Death Become Him
Mark Brandon Read was 17 when he entered prison for the first time. A young man, yes, but one who had never really been a child. His father had spent 24 years in the Australian army; the old man was battle-scarred, to the point where he always slept with a rifle within reach. His mother was a strict Seventh Day Adventist, a child of God. As for the boy, he had been picked on during most of his childhood. Read was the schoolyard punching bag. The poundings only made him tougher. So did the electric-shock treatments he would receive in the mental hospitals throughout his young life. He was proud of the fact he could withstand a beating, proud that he could take a surge of electricity. He stood up, brushed himself off, then came back for more. He could never get enough.
It didn't take too long for the brutalized to become the brutal: a burly gangster whose entire body was a canvas of stab-wound scars and prison tattoos. Read's skin contained his life's story. So, too, in later years, would the pages of nine best-selling books. So, too, would 90 minutes of celebrated celluloid, the movie Chopper, which is scheduled to open next week at Dallas' new Angelika Film Center & Café.
The brutal has, in time, become the beloved.
Mark Brandon Read left home early, fell in with rough boys, started collecting sawed-off shotguns, tomahawks, meat cleavers, snakes. His friends were his enemies; his enemies, his closest friends. They played violent, torturing each other when disagreements broke out. They made each other eat entire packs of lit cigarettes. They knocked out each other's teeth. They shot each other in the legs. It was just a matter of time before Read landed in prison, the inevitable beginning to what would surely become a tragic ending. The first chapter was written on May 18, 1971, when he was sentenced to four months for "attempted storeroom break & steal"--trying to rip off the door of an abandoned nightclub, in other words. He would spend the next 27 years in and out of lockup, way more in than out.
"My first day in jail, I knelt beside me bed and said me prayers."
On the other end of a phone from his 270-acre farm in Tasmania, Australia, where he has lived peacefully since his last release from prison in 1998, the 46-year-old Read begins telling the story. He will punctuate every other sentence with a big, broad laugh--the chuckle of a man who's seen it all, done even more and come out the other end loathed and loved for his exploits. His Aussie accent almost cushions the blow. That, and he's charming as all hell. You can hear his grin from thousands of miles away.
"Then I got hold of a really big knife, stuck it under me overcoat, and I went out and looked at all these guys that had bad intentions, and I said, 'Right, wanna party? Let's rock and roll.' By the end of the day, it was a different matter." He laughs. "I went back to my cell that night, knelt down, said, 'Thank you, God, and if you're on my side, get me through the day.' He got me through the day. That might sound sacrilegious and very un-Christian, but I was in a bad place, and I certainly wasn't about to surrender to what other people had in mind for me, so I got in first."
By Christmas 1971, Read was back in prison, this time for assault and, of all things, indecent language. That was when he knew that was that: He was locked in a routine, back and forth and back and forth from the outside world to his prison paradise. He went in an apprentice and came out with a Ph.D. in thuggery. Men twice his age cried and committed suicide behind bars. Not he. He loved it: the freedom to stab and bash whomever he liked, without retribution. In the nearly 18 years he spent at the castle-like Pentridge prison, built in 1853 just north of Read's hometown of Melbourne, 11 men wound up dead--stabbed, beaten, tomahawked to death. Read won't take credit for them, but he will say he was "closely linked to them." At Pentridge, inmates banged each other down like tent pegs, and Read, not so long ago the bullies' whipping boy, wasn't going to spend a life in prison being picked on. Not again.
"And then I started something that had never, ever happened," he says, his voice deep with pride. "No one ever in the history of this particular prison had ever stabbed or axed or meat-cleavered or claw-hammered anybody in front of the prison staff, what the Americans call hacks and what the Australians and British call a screw. This one guy was standing right beside the governor of the whole jail. I walked up and said, 'Hello, sir,' and he nodded. Then I spun around and stabbed the prisoner he was talking to straight in the throat." He laughs. "When the rest of the jail saw that, they said to themselves, 'Hang on. We got a serious problem here. This guy doesn't care what he does or who he does it in front of.' And then I let them know. I said, 'I don't care if you're sitting on the Queen of England's knee. If you upset me, I'm gonna get ya. That's all there is to it. There's no escape.'"
No escape. It would become the story of Read's life: if you choose to believe it at all.
What's above and below is absolute fact. Except for the parts that are utter fiction. What you've read and are yet to hear is less a man's story than it is his self-made myth, the story of a schoolyard victim who, for 30 years, has been renowned as Australia's most celebrated criminal. It's a tale drenched in blood, ripe with the smell of burning flesh, punctured by homemade prison shivs, riddled with machine-gun bullets. It's a tale populated by men named Cowboy Johnny, Sammy the Turk, Dave the Jew, Mad Dog Cox, Terry the Tank, The Texan--all of whom were criminals, most of whom are dead, some because of Mark Read.
You may choose to believe all of it; you may wish to dismiss most of it. Read even admits that some of the time, he's "pullin' your leg" in his books, which began as a series of letters to an Australian journalist more than a decade ago. The movie about Read's life comes with a disclaimer. "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story," says the poster, which features Aussie comic Eric Bana looking every bit like Mark Read as he clutches two pistols. He looks no different from any Wild West outlaw made immortal in the dime novels and penny dreadfuls of the day. Read was a bad man who made for great copy.
But somewhere between reality and deception lie some 25 corpses and the man whose broad shadow drapes over each one, whether or not he truly had anything to do with their untimely deaths. Mark Brandon Read is one of the most charming, affable, erudite men ever to chop off his enemies' toes or fire a shotgun into a man's eye.
His name is Chopper. He is a killer. And he is a star.
Surreal. That is how Mark Read describes watching Chopper, writer-director Andrew Dominik's debut film, for the first time. He felt it was as though someone had been filming him in secret. That's how bloody real the movie was to its subject. Not that he likes every bit of the movie, which is less a narrative than a montage of scenes and events dating back to 1978. Read takes umbrage with a scene in which Chopper, played by former stand-up comic Bana, bashes in his prostitute girlfriend's head, head-butts her mother, then scolds his battered love: "Look at what you've done!" He doesn't much care for the scene in which his prostitute girlfriend shoves a needle into his arm. He says neither incident happened. He says he never used drugs.
But he did stab Keithy George in the neck, right in front of Pentridge inmates. And he did shoot drug-dealing Sammy the Turk in the eye, right outside the Bojangles nightclub in Melbourne. Both were killed. And he did take a shiv in the guts from his old pal Jimmy Loughnan. But what's a man to do when they make a movie of his life?
"Parts of it weren't really flattering, no," Read says. He laughs. "But you gotta live with that, dontcha? If you allow people to do a film on your life, you're never gonna be 100 percent pleased about it."
By no stretch of the imagination is Chopper a hit film in the United States, despite its status as a moneymaker and critics' fave in its homeland. Since its release in New York last April, Chopper has played in some 100 theaters in 85 cities and, according to its distributor, grossed about $250,000--a pittance, even by independent-film standards. Though it will debut in Dallas on August 3, premiering at the just-opened Angelika Film Center & Café, it has been available for several months at Premiere Video just across Mockingbird Lane. A critical favorite on the film-festival circuit for nearly a year, Chopper likely will play on local screens for a short while and then move on.
It will raise a bit of a fuss, perhaps, among those prone to gripe about how it celebrates a violent man doing violent things, but in the end, it's no more brutal and bloody than, say, Reservoir Dogs. The two films, in fact, share something in common: Both feature a man having his ears sawed off. In 1978, Read had a fellow inmate slice off the tops of his ears so he could be moved out of maximum-security lockdown. He used a razor. In the film, Chopper sits absolutely still as the blade slices through flesh and the blood runs down his face.
And like Reservoir Dogs, Chopper is a bloody good time. Bana has a blast playing Read, to the point where both men look and sound almost identical. Those who know them say Bana sports the same cockeyed and toothless grin, walks with the same broken shuffle, lunges with the same weight of the world upon his shoulders. And despite his fits of violence, there is something sweet and likable beneath Bana's beefed-up, inked-up surface--the guilt, perhaps, that lies behind the sadism. He's the gunslinger with a stand-up's timing, a killer with a wicked grin. The performance is so extraordinary that producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Top Gun, Pearl Harbor) has cast Bana in the role of Hoot in director Ridley Scott's adaptation of Mark Bowden's book Black Hawk Down, due for release next year.
"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.
"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.
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.
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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