Justin Kell with a Triton build-in-progress in the shop. “I lose money on every project like this,” he noted ruefully. But, the work he does for film studios allows him to indulge in projects for a select group of clients—mostly Hollywood ‘A-listers’ whose names he leaves out of conversation.
Propping up Hollywood’s bike obsession: Movie man Justin Kell
These days, when a movie script calls for motorcycles, all the big studios turn to Justin Kell, whose Glory Motor Works operates from a low-profile base in Glendale, California.
Kell grew up on the east coast, near Baltimore. His dad was an old-school biker who rode with the Outlaws and the Pagans. Justin was a punk rocker and skateboarder who apprenticed in architectural restoration – a job that gave him insights into all kinds of fabrication, finishing, and painting techniques.
Baltimore had its bohemian enclaves in the ‘90s. He and his friends got around on old British Twins they could pick up, almost for free. Keeping those bikes running was a sort of second apprenticeship, as a motorcycle mechanic.
About 20 years ago, he came out to California to visit, and stayed. He got a job restoring high-end furniture for an antique dealer. In 1999, he opened a lifestyle shop called Glory Sales and Service on Hollywood Boulevard; it’s still there, selling Red Wing boots, his own high-end denim; hipster duds with a grease-under-the-fingernails rockabilly vibe.
“It was always about selling the kind of stuff we wanted to wear,” he told me, adding, “We really had no business being a clothing company, nor did I ever at any point want to open a stand-alone motorcycle shop.”
He may not have planned to open motorcycle shop, but there were always a few cool bikes in Glory Sales and Service, and every now and then someone’d ask about renting them for photo or film shoots. That’s eventually led to his current gig as a motorcycle coordinator, and to Glory Motor Works.
Unlike his retail store, Kell’s motorcycle shop is by appointment only, and takes a studiously low profile – de rigeur, considering that many of his clients are paparazzi fodder.
Sometimes even the props have stunt doubles. This is the Norton Model 30 ‘International’ rolling chassis that appeared in ‘The Master’. Deemed too fragile for the desert scenes, it was replaced by a BSA M20 in Norton guise.
There are four main rooms behind the closed doors; an office full of movie memorabilia; a showroom full of bikes, mostly vintage and skewed towards British stuff; a coffee bar; and a workshop where bikes are prepped for movie work, with a couple restorations and custom-builds in progress. Kell buys and sells bikes for film stars, who he’s careful to leave unnamed, but most of the machines are his, that he rents out to production companies.
There’s a lot more to it than just dropping bikes off on set and picking them up after the First AD’s yelled, “That’s a wrap!” Stunt departments hire Glory because Kell and his small staff know how to set up bikes as riders, not just props. As he told me: “There’s a lot of trust involved when a stunt man is going to jump a 600-pound Harley across a 40-foot gap.” And even if no one’s life’s on the line, downtime on a feature film set can cost tens of thousands of dollars an hour. So especially if it’s a period film requiring vintage bikes, they have to look old but function like new.
“On ‘The Master’, we used a Model 30 Norton,” Kell explained by way of example. That model, aka the ‘International’ was a popular race bike in the mid-1930s, which evolved into the legendary ‘Manx’ after WWII. The Model 30 is a great bike, but it wasn’t robust enough for its Hollywood assignment. The production schedule for ‘The Master’ called for six days of shooting in the desert, where temperatures were expected to hit 120°. Kell knew that during the war, British Army despatch riders had used BSA M20 motorcycles in the fight against Rommel’s tank corps. (For more information read Memorable Motorcycles: BSA M20 Despatch.)
“So we set up some M20s to double for the Norton,” said Kell. “Our thinking was, M20s worked well in North Africa, so we knew they’d run hot, but they’d keep running.”
The bane of his existence are motorcycle nerds who delight in hitting ‘pause’ while watching films, to catch a substitution like that. But it can be out if his hands. “When the last ‘Indiana Jones’ film came out, set in the 1950s, I took a lot of flack on the internet, because there was a Harley in it that had a disc brake and belt drive,” he said. “But that was part of the product placement deal.”
Since then, however, he’s formed a stronger relationship with Harley-Davidson. The company wants to do more than just pay for product placements; rather, it’s now striving to work collaboratively with filmmakers. He was sworn to secrecy, but I know it was Kell who coordinated the highly classified delivery of a Livewire electric Harley, for use in Korea during the filming of “Avengers: Age of Ultron”.
Kell’s favorite projects are films in which motorcycles contribute to atmosphere and character. He met with director David Fincher early in the production of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”. The art department on that project wanted a vintage bike but Fincher was worried about reliability on the set, and was inclined to use a modern one.
Kell felt he knew the character. “She was small, so she’d want a small bike,” he told Fincher. “And she didn’t have a lot of money, so she probably wouldn’t have a new bike.” He convinced the director that he could provide a cool vintage motorcycle that would be as reliable on the set as a modern one.
Then, he scoured California for four Honda 350 Twins. “I look for the best, most unfucked-with bikes I can find,” he said. “That way I don’t have to deal with some guy’s Radio Shack adventure with a fuse panel, or his experiment with higher compression.” The “Dragon Tattoo” bikes arrived with a variety of exhausts, which had to be replaced with matching ones; they got electronic ignitions.
(Above) Who knows what’s in the crates? Last year, when the Harley-Davidson Livewire was still the industry’s best-kept secret, H-D sent bikes to Glory, for use in Universal Pictures’ next Avengers flick. (Below) ‘Oblivion’s’ Production Designer was Darren Gilford. His sketches for the off-road motorcycle included a few touches – such as the single-sided fork and swingarm – that must’ve been sacrificed to the Budget God. Still, Kell managed to deliver a rideable machine that was pretty faithful to the initial concept. (In our interview, he told me that the machine was based on a CRF450X, although on the Glory web site it’s described as having been built on an XL650 chassis.)
Kell also taught the actress, Rooney Mara, how to ride. A good actor picks stuff up quickly. They’ll learn to kickbox or dance for a role; riding a bike’s no different. But it can lead to some funny misunderstandings. A few years ago, Kell worked on a parody of ‘60s biker films, called “Hell Ride”. One of the actors, Eric Balfour, had never ridden.
“We taught him how to ride the bike he would use in the film, which was an Indian bobber with a jockey shift, foot clutch and left-hand throttle,” Kell chuckled. “A while later he went to dinner with a friend who rode a Ducati. He came back and told me, ‘All the controls were different!’”
Building futuristic motorcycles for sci-fi is a different assignment, but just because you’re starting with a modern motorcycle doesn’t make things easy.
“We did a film called “Oblivion” – a Tom Cruise film directed by Joseph Kosinski,” said Kell. “In the film, the bikes came out of a spaceship, in a suitcase, and transformed. We had a lot of jumping, it was all off-road; we were shooting on top of a volcano in Iceland. The bikes we built came out of an Apple store. We used CRF450x Hondas, but in the film the bikes need to appear to use some unknown power source. So in the course of making the bodywork, we had to hide the exhaust and cooling system.”
Kell told me that it had been a pleasure working with Cruise, because he was an avid rider, and could verbalize what he wanted in terms of machine setup.
As I was packing up my notebook, camera, and recorder, I asked him which films had made great or terrible use of bikes. “You can’t argue the perfect fit of the bikes in ‘Easy Rider’,” he said. “Those machines were wardrobe; they were character.”
Then he added: “But I would never have allowed a Triumph in ‘The Great Escape’.” I thought, Sorry Bud, there’s a new guy in town.