GQ – On set with Discovery’s star-studded new miniseries.
At the best of times, visiting a film set can feel like Take-Your-Journalist-To-Work Day—a bunch of friendly, overworked Hollywood professionals taking breaks from doing their actual work so they can explain it to a small group of interlopers. But there’s also something genuinely magical about walking onto a certain kind of set: a well-oiled and collaborative machine designed solely to create an illusion. You step off a plane, hop into a van, and emerge in the past—in this particular case, a defunct warehouse in Bucharest, Romania that has been painstakingly reworked to resemble a factory in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, circa the turn of the 19th century. I’m here, for a few days, to take a deep dive into the Discovery miniseries Harley & the Davidsons, a dramatized version of the origin of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle company.
Your first question might be the same as mine: Why did they go all the way to Bucharest when the United States has a perfectly good Wisconsin just waiting to be used? The answer—like pretty much everything else about a film shoot—is both complicated and variable depending on the person you ask. On the surface, Bucharest and Milwaukee could hardly have less in common. The Communist takeover of the Romanian government in 1947—and the subsequent Communist overthrow in 1989—left Bucharest in a cultural and architectural deep-freeze. In the city center, you might pass a casino or a Gucci store and suddenly come across a dilapidated building covered by a massive tarp designed to resemble the facade of a building—a literal wallpapering over a problem until a more permanent solution can be devised.
But the qualities that make Bucharest a surreal place to visit in the present day have the unintentional side effect of making Bucharest an ideal place to recreate the past. In recent years, a number of historical dramas, including History’s miniseries Hatfields & McCoys, have been shot here. Much of the surviving architecture is old enough to double as the kind of building you might actually have seen in the American midwest in the early 1900s—like, say, a factory in which motorcycles could be assembled, or an ornate grand staircase full of mustachioed guys in top hats.
Perhaps most crucially for Harley & the Davidsons, Bucharest has a working velodrome. A velodrome is an oval track with steep banks on either side, still used in some cycling races (including those at the 2016 Rio Olympics). But back in the early 1900s, when a motorcycle was basically just a bicycle frame with a motor attached, the lines between the two were blurry enough that motorcycle races took place on the same types of tracks, with timber (often haphazardly) cobbled together to provide a flat surface to ride on.
These “motordrome” races were hugely popular at the time—and hugely dangerous, often called “murderdromes” for reasons that become obvious when you contemplate what would happen if you careened over the handlebars of a motorcycle racing forward at top speed and skidded along an unsanded wooden track.
The thrill and danger of these races has been faithfully translated into Harley & the Davidsons’ most harrowing sequences, in which the Harley-Davidson founders themselves compete. Director Ciaran Donnelly, whose filmography includes extensive work on History’s hit series Vikings, told me that staging one of these elaborate motordrome sequences was basically “the equivalent of mounting a battle”—and for the stuntmen, the requirements were similarly harrowing. “You can’t make 20 kilometers per hour look like 60,” Donnelly explained. “You kind of have to do 60. Or 70.”
This commitment to authenticity extended to the motorcycles themselves. Harley-Davidson’s earliest bikes have long since been lost to time; even if they’d been designed for longevity, no one at the time would have comprehended that the bikes would eventually possess so much historical importance. But Alex Wheeler—a Hollywood motorcycle-manufacturing wunderkind whose credits include work on the futuristic bikes in Dredd and the upcoming Resident Evil sequel—oversaw the recreation of 80 distinct motorcycles designed to capture the first decades of Harley-Davidson in total accuracy.
That includes, of course, the difficulty of actually riding one. As it turns out, taking a spin on a faithful reproduction of an original Harley-Davidson bucks the traditional wisdom about riding a bike: The more experience you have on a modern motorcycle, the harder it is to ride one of these. On a modern motorcycle, the clutch is on the left handlebar. But on the original Harley-Davidsons, the left handlebar contained a front brake instead. On his second day on set, star Bug Hall—a motorcycle enthusiast since he was 15 years old—fell victim to this incongruity, flying over the handlebars and breaking his collarbone after his years of motorcycling instincts kicked in.
Fortunately, Hall recovered in time to complete his role, because it’s impossible to imagine Harley & the Davidsons without him. The overarching narrative of the miniseries rests on the shoulders of three well-cast actors, all equally important to the narrative—Michiel Huisman, Bug Hall, and Robert Aramayo—and the three stars bring diverse skill sets to the show.
It’s a moment that would inspire anyone to strike out and found a company like Harley-Davidson. It’s also a moment that never actually happened.
Huisman—a charismatic and prolific Dutch actor whose credits include long stints on TV shows like Treme, Nashville, Orphan Black, and Game of Thrones, as well as supporting roles in films like Wild and The Age of Adeline—plays Walter Davidson, who provides both the bankroll and the rebellious spirit that would prove so essential to the Harley-Davidson brand. Bug Hall—still best known for playing Alfalfa in the 1994 film reboot of The Little Rascals, and a much more thoughtful and versatile actor than that legacy might indicate—plays Arthur Davidson, a silver-tongued salesman who serves as unofficial spokesman for the fledgling company. And Robert Aramayo plays Bill Harley, the soft-spoken but brilliant engineer whose meticulous designs set the stage for the company’s meteoric rise. Aramayo, who studied at Juilliard, is young enough that his roster of roles looks meager compared to Huisman’s and Hall’s—until you notice that his very first credit is as Young Ned Stark on Game of Thrones. I visited the set just days before Robert Aramayo’s small-screen debut in Game of Thrones’ long-awaited Tower of Joy flashback—but at the time, no one knew which role he was playing, and he had clearly been through some coaching to avoid dropping hints.
Harley & the Davidsons—based on a true story, albeit a relatively unknown one—required no such veil of secrecy. The miniseries splits the story over three nights that chronicle more than three decades, as the titular founders rise from the now-legendary Milwaukee shed in which the Harley-Davidson company began to create one of the most iconic motorcycle brands in the world. The first installment of Harley & the Davidsons opens with an inciting incident that sets the stage for the rest of the narrative: a sneering, snobbish banker forcing Walter Davidson to give up his small plot of land for a pittance under eminent domain. “Robbery by fountain pen,” spits Walter as he signs the contract under the eyes of corrupt men who will simply beat him until he agrees to write his name.
It’s a moment that would inspire anyone to strike out and found a company like Harley-Davidson, which has since come to embody all the freedom implied by an open road. It’s also a moment, according to Ciaran Donnelly, that never actually happened.
But it’s one of those times when “print the legend” is somehow the more fitting choice. In the end, the namesake founders of Harley-Davidson are both essential and incidental to the ultimate legacy of Harley-Davidson. It wouldn’t exist without them, but it eventually grew so far beyond them because it came to represent a more generic ideal: a catch-all symbol for American independence and freedom, where the entire country is a route to traverse. A brand as laden with symbolic weight as the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company deserves nothing less than a superheroic origin story, and Harley & the Davidsons delivers one.
Harley & the Davidsons premieres on Monday, September 5 at 9 p.m.