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WriteStuff: Chopper

Hunter Cordaiy

Chopper Chopper
The published script of Chopper has 2 introductions that afford a way ‘in’ to one of the most controversial and successful Australian films of recent times. The first is by the subject of the film, Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, and the second is by the writer/director Andrew Dominik. Both are angry responses to the film production process, resentful of the arduous, emotionally sapping task of bringing a story to the screen.
Read suggests that by understanding him, or wanting to, we might be on the path to ‘unlocking’ our own demons. It is a fanciful notion that many of us are like him, just more suppressed. What is not so fanciful is our fascination with him as a screen presence, elevated to the level of popular hero by a feature film, appearances on television, and extensive press coverage in the cultural rather than crime columns.

The audience’s repulsion and/or attraction to ‘Choppers’ of all descriptions seems to confirm that the cinema touches some primal place where we only have the courage to go vicariously. And one of the reasons the film did so well at the box office was that local audiences, after so many years confronting (mainly) American psychopaths in the dark, were relieved to have a homegrown one to admire.

But Chopper is no Oscar Schindler, around whom there grew a vigorous moral debate concerning his motives in rescuing, then using, so many people as workers in his factory. In Chopper our task is to understand a repulsive personality, and perhaps see him as an Australian man socialised into violent, often deadly, personal conflicts.

The Chopper screenplay is a good example of how the reality of a film image is not necessarily visible on the page. Dominik complains of the treatment he received from funding assessors who didn’t ‘see’ his film from the script and, in particular, what moral position the audience were meant to take in relation to this one-man-killing-machine. This is because the film’s strength lies in a plain directorial style and a mesmerising performance from Eric Bana as Chopper. The power or quality of an actor’s performance, plus the look of the image, can often be hidden within the words on the page.

This gap between word and image is the universal dilemma of scriptwriters whose work must enthuse both the production team and the bankers long before the first frame is turned. For example, in Scene 77, a carpark outside Bo Jangles nightclub is the setting for the murder of Sammy by Chopper. The script records the following description:

Sammy tries to move past Chopper. Chopper fires, blowing a hole through Sammy’s left eye. Sammy stands there for a couple of hysterical seconds, right eye blinking and then slowly crumples.

What appears on the screen is less ‘hysterical’ than matter of fact, almost banal, action in the half-light. It is shocking in its ordinariness. And then the ordinary is turned on itself by the tone of Bana’s apology—Sorry mate. It is at this moment, through the totality of the performance, that we realise Chopper is a personality completely out of control.

Several times in the film, at the moment just before his victim’s death, Chopper seems mesmerised by the result of his actions, fascinated by the spurting blood yet dismayed that he might have hurt someone. The script does not fully convey the interest this split personality response can generate at these moments.

Chopper is a study in badness much like Mailer’s book on Gary Gilmore (The Executioner’s Song), along with the obligatory media fascination with the criminal ‘character.’ The end result is the elevation of the psychopath to hero—Chopper is portrayed in film publicity with folded arms and guns crossed, in Ned Kelly pose.

The historical/contemporary criminal hero nexus is misleading because it distorts the true nature of heroism, and heroic deeds. In Chopper’s case it suggests something more than he really was, even though his victims (thought to number 19) were mainly drug dealers. His attraction, so cleverly worked in Dominik’s film, is based on the vigilante persona that has a long tradition in the movies. Admiration for revenge, it seems, eschews the need for complex moral debate everytime.

Chopper, film: writer-director Andrew Dominik, writer Mark Brandon Read; screenplay: publisher Currency Press, Sydney, 2000

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 21

© Hunter Cordaiy; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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