Death Become Him

Mark "Chopper" Read, one of Australia's most notorious criminals, is the subject of a new film. So, how does the villain feel about becoming a cinematic hero?

"It's very, very spooky," says Chris Budgeon of the similarities between the two men. Budgeon, a Canadian-born photographer who has lived in Australia for 17 years, met Read last December, and the two have become friends. Budgeon, whose photos illustrate this story, has been shooting a series of pictures featuring Chopper and his instruments of torture in various serene settings. "Eric Bana does an amazing job of capturing the subtle nuances of Mark."

Since its Australian debut last August, the film has garnered rave reviews, many of which praise Bana's performance and struggle with how so violent a man could be so likable. Writing in The New York Times on April 8, crime novelist Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty, Out of Sight) celebrated Chopper as "great, not like anything I'd ever seen before." He imagined trying to pitch it to Hollywood studio executives, who like it when a film is something-meets-something else, like Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman, and struggled with how to describe the movie: "I can't think of what two pictures meeting would come even close to describing Chopper. It might bring to mind Tarantino's work, or possibly even Guy Ritchie's; but I don't want to mislead you. Chopper is genuinely original."

According to Cary Jones, senior vice president of marketing and distribution for First Look Pictures, it hasn't been at all difficult to get Chopper into U.S. theaters. The problem has been in getting audiences out of the multiplexes to come see a stark, absurdist film about a merry murderer: a man who describes himself in the film as "just a bloody normal bloke who likes a bit of torture," a man who preys not on the so-called innocent but upon drug dealers and other "crims." Jones recalls attending a recent screening in Los Angeles, where some in the audience swore that Chopper glorifies anti-social behavior and were properly outraged.

Killer in repose: Mark Brandon Read has given up the thug life and now lives on his Tasmanian farm with his wife and 23-month-old son.
Chris Budgeon
Killer in repose: Mark Brandon Read has given up the thug life and now lives on his Tasmanian farm with his wife and 23-month-old son.

"It became this topic of debate," Jones says. "They thought it was about the glorification of behavior that's so unacceptable and reprehensible, and others were fascinated by it. They thought it was a cautionary tale--or, at least, an interesting examination of anti-social behavior. It's very provocative in that sense."

And Read understands why audiences could be left so dazed and confused: He's a killer, right, but he swears he never hurt an innocent person. He insists, repeatedly, that he's done nothing more than punish those who deserved retribution: dope pushers, killers, extortionists, fellow crims and inmates. (He did land in prison in 1978 for kidnapping a judge; he says he was doing a favor for a friend.) His life recalls a line from the film Grosse Point Blank, in which John Cusack plays a hit man: "If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to bring me there."

Read says he never shot, snipped or knee-capped a man who didn't have it coming. He is not so different from Bonham, Texas-born outlaw John Wesley Hardin, who wrote his own autobiography in 1889 and filled it with tall tales and half-truths, all of which were meant to justify his crimes. The difference is Hardin was shot before he completed his manuscript. Read has written nine books, all of which were best-sellers in Australia. He didn't need to end up in a pool of his own blood to become a legend--or liked.

"See, you're not supposed to like bad guys until after they're dead," Read says. "Fifty years after they're dead, you can pick up a book about their adventures and say, 'Gee, that Wild Bill Hickock, he wasn't a bad guy,' while in life, he was a drunken, back-shooting son of a bitch. A hundred years later, they make a movie about him, and then he becomes a national legend. One more movie about him, and they'll put his face on the dollar bill...Living criminals are not supposed to be popular, and perish the thought that anyone like them. They're not supposed to have personalities. They're not supposed to have a sense of humor. A popular living criminal flies in the face of political correctness. It's just not done.

"I suppose I am a living former criminal who walked through the valley of the shadow of death and come through the other end alive and ended up writing books. Then you become a best-selling author. This is not the way it's supposed to work out, and normal people look at this and say, 'Hang on, there's something wrong here. This guy is supposed to be shot dead in the gutter at 2 o'clock in the morning. He is not supposed to be a best-selling author. He is not supposed to have a movie made about him while he is still alive. He's breaking the rules.'"

Andrew Dominik, known overseas as a director of music videos for such bands as Crowded House and The Church, had logged seven years trying to get Chopper made when it finally hit the film-festival circuit last year. He read Read's books--the first of which, Chopper From the Inside, was published in Australia in 1991--at the insistence of producer Michele Bennett, who knew of the filmmaker's interest in criminals and true-crime novels. The New Zealand-born Dominik, who moved to Australia when he was 2, found in Read the perfect subject for his first film, a bloke who was at once proud of his life and crimes and also regretful about the very things that made him famous.

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