Chopper (feature film) | Chopper (book)

Few Australian films have sparked as much controversy as Chopper, beginning well before it arrived in cinemas in 2000.

Why perpetuate the myth of Mark "Chopper" Read, career criminal and self-confessed killer, who was still in jail when he hit the bestseller list in the 1990s with a string of factually questionable memoirs?

Chopper | DVD Blu-ray
Eric Bana (Actor), Simon Lyndon (Actor), Andrew Dominik (Director)

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Chopper | Book Paperback
by Mark Brandon Read (Author)

Bullied at school and growing up dreaming of revenge, Mark "Chopper" Read determined to be the toughest in any company. He became a crime commando who terrorized drug dealers, pimps, thieves, and armed robbers on the streets and in jail-but boasts never to have hurt an innocent member of the public. His story is one of violence, betrayal by trusted friends, and murder. To read his book is to read a legend who has become one of Australia's-and now the world's-most unlikely literary success stories.

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The filmmakers and cast reflect on the iconic movie 20 years on

Death threats, a white witch, scared funding bodies and intensity were behind the cult film .

Few Australian films have sparked as much controversy as Chopper, beginning well before it arrived in cinemas in 2000. Why perpetuate the myth of Mark "Chopper", career criminal and self-confessed killer, who was still in jail when he hit the bestseller list in the 1990s with a string of factually questionable memoirs?

But the final product - with a mesmerising lead performance by Eric Bana, previously best-known as a TV comic - was unlike anything that might have been expected. Droll, alarming and strangely compassionate, Chopper quickly established itself as that rare thing, a true cult movie, its reported fans ranging from stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio to actual underworld figures in Melbourne and elsewhere.

With the film set for re-release in a digitally remastered edition, we asked some of the key players to look back at its making.

Chopper was the first feature film for both producer Michele Bennett and writer-director Andrew Dominik, whose collaboration began in Sydney in the early 1990s.

DOMINIK: It was sort of based on his books, originally. But then we got his arrest docket, which I think is in the back of one of the books, and it listed all the cops whod arrested him. And we started tracking them down, and they started telling us stories about who the guy really was, as opposed to the sort of myth of Chopper.

BENNETT: He did always say "Never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn" .

DOMINIK: He wouldnt meet us originally. Hed write letters. He did say in one letter that he wasnt interested in how he saw himself, he wanted to see how someone else saw him. But he had various caveats about what could and couldnt be in the movie. There was to be no drug usage, no violence towards women, and no poetry. And all three things were in the film , in the end. For a variety of reasons, the film took a while to get off the ground.

ERIC BANA: The one recollection I have is just how long it took and how precarious it always felt. It always felt like a project that could totally just have not been made.

SIMON LYNDON (Choppers frenemy Jimmy Loughnan): There were legal problems. There were people in court who were in the script. There were, if I remember right, even death threats made to one of the producers.

KEN SALLOWS (editor): Potential funding bodies were scared of it. Along the way, producer Michael Gudinski came on board through his newly formed company Mushroom Pictures.

BENNETT: He was a real motivator and when he believed in something he was 100 per cent behind it. Bizarrely, there were some distinct similarities between Chopper and Michael. They were both intuitive and charismatic. They were also both impatient and could not understand how long it took to get the film made. Bana was Reads own choice for the lead - but not everyone was instantly convinced.

LYNDON: I think the shortlist was Richard Roxburgh, Ben Mendelsohn, Russell Crowe, myself and Eric.

GREG APPS (casting): They did have a sales agent pull out because the sales agent said "No, no, we need a hugely experienced actor .

DOMINIK: His [Banas ] first audition was the sort of D-Generation version of the character. And I went down to Melbourne and spent a day with him. By lunchtime, I knew it wasnt going to be Eric. And then we kept going at it, and by the end of the afternoon I knew it was going to be him.

BANA: I was surrounded by so many cast members on Full Frontal who were not comedians in their background, who were straight actors, who were treating sketch comedy the way they approached a play or something like that. So maybe that did have a role in bridging the gap, not feeling as though it was a massive stretch to play something straight. Just as vital were the supporting actors, who drew on personal experience to varying degrees.

VINCE COLOSIMO (Choppers associate and rival Neville Bartos): I was born and bred in North Carlton, and as a youngster I was out and about in Melbourne in the 1980s and 90s, and I saw what Melbourne nightlife was about, some of the darker, seedier sort of places and then the big happening clubs. So I came across a lot of different people.

LYNDON: I come from a single mum, Ive hung out in Commission flats and all kinds of rough places. So I wouldnt say it was another world.

KATE BEAHAN (Choppers girlfriend Tanya): I got a job in a brothel as the receptionist. It was, to this day, the job that has most affected me. It was very hard. For Dominik and Bana, meeting the actual Read face to face was a turning point.

DOMINIK: I had this photograph of him [Read] - hes naked in the photo and hes got a glass of wine and a cigarette and hes covered in tattoos. And he was sort of a good-looking guy, in a way. And hes got a look of such pain on his face.

BANA: So much of his character was a performance ... but then there would just be the occasional quiet moment where you got a glimpse of the level of hurt and the level of damage and the level of seriousness that lay beneath the surface.

DOMINIK: Eric and I went to Tasmania and spent a weekend with him on his farm just after his release [from prison], and it was so stressful. He didnt talk to Eric. He didnt even look at him. I think he wanted Eric to watch him. And I became like the demonstration model in all of his reenactments of his crimes.

BANA: I remember coming away feeling totally exhausted. Id had so much input, my brain was just overwhelmed with information and observations of him. Much of the first half of the film was shot on location at Melbournes Pentridge Prison, which closed in 1997.

DOMINIK: H-division was great. It had a very kind of chilled-out vibe, like the polarbear cave at the zoo.

BENNETT: It had a corrugated tin roof, and we were filming in winter, and we were terrified of the noise of the rain. And we had a continuity person who told us that she could control that. She said she was a white witch, and it wouldnt rain. And it didnt rain during the day, it rained at night.

BANA: We shot the first half with one cinematographer in Pentridge, and then we took a production break, and then we had a different cinematographer in the second half. So it was almost like two different films.

DOMINIK: I had a pretty bad relationship with the DP in the first half of the movie, and got rid of him and got another guy, and things were much better after that. GEOFFREY HALL (director of photography, second half of the shoot): The way the film was always structured was thered be a downtime in the middle where Eric would put on weight for the later part of the film . So that was a good opportunity to solve that difference.

COLOSIMO: There was the pre-1986 part, Choppers time in prison, and then there was, by memory, a four-week break, while we rehearsed and Eric ate.

BANA: I had one meeting with a nutritionist. I knew there were no tricks to it.

DOMINIK: I think Eric was a much better actor when he was fat. You know, hes a lot happier when hes got food, you dont want to get in the way of him and his food.

COLOSIMO: I think that second half of the film was a lot more relaxed for everyone than the first part where theyre in prison, this contained area. HALL: It was very much a thing that when Chopper got out of prison, life was going to be full-on , focused, intense, and if there was a colour it was going to be an intense colour, compared with having been in prison, where there were just the white prison lights.

COLOSIMO: I remember having so much fun even in make-up , with Eric. Because Eric would be in make-up for a couple of hours with the tattoos and the hair and the [mutilated] ears. And Id be there for a good hour myself, with my tattoos and all the stuff that was happening to me. So within that time Eric would do impersonations, we would talk about things, we would laugh. It was sometimes the funniest part of the day. Although Read didnt come to the set, he was among the first to see the finished film .

DOMINIK: He just wanted a videotape of the movie, which we sent him. And that next 24 hours was just incredibly stressful. And then he rang me and he said "You must be psychic ... Who did you talk to?" He said it was incredible to watch the film because he [had] felt that, in his life, he was normal, like his reactions were normal. But watching the movie, he realised he was crazy. And he thought it was really accurate, and he seemed kind of moved by it. For other viewers, the film triggered a variety of strong reactions.

DOMINIK: I remember the first time we screened the film for an audience; theres that early scene when he stabs Keithy George [David Field] in the face, and then he starts apologising to him, and you could just feel the bottom drop out of the room.

APPS: They couldnt believe it. Eric Bana went up on stage at the end of it, and heres this lovely charming appealing guy, this leading man guy, and hes just played this animal in front of them. BANA: It wasnt like the film arrived and everybody gave a positive response and then just kind of moved on. Up until his death of liver cancer in 2013, Read continued to express mixed feelings about his portrayal.

DOMINIK: It wasnt like we were friends. But I did feel very close to Mark in a certain way, and I cared about him, because I spent so much time thinking about him. But its an unusual relationship. Its a weird thing to do, to make a movie about a living person who exists.

BANA: The person themselves might not understand the truth, what causes a lot of that behaviour, so what chance do you have yourself, as an actor? I always knew that Andrews portrayal of the character was a truthful one, and the truth is that hes this very intriguing, complicated, sometimes humorous character.

DOMINIK: The responsibility was to what I thought the truth was. Like, the things I did were things that Mark had said he wouldnt approve of, but I was gonna do them anyway cos it felt like a lie not to. But at the same time I always felt like the film was on his side, if you like.

Chopper will be released theatrically in Victoria, ACT and NSW in late September 2021 (currently screening in other states). Eric Bana and Andrew Dominik will hold a Q&A at the Palace Dendy Brighton when restrictions ease.

This article is from the August 28 issue of The Age Digital Edition. To subscribe, visit "".

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