When Hollywood Needs a Motorcycle, They Call Justin Kell

The man who sources two-wheelers for the world’s biggest action heroes tells all

August 16, 2021 8:36 am
Tom Cruise astride a custom bike designed by Justin Kell for "Oblivion"
Tom Cruise astride a custom bike designed by Justin Kell for "Oblivion"
David James/Universal

Have you ever been watching a movie and found your eyes drawn not to the actors, but to an incredible motorcycle? If you have, odds are that Justin Kell and his Glory Motor Works shop had something to do with getting it there. 

“People ask me all the time how I got started, and I don’t really have a good answer,” says Kell over the phone from his West Coast workspace. “I opened a shop up that had a lot of cool, vintage bikes and people just started calling me to rent them for their movies. I found out fast they also needed help on the maintenance, instruction and even riding them on set. That was 15 years ago, and I’ve been brought on to help with the motorcycles in movies ever since.”

That is the case with Free Guy, the highly anticipated video game-based comedy from Shawn Levy and 20th Century Fox. If you’ve seen the trailer, you may have noticed the film’s star Ryan Reynolds doing a dirty spinout on a beautiful and fittingly named Ducati Panigale Streetfighter V4. We spoke to Kell about what it’s like having one of the best gigs on the planet, as well as getting to work on iconic properties like Indiana Jones, The Matrix and Top Gun

InsideHook: Can you share how you first got connected with a Hollywood project?

Justin Kell: One of the first gigs that I was brought on was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button with David Fincher and Brad Pitt. The movie was in pre-production in New Orleans, in the middle of the process, and the picture car coordinator quit. The new picture car coordinator Tim Woods got my name from some of the talent familiar with my bikes, and he made it very clear that he wasn’t excited to be forced to work with me. But because he needed help with these older Indian and Triumph bikes that Brad was going to be driving, he brought me on. 

In the end, Tim and I ended up hitting it off incredibly well and were able to keep those old machines going and looking good. It didn’t hurt that Mr. Pitt is an excellent rider. Since then Tim and I have done a number of projects together. It wasn’t long after that he called me asking if I wanted to do the next Indiana Jones movie. The answer was obviously yes, and so began a long-time partnership.

The motorcycle that Mutt Williams rides in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a huge part of the movie. What was it like to work on that?

There was a lot that went into Indiana Jones when it came to the motorcycles. There was a product placement deal that was made, and we were working with these Harley Davidson Heritage Softails. Because there was so much work that had to be done and it was difficult to stay focused on set, I brought the bikes to where I was staying in Griffith Park to work on them. Funnily enough, I found out that the young lead, Shia LeBeouf, was living right next to me, and he would come over every once in awhile to see if he could snag a look. 

One of the distractions I had to deal with was Steven Spielberg’s DP, who was a rider, and every once in awhile would snag one of the bikes when I wasn’t looking. I would be with my guys, hear one of them fire up, and watch as he drove by us with the middle finger raised. [Laughs.] Of course, all of that was clearly worth it, especially when I first got to set to see Spielberg behind the camera and Harrison Ford walked out in that Indy costume. Not to mention I got to ride a Harley through the library at Yale College, a scene a lot of people remember. That was one of those experiences you can’t buy.

Tell me to how you got involved with Free Guy with Ryan Reynolds.

My good friend Tim Woods was doing Free Guy in Boston and gave me a call. Ducati was involved right off the bat, and I have a great relationship with the company built over the years. My first step was getting on the phone with them, and I found out they wanted to use this movie to introduce the Panigale Streetfighter V4, because at the time nobody had seen it. Of course, the movie was delayed a bit, so that didn’t work out exactly as planned. 

But when we were filming this movie the bike didn’t really exist yet. There were a few prototypes kicking around that I was able to get my hands on luckily. Since we had worked together before, they were able to trust me with their machines. I went to Boston with our great stunt coordinator Chris O’Hara and our motorcycle rider Dave Castillo to figure out what we were doing. The major scene that we were going to be doing was an interior at a bank, and it isn’t often that we are building stunts inside.

There was a tremendous amount of work that went into that set, like building little ramps between the steps so that the motorcycle could climb them easier and dealing with the polished metal floor. The scene has Ryan Reynolds and Jodi Comer riding together on the Streetfighter, with her on the gas tank. So that Dave could understand how the weight would work, we had him drive around the parking lot with me on the gas tank, much to the entertainment of the effects department.

Ryan Reynolds astride a Ducati in “Free Guy”
20th Century Fox

It must be great to get ahold of vehicles before the general public even knows about them. What was it like playing with that Streetfighter? And has that happened quite a bit given the high-profile projects you have done?

The Ducati was a lot of fun to play with, and they are a company that is great about letting their machines be tested and pushed. The Streetfighter is built for performance, and these tight, precise movements. I had a blast riding it. There have been quite a few times where I got to check out models before the rest of the world saw them.

I remember doing the second Avengers movie and I had five Harley Davidson LiveWires with me in Korea for a sequence. I had some in my shop before the majority of people at Harley even knew they existed. I even had one of the software engineers who helped program the bikes there with me, so I could give them authentic feedback as I was putting them through their paces. They also let us dial back some of the safety features so that I could really take them to the next level, which was a lot of fun.

So much of your job is tuning up bikes, taking care of them, and getting them to set safely. How does it feel on those occasions when you have to watch a bike crash or wreck for a scene?

People ask me how I feel about seeing a bike crash on camera, and I have to say it’s a bit easier when there are four more just like it parked somewhere else on set. It’s just part of the process, and part of the storytelling. I’m fine with watching a bike wreck, just as long as it is meant to be wrecked.

Leading up to being on set I get very comfortable with the bikes, and ride them to make sure they are driving perfectly. But I am very conscious that once I get on set with them, the relationship has to change. I am always pushing the bikes around set when we are filming, and crew will ask me why I don’t just drive them. If the talent scratches the bike, that’s fine, it’s my job to fix it. But if I scratch it up, I’m an idiot.

Do you ever have people nitpicking when it comes to what motorcycles are used or how they look in a particular movie?

Not often, but I got a little grief on the Internet when the Indiana Jones movie came out, because the bikes had disc brakes that were not period correct. Of course, those people didn’t realize the deal that was in place and that it wasn’t really up to me. I have learned over the years that those moments will happen from time to time, but my main concern is always going to be the movie and the majority of the moviegoing audience, who are going for a good time and to see some cool stunts.

Speaking of cool stunts, you worked on Matrix 4 with Keanu Reeves, and I imagine the visuals are going to be insane.

For a franchises like the Matrix or Indiana Jones or Top Gun, the expectations are high. So everything that I do has to be top tier as well. The motorcycle scenes for Matrix 4 we shot over six weeks in San Francisco and were so fun, especially because Keanu likes his bikes. Getting to work with a talent who is familiar with motorcycles and what goes on underneath them is a tremendous benefit. That is because we can talk to them in a way that is more specific and detailed about how the machines are working.

I can’t really say much about the details but we were working with Ducati again, with their Scramblers. I also used that model for Venom with Tom Hardy. Of course there was also an Arch bike around, which is [Keanu’s] company. I will be honest, not every star of a movie is that interested in the bikes. There are a lot of them who couldn’t really care less. For the guys like Keanu and Tom [Cruise], there is the added benefit of getting to work with them when they are the most happy. Of course they enjoy making movies, but they also love motorcycles, so when it’s time to ride it’s their favorite time while being on set.

That brings me to Tom Cruise, who I know you have worked with a few times and just did Top Gun: Maverick with. I am among the many who can’t wait to see that picture.

I don’t think people are ready for this Top Gun movie. The first project I did with Tom was Oblivion, where they asked us to build these futuristic-looking bikes that were meant to fold up to be brought onto his living quarters. That is what we made, using Honda CRF450Xs and modifying them in the shop. It was a super light four-stroke engine, and made with carbon fiber. It was an incredible experience, and Tom is one of those guys that leads by example, and wanted to be a part of the process.

So I was very excited to work with that same team on Top Gun: Maverick. The first movie contained what could be considered the most iconic motorcycling moment onscreen, when he is riding the Kawasaki GPZ900R. For the new movie, we worked with Kawasaki again, this time with their H2 Ninja. Fun fact, back when the first movie came out, the GPZ900R was the fastest production bike on the market, and now the H2 Ninja is. So there is a nice full circle moment that only the motorheads may notice.

I was able to go with the stunt coordinator Casey O’Neill to get all the tuning for the H2 done properly by Kawasaki. We were on the runway doing 170 miles per hour on the straightaways. That bike is an animal, so we had to make sure it rode just right. I remember when we delivered the bike to Tom, he was there with the director Joe Kosinski, who also did Oblivion. Tom looked around the room and said, “Guys we’re back!” It was definitely the gig of a lifetime, and I’ve been lucky enough to have a few of those.

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