SOA – Reflecting on the 7-Year Journey

Story by Ray Seidel

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Editor’s Note: Like many fans of the show, I was “resigned” to it’s ending and appreciated the way it was resolved, but still felt some sadness to see it go. I had grown somewhat close to the characters, even the psychopathic ones…so the morning after the last episode I wrote to Ray and asked if he could write a wrap-up piece about the series. What follows is I think, more than that. Personally, I’d like to thank Kurt Sutter for giving us such a fun and exciting show, and professionally I want to thank FX Networks for partnering with QT for 7 years. It’s been a fun ride, guys. CD

7424aSummer 2008, and I’m on the lot of a small studio tucked away in a combination residential – industrial area in North Hollywood, not too far north of Universal Studios. The scheduled tour for the press had imploded, so FX obliged me by having one of the staff on hand, Josh Vener, guide me around. I began, since we are a MOTORCYCLE magazine, by checking out the Harleys used by the cast. Right away the staff asked if I wanted to take a picture JT’s Harley in the clubhouse. (Shhh… there’s a puddle of oil below it.) This bike is rented during the months of filming for display. Bike mechanic/transportation man John Landon gave me the rundown on the unique features for each character’s bike. Examples, for Tig, who loves to cause pain, his bike was loaded with pointy objects at key points on the Harley, with the unplanned consequence of also poking into John when he had to move the bike around. For Juice, the tech guy in the club, there were outlets for an I-pad, stereo speakers, and so on. For prospect half-sack, it was just a plain white Dyna, period. It’s been awhile since we’ve seen them, but at that time Jax’s Dyna had the Reaper on the tank, Clay’s also, but with the upper & lower rockers added. In a lighter vein, Piney’s trike had a reaper on the front fairing with an oxygen tube in its nose. By the way, the actors get to KEEP their character’s bikes. And cuts. (Coates really wanted Tig’s Harley.)

7426In the show, the entrance to the clubhouse in fact does NOT lead to its interior; that is located in the main studio (behind the TELLER-MORROW garage) which besides the club interior also is home to the hospital interior, and all the rooms for Clay & Gemma, Jax, the club, etc. As I watched Katey Sagal finish a scene with Kim Coates in the club hallway, she walked out to the open soundstage corridor for a short break between takes, picked up a bagel and seated herself in a director’s chair. I introduced myself as being from Quick Throttle magazine and there to give her some good ink, then asked “Can I give you a compliment…or do you already get so many…?” “Oh, [she smiles] give me a compliment.” I had just gotten the season one Press Kit from FX, and had seen the first few un-aired episodes. Having only seen her do light comedy on Married With Children, and now this strong willed matriarch, I told her how well I thought she created this character of Gemma, and saw an Emmy nomination in her future. “Thank you, thank you.” In fact, she topped that the following year as Best Actress with a Golden Globe Award. Soon after, show creator/writer/producer Kurt Sutter popped in with his, at that time, year and a half old baby daughter, just to visit with his wife Katey. Not being on the clock, he strolled with me around the soundstage for some Q&A. I mentioned some story tellers use the Cracker Jack model to spin a yarn – besides the juxtaposition of sweet caramel popcorn and salty peanuts, there is the prize – the bit of Truth – you keep afterwards. Does he want the show to be morality plays? Having finished up on The Shield, his vision for SONS was to be of a similar profile, strong drama with dark comedy embedded that would get viewers plugged in to an unseen subculture. The result was to be the top rated show on cable. I mentioned many vets from WWII came home and took up motorcycling and joined biker clubs to keep that adrenalin rush going, whereas Vietnam vets came home to a somewhat unwelcome reception. Will that be played up in the show? Kurt said he would LIKE to insert that into the show if it would feel organic in the storyline, and to some degree he did. However this will be the main thrust of the upcoming prequel “The First 9” which will take place during Vietnam, and the first members of SAMCRO, Clay and Piney. Look for that in, maybe, two years.

7429I was then shown the wardrobe department where the cuts for SOA and the MAYANs were stored. Lots of homework was done to get these right, and at the same time not to offend any actual M/C. Fonts, colors, all had to be reviewed so as to not copy an existing club. I thought perhaps the colors used by the club – blue and white (law enforcement) might be an inside joke, but Kurt assured me such was not the case. Actual cuts are off-the-shelf at $350 a copy, plus another $150 to have the patch and rockers for each. One leather cut for each club member and Alvarez, one for the stunt doubles. Other Mayans got less costly cuts. In the pilot these were all shiny new, but when the series started they were “aged” to look like they’ve been worn.

7428Lunch trucks on the studio lot are not like at construction sites or biker events, this is really fine eats, and whatever your taste, be it vegan, or stick-to-your-ribs hearty food, they have it. My first year there the desert with my meal was chocolate cake that was about half a foot tall. I spotted Ron Perlman at the lunch table with his dog, a Jack Russell terrier named Nigel, whom I would discover was with Ron every year, on set, makeup trailer, everywhere he went. I asked if he was smart. Ron: “Sure. Nigel, sit. [beat] Sit. [beat] Nigel, sit.” Wobbling at the hind end, and down it goes – success after only three takes! Lunchtime meant the crew would play cards on the pool table in the clubhouse, and I was more or less cut free to look around. The staff was not above inside jokes, and the sets were filled with “WANTED” posters of Josh (from FX) with his mug shot. To up the ante, an episode in the end of the 1st season had said wanted poster posted on the wall in Unser’s office, with two of the characters on either side framing it – can’t miss it. Late afternoon the call sheet calls for an outside chapter to roll in. The timing for this is so the people living nearby have minimal disruption. An actual motorcycle club has been hired as extras to roll in. Just two takes of rolling down the street and by the studio clubhouse set, and they got it. By this time my head is about to explode trying to memorize everything I absorbed during that day. Next time I’ll bring help.

Although season one was a hit, FX sat on it for months before giving a green light to season two. The following season wait for renewal was down to a couple of months. In its final few years that was history: SOA was a cash cow, and FX placed an order in advance for the last couple of seasons up front.

7431For my trip to the SOA sets in season two I wanted to bring along a photographer, as I was WAY overloaded with gear during season one. While many have said they’d “LOVE” to go up to see the sets and meet the cast, when it comes time everyone is too busy – so I tapped a new friend from an SOA screening, Krista Van Dyke, to come along with her professional camera. Krista and I had an appointment with the make-up trailer, and got the lowdown on how the fake tattoos were applied. Theo Rossi was in the chair, getting his head shaved and tats applied to his head, then his arms. All the tattoo decals have the character’s name on them, are cut out, then applied, and last about three days if the actor takes care of them. Some were in fact designed by the actors. You’ve seen the size of the Reaper on Charlie’s back, but what you may NOT know is that is ALSO the size they use on Ron’s bulging biceps, his arms are that big. Outside, the weather was a hundred degrees plus, but poor Ryan (Opie) was in full leathers. For seven years, this was the case for the actors, cuts & leathers in horrible heat, but they were good sports about it. The details of the clubhouse set interior, the T-M garage, the hospital, all top notch, and have to be seen in person to be fully appreciated, and I’ve included many shots over the years to show that attention to detail. Having worked in an auto repair shop myself during college, it made a special impression on me…the TM uniforms, belts & tires, girlie pictures, all good. The actual Teller-Morrow garage was built on the studio lot just for the show, there was nothing there before. The ramp to the garage itself is not concrete at all, just plywood, but looks real. By afternoon we were cut loose and just hanging out with crew and cast, which seemed like we were living with the characters who happened to be filming by the clubhouse and T-M garage. Knowing studio etiquette – doing TV & film reviews since the late 70’s – it was all good, knowing where to be, and where not. Charlie called me over and wanted to talk to me. He said (w/o American accent) “I’ve been getting a lot of flak for wearing these white sneakers. I’ve ridden with these guys up north, and no one below the age of 50 wears anything but sneakers.” Noted. DL “Happy” had a special custom SOA bike made for himself/Happy, which is still the best looking of the lot. By 11pm we were pretty much spent and called it quits, while the cast continued on into the early morning. On a personal note, just hanging with SAMCRO on a warm summer night – that’s about the most fun I’ve ever had.

7432Season three I tapped two other people, Linda and Chanel, to join me, Linda for photographs, Chanel to operate a voice recorder. The clubhouse interior was not being used, as everyone was in Ireland that year. Okay, they’re really still on the soundstage, but with new sets to look like the inside of something you’d see in an Irish home. My friends took turns pole dancing in the clubhouse, checked out the Wall of Shame with all the mug shots of everybody, including Kurt Sutter as Otto. Outside the Harleys were all stored in the T-M garage, and John was on hand to fire up Tig’s 110 hp ’96 Dyna. We then wondered about the soundproofing of the studio walls. Inside the studio the matter of Charlie’s sneakers again came up, as I had ground down my steel toe boots to the metal in an accident the year before. He said “I ride over 90 miles an hour. If I crash it’s not going to matter, I’m going to be dead. Just last week I rode with my flip-flops.” Charlie just does not like wearing boots – final episode notwithstanding.

7433After some pictures with Charlie, Katey talked to us about upcoming singing gigs, plus every season she sings a background song for SONS. Then we went to Ron’s trailer. Inside, he asked if we would mind if he smoked a cigar. (Hey, it’s his trailer.) Well of course not, and I asked what brand it was. “Joya de Nicaragua.” Also the go-to cigar of the FX rep. Trying one myself a few months later, about 15 minutes into it I was about to fall to the ground…a bit strong for non-smoker. Ron had on his WOLVERINE shirt and told us he was working on some comics, also was and still is collaborating with George R. R. Martin for upcoming projects. And Hellboy 3? He’s in, providing the same director. And what was HIS first bike? “A Schwinn.” All the actors were given a Harley for a year with the option to buy, but Ron turned it down flat. “I like my Mercedes, I like my Bose, I like my cigars.”

7434Off the set I caught up with Mayan President Alvarez played by Emilio Rivera. Emilio was actually hired to play “Hawk” – one of the members of SAMCRO for the pilot. However that had to be redone with a new actor for Clay (Ron) and Emilio got a call from his agent “I have some good news and some bad news.” “What’s the good news?” “You’re not a Sons of Anarchy guy anymore.” Emilio replied “You better have some f***ing good news brother because that’s some bad news.” So they made him President of the Mayans. This has certainly lit up Emilio’s star, who has been in the FOX TV show Gang Related, movies Act of Valor, Water & Power, and two more feature films coming in 2015.

Starting Season 3 SOA began making its appearance at Comic-Con International in San Diego. This gave fans a chance to see the cast in person and maybe get in a question or autograph. By season 7 Comic-Con was using its largest room to hold the crowd.

7435Season four new rules for the studio: no friends, no family, no exceptions. Too many leaks going on, so an effort was made to clamp down on the number of people on the sets. (Notwithstanding plenty still got on.) I catch up with Kelli Jones the costume designer, a beautiful blonde young lady who stands nearly as tall as myself. Kelli started with The Shield (which Sutter worked on) and has been with SOA from the beginning. For the last few years she’s given me details on costumes, which for the guys are pretty simple – jeans and dark shirts. For the porn girls she has fun shopping at, uh, suitable stores. Though one of the porn extras thought she could wear NO underwear, and had to be reminded by Kelli this is not a REAL porn shoot. For Gemma the task for Kelli is to come up with sexy “biker mama” without being trashy. To that end Kelli has been nominated for a Best Costume Award. (I had Kelli pose with one of the cuts, first time she tried one on).

What kind of craziness did Kurt have in mind for 4th season? “You know, it’s just a romance novel at the end of the day [Laughs].” This was the season they killed off June Stahl. Said Kurt “June, you know after that arc played out and she eventually had her lover killed – like, there’s just no place else to go. [Laughs].”

7436Season five, and at this point the relationship between Clay and Gemma was over. And Gemma has a new mother/daughter relationship with Tara. Said Katey, “I think Gemma feels that way about Tara – she has grown over the years, and certainly being the mother of her grandchildren she feels very close to her. But at the same time she feels threatened. And to see Tara take on a new position in which she becomes more assertive, and stronger – but you’ll see we kind of flow back and forth…love, hate – love, hate.”

For Ron and Charlie, they also started making movies together. Ron: “It’s in my contract. [Laughs] We don’t make a movie without each other. It’s just a happy coincidence.” Both starred in the comedy Frankie go Boom, and the sci-fi flick Pacific Rim. Oh, and Ron gave up cigars. (As did Clay.)

7437Season 6, nearing the end. I wanted to get an overview of the weapons used in the show, and spent some time with property master Bryan Rogers. In one of the studio “caves” was just about every hand gun used by the SONS actors, and various bad guys. Many were just rubber, so you could clock someone over the head with one, and is also safer. Bryan made sure ALL actors had an understanding of the working weapons.

Ron happily autographed my Hellboy lunch box for me, and then said something unexpected about playing Clay. “I really didn’t have any expectations. But I didn’t know that season 4 would have the reveal that Jax would know that Clay was the guy that murdered his father. From that moment on Clay is being unwound, and undone. And I had no idea when I signed on that that was going to be the case. It’s been very uncomfortable for me, both as an actor, and as a fan to play Clay.” Ron has not watched the show since season 6.

Season seven – the final ride. What was Kurt hoping the audience would take away from the conclusion of the show? “My sense is the ending…I don’t know that anyone will be happy, but I’d like to think that everyone will be satisfied. And maybe pissed off. [Laughs] What I’d like people to walk away from with it is that they’re glad they invested 7 seasons in the show. That ultimately it was worth it to them and it will be a piece of television history.” As for the actors, they knew the end was in sight, but far too busy showing up for work to dwell on it.

First LastThe ending itself was what we expected – the chickens came home to roost. Said producer Paris Barclay “We killed a lot of chickens. And someone had to pay.” Many have noticed how the show has come full-circle. First scene, season one, two crows on the open road picking at some food, as Jax Teller roars under the moonlight on his Harley, no helmet and smoking a cigarette. Final scene, season seven, two crows on the open road picking at some bread (from The Homeless Lady), as Jax rides under the blue sky on John Teller’s Harley, no helmet and smoking a cigarette, to his end. In season one, Jax meets The Homeless Lady for the first time, and gives her his blanket. Last episode of season seven, she returns the same blanket back to him and says “It’s Time.” Jax wears the blanket to become The Reaper and takes out August Marks to free his club.

Easter eggs. Jax also asks The Homeless Lady after all his past encounters “Who are you?” On the wall behind him, the camera briefly shows the answer with the painted initials “JT.” (Play with closed captions on during their first meeting at the graveyard in season one, and it will all make sense.) Also, a subliminal Easter egg, when Jax rides earlier on JT’s bike around a corner, on the far sound wall are the letters “TBX” – referring to Sutter’s upcoming show next year The Bastard Executioner. Lastly, another allegory, The Homeless Woman was partaking of bread and wine. The final scene of the death of Jax, we see the bread, the blood.

Not a happy ending. But a triumphant one.


Picking over the bones: As we went to press, FX was working with to auction off dozens of props from the show, with some of the money going for charity. Here are some of the items that had closed as of 12/19:

  • Jax’s SO & NS rings $17,250.00
  • The President’s Gavel $12,250.00
  • A Redwood Original Cut $9,200.00
  • Jax’s Bloody Nikes $7,000.00
  • Unser’s Airstream trailer $5,100.00
  • Opie’s Harley (for Charity) $15,000.00
  • JT’s 1946 Harley Knucklehead, ridden by Jax in the finale $49,500.00