Jeff Nichols’ latest film The Bikeriders may have only just torn through the festival circuit this year, but the filmmaker’s journey with the culture is one that started just about two decades ago, after happening on a photojournal by Danny Lyon that catalogued the photographer’s time with the infamous biker gang, the Chicago Outlaws, in the 1960s. The book is also called The Bikeriders, but it just as easily could have been called The Outsiders; it’s certainly the theme that leapt out of the book’s pages those years ago and enraptured Nichols’ imagination, and it’s the theme he keeps returning to during our conversation below. So much can be born from the feeling that one doesn’t belong—in this case, it was an entire subculture.

I bring my own copy of The Bikeriders to our interview, and he greets the book like an old friend, perking up in his armchair, beaming, flicking through the pages with care and familiarity. He points out that while all the images in my version are black & white, many of the photographs in the edition he was originally influenced by were rendered in colour, which explains why he chose to stylise his film adaptation in deep colours and vivid hues. “You can tell that these guys are dirty here, but when you see them in colour the textures are pretty remarkable,” he says, in his unmistakably Southern drawl. “Look, Rumblefish is one of my favourite films. There’s no doubt that black and white is beautiful, but I think it keeps you at an arm’s length. It’s an interpretation of reality that is that much further away. And I wanted to get closer.”

Below, Nichols talks about the dangerous truth at the core of radicalism, the beautiful tension in masculinity, and his singular interpretation of The Bikeriders.

Jeff Nichols
Jeff Nichols for A Rabbit’s Foot, London,2023. Shot on film by Robin Hunter Blake.

LUKE GEORGIADES: It’s been about 20 years since you first stumbled upon the book, and you once described the process of adapting it as something that terrified you. Why is that?

JEFF NICHOLS: The Chicago Outlaws. I didn’t want to step on their toes, I didn’t want to disrespect ‘em. [laughs]. I wasn’t trying to tell that story. I was trying to tell a story that gave you a sense of this world, and a sense of this time. I wasn’t trying to make a documentary about this specific club. So that was the first thing—am I going to get killed for this? Then there were other, more practical things…like, I felt very distant from this accent. I grew up in the American South, and this Midwestern accent just wasn’t a voice I was comfortable writing in, and I wasn’t at all a part of motorcycle culture. I wasn’t a biker. I wasn’t in a club. So it all just felt very foreign. But the more time I spent with the book, reading it over and over again, and listening to these audio recordings of the real people talking, I became more and more comfortable with the idea of me being the one to bring these voices to life. It just took time to not feel like a complete fraud—everything I needed was already given to me by Danny and these characters.

LG: Do you feel like despite the setting your Southern sensibility seeped into the film?

JN: It’s always been interesting to show the South in my films because people will come up to me and say, “you know I’m not from the South, but I have relatives that are just like this”. And they’re not talking about the voice, they’re talking about the personalities. It’s a working class culture, and I think you can find it everywhere. You can find it in London, you can find it in Ireland, you can find it in Upstate New York. There’s a universal personality trait to working class culture. So that gave me a little bit more confidence. Although the voice is different, the same things that attract me to Southern characters are the same things attracting me to these characters. So in that sense, I guess it does creep in. 

LG: What is it about Danny’s photographs that communicate something integral about this culture?

JN: What Danny does is he photographs people. His photographs aren’t about motorbikes, you’re really looking at these human beings that are part of this subculture. And that’s what attracts me to it. The bikes, the hair, the clothes are amazing to look at. But so are their eyes, the details in their faces, the cuts and the wrinkles in their skin. I see people there. You can take landscapes forever and it won’t match the intensity of a photograph of a person. Danny has a beautiful ability to become a part of these people’s lives, and so they let him in. You can feel it in the interviews—there’s no filters there. And in this day and age, it’s nothing but filters. Everybody’s putting forth an idealised version of themselves, so to open a book and see this unvarnished truth of humanity that is still romantic and still beautiful, was really compelling. 

LG: Well put. How did your perception of this subculture change from when you first picked up the book to when you started and eventually wrapped filming?

JN: I tried not to do a ton of research, I know that sounds strange, but the more I looked into these clubs, the scarier it got, and I found some really dark stories out there. The kind of stories that make you not want to be a part of this world at all. There was this balancing act that was happening between this idyllic version of what this world was, which is the first hour of the film, and the reality of what the world became, which is the second hour of the film. I needed both. I wanted both. Because only having one would have been a lie. But to allow it to get too dark…not only would I have lost the audience, but I would have lost myself. I wouldn’t be into it anymore. It was a balancing act between those two feelings, because when you look at Danny’s photos, you’re not repulsed…

LG: I would even call his photos nostalgic.

JN: It is absolutely nostalgic. I want that feeling in a movie. So there needed to be some temperance, me saying to myself, ok..I’m now going to fictionalise these characters, and they’re going to become what I need them to be, to bring out the feeling in audiences that I got when looking at the book.

Jeff Nichols
Jeff Nichols for A Rabbit’s Foot, London,2023. Shot on film by Robin Hunter Blake.

LG: What did the younger generation of bikers misinterpret about this subculture, that they took it and twisted it the way we see in the movie?

JN: They didn’t create it, they co-opted it. There was a feeling that initially drew the original bikers together, and I think this is true for any cultural cycle in society. It’s an ill-defined feeling, but It’s a feeling that you’re more comfortable in a different set of clothes, or in a different environment, or a different voice. And then you find other people who feel like that, and you form this group. But the impetus that takes you there is real and it’s true. Not the same for these other guys—they’re not showing up because they simply feel like outsiders, they’re now seeing a thing that they want to go and be a part of, and those are two completely different motivations. One is more organic and one is more aggressive. That’s the main difference between the older guys and the younger guys. 

But then you look at the pragmatic stuff: that at a certain point there was just this shift between the beer drinkers and the pot smokers. You think about these guys who had been in WW2 or Korea, and they were more fifties guys. Think about the shift between The Wild One and Easy Rider. And these are the guys who like to watch The Wild One. The other guys are the guys that like to watch Easy Rider. It was a cultural shift—they had different ideas of what it meant to be an outlaw and an outsider. That meant different things in 1959 than it did in 1973. That’s why so many people are fascinated by the 1960s in America…it was a rapid shift in cultural movements, like we’ve never seen before and arguably since.

LG: Do you think it was The Wild One that emulated biker culture or was it biker culture that was emulating The Wild One?

JN: That’s a great question, yeah. It becomes a thing of these groups being inspired by The Wild One, but then at a point, Funny Sonny gets paid five bucks to sit on a motorcycle to attract people to go to the movie theatre to see Easy Rider. It feels like he’s an affectation of himself. At what point are you the guy who creates the mythology, and at what point are you just playing the role that people have now projected on to you? At some point in the late 60s the bikers start to become a mirror of themselves—they’re not the real thing. They’ve walked into this culture, they didn’t figure out that they wanted to put these vests over their leather jackets…that look had already been established for them. It’s the question of, at what point on this timeline does it start to become fake? Does it start to become separate from its original inspirations? We can’t know exactly, because it bleeds out gradually. But I am fascinated by the shift.

LG: What are your thoughts on the very specific brand of masculinity inside this subculture, and how that evolved as the culture evolved?

JN: I think today it’s become almost fashionable to knock masculinity. It’s the safe thing to do. But, I think that’s dangerous, because there are aspects of masculinity that are very valuable, very romantic, and I think, too, very human. When you’re looking at these guys, if you want to you can simply dismiss them, but if you watch the film you start to see how their brains work, and hopefully you start to identify with them a little bit. Not feeling like you belong, that’s something that everybody feels. It should be a unifying trait. But for some reason we don’t treat it that way. Everybody feels alone. Until they find this group of other outsiders or weirdos or freaks or anything else. And that’s real. What this film is ultimately saying about masculinity is that there’s this tension in it. There’s this tearing between false notions of masculinity—that we can’t share our feelings, that we have to be tough, that we have to be the protectors—versus the reality of masculinity—that there’s real beauty in some of those same ideas, there’s real attractiveness. There’s a tension. We’re fighting with ourselves to be good human beings, to be productive human beings, not to be aggressive, not to be violent. But at the same time, there’s something powerful about violence and aggression…so we’re kind of fighting with ourselves trying to define masculinity. The film shows that, Kathy shows that. It doesn’t really give an answer to that tension, but it brings out the truth in it. I hope so anyway.

LG: Do you think this kind of subculture could thrive in the present day?

JN: I think it does. I mean, look at the Proud Boys. The impetus that drove those men together was very similar to the impetus that drove the Bikeriders together. It has nothing to do with politics, it has to do with not feeling like you belong. You can’t really put it into words at first, you just know that you feel comfort in other people agreeing with you that they don’t belong either. But then, just like everything, you take disaffected people, and you add ideology to it, and that’s when it becomes dangerous. It’s all over the world. 

LG: Maybe even more so now that people can form those communities online.

JN: Radicalisation is really terrifying. But actually, radicalisation comes from a really pure place, otherwise it wouldn’t work. Otherwise you couldn’t fall under the spell of it. There is something real at the beginning of all that, of all those feelings. You feel like you’re losing something in society, you’re disaffected, you’re on the outside, you’re losing control, you’re losing a way of life. All of those things are real feelings. But it’s when groups take those and weaponise them that things become really dangerous. I don’t think the intention ever from the beginning was to create a group of drug dealers or this violent thing, the intention of these motorcycle clubs was: “look man, I just like riding motorcycles and I don’t feel like I quite fit in a 9-5 job and wearing a tie, so imma just dress like this.” And because of that it’s an interesting thing to look at. Because it’s not like looking at a radicalised militia, those groups went too far to examine them that way, but it’s an interesting thing because I think the impetus is the same.

the bikeriders film
A still from The Bikeriders (2023).

LG: Austin Butler as Benny reminded me a bit of Joaquin Phoenix’s character in The Master, maybe because he’s untameable in a similar way. You’ve mentioned that you didn’t add very much to the page for Austin to work from. What compelled you to approach the character that way and how did Austin respond to that?

JN: Austin just brought so much more to it. Because he is just so much more. The guy is a pretty profound heartbeat. And my idea for Benny is that he’s an empty glass, he has no bottom. He is not designed or built to hold the aspirations of others. And this woman and club leader want things from this guy, and they’re putting things on him, and he can’t bear the weight of them, he’s not designed to hold their dreams for them. The design of him is to start as this very attractive, very appealing, strong silent type but if you pull the thread on that a little bit more, where does that take you? The most heartbreaking moment in the film is when Kathy confronts him after the red dress scene. And he says to her: “What did you think this was? What did you think this was ever going to be?” And the reason why it’s so tragic is that we all know, and Kathy knew, that he was right.“ Why did you ever look at me and think you were going to get some other result? I literally have a middle finger sewed to my jacket!” [laughs]. It’s heartbreaking because she knows he’s being honest, but that doesn’t mean you’re not pulled in by it and attracted by it. And it’s not about being attracted to the bad boy—that’s a silly reduction of it. It’s about wanting more freedom in your life. It’s about wanting to experience life in a passionate way. It’s easy to look down on it and it’s easy to look down on people who have fallen for that. But I think we’re being dishonest when we say we don’t want the same thing. In that way, Benny’s very honest, and Kathy’s even more honest. She’s just tryna taste something in life–but it’s dangerous.

Jeff Nichols
Jeff Nichols for A Rabbit’s Foot, London,2023. Shot on film by Robin Hunter Blake.