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'Sons of Anarchy' director talks 'Red Rose' shocks, 'fiery' finale

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SoA Garden
FX

Sons of Anarchy fans are in mourning after the events of Dec. 2’s penultimate episode, “Red Rose.” EW asked executive producer Paris Barclay, who says it’s his all-time favorite episode that he’s directed, to take us inside the most memorable scenes.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me how you felt the first time you learned about that climactic scene between Jax, Gemma, and Unser?

PARIS BARCLAY: You have to go back to the delivery of the script. So, I get the script, and I have a general idea of what is going to happen in the last two episodes, but I don’t know specific—and I actually didn’t know about Unser. So I’m like a fan, turning the pages saying, “Oh no. Oh no. Unser, don’t go there. He’s not going to be able to convince him.” I’m totally reading it having the conversation with [creator] Kurt Sutter in my mind that I think many viewers will be having when they are watching the episode. And then we get to the end, and all I could think about is how each of these characters are doing the most heinous acts out of love, which is so twisted and wrong and Sons of Anarchy.

First Jax tries to get Unser to get out of there, “Just please go”—he begs him to get out of there. Then Unser says, “This is all I got,” and he is not leaving, and Jax feels that he has no option, and all of this is in his mind: his love of Tara, his feeling that he has to do this, and as Gemma says just before he kills her, “This is who we are.” Gemma did what she did out of love, because she thought “Tara’s going to rat on my son, and I can’t have it,” and she was drunk and high on top of that, so I don’t think that helped. [Laughs] And now Jax again, in a way, is doing the most heinous stuff, still in his mind, thinking he’s doing it for the people he loves. Really weird and great.

You have Jax giving Unser so many outs, and Gemma telling Jax, “It’s who we are, you have to do it,” and Charlie’s performance—so fans can still feel something for Jax. But with Unser’s death, many are torn thinking, do I want him to survive the series now?

Jax did not lose me in those instances. He didn’t even lose me when he killed Unser because when you think about the psychology of him, he’s been so driven, and if you really look at the episode again, it seems like he feels like, “This is going to be my last day on earth.” The way he puts his shoes on and touches his wedding ring in that opening scene, Charlie is playing it beautifully—his resignation, his acceptance. He seems to say, “This is going to be it. This is going to be my last day, and this is my plan for what is going to happen for that last day, and it’s going to be awful.” It’s not his last day, as it turns out, but it is the day of retribution. When it’s all over, I didn’t hate him. Maybe it’s because I have such feelings about Gemma and everything she’s done, and all of the lives that have been lost because of the decisions she’s made, but I also can’t say that Jax should be the avenging angel in this all. He’s actually the Grim Reaper, and just like our posters always hinted, in the end, he would be the person who would bring death.

What was it like filming those scenes at the house?

Normally, we could shoot up to seven or eight pages a day. On that day, we shot two pages. We just shot the scenes that were inside the house and when she goes out in the garden, because we wanted it all to be compressed in time and we didn’t want to have to take the actors back through that emotion more than once. [Laughs] Some of us, I’m not going to name names, did not want to let go of these characters. We have to get to a place where we can all agree that this is the story we’re telling, and we have to learn that in this moment, we have to let go. And it was a struggle. It was interesting. There was pain that we feel about saying goodbye to people that we love and people that we invested in. Once we got past that and got to killing people, it got a little easier.

The funniest thing—I hope we get this on the outtakes in the DVD—was after Jax kills Unser, and he sits down on the chair, and the next act starts and he’s talking to Gemma. They had a great conversation, and they did it on almost every take where they looked at pictures of Jax and they said, “Oh, look at your hair, it used to be so long.” “Yeah, I like that look.” “You were so sweet.” And Unser’s lying there on the ground, and they have this super trivial conversation that just flowed into the conversation that you see about the old pictures of Hal Holbrook. It was kind of weird and beautiful, and when we actually did it, it was a lot of fun, but when I watched that, I thought that was just going to make people laugh. But it kind of got them back into the place where they could have a conversation at all.

Charlie’s idea was, “I’m going to keep my gun in my lap.” I didn’t focus on it, but the gun just stays on his lap, with his hand on it, ready to go, at the time he think it needs to go. When she says, “I’d like to go out to the garden, please,” he understands exactly what that means. And then he can’t do it. We didn’t do that final scene a lot. I mean, we did it three or four times, but it was very cold in the rose garden. It was so emotional for the crew and everyone else, and with Katey’s performance there. I used split diopters, where the person in front and behind can be in focus at the same time. If you know anything about filmmaking, that they’re both in focus, because one is way closer than the other person, is odd. I want you to see them both at the same time, to have you clearly see the emotion on their faces. I didn’t want to drive them through this a gazillion times, and they killed it. Katey knew without looking where Charlie was. She felt it. She knew that Jax couldn’t pull that trigger and she just spoke up at just the right time to encourage him to do so. Great performances by both.

That shot of the two of them will be the one fans always remember. I’m almost tearing up just hearing you describe it.

It’s hard to get blood on the roses just right though. [Laughs] It’s called, “Red Rose,” so we wanted to get that blood just right. We had to add some additional blood and change up the flowers. Every little detail like that that people sort of take for granted is kind of what we’re about.

That conversation between Gemma and her father (Holbrook) at the nursing home: That moment when Hal Holbrook smiled at Gemma was so warm, I was almost angry when you cut back to the cold prison.

First, I love Hal Holbrook. We were so fortunate to get him back because he’s constantly touring, even at his age, doing Mark Twain and going all around the world. I was just thrilled that we finally got him for this one day to do the scene. We were not able to get back to the actual [nursing] home, so we had to build that home on another location, and it ended up being the best thing that happened to us, because that scene got separated from the rest of the episode, and we came back and did it after Katey shot her death, when Hal was available. The first time that they read it, it was like, “Okay, we can’t rehearse this anymore, we need to just go start shooting it,” because he had the voice down. He had the misdirection of thought. He had everything in there, and Katey just responds to him, and she’s frustrated that she can’t say all the things she wants to say, and it’s complicated and kind of wonderful.

We have to talk about Juice’s death. “Just let me finish my pie.” How emotional was that day?

I get a little emotional recounting that. We just have that little shot of the spork going in the pie, and in the next act, when he’s finished that pie, [Theo Rossi] shows you that this is something that [Juice] experienced in his childhood—this is the last taste that he wanted to experience. He just stands up and nods. [Marilyn] Manson was great. The fact that it should be him that has to do it was awesome. I thought it was a very, very surprising and original way for him to go, to actually let Juice out with some dignity.

This was a choice Juice made for himself, one that didn’t betray SAMCRO. I know that was important to Theo.

Very important. I just came to work on a high for this whole episode because I knew what every day had in store. But the day that Juice was going to die—I think we did everything in prison on that day, including his rape—I was so looking forward to that [death scene]. I said, “Let’s make this as late in the day as possible.” I think it was the second to last scene. He was just an incredible trooper, even lying on the ground in a pool of his own blood so I could get the camera just right, which isn’t the most fun thing for an actor to do. Unser had to do it, too, like, “Just lay down here and be dead for about an hour while we photograph.” He was such a gentleman. We had a robust round of applause and a send-off from our crew. Juice has been a huge part of our love affair with SAMCRO.

I think the depression that lingers after watching this episode for fans comes from that realization that Jax seems to have resigned himself to dying. You have the Forum telling him Mayhem has to land, and as viewers, we have a week to think about that.

The wait is painful. But the Forum was another great thing. Robert Patrick, he’s on Scorpion now, so we had him for this one day, and he graciously agreed to come back. Even in two and a half scenes, he brings so much. The way he looks at Jax at the end when he shakes his hand, the two of them separate—that is just awesome. Aside from the fact that he’s a real biker and that he’s been involved in a motorcycle group for some time, he’s just such a great actor. I just love the way that he accepts the information that Jax admits to killing Jury and for the reasons that he actually did kill him for. The pain that he feels there, it’s just a great note in the whole episode. I can’t say enough about him.

It was so interesting to me that, in such a dark moment, Charlie smiled whenever Jax said it’s been a privilege to wear the president’s patch.

He was the president of SAMCRO for good and for bad. He took over for Clay and had the best of intentions that rotted away from other’s influences and his own weaknesses.

We should also touch on the Wendy and Jax sex scene, of course. Charlie has said he was naked twice filming season 7, so when I saw Wendy in that nightgown, I guessed where it was headed. I just kept saying, “No, No, No.” But the scene itself did not disappoint.

That did not disappoint. I thought it was going to be trimmed down for Standards and Practices, but it was pretty much what we did. And you know, she was there in a moment of weakness for him, and Jax is never going to be any different from who he is: He’s someone who goes into his instincts, and his instincts are awfully primal, and she has been loving and tender to him with how she’s dealt with the Abel situation.

Speaking of Abel, there was another amazing scene between Jax and Nero at Alvarez’s place. I gasped when I realized Jax was talking as though he wouldn’t be there in the future.

Once again, it was not in the text but it was the intention: I saw Nero hear, “You would be okay to take care of my kids if something happened me.” You could see it. I think Sutter has a Pinteresque streak: One of the things [Harold Pinter] does is he never likes to have the words carry the scene. It’s always what’s in between the words or what’s under the words. So they’re talking like, “Oh yeah, take them for a weekend trip,” but what’s clearly being communicated by the way Jax is looking at him, and the way Nero receives the information is, “If anything happens to me, I want you to take care of my kids.” I just thought it was incredibly moving. I hadn’t felt that deeply about the scene when I read it, but when they performed it, especially when we turned to Jimmy’s side and his vulnerability was there and the way he heard it, it was just awesome to me. The two of them were very proud of that scene when it was done because it seemed simpler than it was.

The show is so underrated, because despite the fact that it has the veneer of extreme violence and chaos and high drama, the thing that really makes me get attached to it is those scenes, where the unspoken is spoken through emotion. Just like the Tenus scene, which people really responded to. (Tenus! Tig and Venus! I coined another phrase along with ‘f–ktage.’) The show really operates great when it’s working on this level of, “We don’t need to say this, we’re just letting each other know how much we love each other.” It’s hidden a lot by the mayhem, and people don’t really see it if they’re not really invested in Sons of Anarchy, but for Sons of Anarchy fans, we get it. We get that there’s so much between the brothers, the way they look at each other, the way they speak and don’t speak about things, and when they speak, the way Chibs follows Jax around and says, “What’s going on?” and the way Jax is like, “It’s going to be fine.” All those moments are, to me, what makes this one of the greatest shows I’ve ever worked on. Aaron Sorkin would probably find words to describe these feelings; Kurt Sutter doesn’t seem to have to. Jimmy’s eyes get full and it’s like, “Jimmy Smits, you’re just killing it.”

And Charlie has that sweet smile, like it brings him peace.

“It’s okay for you to take care of them. They are my prize possession, and I trust you that much, and I believe in you that much, that if you take care of them, they will be okay.” That’s what I always read in that scene.

That makes it interesting because how will Nero react now after, judging from his tears sitting on Gemma’s bed, he’s guessed that things didn’t go well in Oregon?

There’s one more episode to go!

And the Irish are back in the picture.

I think we have to bring them into the conclusion of all this. They’ve been a part of [SAMCRO’s] history. They end up being a wrinkle in the ointment to help send us to our conclusion, but the biggest thing is what happened to August Marks. We did some major damage to those guys. We shot Moses and all those other brothers! Don’t you worry about them retaliating? I do.

And the Chinese, too, if there are any left.

There’s a lot of people who are mad at us now. We’re going to have a fiery conclusion to this long saga.

Barclay also phoned in to “News & Notes” on EW Radio (SiriusXM 105) to talk about filming Gemma and Jax’s final showdown.

He answered a couple of burning questions: Why was Jax limping? What would Gemma have done if Unser had managed to call the cops before Jax arrived?

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