Chopper is often included in top Australian film lists. Ask producer Michele Bennett her opinion on why it struck a chord, 13 years after it was released, and she pauses.
“There are certain lines of dialogue that resonate with people – most are from Chopper himself and people love his vernacular – and Australians love criminals. The film is visually unique. And Andrew Dominik is a brilliant director. And the people who were fans of Chopper and his books were not disappointed by Eric, and those that weren't familiar with Chopper or his books were charmed by Eric. The film is the sum of its parts.”
Bennett says she looked at the film objectively for the first time about three years ago. “I'd not seen it for years and was able to let go of the problems and associations with every scene.”
What she wishes she could let go of is all the ongoing administration, including the time-consuming task of chasing international distributors for the money they continue to earn from it.
“It's one of the frustrating things about making a moderately commercially successful film. Most people expect the royalties to come in from all directions but it's not like that.”
Despite the film's cult classic status and the fact that it continues to do well, the investors Mushroom Pictures and Screen Australia (formerly the Film Finance Corporation) have not yet fully recouped their investment, in part because of how much money goes to cinemas and how distributors claim costs. The unfortunate reality is that it can take many years for an Australian film to make its money back. Mark “Chopper” Read, who died recently, received no money from the film.
“Andrew and I were saddened by his death,” says Bennett. “He was an incredible Renaissance man who reinvented himself many times. A true artist in many ways and larger than life. As much as you could not admire some things about him, there was a lot you could and he did not go back to crime after his 19 years in jail.”
Chopper took seven years to develop and finance, in part because it was a debut for both Bennett and Dominik and because of the sensitivities around taxpayer funding going to a film that could be seen as idolising a criminal.
“It's tricky territory but we tried to make a film that passed no moral judgement,” say Bennett.
She has been involved in four features since, the most recent being The Mule, which will be in cinemas next year. It stars Angus Sampson, alongside veterans Hugo Weaving and John Noble and is his writing (alongside Leigh Whannell of Saw fame) and producing (alongside Jane Liscombe) debut. Bennett is an executive producer.
“It has similarities to such great Australian films as Animal Kingdom and Chopper in that it lives in the crime world, has black humour, and has great performances and direction. It's well-crafted and entertaining.”
Bennett is developing three new feature films but is reluctant to discuss them publicly until they are financed.
“Producing is a compulsion. As stimulating and rewarding as it is, it's also exhausting.”
Chopper screens on SBS ONE this Saturday at 9.30pm. Lantana Rabbit-Proof Fence and Shine will show on the three subsequent Saturday nights, in our season of Australian Film Greats .