Chopper Read collapses before appearance

Mark "Chopper" Read has been called many things over the years, but "media shy" is not among them. So when the fabled hard man fails to turn up for his own press call, it’s almost as newsworthy as anything he might have said had he actually appeared.

It had been billed as a last chance to talk to Chopper, who has liver cancer, as he prepares to shoot "what will be his final scenes on film or television".

Ghoulish? Just a little. Goulash? Very likely: given the Albanian connections of the filmmakers and the location for the press conference - the Footscray Wholesale Market - you’d be mad to bet against it.

But as the time for the allotted appointment rolls past and the assorted heavies — sunglasses and oversized leather jackets obligatory — shuffle restlessly from foot to foot in the background, it becomes obvious this event is in a stew.

Finally, Al Rama, the quietly spoken 34-year-old producer of The Hurtin' Kind Part One: The Albanian, steps forward.

"Unfortunately Chopper Read is very unwell," Mr Rama explains. "He’s collapsed today and won’t be able to make it.

"We had filming scheduled for next week, a three-day shoot, and I’ve suppressed all filming.

"Let’s hope he can make the shoot. If not, I’ll respect his decision as a long-time friend."

Mr Rama has been plotting the movie since 2008. It’s a tale about a young Melbourne gangster from the Albanian underworld who goes to collect a debt and "becomes embroiled in a cat and mouse fight in LA", he says.

It is, he adds quietly, based on his own life experiences.

"I’ve looked after a lot of people, corporate and underworld," says Mr Rama, who first met Chopper through his work with his company Ammo Security Services.

"I was poached to be his bodyguard," he says. "Chopper had his first public speaking [event] in Bacchus Marsh when the Morans were alive and he had a hit on his head with the Morans. I think we did a good job in protecting him."

The way Mr Rama tells it, his connections with Melbourne’s shadowy side run deep.

"Alphonse Gangitano used to come over for dinners at my grandfather’s and I used to sit on his lap," he says.

He claims to have fairly intimate knowledge of the Albanian underworld, but insists "I don’t have anything to do with them".

What about the gents in the jackets and sunnies over there?

"They’re just making sure everything goes well."

Is there a risk for you in telling a story like this?

"There is, because Albanians have for many years kept quiet, there’s a very strict code of keeping quiet," he concedes.

"I’ll try and not jump on too many toes and make sure I’m very careful what I tell and how much I expose."

As for Chopper, he says the film will go ahead with or without him.

His involvement was fairly crucial in raising interest and funding initially, but as his health has deteriorated his role has been cut back, from 12 minutes of screen time to three, perhaps even less.

"The funding has always been a struggle," he says, taking the opportunity to thank colourful local fruiting identity Veli Velishi for his generous support.

Mr Rama says the film was ready to go in 2010, with $30 million of funding lined up from Malaysia before the deal fell foul of Muslim investment guidelines. In the wake of that, it seems, the relationship between him and Howson took a turn for the worse. Now, he says he’s ready to go again.

This time round the budget may be far more modest but Mr Rama’s ambition is not.

He has Peter Callas lined up to direct Chopper’s scenes next week, mindful of the need to move quickly. But after that, Mr Rama says, "We’re looking at possibly Baz Luhrmann".

Really? "Really."

With the gents in the jackets and the sunnies looking on, who am I to disagree?

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