Spoiler alert: The Oct. 14 episode of Sons of Anarchy, “Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em,” ended with Juice (Theo Rossi) face-to-face with Jax (Charlie Hunnam) after he tried to make an ill-advised deal with Alvarez (Emilio Rivera) offering intel on SAMCRO in exchange for help getting into Mexico. Episode director Guy Ferland—who’s helmed many memorable hours of SOA including “The Pull,” “Albification,” and season 7’s “Poor Little Lambs”—phoned EW from the set of Gotham, where he’s in the director’s chair this week, to talk about filming Juice’s betrayal, that East Dub ambush, and Gemma’s breakdown.
EW: Let’s start with the lighting of the Mayan “office”: It’s not something we usually see on Sons, so it really stood out. What were you going for?
Ferland: That was an idea of mine, and Paul [Maibaum], our wonderful director of photography, definitely went along with it. Mainly I did it because there are so many different warehouses and clubhouses all throughout the series that I wanted to make it very different from the others, so you don’t get mixed up where we were. But also, I thought a real bright light from above would kind of feel almost like an interrogation on Juice.
I didn’t want it to be pretty. I wanted to feel the weight of the club (Laughs) on him at that moment, and I thought that would help with it. And Theo’s performance certainly brought it there, too.
The scene when Jax and the guys walk in: I actually had to pause it and prepare for the level of tension I knew awaited. How did you go about filming that?
We took a lot of time filming that. I wanted it all to take time. I staged it so that Juice could be surprised, he wouldn’t see them too early coming through the door—he’d see them when they’re already in the room. I think it’s important to see everybody’s different reactions and feelings. You could understand everything without one word. When the scene got up on its feet and we knew what it was, that’s when the weight of everything really hit the cast. It was tense. Everyone wanted to get it right. What’s great about that show and that cast is everybody knows how to find their moments. You just have to cut to the faces and the audience, as you saw, has to stop and catch their breath. It’s really not technically that difficult of a scene, but it just shows that when you know when to cut to somebody and capture their feelings while something else is going on, it makes it kind of thrilling. It’s a perfect example of a Sons scene working at its best.
At the end, when Jax and Alvarez have closed their deal and the club is walking Juice out, was it scripted for the final image to be Jax walking into the camera—which is completely intimidating—or was that something you found?
Nope, it wasn’t scripted that way. It just sort of happened through rehearsing. I had just seen the skull promo for the season, and I thought, wow, we could make his face turn into the skull kind of at the end of this. (Laughs). It’s tricky: The club feels a lot of hatred toward Juice, but we don’t want to give away everything right now and have them start beating up on him right there. I think Kurt [Sutter] was the one who told me “dead man walking,” so that’s what I tried to do.
The ambush of the East Dub crew is another scene I wanted to talk about. Jax is killing so many people this season, that at first, your reaction is to be appalled, but then at some point, you just have to give over to it and enjoy his audacity. Like after T.O. kills Dulain, Jax has that moment where he offers an East Dub a smoke, the guy is too scared to move, Jax smiles, and then gives the wave of his finger for everyone to fire at will. Were Jax’s movements all scripted?
No, I think that was Charlie. There was Jax walking up to [Dulain] and nodding to T.O. that he can take the shot. Charlie knew he wanted to do something very simple. Maybe he had an idea for lighting a cigarette while everybody else was firing, but I think once you get it on its feet, you can discover more.
That smile—Jax is enjoying the carnage a little too much now.
Yeah. I think that’s a theme for the season. Jax is responding to things we thought we’d never see. You know what’s kind of interesting, I believe I filmed Jax’s first [non self-defense] kill in Season 1, where he killed that creepy agent from Chicago who stalked Tara. So I got to take him from there to here. It’s fun to go on that journey and see him now where he can light up a cigarette as 10 people get killed right in front of him. So you liked that sequence?
I mean the body count is insane, but yeah. You find yourself cheering when SAMCRO comes riding up working together, and also with the Grim Bastards and the Mayans. That scene seems like a challenge to direct—a lot of moving parts. How difficult was it?
It was a big scene. There are a lot of bikes, a lot of guns, and a lot of people who could get hurt and fall. So it’s always a little stressful, but it really went exactly as I wanted it. I think everybody was pretty knocked out by how it all worked out at the end. When you film a scene like that, you just gotta go for it, make sure everything’s workin’, and then move on and don’t get wrapped up in it too much, because it’s Sons of Anarchy and we have eight days to go. But I agree with you, I love seeing that line of the Sons all firing those guns—and doing it as one of the last times that we’re probably ever gonna see them as a club.
And then after SAMCRO shows the Aryan Brotherhood the bodies of the East Dubs to prove they can be trusted, the guys dump them at Marks’ construction site. Wow.
I know. I wanted to do it simply, with a real statement. It’s all one shot. Again, I think with Sons, if I think too hard about any of that stuff, I get really unsettled and I start asking myself strange questions. With Sons, you just have to go with it, and do it great, and then really try not to think about it too much. Thinking will just get in the way. You gotta go for it—and I think that’s what the audience is responding to, is just going for it. “You’re showing us something we’ve never really dreamed of seeing before.” (Laughs) It’s so horrendous.
Moving on to Gemma (Katey Sagal), there’s the scene where Nero (Jimmy Smits) tells her that Juice is with Jax and she breaks down. Seeing this strong woman dissolve into tears is so disarming that Nero seems to forget that he’s mad at her and comforts her.
How great was Katey the whole episode? How about the stuff at the diner, where she’s basically talking to her youth? There’s so many subtleties. It’s a really big episode for her. She’s playing the insane person one moment. She’s playing super tired because she’s been up for over 24 hours, parched and sun-drenched, the next. And she’s playing this near slip with Nero where she isn’t sure what Juice told him. Any time Gemma loses her sense of control, it’s incredible. I also filmed the big Aryan rape at the beginning of season 2 [in “Albification”]. Katey is just fearless with that stuff.
And this episode really makes you realize how much you’ve come to love Nero. In his scene at Diosa with Alvarez, I found myself talking to the screen saying, “You better not hurt him. Do not touch him.”
It’s a feeling we get when we first read the scripts. It truly is….You saw my last episode?
With the massacre at Diosa? Yes. What’s it like to film there with blood still all over the walls?
I can’t think about it. You just can’t think about it. And I didn’t have to shoot one person being killed. That’s what’s so amazingly powerful: Everybody thinks they saw it, but they didn’t see anything.
And the show can go from a set like that, to Bobby (Mark Boone Junior) and Wendy (Drea de Matteo) having that simple conversation outside Red Woody.
I’m so glad we did that scene. Boone is a genius, and I think those are two characters that, in a weird way, are closest to Jax at this point in the story. To see them have a moment sharing a cigarette: It’s like in episode 4, Bobby saying, “Simpler times.” It’s that thread continued. It’s really, really beautiful.
We’ve already mentioned some of the memorable scenes you’ve shot from the run of series. You also did Juice shooting Miles and Otto killing the nurse. Is there a scene that you always think of first when asked about working on Sons?
I still am partial to when Jax makes his first kill, and “Albification.” But they all knock me out in a way. I also loved Donal Logue in season 6 where he accidentally kills the hooker in his room when she walks up and surprises him. That’s an incredible scene. I love Clay biting off the guy’s nose in prison. (Laughs)
You really have gotten some great scenes over the years.
There’s so many, and that’s what’s so great about the way Kurt and the writers do it.