Secrets of the Hells Angels’ Stuart Pender

Secrets of the Hells Angels, the latest installment in A&E’s Secrets of… franchise, delves into the complicated and dark history of the eponymous group of outlaws. Produced by Arrow Media, the series has gained unprecedented access to five former chapter presidents, along with undercover agents, victims, archival footage and more. Stuart Pender, executive producer, discusses the series with TV Real, touching on how staff and crew achieved a level of trust with former Hells Angels, what processes and structures production required, how the title fits into what’s currently proving popular in factual and more.

TV REAL: How did Secrets of the Hells Angels come about? How was this focus selected as a continuation of the Secrets of… franchise?
PENDER: A member of our development team had read about the death of Sonny Barger in 2022 and thought that was an interesting area to explore. The Secrets of Playboy series had recently been broadcast, and so our development team was talking to A&E about other topics that could fall into that franchise. We knew that they wanted to get into the worlds that people didn’t have access to before—groups and institutions that are part of the fabric of American culture. [The idea] was raised, and they immediately jumped on it and said, Yes, we want to know more.

TV REAL: How did the team secure access to the secretive biker club? Can you talk about the people involved in providing firsthand details?
PENDER: Current-serving Hells Angels wouldn’t talk to us—they are an iconic and well-known club but incredibly secretive, and they wouldn’t openly communicate with the press in such a way. So, it was discussed that we would reach out and get access to former Hells Angels, ideally, people who knew Sonny Barger and had been part of the club in those iconic decades from the late ’60s into the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. We hired a director who had experience working with biker gangs. But, when he came on board and the producer came on board with him, we had already made some contacts and managed to find some email addresses. It snowballed from there.

The director and producer went out to the U.S. to meet one or two of the contacts. Access to former Hells Angels is very much about trust. They need to see the people that they’re talking to, meet them in person and fully understand and believe the sentiment of what the project is, what the intention is. Once we met one or two people, they were able to put us in touch with more people and essentially vouch for us and say, They seem like good guys. So, the access was phenomenal, even before we’d gotten the commission.

TV REAL: When it came to gaining that trust, did those efforts have to continue through production and post?
PENDER: The trust is probably one of the most challenging things in this production. Because of what we were dealing with, we had perpetrators of crimes and victims of crimes. Now, it’s not to say that our Hells Angels contributors are guilty of the crimes that we’re talking about, but we are talking about the club as a whole. Legally, we had to be very careful how we talked about things. To keep those Hells Angels on board, we had to stay true to their stories. The key thing in balancing all the access was that everyone would have a voice, and we would be neutral in the presentation of it.

Everyone had a chance to say their piece, and sometimes they disagreed. They are all in contact with each other. I would occasionally get emails saying, Hey, look, I heard so-and-so is talking. Are they saying this? Of course, I’d have to honor the confidentiality of people’s inclusion. But I also had to reassure people that this is what we said it would be: This is a look at key events and characters from the Hells Angels during a certain period. We have stayed true to that. That helped keep everyone on board and happy with their contribution.

TV REAL: So, you just have a whole contact list of these guys now?
PENDER: I know. I don’t know if that’s a good thing.

TV REAL: Can we go deeper into some of the narrative techniques that you used to tell the story?
PENDER: I would really love to say that we did something that was crazy, radical and new—but I don’t think we did. These are phenomenal stories, well-filmed interviews and well-researched pieces. And I think the technique really was to be prepared about what we were covering. For example, the Hells Angels were security at the Altamont Free Concert in ’69. Things got out of hand. That really showed the Hells Angels to the wider public. Everyone, up until that point, thought they were just free-spirited bikers, but actually, there was a darker side. So, in terms of techniques, it was about a personal approach to it and, where possible, speaking to people who were there to get a firsthand account.

Filming-wise, the technique we had to use was that we wouldn’t be able to bring in any new film crew because that would make our contributors quite jumpy. We could only take people along that they were familiar with and that they’d already been introduced to. So, we self-shot the series. We had teams of three people: a director, a producer and an assistant producer. The contributors already knew them. That was really important, because if we brought random or new people along, that would have spooked them, and they could have easily walked out of the interviews and said, Look, I don’t know that person. You’ve not vouched for them.

There’s also a huge amount of archive in the series to relive the nostalgia, and that’s why people will be really drawn to this series. It’s the nostalgia of remembering what the Hells Angels are, or their vision or version of the Hells Angels.

A huge element of the storytelling is this is not just a one-sided view of the Hells Angels from their own mouths. It was important to have victims, victims’ families, former partners, journalists, authors, attorneys—people who could give us context to events, give us a sense of time and place and bring the stories to life.

TV REAL: How did your team approach the balance between the perpetrator side and the victim side around the crimes?
PENDER: What sort of naturally happened, which worked really well, was this separation of who on the team would focus on which people. This divide meant that they could say to the people they were talking to, I’m only talking to you. I’m not talking to [the other side]. I’m not talking about these other people or accusing you of X, Y and Z. It meant that they could be, to a certain point, a bit more loyal to their contributors. We didn’t have this approach where everyone approaches everyone. When we went out in the field, it was important that the contributors knew who was coming to see them. There were no new members of the team.

All the way through to the edits, people gave us a huge amount of trust. Some people, many people, have never told these stories before on television, which is remarkable.

We needed to make sure there was a fair balance of what people were saying. We couldn’t accuse people of stuff that they haven’t been found guilty of. Toward the end, it was me personally who took over more of the sensitive access once a lot of the team had finished. I knew what was being said to everyone, and I could deal with any worries or insecurities that they had in the lead-up to broadcast.

TV REAL: How does this program fit in line with what’s been trending in factual today?
PENDER: Access, as long as I’ve been making documentaries, has always been key and pivotal. What’s harder, when so many subjects have already been covered, is also getting that authenticity and getting people who can talk about things firsthand. [This is] not to talk negatively about other programs, but a lot of times, you get people talking about stuff. Of course, we have people in our series who are commentators, like the authors and the journalists who help give context. But what’s important is getting that firsthand testimony. And having that authenticity of storytelling—there’ll always be an appetite for that.

It’s also who we’re talking about. It’s the Hells Angels. I’m not sure if anyone has made a series like this in recent times. This is on both sides of the fence: law enforcement, Hells Angels, victims and many, many more people, revealing some huge events in history.

Secrets of the Hells Angels is currently airing on A&E on Sundays at 10 p.m.