Chronicles of a fun-loving criminal

Chopper, a warts'n'all portrait of killer and best-selling author Mark Read, beat Mel Gibson's The Patriot at the Australian box office. But making it wasn't easy. As the film's producer and director tells Fiona Morrow, when they began Read was in prison and looked set to stay there. Then he got released...
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It's ten thirty in the morning and Andrew Dominik is deep in conversation with the PR about which brand of fags he wants. After a good three minutes of serious consultation he settles on red Gitanes - apparently the strongest easily available. He shrugs: "The Camels here are shit."

It's ten thirty in the morning and Andrew Dominik is deep in conversation with the PR about which brand of fags he wants. After a good three minutes of serious consultation he settles on red Gitanes - apparently the strongest easily available. He shrugs: "The Camels here are shit."

Next up it's coffee; the machine in the bar isn't working and, noting that I am early anyway, he insists we just chat until he's had his fix. We meander into the basement which too is suffering from morningitis, its grubby sofas, stale air and general murkiness screaming hangover from every corner. It isn't pleasant, or comfortable, but it's perfect territory in which to discuss Chopper.

Based on the life of notorious Australian gangster, Mark "Chopper" Read, Dominik's début feature is a low-budget tour de force. A disturbing exploration of the paranoid banality of violent crime, Chopper filters accepted notions of morality and behaviour through the mind of an unhinged criminal who is as quick to apologise to his victims as he is to stick a knife into their flesh. It makes you laugh when you know you shouldn't be laughing, but it avoids that horrible habit of turning its subject into a hero; no one (sane) will leave the cinema wishing they were Chopper Read.

Until now, Read has been the author of his own mythology. Having spent most his adult life in maximum-security prisons with convictions for arson, armed robbery, manslaughter and kidnapping a judge, he's penned nine books on his life and misdeeds, and sold around half a million copies in his homeland. Described as a natural raconteur, he knows how to spin a yarn, but Dominik points out his recollections aren't always reliable. "Generally people do have the most amazing ability to rationalise away their behaviour," he tells me. "And Chopper's ability is just very extreme."

Indeed. This is a man who acquired his nickname from his penchant for denuding his victims of their toes, and who lopped his ears off in protest at prison policy.

Dominik saw Read's life as a means to investigate the consequences of crime on the perpetrator - something which had always fascinated him: "The decision to do Chopper was based on that being part of the question," he posits. "Along with the fact that Read was so unrepentant on the one hand and entirely apologetic on the other."

But it was absolutely not what producer Michele Bennett thought suitable material for her first feature film outing: "I suppose you would call Mark's first book, From The Inside, an entertaining read, a rollicking journey through crime," she explains. "But there are enough films happy to do that, and I wasn't interested in joining them."

Dominik persisted however, and once Bennett realised the director's interest lay in less obvious areas, she bought the rights: "Andrew wanted to explore the subtext," she tells me. "The way Read recounted his anecdotes revealed so much about his personality."

It wasn't an easy project to get off the ground and, in the three years it took to reach pre-production, the team's relationship with their subject had altered: "In 1993, when I bought the rights, he was in prison at the Governor's pleasure," Bennett recalls. "Basically it was an indeterminate sentence which meant he could have been in forever, and we had no reason to believe he would ever get out."

So Chopper's release in 1996 cast something of a pall over the production: "I had laughed it off whenever anyone brought up Read's possible reaction to the film," Dominik admits. "But when we were at a point where the film was actually going to exist, and he was going to see it, it did weigh on my mind. It was very frightening."

"Oh yeah, I was frightened," Bennett concurs. "And I had to deal with him constantly on the phone - I was always worried."

The problem was Read expected a crime caper with him centre-stage and in control; Dominik was never going to provide it. "I depict him as a very frightened character, a creature of anxiety and we were terrified of his reaction because the film portrays him as using drugs, a police informant, hitting his girlfriend, generally insecure and not in control of himself. I was doing things which had the potential to upset him and the consequences could have been very bad for me."

In an attempt to mute this effect, Dominik put a disclaimer on the film, describing it as fictional biography, but, he says, it's only cosmetic: "I haven't taken Chopper as a springboard and then made it all up."

The main bones of contention are the drug taking and the girlfriend-beating, and producer and director offer different responses as to their basis in fact. While Bennett is happy for those scenes to be covered by the disclaimer as an "interpretation of what might have happened", Dominik says he is certain of their veracity: "I know that Chopper took drugs," he insists. "I know it. And as for the girlfriend stuff, well that's something it's best for me not to comment on, because Mark is someone who is in my life." He looks up, adding meaningfully: "If you know what I mean."

It sounds like a line from a dodgy soap opera, but there isn't a trace of irony: neither Bennett nor Dominik give the impression they would dare to completely trust Read, although I sense that Dominik likes him more than he's prepared to let on.

The director originally asked Read to collaborate on the script: "He wasn't interested - he was genuinely curious to see how a so-called normal person perceives him." They have met twice - once in prison, and again after Read's release. The latter occasion was to introduce Eric Bana, the actor who plays Read to his real-life character, with the added irony that Read himself had suggested the stand-up comedian for the role.

"He's weird, Chopper," Dominik smiles. "He's kind of psychic - all along there were these little things he said, which were just completely right." He also, luckily for Dominik, likes the film: "He feels that we've taken the trouble to present more than a glib caricature of him, and that while the picture is not entirely flattering, it is compassionate. The film was made with love, and I think he appreciates that."

Not everyone was so thrilled. When news of the film reached the Australian media, the production was vilified for increasing the profile of such a violent criminal. "The right-wing media took the position that his was a life that was off limits," Dominik recalls with a sneer. "But movies are not moral or immoral, they are either good or bad."

And, he suggests, the motives of the media are suspect: "There was one week when I was doing a lot of radio with right-wing shockjocks - those sanctimonious, self-righteous bring-back-the-death-penalty, get-all-those-dolers-back-to-work guys. But none of the talk-back callers would agree with them and so they dropped it. It's amazing - they have these moral positions, but if they can't find any support for them, they'll just change them."

He pauses, before adding, with mock profundity: "And that's morality as it works in the modern world."

But push him on his own moral code and the director is similarly opportunistic: "When I work in commercials I essentially lie for Proctor & Gamble, for money. If you're making a Nestlé ad and [their sales of powdered milk] are responsible for infant mortality in poor countries, then that is more morally wrong than making a film about Chopper Read which shows him as he is."

I agree, so are Nestlé commercials where he draws the line? Dominik shrugs, "Depends on how much money I've got. If I'm really poor I'll do their ad.

"...These moral issues begin at home," he continues, unprompted. "It's about how you raise your own children, how you treat the people around you. And I think that with the rise of capitalism and the breakdown of the nuclear family, we are much more mentally ill in general as a society. Much more incapable of intimacy and much more self-centred."

I ask him where he places the blame and he practically spits his response in my face, revealing a deep-seated conservatism which takes my breath away in its vehemence: "People like Chopper are angry and violent for very good reasons, they didn't wake up one day and decide to be nasty. And with his upbringing what chance did he have?"

Just as I'm wondering whether it's the chain-smoking or the caffeine kicking in, Dominik loses it: "Why the fuck do people have children? As soon as they're born, as soon as they're old enough, they bang them into childcare so they can have careers. If you're not going to take care of your child, why have it in the first place? What is it, a fucking fashion accessory? A fucking pet?"

'Chopper' is released 24 Nov