Working in Hollywood has a lot in common with riding motorcycles: high stakes and a fast pace. That's why Justin Kell, owner of Glory Motor Works, loves providing and building motorcycles for films such as the upcoming "Gangster Squad," "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" and "Oblivion."
"You have a bad day on a bike, you could be dead; you have a bad day on set, you have a dead career," he said. "But all the stuff that makes these jobs really hard to do, I like. I like having to think 500 steps ahead of what could happen and be prepared for it. I love the energy of these jobs, the push and the deadlines. I love the stress of it."
Kell, 42, started riding at age 8, when he bought a Yamaha dirt bike with his Christmas money. His father was in the Outlaws Motorcycle Club, immortalized by photographer Danny Lyon.
Growing up on the East Coast, Kell taught himself to fix vintage bikes, because, as he put it, "if you wanted to keep moving, you figured out what was wrong." At age 20, he began restoring buildings in addition to bikes when he met a group of English ornamental plasterers in Baltimore who taught him their trade.
In 1997, he took a vacation to Los Angeles and landed a job at Off the Wall Antiques, then located on Melrose Avenue. In 1999, he opened his own retail store in Los Feliz, Glory Sales & Service Inc., which sells old motorcycles, helmets, apparel and antiques.
As his store gained visibility, film productions began hiring Kell to provide vintage racers and futuristic prototypes. He and his team build the bikes — and do repair, restoration and customization for private collectors — in a 4,000-square-foot workshop and showroom in Glendale. Most of their business comes from work in Hollywood.
"A motorcycle has always symbolized, in movies and in life, a part of freedom," said Kell. "It really is what draws people to them: the idea of you and this machine and getting away from all your troubles."
For here or to go: Kell sets up an on-location, state-of-the-art mobile motorcycle workshop in the back of his truck, where he can do everything from changing a tire to casting bodywork. "You'll come to the end of the shoot, and half the movie's held together with zip ties," he said. "You just need to be able to fix whatever happens with whatever is in your pocket or on you in two minutes while 400 people tap you on the shoulder and say, 'How long's this going to take?'"
Casting call: For "Gangster Squad," Kell provided period bikes, including a 1937 Indian Sport Scout and 1940s Indian police motorcycles, but none of the actors or extras knew how to ride them. "Then there was the other call, 'You guys have got to go to wardrobe. You've become motorcycle cops,'" said Kell. "So there we are, me and Eric [Orr, who runs the workshop at Glory Motor Works], in downtown L.A. on '40s Indians with guns and badges. And that's what happens at our day at work sometimes."
Big wheels: "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" presented an outsized challenge. "We had a 6-foot-5 actor and a 6-foot-4 stunt guy," said Kell. "We had to build a menacing machine that fit these guys, which doesn't exist on the market. We had to basically build big giant bikes. And they're not props. We're going to run these bikes 100 miles an hour. We're going to jump them. So we started with Ducati Hypermotards. The scope [was] building all new bodywork, new front ends, new suspension, everything — basically building a new prototype machine."
Next year's model: For the science fiction film "Oblivion," slated for spring release, Kell transformed common dirt bikes into futuristic machines that he calls "very unrecognizable as any motorcycle." "The bike stuff we got to do was fun," he said. "We don't get called in when a bike has to sit on a static set and look cool. We get called in when it has to jump 50 feet on top of a volcano in Iceland. Tom [Cruise] is an experienced enough rider and good enough that he knows exactly what he wants. And Jimmy Roberts, who's a stunt rider who doubles for Tom a lot, is one of the best riders you'll ever meet. We did a lot of motorcycle riding in some of the roughest locations we've even ridden in."
Breaking the cycles: When motorcycles crash, Kell keeps them moving. "We know the bikes are going to get crashed," he said. "When we build bodywork, we set it up in a manner where we can remove it and change it in under five minutes for when it crashes — not if it crashes, when. We've crashed tons of bikes on set. It's the nature of what we're doing. And we can usually get somebody back up and at it immediately, and [the crashes] are usually funny at the end of the day."