The Bikeriders’ Director of Photography Puts Audiences on Their Own Ride

An exclusive Q&A with cinematographer Adam Stone.

Jeff Nichols’ The Bikeriders captures a remarkable time in American history through the lens of a Chicago motorcycle gang. Inspired by Danny Lyon's book of photographs by the same name, the film focuses on the relationship between Kathy (Jodie Comer), the charismatic biker Benny (Austin Butler) she falls in love with, and the gang’s leader Johnny (Tom Hardy) as a way to narrate the gang’s dark turn from the '60s to the '70s.

Cinematographer Adam Stone worked intimately with Nichols to capture the unique beauty Lyons originally showed in his photographs. “There's a romanticism to the film's imagery,” writes Entertainment Weekly. “Stone's lens tracks the leather-clad riders in a way that can only be described as loving objectification.”

We talked to Stone about his longtime collaboration with Nichols, the movie’s unique creative challenges, and the beauty of shooting on film.

The Bikeriders is now playing in theaters, so your get tickets!

Official trailer for The Bikeriders

You worked with Nichols on all of his films. How did this project come about?

Jeff and I went to film school together, so we've known each other for more than 20 years. We started talking about this project nearly 10 years ago when we were color-timing Loving. Jeff’s brother, Ben Nichols, came across the book The Bikeriders years ago and has always been fascinated by it, since he drives a motorcycle. Having dinner in Los Angeles, Jeff talked to me about the book but wasn’t sure what to do with it. Eventually, Jeff became friends with Danny Lyon. When Danny gave him these recordings he’d made of the people he photographed, Jeff had an idea of how to create the film’s narrative.

The Bikeriders Collection

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As the cinematographer, what did you see as the biggest creative challenge?

The most challenging element was just trying to film our talent on motorcycles. It proved to be more difficult than we first imagined, trying to capture that interpersonal area with the actors where the audience can feel the energy of actually being on the bike. We spent a lot of time in pre-production figuring out the best way to shoot actors close enough to capture them emotionally. We tried all kinds of approaches before coming up with having talent being on a trike with us shooting hand-held alongside. We would shoot them about three feet away and from the elbows up. The footage we got shooting them that close felt the most real and exhilarating, and it let the audience feel what it was like riding a bike.

How did you bring the spirit of Lyon’s photographs into film?

The film is obviously paying homage to them, but we had to translate them in unique ways. Most of Danny's photos are black and white, but we shot in color. Most of Danny's pictures are vertical, but we shot anamorphic, which is wide and horizontal. We did throw in a few Easter eggs into the films in terms of Lyon’s photos.

As a cinematographer, when you see such beautiful imagery, you want to emulate it. It was quite easy for Jeff and I to look at Danny's book and be mesmerized by his photos. Danny’s approach is very much in the wheelhouse of what we do. Jeff and I are pretty simple filmmakers. We try to tell a simple story in real locations and make everything as authentic as possible. Danny's work is very authentic and very tactile, which really resonated with us. When we looked at his photos, our first thoughts were really pragmatic: What actors would be right? What locations could bring these to life?

Austin Butler and Tom Hardy in The Bikeriders

How did you try to translate the photos’ immediacy and gritty reality?

Jeff and I have never shot digitally and this definitely was not the project for that, so we shot on film. We actually used the same Panavision camera system and lenses that we used on Mud, Midnight Special, and Loving. Since Danny's work feels very spur of the moment, we tried to do a little more hand-held than we have done in the past.

The film’s tempo and long takes created a very naturalistic feel without the fast-cutting of many motorcycle movies.

That is kind of just what we do. I can't imagine that there has ever been a one-minute sequence in any of Jeff’s films that has over 10 edit points. It’s a style we have developed over the years. We like to keep the audience involved. We want the camera to give the audience the character’s point of view rather than having the camera flying all over the place. If we did a lot of quick edits, it would take the audience out of what is happening. We had a few quick edits during some of the fight sequences, but still, they were pretty drawn-out compared to other films.

The Vandals in The Bikeriders

How did you develop the palette for the film?

We found five color photos that Lyon took which helped a lot. After looking at so many black-and-white photos from the book, it was strange to see what his world looked like in color suddenly. Those photos were especially helpful with costuming and hair and make-up. Using those photos, we developed an overall palette for the film.

Mitch Paulson was our color grader and he helped us keep all the colors pretty warm. When we did our digital intermediate, we had the colors be a little saturated and a little on the sepia side, which helped pop greens and reds, like the red shirt that Johnny wears.

What was particularly memorable in shooting this film?

We hadn't shot in film in a while, especially since so much is digital right now. We had to get out our light meters out and start taking reference photos. Shooting film again felt a little like getting back on a bike. The thing that is interesting about shooting celluloid is you never know what you're going to get. No one knows what the film's going to look like until you get it developed and look at the dailies.

I remember we were shooting Cockroach (Emory Cohen) at the end of the day in a location in Ohio, just above Cincinnati. The clouds were moving in and suddenly there was no more light. We just shot it and had to wait to see what we got. It went really blue, but we just kept it in the film. I'm sure that when Danny was shooting his book, he ran into situations where he had to shoot when the light was gone and create what he could from the elements he had. That’s kind of what we did for that scene.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.