Jeff Nichols on ‘The Bikeriders’ Going Head-to-Head With ‘A Quiet Place,’ the Movie He Almost Made

The filmmaker also tells TheWrap about taking inspiration from “Goodfellas” and why the film moved from 20th Century to Focus

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Jeff Nichols and Austin Butler on the set of "The Bikeriders" (New Regency/Focus)

Talk about a bumpy ride.

New Regency’s “The Bikeriders,” which examines 1960s biker culture through a fictitious midwestern club, debuted at the Telluride Film Festival at the end of August to warm reviews. It was scheduled for release in December, from 20th Century Studios (a division of Disney), which automatically earmarked it as an awards contender, but the film was postponed due to the strikes and pulled from the release slate. The movie might be all mood and atmosphere but it needed its all-star star cast, led by Jodie Comer, Austin Butler and Tom Hardy, to be able to sell the film. And then … nothing.

Shortly after Disney removed the film from their schedule, Focus Features (a division of Universal) announced that they had acquired it. It would be forgoing the holiday corridor for a new date: June 21, 2024, a little less than a year after it first debuted at Telluride.

Jeff Nichols, who wrote and directed “The Bikeriders,” said that stories about the movie’s distribution had been “misreported.” “There was a misunderstanding of how the film got built in the first place,” Nichols asserted in an interview with TheWrap, where he also discussed the irony of opening near “A Quiet Place: Day One,” the film he nearly made before “Bikeriders.”

Nichols is the Arkansas-born filmmaker behind “Take Shelter,” “Mud” and “Midnight Special” who has become a favorite for his naturalistic, deeply felt approach to cinema and his ability to transcend genre. “The Bikeriders” blends Nichols’ lowkey style with a star-studded ensemble, taking inspiration from a surprising place (more on that later).

What makes the release of “The Bikeriders” even more interesting is that it’s practically opening right against Paramount’s “A Quiet Place: Day One,” a movie that Nichols was initially supposed to write and direct before departing over creative differences. It hits theaters next week. “That’s, I guess, ironic,” he acknowledged.

Why Nichols left “A Quiet Place”

Looking back on his experience on “A Quiet Place,” Nichols said that he was approached by John Krasinski, the writer and director of the first two films. “He was a fan of my films and was asking me if I wanted to make this prequel,” he recalled. “At the time, the calculus was, well, those movies are pretty good. And I liked what they said about sacrifice and family. It felt thematically in line with some of the stuff I had made. I hatched an idea of how to how to approach it in a way that I felt comfortable with, that he seemed to like. I was like, I think this is a movie that could get made.” Nichols submitted a version of the script.

“It’s hard to say this without sounding pretentious but I’ve made enough films at this point in my career, that if I do this, it’s going to become my film,” he said. “And the truth is ‘Quiet Place,’ those are his films.” The decision to part ways, he explained, is “not about ego, it’s about process.”

“At some point, you realize, it’s never going to be my film. It’s better if I just step away and let some other people do that,” Nichols said. And so he did, and instead he made “The Bikeriders.”

Not that he’s totally gotten the big budget sci-fi movie thing out of his system. He’s got a project that was once earmarked as a potential “Alien Nation” reboot at 20th Century (before the Disney acquisition) but has since reverted to Nichols. He’s developing that now at Paramount. But he knows that could take a while. “Those are particular stars that have to align,” Nichols said.

He prides himself on being nimble. He remembers wanting to make “Take Shelter,” his 2011 thriller starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, for $2 million. Instead he was offered $650,000. “We can figure it out. We would pull an alternative in the indie film world. But you can’t really do that with a giant sci-fi studio movie,” Nichols said. “It’s on me to have multiple projects that if the stars aren’t aligning on this one yet, go do something else.”

The distributor swap

That something else was “The Bikeriders,” but just as the film was due to be released last fall, it got pulled by 20th Century and moved over to Focus Features. What happened, exactly?

New Regency, Nichols explained, was really the keeper of the film and has been “really extraordinary” throughout its long road to release. The production company paid for the production. “They’re the ones that really took the financial risk on the film, but they’re on the Fox lot, so they have a pop-up deal with Disney,” Nichols said, nodding to the multiyear distribution deal that New Regency renewed with Disney in 2021. That deal resulted in the releases of New Regency films like the sci-fi blockbuster “The Creator” last year and David O. Russell’s 2022 drama “Amsterdam,” two films that disappointed at the box office — “The Creator” grossed just over $100 million against a budget of $80 million while “Amsterdam,” despite its star-studded cast, went bust with a $31 million gross on an $80 million budget.

In 2022, New Regency struck a deal with Focus for Robert Eggers’ Viking extravaganza “The Northman.” “They really liked that experience,” Nichols said, pointing to the output deals with Peacock and “other things.” That film, despite disappointing at the box office (it grossed just $69 million worldwide), eventually turned a profit thanks to overperforming on PVOD.

“They were looking at that landscape, with the added pressure of the strike, and they wanted to share the burden of that risk,” Nichols said of New Regency’s position ahead of the planned release last fall. So they worked out a deal with Disney and took the film to Focus Features. “That was kind of happening in the background. And New Regency has been so good to me. Transparently, I knew it was all going on,” Nichols said.

Where it gets twisted, according to Nichols, was in the reporting that Disney had dropped the film. “Well, no, Disney actually wanted to release the film. But they were essentially a service company for New Regency. And it made more sense in this particular situation for New Regency to go with Focus,” Nichols said.

“That reporting? That’s what stung. You’re in the middle of it, you’re continuing with the strike. And now this industry publication that should understand how this movie works and how the studio works, they’re writing about it incorrectly. That was frustrating.”

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Austin Butler in “The Bikeriders” (New Regency)

Nichols described the process as “carrying this thing that’s very delicate and you want to get out in the world in the best way you possibly can.” He remembered thinking, We’re all just trying to save this industry. We’re on the same team. “But that wasn’t the case. That’s not what it felt like,” Nichols said. He was particularly frustrated when the news of Disney taking “The Bikeriders” off the calendar couldn’t be immediately followed up with the Focus Features announcement, because negotiations were still ongoing. Instead, they had to wait two days.

Now, Nichols said, he’s glad that his film is coming out in the summer (although he admits that when they made the change he was “really nervous about it”). And he’s extremely grateful that the movie is opening with the full support of Focus, with whom he teamed on his 2016 biographical drama “Loving.”

“It feels like they’re really trying to make an event out of it, and I’ve never had that for one of my film releases,” Nichols said of how Focus is handling “The Bikeriders,” arguably his most commercial project since 2016’s Warner Bros. release “Midnight Special.” He pointed to Butler and Comer attending the Indy 500 and the glut of billboards around town. “People keep texting me about seeing the trailer all these different places and we’re releasing in over 2000 screens. I just hope people come out see the film,” Nichols said.

A long time coming

Nichols has been working on “The Bikeriders,” based on the book of photographs by Danny Lyon (played in the movie by “Challengers” star Mike Faist), for a while. In 2003 his brother gave him the book and he “became obsessed with it.” He would talk with Michael Shannon, his longtime collaborator, about it. In 2017 Shannon told him, “Nichols, you are never going to make that movie. You’ve been talking about it for 13 years.”

“I just needed to find the right time in my life to sit down and write it,” Nichols said. He remembered finishing the scripts to “Take Shelter” and “Mud” around the same time. Shannon asked if he wanted to make “Mud” first since it seemed, to him, “simpler” than “Take Shelter.” “I was like, ‘No, I’m not ready. I need to make a second film first, because I don’t have the directing chops yet,’” Nichols said. “I felt that way about ‘The Bikeriders’ for a long time.” Nichols had a loose outline of how he wanted the movie to feel, “like this hybrid narrative/documentary.”

He imagined what would happen if you sent a documentary crew back in time to make a 1960s biker film. He also had to get comfortable with the material – the Arkansas native didn’t grew up in the Midwest or around motorcycle culture. “It took a long time for me to be with that material and work it out so that I felt like I could tell this complex story, because it’s structured in a really strange way. And you have this toolkit, essentially, in Danny Lyons’ book, which are these photographs,” Nichols said. “But then you have the interviews which are unvarnished, complex, dangerous sometimes cool. When you combine the two, you have the full breadth of subculture. I didn’t want to screw that up. It’s like you have all these good ingredients. It just took me a while to figure out how to put them together.”

And while there used to be gang movies released fairly regularly – “The Wanderers,” “The Warriors,” “The Outsiders” – Nichols didn’t look to those films for inspiration, instead zeroing in on Martin Scorsese’s immortal “Goodfellas” as his North Star. He said the movie is “really an examination of the subculture.”

“He really understood that subculture and wanted to depict it, and the first hour of that film is very enviable,” Nichols said of “Goodfellas.” In the first hour there’s no real plot, which Nichols admired. ”It’s really a film about what it feels like to be a gangster. And the particulars of that world.” The magic trick of the movie, Nichols said, is that it remains entertaining “with no plot, where you’re just describing a world.” So he looked at the first hour of “Goodfellas” and asked himself: How do I do that?

“That was really the film that I was looking at the most in terms of structure. And how to build this thing that was compelling to watch. But I didn’t have to have a day-to-day plot driving that that narrative,” Nichols said. “That’s a complicated thing to try to work out.” But eventually, he did. And you can see the results when you hang with “The Bikeriders” this weekend.

Comments

One response to “Jeff Nichols on ‘The Bikeriders’ Going Head-to-Head With ‘A Quiet Place,’ the Movie He Almost Made”

  1. JJ Sprowl Avatar
    JJ Sprowl

    Enjoyed this review; thanks! With so much of what’s being made for theaters (G animation at one end and horror at the other of the spectrum), I looked forward to the R-rated The Bikeriders. A thoughtful film intended for adults! And it was good, some of the scenes brilliant. Certainly worth seeing, with the sound and visuals playing well on the big screen.

    *SPOILERS*

    Most compelling is the understated charisma and pathos of Austin Butler (no unusual accent, generically American as his character from the midwest and Florida would have). His character arc, filling the frame from film’s start to close, is steep and believable by his seamless acting. Also enjoyed the performances of Tom Hardy and Jodie Comer whose unusual accents (while authentic to the story) I had to overlook but found less noticeable after the early visual immersion through AB/Benny in his club colors at the unfriendly bar. Michael Shannon as usual elevates whatever he’s in.

    No false notes from any of the cast, and this is tribute to them and to Jeff Nichols’ direction. And yet, the total filmic story itself versus the vibe and look of the film didn’t quite add up, not because of acting but because the solo auteur-written screenplay limited the film’s palette.

    AB seemed particularly “real” in the early MC culture, not like he was embodying an obviously underwritten role, so that his acting choices fully matched outward circumstances as he matured and the club changed. Now, 50+ years following the start of the Outlaws (the MC on which The Bikeriders’ Vandals MC was modeled), the Outlaws is the second largest MC in US after the Hell’s Angels, the Bakersfield CA chapter of which was reportedly arrested after ATF investigation for major crimes in June 2024. AB’s character Benny was one of the bikers who didn’t stay for that deeper criminality, and this was extremely well played despite his love for the roar and speed of bikes on the wind.

    Indeed, I like the cast so much (Austin Butler, Michael Shannon, Tom Hardy, Jodie Comer, Mike Faist, Boyd Holbrook, Norman Reedus et al.) that I repeatedly saw The Bikeriders (3 times over 2 weeks), hoping to understand why Jeff Nichols undersold some of his key actors by a screenplay only he wrote. In the end I found the film being really good but not great a feature of its writing.

    For instance about wasted writing opportunity, with the three leads in what’s marketed as a sort of love triangle with Austin Butler in the middle, there’s not one kiss despite AB and JC quickly becoming married in the movie and TH — who mainly ignores his wife and daughters at home — nearly salivating with desire every time he’s around AB.

    We see TH at home to get a sense of his domestic vacuity, but while in the midwest (most of the film) we never see AB and JC together at home except briefly for one argument. He never kisses her, and she never kisses him. (What a waste of AB’s on-screen rizz. He conveys passion or at least affection by his gaze and how he touches her in one scene after he’s injured, but what a waste of young Hollywood’s most kissable mouth.) In a later scene where TH could have followed AB after AB turns to walk away in rebuffing an offer about the motorcycle club, TH does not come after him to say “wait, I really need ya,” and then move in for a kiss where AB could have simply said “I’m not with you,” and kept walking away. From that all the action would have proceeded more plausibly for the rest of the movie.

    These small changes, or something similar would have filled in personality and interest regarding AB’s character, left too deliberately a blank if outwardly beautiful slate by Nichols’ writing. (With so bankable a young actor coming off Dune2 Feyd-Rautha success, Nichols missed box office as well as creative opportunity.)

    I’m not a screenwriter, only a professionally trained mainly technical writer who off the top of my spitballing head came up with what would have developed the characters and plot in a way that didn’t leave a gaping hole and waste acting talent. Imagine if Jeff Nichols had actually had pro screenwriting input to his script! But Jeff Nichols apparently disdains the maxim of “two [sometimes more] heads are better than one,” in that he reportedly never uses a writing team or script editors. And it shows. He could have definitely used the inputs of others for writing The Bikeriders as for other of his films that didn’t do nearly the box office their casts should command.

    In Nichols’ past, Mud bogged down in audience boredom with the second and third acts, yawn. With two global super stars (and the incomparable Sam Shepard), Mud as his best film at the box office should have done 5x or more its 10M budget globally. Take Shelter was good because Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain are great. Same for Loving with Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton (where there was boredom with screenplay’s mid-section that likely affected WOM for the majority not enamored of great acting regardless of plot).

    As a fan because I love film as an art form and value the hard and dedicated work of our best actors, I’ve seen lots of movies, plan to continue and wish the film industry every blessing for theater big-screen robustness. Yet I also wish every innately talented auteur director like Jeff Nichols would consider screenwriting collaborators (or at least substantive script editors) from an audience-viewing perspective — instead of privileging a particular screenplay written the director’s “way or the highway.” Based on track record, other better grounded POVs in finalizing screenplays, for the sake of both actors and audience, would likely net Jeff Nichols’ films better box office receipts for his future and the studios. (Do not get me started on how I loved Poor Things yet applaud audience members walking out of the Yorgos auteur depravity misnomer Kinds of Kindness aka Cradles of Cruelty. Definitely see The Bikeriders instead of KoK while they’re both still in theater limited release.)

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