On the eve of Aussie classic Chopper’s 20th Anniversary release on Blu-ray and DVD, director Andrew Dominik discusses the initial reaction to the film with STACK.

The legacy of Chopper is irrefutable. Not only did it catapult its lead actor, Eric Bana, to the heights of Hollywood, it also cemented director Andrew Dominik as an in-demand filmmaker.

The story of Australia’s most notorious criminal and serial bullsh–t artist, Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read, the film arrived on screens like an assault to the senses – a highly stylised and ultra-violent look into Melbourne’s murky underworld, told with charm and charisma. The lines between horrific and fanciful were blurred, and the film left an indelible imprint on the Aussie vernacular.

Australian films rarely get the special treatment of anniversary re-releases, let alone the privilege of a theatrical re-run. Speaking with STACK ahead of the film’s 20th Anniversary Special Edition release on Blu-ray and DVD, Dominik reflects on the film’s cultural impact and his expectations at the time.

“In my sort of circle, people knew Chopper, you know what I mean? Everybody had read the books and all that sort of stuff. And so the idea was to make a film that was commercial, and the earlier versions of the script were a lot more pulp fiction and like the books,” he explains. “But as I got to know more about the real person, it mutated into something more interesting for me.”

Recalling the initial audience response to the film versus the very first critical review it received, Dominik admits it was perplexing.

“I remember seeing it with audiences and it just played like a full-on comedy. People were rolling in the aisles laughing. I mean while we were shooting it, I thought it was funny, and Eric thought it was funny, but I don’t think anybody else really thought it was funny. I think they all thought we were making a very serious and gritty crime movie.

We were even quoting it,” he laughs. “There were always lines from Chopper that would just recur in our lives in various situations, like ‘Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean people are out to get me’ – that sort of stuff.”

Looking back on the original release, Dominik recalls that penny-drop moment when he realised the film had struck a chord.

“When it hit number one at the box office,” he wryly notes, adding, “I remember the night before it was released, Michele (Bennett, producer) and I were in Canberra of all places and we went along to one of the preview screenings. And on the way there we read the one bad review that the film got, and it turned out to be the first review and it just tore the film to shreds. It was a review in The Age.

“When we got to the screening it was half full and the audience just seemed so confused by the film. And I thought, ‘Oh sh–t!’ Bad review. Audience doesn’t like it. I went to bed that night depressed. But then I woke up the next morning and there was a piece of paper underneath the door with the box office results and we were number one! Top of the pops! That’s the first and only time it’s ever happened to me.”

From that moment, Dominik’s life was changed forever, and what followed was a string of critically acclaimed films including The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and Killing Them Softly (2012).

“[Chopper] went to the marketplace in Cannes but it wasn’t in the festival, and it made a splash there. People really loved it and were trying to buy it, and I suddenly had agents trying to call me as a result. So yeah, the Hollywood people saw the film and the attention was immediate and aggressive.”