The Messy Brawls of ‘The Bikeriders’ Required Painstaking Precision

Jeff Nichols’ “The Bikeriders” opens with a brutal fight sequence that leaves the fate of Austin Butler’s biker somewhat ambiguous. After he insouciantly refuses to remove his biker jacket (he’s in rival gang territory), two men whale on him in the bar, out of the bar, and then bring a shovel down on him outside in a powerful freeze frame. It’s a jolting introduction to the world of the ’60s-set film about a Midwestern bike gang, curdled masculinity, and the decay of the American dream, one that is as gorgeous to look at as it is unsparing in its violence.

“I spent quite a bit of time with Jeff Nichols,” stunt coordinator Freddie Poole told IndieWire. “And Jeff Nichols is a very involved director. You can see the end product on the screen. I really enjoyed watching him go through his process, but we would sit down and talk through that opening sequence and how violent it was. And I actually said, ‘It would be ideal to cast two stunt actors to play the brothers in the beginning. That way, you can carry that scene on without having to take unnecessary pauses or breaks. Because that’s the thing. That’s the beginning of the movie.”

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The sequence is extraordinary both for its precision and for its savagery — all captured on gorgeous film. If nothing else approaches its beauty, that was intentional. In an era of increasingly stylized action movies, “The Bikeriders” revels in the messiness of brawls.

As Poole points out, movies like “John Wick” are built around specific fighting styles. But for the men of these ’60s biker gangs, there was no particular method of fighting. Fists and punches get thrown, bodies are knocked down, and things get messy.

“When I sat down with Jeff and mapped this out, it’s a lot of brawling,” Poole said. “It’s harder in a sense that there’s a technical aspect. We have to pull away from the technicality and the technical approach to make things look more raw or dirty, so to speak. So it is a bigger challenge, and it really falls on the performer’s shoulders. Can they manage to throw these moves, throw these techniques, and not make them look so clean?”

Poole made things a bit easier by working with Nichols to populate the gangs with stunt performers who could handle the heavy lifting — including being comfortable on and around motorcycles — but he still had to train stars Butler and Tom Hardy.

“I joked with Austin Butler. I said, ‘Hey, look man, if this acting thing doesn’t work out, I got a spot for you on the team.’ He just took to it like a pro, like he’s been doing it for years and years. And, of course, Tom Hardy is Tom Hardy. He’s been doing this forever. So it was very easy for him to jump right in with the style that we were trying to achieve.”

But Poole credits Nichols with much of the final product’s success, including being so open to hiring stunt performers as the gang members. “I literally walked into his office with probably 50 different headshots. And he was very open to that, casting the stunt guys to play certain roles and things of that nature, which I think helped authenticate those fights because I knew I could count on the talent that we had. It was a spectacular thing to witness and be a part of.”

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