MICHAEL WOOLAWAY - DEUS EX MACHINA’S US MOTORCYCLE DIRECTOR
Interview by Michael Carter Photographs by Mike Selsky
When did you first get into motorcycles?
The day I was born. My mom called me, “Michael, Michael, Motorcycle” when I was a little baby. That was just because I would see a motorcycle and go crazy.
What is one of your favorite memories of riding motorcycles?
There are a lot. I guess it would be racing or maybe moves that were done on the racetrack.
I don’t know if I would call it my favorite, but probably the most interesting was that I high sided a TZ250 on Turn 8 at Willow Springs: redline, wide open, sixth gear, and got spit off straight up in the air. It was probably going to be the end of me but I didn’t let go of the bike because I just knew that was going to be the end of me. I lifted the whole bike off the ground looking straight down at it. The bars were slapping back and forth and I could barely hang on to it. Next thing I know, I was back in the seat. Everybody behind me rolled off. I was leading the race. It was the last lap and I held on to win the race. I guess I just ended up back on the seat and back on the gas. There were black marks that came up across the tank and over the top of my boots from squeezing the bike so hard and trying to stay on it as I got spit off. It was pretty hairy.
What kind of motorcycle racing were you involved in?
Flat track, Enduro, GNCC, Ironman in a 100-mile desert, road racing. I did a little bit of all of it, but I never did any motocross racing. That’s probably the only thing I didn’t try; that (motocross) and trials. I didn’t do any trials. I primarily did road racing.
Tell us about your career getting into movies and all the types of building you were doing there. How has that influenced your motorcycle building? How have you transitioned into working on bikes fulltime?
I could say something that maybe will help somebody that is having trouble. I grew up very dyslexic with spelling and memorizing words and numbers. Things were reversed in my head, which I didn’t even really know. It was a problem for me at the time because they didn’t know much about it. Internally, the other side of me was very mechanical. I could figure out things that people couldn’t figure out, easily and quickly. I naturally gravitated toward metal shop and making things with my hands.
After school, I went out in the world and immediately started working. I worked on Ferraris and I worked on fancy, vintage cars. I travelled around the world.
I did different things. I raced motorcycles. At some point, I settled down in the Northwest and I took a job as the production manager of a submarine company.
It was a wet-sub company. It was a sister company to a big corporation that was working on bio-sponge technology, which is an extraction of oxygen from water. Our vessel was a little test vehicle to test that stuff and it never went anywhere due to legality issues.
I ended up back in the Northwest restoring vintage Corvettes and classic cars for a little bit. At some point, my brother was down here (Los Angeles) in the film industry, and he called me and told me, “You have to get down here. With all your weird abilities, you should get into special effects.” I learned over the years how to make everything out of anything. You know, vacuum bag technology, prepreg carbons, laminates, metal shaping, welding, mold-making, silicon mold-making; I know how to do all of it. It was weird how I learned all this stuff, but I can do all of it. In special effects, that’s a special trait.
I came down and immediately took a job building and running the crews that built a lot of the big sets for Godzilla. I built the Brooklyn Bridge. It was 180 feet long. I ran through the cables. I built the collapsing tower. That was six-scale, so it was big. I built the boat at the beginning of the movie that flipped over. It was a 60-some foot ship. I did that for a while. I worked on a few movies and then transitioned into lighting because I had met my wife at that time and she was a DP (director of photography). I decided that lighting was going to be the best way we could stay together. During that time, I was racing and developing motorcycles. I had loved to get a hold of a bike that was a works bike, a hand-built, race bike, then, develop it. The first bike I really fell in love with was a Wood SJ676 Super Single, which is a piece of art. There were ten built. I had one of ten. I had two motors with hand-built sand cast twin cam heads. There are maybe twenty of those heads ever sand cast. I won a lot of races on that bike. It was amazing.
That’s how I ended up here in LA. There was a writers’ strike in 2008; it had shut the industry down. I was kind of scrambling around. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire were doing a PSA called “Don’t Vote” and asked me if I would light it for them. I did and during that shoot over three different days I met the most polarizing figures of Hollywood, all the actors, and a lot of big producers. Steven Spielberg and everybody was there. Tom Cruise. Harrison Ford. Orlando Bloom showed up on a (Ducati) Hypermotard that was horribly set up. The bikes had big problems from the factory. I knew because I was setting one up to do Pike’s Peak. I had fixed a lot of the handling issues with the bike and I just knew I could do a couple quick, cheap tweaks to it to make it better. I asked him, “How is that bike?” Bloom said, “It could be better. It wasn’t that much fun.” I told him, “If you want, stop by my garage and I’ll tweak on it for you.” He did. I worked on it for about half an hour and turned it back over to him. One thing led to another and I ended up building him a $40,000 Hypermotard after we met. From there I built him a vintage BMW and a Norton. One thing after another, we’re getting ready to do a big project with a big motorcycle company that I cannot talk about. I had to sign a confidentiality agreement. It is pretty big. It is going to be neat. The Deus guys were building him a bike and were looking for somebody here to take care of it, to receive the bike and make sure it was set up. Bloom told them about me and they actually happened to be in L.A. We met and one thing led to another. I started building bikes for their customers here. Ryan Reynolds was a customer that wanted a bike. They couldn’t build them and import them so Ryan showed up in my little garage. I have built him three or so motorcycles now. We did something with Billy Joel and I went on to build five bikes for him. Then, I built a bike for Springsteen.
The Deus guys couldn’t build bikes and import them and they had a lot of customers here that were interested. Starting with Ryan Reynolds and Billy Joel. We did a build for Billy Joel. I had like seventeen days to build this bike from start to finish. I worked really long hours, but I got that built. He was on tour and showed up to receive the bike. He really liked what we were doing so he commissioned four or five bikes after that. One was for Bruce Springsteen, through Billy. Just one thing led to another and Dare Jennings, owner of Deus Ex Machina, wanted to come to America and wanted me to be involved. We tried to do something in downtown L.A. that was a little clunky. Eventually, we found this location here (Venice Beach) and I haven’t turned back. I’ve been building bikes like crazy. I’m booked out two and a half years right now. I’m still in film. I’ve been working seven days a week for a while now, at least several years. Every once in a while, I get to go Supermoto riding or dirt bike riding. It has been really good. It has been a good collaboration.
What or who are your design influences when you are building a bike?
My mom is a fine artist. My younger brother is an amazing fine artist. I think it just comes natural to me, but most of my influence is from days before I started racing. I think the prettiest bikes that were ever built, were hand-built back in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s. The Reg Nortons. These bikes were hand-built. I draw a lot on old memories and old images.
I try not to spend time looking at other people’s work. Nothing personal because whenever I do I’m always amazed at how many talented people there are and how beautiful their work is, but I feel I don’t want to look at something and then realize I have just done something similar. I try just to stay within my own thoughts.
The way that I design bikes with customers is that I ask them to go online and send me images of things that inspire them. It could be watches, leather, an old car, or a landscape. It’s something that I get an idea of what they are, what they like, what their inspirations are, what makes them happy. From there, I translate that in some weird way into metal, motorcycle, and shape. Sometimes we will do drawings and sometimes I will just sit and try and describe to them what it is that is inside my head. We will put together a build sheet and just go from there. That has been pretty fun.
In your definition, what do you think makes a good motorbike?
That’s a big question. A good motorbike is something that’s good for the person that’s using it. The first questions I always ask everybody is, “What are you going to do with the bike? Where are you going to ride it? How are you going to use it?” Everybody needs something different. I’m building some adventure bikes using KTMs, which are going to carry surfboards. That’s what is going to make this a good motorbike. It needs to have range. It needs to be stable, straight, and powerful. It needs to be durable, if they tip over and fall down a hill I want it to pick up and still have it work. I don’t want parts to break off it.
If someone is looking for something that’s fast, then you’re talking about good geometry. The basis of all my bikes comes from a racing background, which is perfectly straight and perfectly geometric. Each bike is valved and sprung for the person’s weight so that it handles the way it should handle. Proper racetrack geometry is the basic beginning of every bike.
Where do you see custom motorculture going in the next decade?
I hope it goes a long way. I hope custom motorculture keeps growing. As much as I enjoy the motorcycle industry, I enjoy somebody taking something and changing it to make it their own, shaping things themselves and welding them. Whether it’s good or bad, just something that is theirs. There’s a lot of that happening. I see it all the time. I look out the window and I see some crazy bike going by that somebody has built in his garage. Whether I like it or not, it’s just cool. Whether people like what I do or not, it doesn’t matter to me as long as the person I’m dealing with likes it and I like it.
The other thing I would like to say is that we, as a culture, are too concerned about price point and saving a buck. I try to get all my parts and materials from America. I want components from people that are building them from hand. The bikes end up being a bit more expensive, but if I can get something made in America by hand, that’s what I’m doing. Hands down, that’s the part I’m going to buy.