The Inspiration Behind Jeff Nichols’ ‘The Bikeriders,’ Explained With Danny Lyon’s Book

Jeff Nichols’ newest film, The Bikeriders, has some true elements to it. Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Jodie Comer, Norman Reedus, Boyd Holbrook, Toby Wallace and more have finally hit the big screen after a new distribution deal and release date postponed the movie’s release in 2023. Butler stars in the film as Benny, a man who loves motorcycles and finds himself drawn to the Chicago Vandals, a club of bikers that frequently gathers to drive around and be in community.

Tom Hardy plays Johnny, founder of the Vandals. Johnny’s righthand man is Brucie (Damon Herriman), but Benny holds his own as a figure of authority within the group. Benny brings Kathy (Jodie Comer) into the group, and she tells a lot of the oral history of the Vandals to Mike Faist’s Danny.

More from Deadline

The film has a real-life basis, but large parts are fictionalized. Director Jeff Nichols cites 2003 when his younger brother gave him Danny Lyon’s book The Bikeriders as the root of the project. Read more about the inspiration for the motorcycle movie below.

Is The Bikeriders based on a true story?

Sort of. The film takes its cue from a book by photojournalist Danny Lyon, who captured the culture within the Vandals mostly through photos and anecdotes in his book, which is also titled The Bikeriders. Many of the characters in the film have a foundation in Lyon’s book of photography and stories. There was a Johnny Davis (played by Hardy in the film) and a Benny (Butler) as well as a Kathy Bauer (Jodie Comer) who married Benny.

The audio recording of Kathy recounting how she met Benny is available to play on

RELATED: ‘The Bikeriders’ Cast and Character Guide: Who Plays Who?

“There’s a photo I gave to every Department Head. It was in the 2003 edition and it was printed in color. In the original version, it was printed in black and white. It was a photo of Cal and another guy sitting on their bikes outside of a gas station,” Nichols told Deadline on the red carpet for the film’s premiere. “When you look at it, because it’s in color, you can see these layers — the chains of the bikes, the grease at the base of their fingernails, the detail that he put into his vest. I gave that photo to every department and I said [I want to] create a shot in the movie that’s as dense as this.”

Lyon told A Rabbit’s Foot that the book’s text is made up entirely from audio recordings. Kathy spoke to him on a ¼ inch analog Huer tape recorder.

“What Jeff did was to structure a fictional film script around the recorded monologues that are the recorded stories of the book,” Lyon also told A Rabbit’s Foot. “These are great, heartfelt narratives that often tell more about the character of the speakers than they do of the world they are describing.”

Austin Butler in 'The Bikeriders'
Austin Butler as Benny in director Jeff Nichols’ THE BIKERIDERS, a Focus Features release.

Are the Chicago Vandals a real biker gang?

The film changed the name slightly. Lyon’s book captured the lives of the Chicago Outlaws, who were founded at Matilda’s Bar on old Route 66 in McCook Illinois, just outside of Chicago. The film alludes to this founding as the home base of the Vandals is a bar. Originally founded as the McCook Outlaws Motorcycle Club, the original chapter was actually founded in 1935, not the ‘60s. World War II limited their activity at first, but May of 1946 saw the first major rally at Soldier Field in Chicago. In the film, the bikers gather at picnics where chapters from all over the country show up to bond with other motorcycle enthusiasts. Membership growth brought the club to move to Chicago and rebrand as the Chicago Outlaws, which is when, according to the group’s website, the logo changed the skull seen on the backs of Butler’s and Hardy’s jackets in the film.

According to, the Hells Angels biker gang was a “chief rival” of the Outlaws. The Hells Angels operated out of Fontana California, where they were founded in 1948. Funny Sonny was originally a member of the Hells Angels. Cal was also a former Hells Angel, as hinted at in the film when Sonny confronts him. His real-life inspiration was Arthur Dion.

How did Danny Lyon set out to capture ‘The Bikeriders’ story?

Lyon, who is portrayed by Mike Faist in the film, decided to record the experience of the American biker in 1963. He was a history student in his first year at the University of Chicago in 1959 when he was introduced to biker culture. He left the city in 1962 and became a full-fledged member of the motorcycle group by 1965. He was 24 when he joined and “long gone from school.” He left the club in 1967 as he felt it was time to move on to the next project and story. Nichols spoke about expanding the film’s timeline to a decade rather than the short amount of time Lyon spent with the Outlaws.

RELATED: ‘The Bikeriders’ Vrooms Into Summer After Focus Features Takes Over New Regency Pic

Did Cockroach really eat bugs?

Cockroach (Emory Cohen) talked at length about eating bugs in the film, but this seems to stem from an anecdote of Funny Sonny’s (Norman Reedus) about swallowing a caterpillar, pointed out by Esquire.

Are The Outlaws still around today?

Yes, but as the film hints at, the culture within the chapters in at least 26 states has changed. The Outlaws are one of 300 OMGs or outlaw motorcycle gangs labeled by the U.S. Justice Department as of November 2023. OMGs are “organizations whose members use their motorcycle clubs as conduits for criminal enterprises.”

Are there other similar stories about biker culture?

Yes. Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest resulted from a similar journalistic curiosity, and Hunter S. Thompson wrote Hell’s Angels (1967) about the California-based biker club.

Films like The Wild One (1953) starring Marlon Brando, which is cited as Johnny’s inspiration for founding the Outlaws/Vandals in the film, as well as Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) fictionalized the lives of bikers, contributing to the glamor of their lives as well as add to the negative reputation they had.

RELATED: Tom Hardy, Austin Butler & Jodie Comer New Regency Pic ‘The Bikeriders’ Zooms Over To Focus Features

Best of Deadline

Sign up for Deadline's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.