Spoiler alert: The Nov. 4 episode of Sons of Anarchy, “What a Piece of Work Is Man,” said goodbye to a core character and watched another make a surprising move on the hood of a cop car. (Read our postmortems with Mark Boone Junior (Bobby) and Annabeth Gish (Jarry).) Peter Weller, who directed the episode—and, of course, recurs on the series as Charlie Barosky—spoke to EW about those memorable scenes, what makes Sons special, and how the Nov. 18 episode, which he also directed, nearly destroyed him.
Entertainment Weekly: How tough was it to shoot Bobby’s death scene?
Weller: I’m a real crybaby. I weep as I read it. I weep at everything. So I’ve got to extract my emotions for a moment and look at it objectively. The dramatic event is a.) a horrible surprise and b.) a realization that Jax is way out of his league. And lastly, you want to leave it with a moment of sadness but an internal moment of vengeance coming.
So we think Bobby’s going to be tortured to death—no, his head is just blown off right in front of Jax. It’s like Hitchcock: He said, when you plant a bomb, the audience knows it’s gonna go off at some point but you hope it’s not now—you have to surprise them with the bomb. So when you’re directing it, the staging is everything. The first scene [between the club and Marks and his men] is a Wild West showdown. It’s very low angles on the five guys, and they look heroic. The good guys are already there, and the bad guys arrive. The second scene, they switch places—the bad guys are already there, and the good guys ride in. The real emotional event is massive loss—the loss of camaraderie, the loss of everything they wanted the club to stand for, and the personal loss of a great friend. If you get too dramatic about it right away, then you show your cards. You gotta stand away and choreograph it like a dance. The only tone note from Kurt [Sutter] was that the gun comes out of nowhere, i.e. Bobby’s back, so you’re surprised at the gun and you’re surprised at the killing. That was his only comment, just to make sure that happens quickly. That said, it happens quickly, but the great event in it is the collapse of Jax in the end.
Was that a bit of slo-mo in that moment?
Yeah, I shot one camera at 46 frames, so it was a little bit slo-mo. It wasn’t Ralph Fiennes coming out of the cave in The English Patient, which was so overdone I almost left the theater. You could do it super slow, you could do it medium slow, you could do it a little bit slow just to have a bit of collapse on it. Charlie [Hunnam]’s gotta a lot of music in him, and when I saw the kind of music he was cranked up to do, I shot the shooting and the collapse in one with several cameras. I shot right up to Bobby’s head being blown off, and then I turned around and shot Jax and Bobby at the same time. It was really, really sad.
What was the emotion like around Boone’s exit? We’ve all heard the stories of everyone crying at the table read and on set when Ryan Hurst’s Opie was killed off.
When we leave, we stand up and speak. Like Ryan, he was really, really choked up, man. You can’t be with a family that long, with the ups and downs that you go through, and not be overwhelmed by it. Number 11 was my last episode as a director, so I got to stand up, and I started to speak, and my kid was there, my wife was there, and I started to cry. It’s hard to say goodbye.
In the scene after Bobby’s death, seeing Happy (David Labrava) cry hit me really hard. Was that something scripted: “Happy breaks down”?
No, you can’t script anything like that. If somebody gives you a tone note saying, “Okay, make sure nobody’s crying,” you have to say, “Horses–t.” Kurt wisely just said, “Whatever happens, happens.” You don’t want to over crank it, but you’ve got to let these guys live with the seven years they’ve been together as actors, not just the 20 years or so their characters have been together as a motorcycle club. When they’re loading the body in the truck, whatever went down went down. Tommy’s tears, Jax and Happy, and Tig sort of taking care of Happy there—it’s kind of sweet. Those guys are just so wonderful.
Let’s also talk about the Jarry and Chibs sex scene, which I think will have people talking.
It’s a great scene.
It’s shocking though, too, because I don’t think people would have expected her to go there with Quinn sitting nearby on his bike. How did you direct that scene?
Well, look, let’s get really pornographic here. It was suggested that he bends her over the car, right? I told Kurt, “I don’t want to do that. You’ve gotta look somebody in the eye if you’re gonna do that kind of passion immediately.” The quickie against the car, that ain’t gonna work there. I suggested to Kurt that it be on the hood of the car, and they just pull their pants down and have it eyeball to eyeball and not some sort of, like, midnight thing in the parking lot. I loosely gave them physical adjustments. I suggested to Tommy that you want to help her out but you can’t, and let the vulnerability of her saying, “If it’s no, take me here”—let the embarrassment of that land, and then have at it. He was just really, really great. The only adjustment I suggested to her was, “Don’t dare him or threaten him with it. Just invite him.” You know what I’m saying? It’s not like saying, “If you love me, f–k me.” It’s not that confrontational. When you say to somebody, “Put up or shut up,” you can get in their face about it, you can push and shove, you can get cocky, you can get chippy. Or you can just lay back and say, “If you’re the real deal, do it.” That’s all it needs. You just want to invite someone to prove it and not push it. She was really, really good.
How challenging was it to shoot the night scene where Abel (Ryder Londo) overhears Gemma (Katey Sagal) apologizing to Bobby’s body?
Katey and I were on the same page. It’s just a real simple confession. It doesn’t have to be overwrought, and again, whatever happens there happens. The kid—there are twins, Evan and Ryder. One is a little more introverted than the other. I used Ryder, and I wanted Ryder to come out and stand. If you give kids marks, they’ll look down and try to hit the mark. So I just told our focus puller, “You gotta wing it, man, because I’m gonna have this kid walk forward.” That’s my MO with kids. I said, “Okay, Ryder, step forward and do nothing. Just look at Grandma there.” He was great.
There are those two scenes played for levity with the guys digging up the bodies and cutting off body parts: Tig tells Happy he likes to partner with him because he then looks like the normal one, and knife-wielding Jax jokes to Chibs, “I call heads.” How important is that humor for an episode like this and a show like Sons in general?
Isn’t that just gallows humor? But that’s Kurt’s genius. Look, here’s an interesting thing: Kurt has a graduate degree in the history of theater, so he’s not just writing Hamlet, and he’s not just writing biker gang. He’s infused it with modern-day deregulation, trickle-down economics, the confluence of degeneracy on all different levels, the theater of the absurd. He’s got the theater of nihilism. He’s got all that stuff in there, and then all of a sudden it turns a corner: Here they are having to dig up bodies and sew them together to produce something to get their friend back who is missing an eye and fingers. Think about that. On the scale of humanity, that’s about as low as heroism can go. So finally, you get these two wacky scenes, and that is Kurt really taking drama from A to Z, and that’s what’s magnificent about Sons. There’s a good friend of mine named Mark Hime, who is one of the top three antiquary first edition book dealers in the world. Four nights ago, he told me, “When you’re watching Sons of Anarchy, it’s voyeurism at its apex.” Most of us don’t engage in this s–t. We don’t get into a grave and cut off somebody’s head, and sew it onto somebody else’s body to get our eyeless, fingerless friend back from a warlord. But we know in the back of our head, if you turn on CNN or Fox News, that this s–t goes on. What Sons of Anarchy gives us is a peep through the keyhole, past the door of reason, into the horror of anarchy. We get to be voyeurs in a world we know is out there but we don’t want to be part of. It’s like a train wreck that you can’t turn away from. And Kurt knows that, too. And that might be the real genius of it, because you’re watching something so undignified, and yet you relate. That’s really hard to pull off.
We’ll talk again after episode 11. But how do you move on from Sons?
I was appealing to Michael Dinner over at Justified [for an episode to direct], because Elmore Leonard was a friend, and I acted in a Elmore Leonard movie [Cat Chaser] and directed an Elmore Leonard movie [Gold Coast]. I met my wife through Elmore Leonard. I really appealed to Michael Dinner for three years, and it always bumped up against Sons or some other show. So finally, he gave me an episode. So I went right from wrapping episode 11 of Sons to Justified. Justified is a different animal: It’s dialogue-driven and a very clever line between corn-tone genius and absolute stupidity. The beautiful thing about Elmore Leonard is he never lets the smart guys call the dumb guys dumb: It’s always the dumb guys calling each other dumb. It’s always their own point of reference so you get to endow the inane countryism of misbehavior with its own sort of intelligence. You don’t get to stand outside of it and judge it. That’s Elmore Leonard’s gift. And it’s playful. When I got to Justified, I was actually having fun balancing this tightrope of the Raylan-Boyd characters. Jump back to 709 of Sons, it was gruesome. Shooting Bobby’s death, I choreographed it down to a nub and slowly carved it out on a day when it was 105 degrees, and there’s special effects shots, and slo-mo shots, and emotional breakdowns. At the back of my head, I can’t wait for this day to be over. I can’t wait to go take a bath. I can’t wait to go play with my kid. [Laughs] Because this is about as sad a thing as I’d ever been a part of…. I thought, “God, I don’t know how I can get it up for No. 11 after No. 9, man.” I was hoping that No. 11 was going to be more or less a resolution. But here’s the deal, No. 11 is always the climax: No. 12 and No. 13, which Paris [Barclay] and Kurt do, are resolution. Every drama has four-parts, really: A first act, two parts of the second act, and then a third act. So 12 and 13 are always the third act. No. 11 is always the end of the second act where everything falls apart, where things are revealed, where people die again…. So 711 just about destroyed me. But then I went to Justified and went, “Hallelujah!” Sons of Anarchy is not fun, but it’s tremendously rewarding because you have to commit as a director to a level of emotional release, exposure, or vulnerability that a lot of people don’t want to go to.