FEw would be unfamiliar with Chopper, or the criminal, or the movie. The first is Mark Brandon Read, the notorious Australian gangster, bestselling author and serial crap spinner, who committed many crimes and claimed to have committed many more. The latter is the fantastic 2000 drama from New Zealand-born director and screenwriter Andrew Dominik, supercharged by a jaw-dropping performance from Eric Bana. The film returns to Australian theaters on August 26 in a celebration delayed by the pandemic of its 20th anniversary.
Making a good biopic is never easy, but making one about Read posed all sorts of challenges, including how to accurately portray the life of a compulsive liar. Dominik, speaking to me on the phone from the UK, says that Read “sold the myth of himself as a kind of Robin Hood character who stole from drug dealers and gave himself up, and was a protector of women, animals and young children, which was patent nonsense. “
The filmmaker relied on a massive police file that “basically explained Chopper’s movements over an entire six-month period of his life,” giving him the confidence to depict things the subject claimed he did not do, such as the use of narcotics: “Chopper was a drug user, he just claimed he wasn’t.”
A similar even more complicated dilemma was faced, in different ways, in the 2018 film Acute Misfortune (about artist Adam Cullen) and the upcoming Martin Bryant Nitram biopic: how to portray the personalities of difficult, toxic, and even lethal men without glamorize your behavior.
Guardian Australia’s obituary for Read, who died in 2013, details a difficult and crime-filled life that involved many arrests (one for kidnapping a judge, for which he was sentenced to 17 years). Some people claim that Chopper got his nickname because he cut off his ears; others attribute it “to his habit of cutting off the toes of his victims with pliers.” Read once said the New York Times: “Look, honestly, I haven’t killed that many people. Probably around four or seven, depending on how you look at it. “
The 2018 miniseries Underbelly Files: Chopper was a sobering reminder of what not to do, with its starkly simplistic backstory and suggestions that Read, seen kissing a baby at one point, was a great guy if only. you will get to know him. Dominik’s movie is different. It’s deep, dramatic, and sophisticated, skillfully fusing facts and myths.
He concentrates on Chopper and his Chopperisms, handing over many quote lines (“Do I look like Mark Brandon ‘Medicare’ Read?”) Without approving of his actions. So it is surprising when Dominik describes the film as “very understanding of [Read]. He’s on your side. “
The director continues: “At the same time, he is not blind to his faults as a human. He’s trying to show you those failures from a very human place. I think you can relate to Chopper, that people in general can relate to him, in an awkward way. His behavior was incredibly strange. But there had to be a logic to it, an emotional logic. “
When I suggest that it would have been disastrous for Dominik to have made a movie that was truly in favor of Chopper Read, he does not accept it: “I tell you, as a director, that it is pro-Chopper Read. Having said that, it is not favorable to their behavior. The truth is the truth and ethics has nothing to do with it, somehow.
“You can look at anyone with empathy or you can look at them with judgment or condemnation. What would be unethical for me would be to whitewash or condemn him.
“I guess he’s not pro-Chopper Read in that he describes the awkward part of what he does. But that only makes the person more interesting to me. More adorable, in a way. I find the virtuous are boring. Anyway, most of the virtues have not been proven. Most people are virtuous until they are given the opportunity to sell their soul and then they do it. “
Dominik tells me that the Navy Seals “love Chopper” and that “they used to draw little cartoons of him on their damn team.” These people, he says, “are mass murderers; a guy I was talking to had killed more than 100 people. “
Could this be an example of people embracing the movie for the wrong reasons?
Dominik pauses. “I don’t think so,” he says. “You are like a 20 year old boy, you have been trained to be the best of the best. Then the world goes to war and you fly in a helicopter to take on 300 armed insurgents. I think whatever helps you get through the situation … A lot of people like Chopper. I’m sure not all of these people are wonderful. “
Dominik is known for creating nuanced explorations of humanity and criminal mythology, from Chopper to Jesse James (in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and Charles Manson (in the Mindhunter TV show). “I am a playwright,” he says. “And drama is often about dealing with so-called baddies.”
Have you ever felt uncomfortable being “on the side” of the morally doubtful?
“I know very few people who are not morally doubtful,” he responds.
“[Are there] degrees? Yes. But in answer to your question: no. It is a character from a movie. I’m not marrying him. I am not trying to get you elected to public office.
“I wanted to make an honest film that explored the consequences of violence for the perpetrator of violence. If you want to deal with violence and you are interested in solving the problem, the person you have to deal with, the person you have to understand, is the person who is violent. Not his victim. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism