Going into season 6, Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter had warned fans that it would be the most violent one yet. And he wasn’t joking. That means the FX drama’s special effects supervisor, Chris Nelson, was a busy man. Back in October, we asked Nelson to take us inside two particularly graphic scenes in the deadly episode “Los Fantasmas.” Revisit the conversation below. You may never look at watermelon the same way again.
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In the episode, directed by Peter Weller, the DA (CCH Pounder) had it leaked to the press that the weapon used by the 11-year-old shooter may trace back to the Byz Lats and Sons of Anarchy. As Jax (Charlie Hunnam) and the SAMCRO boys met with the Byz Lats to tell them to stay even, they noticed a car lurking nearby. It sped toward them and hit — and dragged — a Byz Lat named Gomes (Mario Perez, pictured) in a sequence that Nelson, who began working on SOA during season 2, describes as the most graphic one he’s done on the show. “My rule of thumb is, if I think it’s too much, give it another 20 percent. If it makes me cringe a little bit, I amp it up a little bit more,” he says. “It’s such a pleasure being on a show where they want to see it all. If you’re on a lot of network shows, you can’t do anything. TV shows tend to be a little tame, but not Sons. Nooo. They’re actually allowing me to do my craft.”
HOW THEY DID IT
“You start with the actor running, and at one point, we substitute the actor with a dummy that I’ve mounted to the street in almost the same pose as if he was running,” Nelson says. “From there, I taped big giant bags of blood to his torso and his legs underneath the wardrobe. We sliced the wardrobe, and the car hit it at 45 miles an hour. He kinda looked like he exploded a little bit on the initial hit. There was some flesh involved. We used a little bit of latex sheets — we just chop it into little pieces so that goes flying. And some of the chunkier bloody sections was actually — trade secret — just a couple of watermelons that we chopped up into pieces and mixed in with the blood to give it a nice meaty texture. Peter Weller was all over me that day: ‘I want to see chunks! I want to see chunks!’ So I opened up a bucket of the blood, and he got grossed out a little bit. Then I took one of the chunks out of it and I started eating it. (Laughs) ‘Cause it’s watermelon, covered in syrup and red food coloring. It was delicious.”
“Then we did another shot where we took the dummy and drug it under the car with blood bags, so it was spraying underneath the car and all that good stuff,” Nelson says. “And then we cut the dummy loose. The dummy rolls out the back, and then we cut to an actual stuntman hanging on the back, and we drag him down the street.”
“Then he lets go and tumbles,” Nelson says. “And when they put it all together, you swear Gomes met his demise in a very gruesome way.”
It wasn’t until SAMCRO later stopped the Byz Lats from killing the driver in his home that they learned the man, Felipe (Hugo Medina), was the father of one of the children killed in the school shooting. Beaten and bruised, Felipe tragically stabbed himself in the neck with a large kitchen knife when the authorities arrived.
HOW THEY DID IT
“The first bit of it is a retractable knife. The tip of the knife actually collapses into the handle. It’s a spring-loaded mechanism, with a rubber tip so it doesn’t hurt him,” Nelson says. “The actual stab and squirt when the knife comes out — that was basically half a knife, and they CG’d the tip going in and out. But on his neck, I had a latex bladder that we ran the blood through, so when he stabs himself, I started going with the blood, and then when he pulls it out, Peter wanted it to squirt. What Peter said to me is, ‘I want buckets of blood.’ He told me to watch RoboCop, and he said, ‘In the last scene of RoboCop, the guy’s got blood spurting out of his neck.’ That’s what I used as my base. Although I told him, ‘I think I we can do better than RoboCop on this show.’ So we stepped it up a little bit more and gave him the spray of blood that he required.”
“It’s all manual. I just watch what the actor does and as the actor goes to make the move, I throw the valve a little bit further, and then you get the volume. Then I just kind of play the valve like a heartbeat. Like a boomp-boomp, boomp-boomp, and I squirt every time a heart would beat… Sometimes I get into it,” Nelson says. “On this show, you kinda have to get into it. I think I’m gonna need therapy between now and next season in order to make it through.” We think he’ll be okay. “I’m a well-rounded, grounded person. I just do this for a living,” he insists, with a laugh. “It is kinda fun though.”
In general, there is some pressure, Nelson adds. Particularly with the bullet hits that he wants to nail in one take. You want something placed behind the victim(s) to showcase the splatter. Think of that nice white truck Filthy Phil and V-Lin were killed in front of earlier this season. “A take two is 20 minutes to reload and clean all the blood off and get new clothes. So there’s a little tension before we get ready to go,” Nelson says. “I hope they like it, and then they do, and then we just move right on.” Because of the nature of television, things are talked about in advance but really come together day-of on the set, so you have to be loose and adapt, he says. “Things will change: ‘Oh, we don’t want him to stand there, we want him to stand over here,’ so now I have to adjust to make it work for camera. Fortunately, it’s one of the best crews I’ve ever worked with, and it always seems to come together.”
He’s been in the business for 20 years and says working on the 2012 feature Seven Psychopaths helped hone his bullet hits. To create the splatter, he uses a series of tubes or pyrotechnics, aims a device, and adjusts the pressure appropriately to give the spray pattern and distance they’re after. “We’ve devised a pretty good system for any situation. Because we are always doing it in weird spots. ‘Oh, we want it to splash on the floor now.’ So I’ve got a rig for that. We’ve got a rig for splashing on a car,” he says. “We do some where we use a pyrotechnic charge, and we’ll put it in a wig, and if you look at it, it will look like the back of the person’s head came off.” He’s particularly proud of the hit on Venus Van Dam’s mother Alice (Adrienne Barbeau) earlier this season. “Charlie and I together have killed a lot of people. He pulls the trigger, but I make it do something,” Nelson says. “The actors and I choreograph our sequences together, because they always want to tie a gun in to the shot. So I’m timing myself to the trigger pull of the gun visually. He pulls the trigger — I gotta push a button at exactly the same time, otherwise it looks like the world’s slowest bullet. And a few times, it’s kinda messed with the actor’s mind a little bit, because he thought he actually hurt somebody…I think we’re all gonna need therapy.”