The Motorcycle Diaries

“Wait right there. I’ll go and get you the balls!”

Three is in the props room for TV biker drama Sons of Anarchy, a small room nestled somewhere in a labyrinthine Los Angeles warehouse. The room’s piled high with all manner of fascinating paraphernalia, all befitting the outlaw lifestyle that the show’s narrative explores: there are stacks of pretty convincing fake greenbacks, an arsenal of knives (some rubber, some retractable and some very real), boxes of bullets, and a startlingly realistic rubber skateboard (which Katey Segal memorably used in the show’s first series to twat a love rival across the bridge of the nose).

But prop master Bryan Rodgers — an amiable bear of a man who could easily pass for a biker himself — wants to go and get the crown jewels. Literally. He returns with, yes, balls — specifically, the testicles that were severed from a rapist early in the show’s second episode. As Three touches them gingerly and ticks “handling a prosthetic scrotum” off our bucket list, Rodgers explains how they were made — with some sort of gelatin, apparently — and warns us that three years later, they’re now starting to disintegrate. Which, indeed, they are, rather disconcertingly so. While we discreetly wipe gelatin ball-flesh onto a tablecloth, Rodgers moves onto a discussion of the prop room’s other pride and joy — the sizzled torso that’s hanging from the wall.

“We had a character who betrayed the club,” he explains, “and the idea was that they gave him the option to either use a knife or flame to remove the club tattoo on his back. He opted for flame, so what we did was take a body cast of the actor… and created this device here and took a blowtorch to it.”

Like the balls, the cast is made out of gelatin: “When we hit it with flame, it would sizzle, burn and then melt like skin would. The skin just started to slowly ooze down after we super-heated it. I got some calls from other prop masters, saying it was the most horrific thing they’d ever seen on television.”

He beams. “We break ground on this show. We always push that envelope a little bit more.”

* * * * *

There’s something strangely compelling about spending a day in a place where nothing is real.

Perhaps it’s just a vestige of youthful idealism, but Three always kinda assumed that in the context of TV, “sets” generally referred to the places where game shows and sitcoms were shot, fairly simple affairs with live studio audiences and such. So it’s mildly jolting to discover that apart from the scenes that absolutely require location shots — exteriors that can’t be recreated, along with the sequences involving motorcycles and roads, basically — Sons of Anarchy is created entirely within the confines of this nondescript warehouse in North Hollywood. Everything is artificial, from the macro (like the huge compound where the titular motorcycle gang has its headquarters) to the micro (like, y’know, severed testicles).

Three is here at the warehouse today to take a look around, basically — in anticipation of the release of the show’s second series on Australian TV, we’ve been invited here to tour the sets and, hopefully, see some of the action being filmed (they’re about halfway through shooting the show’s fourth season). The man showing us the ropes is one Anthony Medina, a veteran production designer who also worked on Sutter’s previous project The Shield. Medina is an engaging and insightful host, and spends a good hour leading us patiently from set to set.

Curiously enough, he tells us, the decision to construct an entire world here in North Hollywood is as much an economic decision as it is an aesthetic one: “If we have to go to a real location and shoot that many times, and take the whole company out there, that gets very expensive. If I can build that set here, we can pull walls [for better camera angles], and have fake elevators, and shoot around the clock if we have to… it’s a lot more inexpensive. Building some of this stuff [gestures at the faux-hospital we’re standing in] can be expensive, but in the big picture, it’s the much more inexpensive way to go.”

It has to be said that the job he and his crew do is pretty amazing. You’d never guess it from the street — the place looks like every warehouse in this somewhat sketchy part of the San Fernando Valley, and the only hint that the place isn’t being used to house imported furniture or Chinese smallgoods is the security guard on the front gate and the motorbikes in the staff parking spots. Once you’re inside, though, you find yourself in something that’s for all intents and purposes another world.

This sounds like a horrible Hollywood cliché, but it’s honestly true — step into the warehouse and you enter the fictional world of Sons of Anarchy, a world that’s arranged in a series of intersecting sets and dark, dusty corridors. The experience is mildly surreal — you find yourself walking out of a startlingly realistic hospital corridor into a sheriff’s station that’s straight out of Twin Peaks. A left turn takes you to the jail interview room that crops up periodically in the show — a place that also, amusingly, doubles as the actors’ lunch room. And then there’s the Sons of Anarchy clubhouse, instantly familiar to anyone who’s watched the show.

Unfortunately, our fantasies of getting into the clubhouse, hanging out with the crew, and maybe playing a game of pool with Ron Perlman… well, they turn out to be overly optimistic. It turns out that the whole place is on tenterhooks today, perhaps because notoriously volatile show creator Kurt Sutter is a) here and b) apparently not at all happy about the amount of leaks that have been emerging from Sons of Anarchy HQ in recent weeks.

As a result, the whole set has an aura of… not chaos, exactly, but organised franticness. Venturing in here feels like walking into an ant colony or something — we’re greeted with at best indifference and at worst genuine suspicion by the crew members who swarm around us as we creep from set to set. It’s fascinating just how many people are involved in the shooting process: there’s a battalion of grips and key grips and best boys and gaffers and large men with esoteric toolbelts, all of whom freeze and stand in dead silence the instant that a fire alarm-like bell rings to indicate that a take is being shot — then resume whatever they were doing as soon as the bell rings again.

The closest we get to a direct look through the fourth wall is a scene involving Perlman and co-star Theo Rossi — we last about five seconds before being shooed by a boom mic-wielding crewman back to the small room where the director is watching the action on an intimidatingly complex console that seems to feature about eight monitors and a myriad of arcane controls. We do, however, have time to note that there appears to be a designated cigar-lighting dude on set, whose express purpose seems to be to relight Perlman’s trademark Cohiba before every single take. Continuity’s a bitch, eh?

“The challenge is not to let our TV show look like a lot TV shows,” Medina whispers as we watch Perlman puffing away from a bewildering array of different angles. “That’s a hard thing to understand if you’re not working on TV shows the whole time, but for me, there’s a lot of things I see in TV shows that’s always the same. A lot of signage is always the same. I don’t like the idea that you start a scene looking at a sign, say, and then tell that story. It’s a very typical TV thing. That’s my challenge: every time I look at a set, I ask myself how I can avoid those things. Because in the real world, things aren’t like that. And we’re supposed to be real.”

* * * * *

From our limited experience of bikies (which amounts to a large bearded man once waving a very large shotgun at us for overtaking him on the Great Ocean Road), Three imagines that you’d want to dot your i’s and cross your t’s when displaying their world on film.

As we step out of the warehouse and head back to the auto repair shop that doubles as the gang’s legitimate business front on film, and today as journalistic home base, Medina explains his research process: “When I started the show, I went with a couple of motorcycle clubs on my own, and went on a couple of runs with them. I wanted to spend a lot of time with them, just seeing who they are and how they react to certain things and how they feel, what the group is. And I just paid attention to a lot of little details.”

The shop we’re sitting in certainly feels entirely authentic — you half expect a grease-covered man to emerge from the office to ask you which car is yours, and then present you with a list of reasons why you’re going to have to shell out $1000 for a roadworthy certificate. Perhaps the most striking thing is that despite the fact that the place feels old — there’s stuff everywhere, dust and grease on the floor… It even smells like a mechanic’s. The attention to detail is very, very impressive. “You really can only do that,” agrees Medina, “from going into a lot of auto repair shops and just looking around.”

Once the initial research is done, it’s a process of getting to know the characters — ultimately, Medina says, it’s the writers’ vision of the characters’ personalities that defines their environment, and for him, the production designer’s job is to realize this environment. “It always starts with a script,” he says. “[Kurt] gives me the storyline of who our people are, where they come from, how much money they make… Personal character stuff, you know? Like, ‘This is his age, this is where he comes from, these are the neighbourhoods he grew up in, this is how much money he spends on alcohol…’ Just to get a sense of who these people are.”

We move back into the shop’s office to discuss an interesting trend in recent years, whereby a series of prominent film actors have moved into regular roles on television — and, specifically, cable television (Sons of Anarchy airs on US cable channel FX). Indeed, Sons of Anarchy itself has well-respected character actor Perlman as its marquee name. Medina says that working in cable television also allows a similar level of freedom from a production design point of view. “On US network TV,” he explains, “you can’t swear, you can’t show blood… This [Sons of Anarchy] would never work.” Echoing Rodgers’ sentiments, he says that the idea of pushing the creative envelope is important for both he and the show’s creator: “Our background, our actors, our wardrobe, our make-up… It’s all together. It has to be [because] if one’s off, it bumps on the whole show.”

And the ultimate test: has there been any feedback from actual genuine outlaw biker types?

“All the time,” chuckles Medina. “All the time. I’ve made a lot of good friends in biker clubs.”

And they like the show?

“Oh, yeah. When I can, I get them on the show, just to pepper in more realism. They’ve actually given me a lot of their own personal photographs from living in that life, they signed over release to me and Fox so that I can actually show them. So a lot of these things you see [waves around the office], they’re all real.”

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