I passed Chopper Read while exiting a bank in 2002.
It was in Clifton Hill, Melbourne. He was accompanied by an even bigger and more frightening man and they held the door for me, and then entered the bank themselves. It was a peculiar moment and for an hour after, all I could think was, ‘That was Chopper Read, that was Chopper Read…’ Because it was Chopper Read—it was Chopper fucking Read, and I’d only been talking about ‘Neville bloody Bartos’ with a friend the day before. That reference is from the movie Chopper, and I’ll have to assume you’ve been in a coma since 2000 if it’s lost on you. Chopper was a certified global phenomenon. It was massive. And no one knows that better than the kid hired to shoot the stills: John Tsiavis.
John is a successful photographer based in Los Angeles now, but back in the year 2000, they crowned him ‘Luckiest Photography Student in the World’ when he landed the production stills gig on one of Australia’s most memorable cinematic masterpieces. We gave him a call on the eve of Chopper‘s 20th-anniversary rerelease.
Hey John, are you in LA right now?
Hey, no, I’m in Melbourne. My family are all here, so that’s why I’ve come back. I had a bunch of jobs lined up; I direct tv commercials and stuff, and everything just fell over, you know? So, I’m here.
When do you think you’ll get back?
My partner works in the [United States] government, so… We haven’t worked out what we’re going to do. I’m going to stay here until next year I think, but he’s going to go back within the next month. And I don’t know if there’s going to be any problems, you know? We have a home over there, that’s where we live so… It’s been pretty wild though. Who knows what’s gonna happen, man?
I know. It’s nuts. Okay, let’s talk about you and Chopper and your career and everything. You got your big break when you were still in school, is that right?
And it was a gig shooting production skills on (director) Scott Hicks’ movie after Shine?
Head On, yeah. So, I was at uni studying photography and advertising, and Jane Scott—who is an amazing producer—ended up being my mentor. She put it out to the uni students that she was looking for someone to shoot the stills on her next movie, Head On, and I got the job for that.
What school were you at?
I was at RMIT. It actually probably wasn’t the right course for me because it was more of an advertising course, whereas I probably should’ve been doing an art course, I think. But I’m kinda lucky because it left me with the ability to have a foot in both worlds…
The commercial world and the art world.
Right. So, I worked on Head On, and that was my second year at RMIT, so I would’ve been… eighteen or nineteen.
That’s so young!
Yeah, I was really lucky.
What was it like on that first job?
It was the most amazing experience in my life. And then I went back to uni to finish my third year, and I was working in retail at the time… And I remember driving through Footscray and getting this phone call from Michelle Benet, who was from the same team as Head On, and they liked what I did, so they put me up for Chopper.
How old were you then?
Wow. That’s like dream scenario stuff.
I know. I remember pulling my little Ford Telstar over and being just so, like…
Yeah. And what got me that job, I think, was Jane Scott’s approach to photography, because back then it wasn’t what we think now in terms of content and stuff like that; we would shoot on transparency film, and you would have three rolls of film for a half-day shoot, five rolls for a full day, and that was maybe a hundred—a hundred-fifty frames to shoot and represent the story of that day.
On set. And back then, what would be deemed ‘marketing’ for a film would usually only be maybe ten to twenty frames that they’d choose from hundreds of photos, and they would distribute transparencies—basically slides—to magazines, which is wild when you consider the way the world works now. But Jane always had a different approach in that she thought of photography as actual content, you know? She taught me to go out and create little stories, and pull actors aside to get the right light, etcetera; she allowed me to have that freedom, and that’s not the way most film stills were shot then.
For other stills photographers was it more of a ‘Get the shots but stay out of the way’ type thing?
Yeah, absolutely. That was it. And it’s cool to look back on that early work because I can see how free and unencumbered by correct process it all is.
Which brings us to the iconic image of Mr Bana on the film’s poster. How’d that come about?
Right, right. So, when it came to that image of Eric with the guns, that was actually the suggestion of Vince Colosimo (Neville bloody Bartos) on lunch break. The armourer was there and Vince was like, ‘Hey, let’s go take some photos with the guns!’ So, we were just messing around and taking shots, and that ended up being one of the posters…
The main poster, though. That’s the iconic ‘Chopper’ image everyone knows.
Right, well, it wouldn’t have happened under ordinary circumstances…
How do you mean?
Well, I mean, God, I’ve shot maybe sixty or seventy movies and tv shows, and that freedom and freshness, it gets beaten out of you.
So, over time, you’re less inclined to just have fun and roll with it.
So that iconic image happened randomly, completely unplanned, but was it a pose Chopper actually did?
I can’t quite remember, but the photo of Eric posing with the guns, I think there’s something similar to it in one of Chopper’s books. So, Eric did that pose, but then Chopper actually started copying that pose as well.
Is that right?
Yeah, it’s like art imitating life imitating art in a way.
That’s so cool. I saw Eric and Andrew (Dominik) the director in a YouTube video with Chopper in Tasmania. I guess they visited him so Eric could study him. But did Chopper himself ever show up on set?
No, no. I don’t think he had much to do with production.
Right. What was the vibe like on set? Was Eric Bana like to work with?
Eric was great. I mean, it was so long ago I can barely remember, but I know he was just really fun, super-funny. The whole thing was fun, actually. The only time there was any darkness it came from some of the locations. I remember shooting in Pentridge (Melbourne Prison), and that was a really, really ominous place. They painted the walls of the cells that we shot in, but there were other ones that still had graffiti, and these guys, the prisoners, would write their whole story on the wall with artwork and stuff. It was pretty moving.
At the time, did you have any inkling that you were involved in something that was going to be a massive phenomenon?
No, no way. I mean, I was such a kid at the time, I didn’t really understand the gravity of it all, and I certainly had no idea it was going to become the cult film that it is. I don’t think anyone did.
It’s crazy. I feel like, ‘There’s no money here, Chopper’ has replaced ‘A dingo stole my baby.’
Yeah, I mean, it’s funny, you know, I live in the states and I have a bunch of assistants that work for me, lighting guys and stuff…
Yeah, these American guys, and they all, every one of them, know Chopper.
Chopper is returning to cinemas soon with bonus footage to mark its 20th anniversary. Watch this space!