiculously unenjoyable, and the second half was a lot of fun, and the kind of zone where you hope your movie-making enjoyment comes from. The first half of the film was not an overly pleasurable experience with Andrew, and on the second half we really started to enjoy ourselves. I almost look at the film in two halves. There was a hell of a lot of desperation around the film. It was up and then gone, up and then gone. It was a rollercoaster ride leading up to the actual shooting period and then it’s had a few different lives. It was the life of sitting around, waiting for it to happen, rehearsing it, treading into the unknown, and making my first feature film. It was quite complex, and quite massive in a lot of ways – emotionally and physically – but it was also a very rewarding film to be involved with.”

Mark “Chopper” Read: “It’s no longer illegal what I do these days, but it’s bloody criminal what I get away with.”

Eric Bana in Chopper.

OUTRO…

Chopper was an epochal piece of Australian cinema. The critics raved, it scored at The AFI Awards, and audiences not only flocked to the film in droves, but then took it into their hearts with a strange kind of passion, eventually establishing Chopper as a true piece of (demented) cinematic Australiana, rumbling strangely down the same highway as classics like Mad Max, The Castle, Wake In Fright, Muriel’s Wedding and Picnic At Hanging Rock. It launched Andrew Dominik’s rocky international career (he has only made two feature films – the masterful The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford and Killing Them Softly – since the release of Chopper, though he has Blonde in post-production now), and made a star of Eric Bana (he followed up the film with Black Hawk Down, Hulk and Troy), with the film seen by all the “right people” in Hollywood. Michele Bennett and Al Clark have continued to bring great Australian stories to the screen; Kate Beahan has enjoyed a successful international career; and Aussie comedian Heath Franklin has built his entire act on impersonating Eric Bana’s performance in the film. Aaron Jeffery made a solid fist of playing Chopper Read in a Channel 9 telemovie, but Eric Bana’s shadow hung dark and low, ultimately putting the entire production in the shade. The late Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read might now be a dark-hued, controversial folk hero, but no matter how many times he might eventually be essayed on screen, Andrew Dominik and Eric Bana’s depiction of this brutal force of nature will likely always be the best…

With warm thanks and great indebtedness to all who contributed their time for interviews and made this article possible. Additional reporting by Anthony Pancia, Emily Lawrence and Hudson Bawden. Additional sources: Chopper: Special Edition DVD (Palace Films/Fox Home Entertainment), Chopper: The Screenplay (Currency Press) and The Age.

 If you liked this story, check out our features on the making of Two Hands, Animal Kingdom, and Ned Kelly.

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