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?

Dominik was haunted by Read's From the Inside, in which he writes, "I have a clear heart and a clear mind over it all," only to add, just a few sentences later, "Every now and again I suffer bouts of bad conscience, a type of guilt left over from my upbringing." That such a conflict could exist in a man fascinated him, until it became nothing less than obsession.

"My first contact with Mark was his books--which are hysterically funny--in which he portrays himself as a Robin Hood kind of a character," Dominik says from his office in Australia. "He sort of had this anti-drug stance, which I guess he thought would curry favor with general society, and the stories in his books were incredible, spectacular."

Dominik and Bennett had a hard time finding anyone to pay for their film. Some insisted the film glamorize the violence; others wanted a moral tale, one in which Chopper pays for his crimes. Dominik wrote an early draft that played up the violence. It was, he says, a bit of a "romp" through Chopper's underworld, a frolic in the gore. But as he went about researching Read, digging up police files, court records and people who knew him, he discovered that the man portrayed in the books is far different in real life. He was less spectacular and more human, frail where the books present him as indestructible.

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 got to the point where Dominik began doubting the number of killings Read has actually committed. In the first book, Read tallies the number at 19; these days, he's upped it to 25. Dominik chuckles at the total, insisting his research puts the number at something closer to...two. Dominik believes Read has done little more than take criminal folklore, stories passed around from prison to prison, and insert himself into the narratives.

"I don't think he's nearly as bad a person as he wants you to believe, which is my fascination with him," Dominik says. "He's more disturbed you might think he's got any human feelings...Any empathy is perceived as some sort of weakness. Mark's done some pretty spectacular things in his life, some outlandish things--cutting off his ears, kidnapping a judge. He was a definite force in the Australian underworld. But the kind of crime he did was reputation-based: He has to have a frightening reputation, which is also problematic for him. The reputation cuts both ways, and I think a lot of it's myth. The reason he's so well-known is not because of the crimes but because he's so entertaining. He's really good for a quote. Whenever anyone gets killed in the Australian underworld, he gets called up, and there's a funny quote from him in the paper the next day."

Dominik was almost disappointed the first time he met Read during the mid-'90s, when Chopper was serving time in a Tasmanian prison. The larger-than-life villain sitting before him was human-sized; the myth was nothing but a man. Eventually, of course, that would become the attraction, the obsession: reconciling these two disparate images on film, until Mark Brandon Read and Chopper could exist side by side.

And Read was of little help. He refused Dominik's repeated requests to read his script. The writer-director wanted some input from his subject, but Read wasn't interested. Dominik thinks that's because Read wanted to see how others saw him; he wanted to watch his reflection through Dominik's lens. The myth is meaningless without others to comment upon it, to seize it and repeat it until it's so distorted and exaggerated it can never again be contained.

But Read says his reasons for refusing to read the script were far more pragmatic. He figured that if he started adding and editing Dominik's work, the film, already years in the works, would never get made.

So now it is out there, and the bad man is being celebrated even as he has called it quits from the crime life. He lives on his farm with his wife and 23-month-old son. In November, he will publish his 10th and final Chopper book. After that, he will release, of all things, a children's book, Hooky the Cripple, which Read says is "about a hunchback who kills a butcher." (A kid's book, to Read, is defined as one in which "there are no swear words.") Proceeds from its sales, as well as all of the money Read made from optioning the book on which Chopper is based, go to the Royal Children's Hospital Cancer Unit in Australia.

His will never be a normal life. He doesn't know how he'll explain his past to his son. He can't go out in public, for fear there's still one bloke out to make a name for himself by offing the infamous, immortal Chopper Read. Dominik is right: A reputation can be your salvation, and it can be your damnation. It all depends on which side of the bullet you're standing on.

"I just think you reach the point where enough's enough," Read says. "There's nothing more embarrassing than some middle-aged man still trying to run around acting like a tough guy." He laughs. "You've gotta face facts eventually. I was 45 years old. You can't go on forever. Otherwise, you'll end up dead. I'm the Australian criminal version of Frank Sinatra: Regrets, I have a few, but then again, too few to mention." He laughs. "If you go through life regretting everything you bloody well did, you're gonna end up a very sad person, aren't ya? Once it's happened, it's happened."

Tomorrow morning, Mark Brandon Read will wake up on his farm, pick up an ax, and he will chop only wood for his fire.

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