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How The Bikeriders film came to be and inspired the 2024 Harley-Davidson 
Hydra-Glide Revival.

Words by Steven Richards

Photography by Kyle Kaplan and courtesy of Focus Features


On June 21, 2024, the highly anticipated film The Bikeriders debuts in theaters across America. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, and inspired by Danny Lyon’s venerable black-and-white photography book, “The Bikeriders,” which was originally published in 1968, the movie follows a Midwest motorcycle club that struggles with its morality. The club founder and leader, Johnny (Tom Hardy), rides a bobbed 1956 Harley-Davidson FLH that inspired the limited-edition 2024 Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glide Revival.

When Harley-Davidson Motor Company CEO, Jochen Zeitz, and Vice President of Design and Creative Director of Motorcycles, Brad Richards, visited The Bikeriders film set in Cincinnati, Ohio, they peeked behind the scenes and thumbed through the script, and as Richards read Nichols’ adaption of the book, he felt a poignant admiration for Johnny, who he calls “the good guy in the club.”

The character represents the ex-World War II men who founded motorcycle clubs to foster community, ride bikes, and have a good time. While Johnny is not without his faults and does not hesitate to violently set fire to a local bar after a bone-breaking altercation, Richards says, “He has scruples, he's got class, and if there’s a club member who you want to celebrate, it’s him.”

Upon returning to Milwaukee, Richards continued to be intrigued by the depth of Johnny’s character and decided to sketch a Heritage Softail-based motorcycle with the red-and-white “slash” paint scheme from Johnny’s bike, which became the 2024 Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glide Revival.

To commemorate the release of the all-new Hydra-Glide Revival, we sat down with The Bikeriders writer and director, Jeff Nichols, to discuss the movie and its characters, his relationship with Lyon’s book, and the struggles of thoughtfully translating an iconic motorcycle photography book into a timelessly engaging feature film.

CONCEPT SKETCH OF 2024 HYDRA-GLIDE REVIVAL

One of the most beloved models was the 1956 FLH, which featured a red base color with a white stripe, known as the “slash” two-tone color scheme.

“To me it is the beauty and the romance of motorcycle clubs in contrast with the toxic, negative aspects of the culture—there's a tension there that is hard to capture.”

Harley-Davidson: About 20 years ago, you were first introduced to “The Bikeriders” book and immediately knew you wanted to make a film about it, so why did you wait two decades to do so?

Jeff Nichols: As a filmmaker, technically I wasn't ready for it, and as a storyteller, I needed time to figure this one out. This is by far the most complicated script I've ever written, although I hope it doesn't feel that way when you watch it, and I didn't have the chops yet to write it until I was five films into my career. In this film, I knew time would pass in a strange way, because I wanted to move around and grab these beautiful anecdotes in the book that I love so much and have loved for so long.

Harley-Davidson: How did Danny Lyon react to your initial proposal to turn his book into a feature film?

Jeff Nichols: In 2015, he invited me out to his place in New Mexico, and when I got there, I basically just hauled off and started talking about motorcycles and subcultures and how it compared to the punk rock cycle that I saw happen in my hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas in the 1990s. I must have rambled for 30 minutes, and then he nodded and said, "Okay, so you don't want to make a movie about a photographer?” I told him that he’d be a character in the film, but truthfully, I didn't know what the hell the movie was going to be about. I didn't want to make a historical film about the Outlaws but rather capture the feeling of when I first picked up the book, and every page lit my brain up. You read those interviews, and it deepens the photographs and seemingly gives this complete picture of these people. The film needed to be about these people and the way they thought about themselves—how they fit in the world and how they didn't fit in the world—and that’s when I decided to fictionalize the story, so I didn’t step on the toes of the Outlaws or their patch or their history, and I could go wherever I needed to go in order to make a film that hopefully evokes the feeling that I had when I first held the book.

Harley-Davidson: Describe that feeling, would you?

Jeff Nichols: It isn’t easy to explain, but to me it’s the beauty and the romance of motorcycle clubs in contrast with the toxic, negative aspects of the culture—there's a tension there that is hard to capture.

Harley-Davidson: As you first laid the foundation for your film’s narrative, you clearly leaned into the relationship between Benny (Austin Butler) and Kathy (Jodie Comer), but how did that relationship develop as you moved through the script?

Jeff Nichols: It didn't feel like the relationship between Benny and Kathy could carry the film, so I created “a love triangle.” Benny is attractive not only to Kathy, but also to Johnny—not in a sexual way, but also not in a father-son way. Johnny's character covets Benny, not in the same way that Kathy does, but they're both drawn to him. That was the spark that gave me just enough structure to keep the film grounded while also allowing the audience to listen to Cal (Boyd Holbrook) talk about choppers, hear Zipco (Michael Shannon) talk about “pinkos,” and connect to the bigger psychology of the larger group.

Harley-Davidson: Benny is as gorgeous as he is hollow. Did you intend for that character to come across as a nihilistic enigma with great cheekbones?

Jeff Nichols: Benny is an empty glass. He is there for other people to try to put things in. Everybody is trying to fill Benny up with their hopes and dreams and aspirations, but he isn't built to contain those. He can't hold them, and he doesn't want to. And as a result, you make a character that is inevitably unsatisfying by design. He's built as a device, honestly, for Kathy and Johnny, because they're the characters that the movie turns on in an interesting way. And it's a tragedy because they both put so much into a thing that was not built to hold anything. Benny is a constant frustration, and, as a filmmaker and a storyteller, I had to accept and commit to that.

Harley-Davidson: The film is assembled around this “love triangle,” as you call it, but truthfully the most captivating moments come through supporting characters, don’t you think?

Jeff Nichols: What attracted me most about Lyon’s book was this strange assortment of people and their perspectives on the world, and for me it was a necessity to build out those characters in the film. Not everyone agreed with that, and people wanted me to trim out those other characters from the script, but I refused, because the truth is that Benny’s, Johnny’s, and Kathy’s characters—as much as I love them—aren't enough to hold things together, and you need the individualities of these other people.

Harley-Davidson: What was your favorite motorcycle riding scene to film?

Jeff Nichols: Oh, Kathy on the back of Benny’s bike on that first night. It’s a love scene, and she's not just falling in love with Benny, but also falling in love with being in a pack of motorcycles. I wrote it very specifically that way because she talks about it that way in the book. I love the sound and the feel of it, especially with [The Shangri-La’s “Out in the Streets”] as the music. Every scene we shot on the bikes was terrifying because I had all these actors out there on ancient machines with no helmets, riding at speed, but then you would go shoot these moments, and Lyon’s book just came to life—I've never experienced anything like it.

Harley-Davidson: What do you enjoy most about motorcycling?

Jeff Nichols: I'm in my infancy as a rider, so every time I get on a bike, it's an interesting mixture of fear and excitement, but I love the way it feels. These days there are very few things that require your full attention but also allow you to “zen out.” You are focused and you are part of the machine—it’s a cleanser of the brain, for sure.

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Hydra-Glide, a champion of the Panhead era is resurrected with the release of the limited-edition 2024 Hydra-Glide Revival.