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ANDREW L. URBAN was given a rare glimpse into the making of Chopper during shooting scenes inside Melbourne's Pentridge prison (now disused); he talked to the filmmakers - and to Eric Bana, who plays the very much alive Chopper Read.

It was an offer I couldn't refuse: come to Pentridge and spend some time behind bars. But you'll have to seal your journalistic lips until closer to release. And if you agree to the deal, we'll let you out. Never one to shirk the responsibilities of a conscientious journalist, I flew to Melbourne for the express purpose of going to jail. (More on the deal later.) The Qantas cabin crew in whom I confided (proudly), failed to take me seriously. "Yeah, sure, and I suppose you're going to have a chat with that famous crim, Chopper Read while you're there…."

On arrival, I was sent to the exercise yard, where I watched Eric Bana doing the scene where Chopper is interviewed for a tv current affairs show. The ears…."yeah, I know mate. Frighteningly real after a few days," says Bana, his ears a ragged rump of their former selves, in imitation of Bana's self mutliation, a ruse to get himself out of dreaded H Division. (Bana's are not really snitched off - just clever effects.)

"I'm playing a real person. And with that comes responsibility." Eric Bana

Bana, a successful Melbourne comedian, is playing a killer - and one who is still very much alive even as we chat about him. Mark Chopper Read is now in Tasmania, but his memory is very much on the set. "It's beyond an impersonation," says Bana. "I'm playing a real person. And with that comes responsibility. It's a plus and a minus to have heaps of information about him. I have had two years to do the research, from casting to shooting, and spent several days with Chopper himself."

Being from Melbourne's Western suburbs, Bana says he felt an affinity with "that type of person, and know how to speak. I know the colloquialisms. His sense of humour is very fast and he uses old fashioned language - like he'd say homosexual, not poofter."

"A criminal failure on a grand level," is how producer Michele Bennett describes Mark 'Chopper' Read, the subject of Chopper, Andrew Dominik's debut feature. Dominik became fascinated by the man who is now living on a Tasmanian farm on the proceeds of autobiographies that make him a best selling writer ("even though I can't spell," he chuckles). So rest assured, Chopper is a comedy, but despite the fact that it has the real Chopper's approval, it never glorifies the man - nor is it a biopic.

It was Chopper's first book in 1993 that captivated Dominik. "There was a paragraph about how he killed 14 people and not regretted it. Then he dreams about his victims appearing to him . . .it seemed to me he had mixed feelings about what he'd done. I'm fascinated by this motiveless crime thing, where it's committed for psychological reasons."

"a pattern of behaviour but constantly apologises for it" Andrew Dominik

As Dominik points out, "in films, most criminals are either evil or have psychotic reasons. But Chopper fits neither. He displays a pattern of behaviour but constantly apologises for it - and yet still continues…."

Certainly, Chopper Read is a remarkable walking, talking confluence of the criminal and the bizarre. "He thinks he is a Goodfella, but is in fact in The King of Comedy. . ." as producer Al Clark (pic) likes to put it.

Which brings us to the reason why Clark wanted an undertaking from me not to report on the film until it was released. "We want to avoid the sanctimonious pieces in the papers about why tax dollars are being spent on glorifying a criminal. The more that is said publicly the more it appears we are making a biopic. The film should be judged on what it is, not on who Chopper is," says Clark. …The suggestion that because of who he is there shouldn't be a film about him prompts the question: what about characters like Jack the Ripper? "Australian cinema has not produced anything notable in crime or criminal psychology," comments Clark. "The UK has and the Americans have owned this genre. Andrew's script is a distinctive blend of criminal psychology meeting a showbiz mentality."

Casting Bana as Chopper, says Clark, "declares the movie as interesting…." and Bana delivers a superb, captivating performance, beating the odds against caricature on the one hand and glorification on the other. With Dominik's script and style-rich direction, Bana never makes Chopper's actions acceptable, but he does make us recognise the complex traits that made Chopper the enigma he is. And Bana was Chopper's own idea, says Dominik.

The film - which Domink declares not to be a biopic at the beginning - explains how Dominik sees Chopper. "He's basically like a three year old. I see him as stunted and he's trying to deal with a psychological problem acting out things again and again. Many movie makers say good movies show people changing - but 99% of people will not change significantly over their lifetime. He's a creative person and in some ways similar to great artists whose behaviour is often infantile."

"a mood dense with regret and pain and loneliness"

As for glorifying Chopper, Dominik is dismissive: "Nobody'll walk out trying to emulate Chopper." It's true: it is a powerful, silent moment that ends the film, leaving a mood dense with regret and pain and loneliness around Chopper. But it's apt, and the film's the richer for it.

(August3, 2000)

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