Holy moly Batman! Did everyone see last nights episode of FX’s continual smash hit SONS OF ANARCHY? If you were intending to play catch up then don’t read any further. Last night creator Kurt Sutter did the unthinkable and shocked fans with the departure of Opie, played by Ryan Hurst, in the way a member of SAMCRO would.
It is no surprised that this morning Sutter himself would take to the phone to answer questions and let fans know his thought process on the difficult decision.
Lets get right to it:
Thanks Kurt, this has to be an interesting morning for you so thanks for taking the time. So the big question I suppose would be when did both you and Ryan, who plays Opie, know it was going to play out this way?
He was looped in; I didn’t just send him the script. I had been playing with the idea of really – we started thinking about it in terms of that arc between Jax and Opie really towards the end of Season Three. Then I think it all came together with the death of Piney last year and it got to the end of the season. I realized that there is this circular dynamic happening with Jax and Opie that I felt it was difficult to get out of in terms of where there arc was going. Ryan is an extraordinary actor and as we came into this season knowing as I’ve said in the past, that this is the first season were I’ve had to think of the end game and knowing where I want to take my hero and how I want to take him there, the road I want him to travel, Jax needed an emotional upheaval. I was looking for that one event that would change a man’s destiny. I think the death of his best friend was that event. I really wanted to do it at a point in the season where it would be organic but I also wanted it to happen earlier rather than it be a finale. I wanted it to happen early on in the season and as far as bringing Ryan into the loop I did that before we started writing. It’s a difficult thing because he’s very plugged into the show and loves the character and Ryan’s a super sensitive dude. It was very difficult to sort of figure out how to do this and when he read the script and seeing the episodes that follow, he understood the nature of it and the importance of it and the mythology of the show.
What was it like on set the day this was shot? It had to be hard?
It was brutal and it was on location so I wasn’t there for the actual filming of it. I do know that Ryan had requested that the guys be there for those final moments so he could actually look at the guys he’s worked with over the last five seasons. It was very emotional. A lot of what you see in those scenes, not to take away from their talent, but it was real and very sad. These guys, for better or worse, have become incredibly bonded and incredibly close as it happens and should happen in a safe and creative environment. It was sad for all of them and very emotional. I’ll let Ryan tell the stories when you sit down to talk to him but there was a big post mourning season after as well which I think speaks to the nature of the relationship these guys have with each other. As I’ve said before, we are a big f*cked up dysfunctional family and I mean that in the most loving and good way.
Now Tig is responsible for the death of three people because of what he started. Clay is also responsible for that as well. How is that going to play out between Tig and Clay?
I think both of those will continue to change. Obviously there is a new dynamic between Tig and Jax over the Pope of it all. I think the betrayal that Tig felt as we say early on in the first couple of episodes with Clay is real. I think Tig does feel betrayed so you will see an interesting shift this season. It will parallel a little bit of what happened in Season Two when Opie started moving closer to Clay because of his rift with Jax. I think that will start to happen this season as well with Tig. What will be engaged with the new dynamic with Jax and in his debt for what he did and of course he doesn’t know all the details of the deal Jax made with Pope. All he knows is that Jax got him a pardon. Tig is such a great complicated character. He’s one of those characters that on any given episode I can spin him into some absurd comic relief or I can spin him into some gut wrenching emotional family dynamic. I’m lucky enough to have an actor like Kim (Coates) that can put any suit of clothes I ask him to wear and pull it off.
There has to be a reckoning between Jax and Clay as well right?
I think all of these events will come together. The interesting thing for me this season is the emotionality with Jax and Clay, Gemma and Tara isn’t linear. There is so much going on with all these characters that there are no straight lines. No one begins in one place and has a steady climb or decline to the other place. Things happen that take them up and down and its very ebb and flow and all the characters are all over the place emotionally. Its in a good way not a random way. I felt like that as the stories were unfolding for us that the emotionality and relationships were really in a constant state of flux. Jax and Clay are different. There relationship will ebb and flow and come to a head as will Clay’s own personal journey and his demons. Clay’s emotional past isn’t a straight line either and he will have awareness of things and make both choices and mistakes. I think we’ll see those relationships with Jax and Clay to go at it. Maybe not be the most predictable way.
When Jax said ‘it’s my call’ what did he think was going to go down in your mind? Would you say that could have been when Opie knew what he was going to do?
I think he did. I think he put it together in the prison cell when Jax told him the truth about what Pope wanted. I think he realized that Jax was put in a situation to where he was going to have to sacrifice one of his guys. I think Opie knows Jax well enough to know that he would rather take the bullet himself then say ‘take this guy’. That’s what we wanted to get to. I think Jax was saying f— you to Pope and wasn’t going to give up one of his guys and let the chips fall where they may. I think in that moment in the room that when push comes to shove Jax was going to be the guy that was going to get dragged into that room. He wasn’t going to give up one of his guys and Opie knew that. At the very least, even if he didn’t think Jax was going to take the hit, knew Jax would be put into a position of choosing. Rather than put Jax through that agony he gave himself up.
FX is pretty good about letting you go where the brutality takes you.
Here’s the deal, I feel like there is a level of trust that’s been created that they know things aren’t being done gratuitously and its rooted in the world and character. We have standards and practices that will weight in on stuff in terms of brutality and violence. I have learned over the last few seasons what we can get away with and what not. I can cover that at script level. With Opie’s death it wasn’t about seeing the back of his caved in skull, we didn’t need to see that. Its not like THE WALKING DEAD where we need to see the gore – hey, don’t get me wrong, I love THE WALKING DEAD! In this case I didn’t need to see it. It was more powerful in what you don’t see or more importantly what you think you see. Its about just about giving people enough of it to where they understand what’s happening and understand the motional impact of it. They understand the emotional impact of it and understand the brutality of what just happened instead of showing them a split skull. It took me a minute to learn that. I had a huge argument with Landgraf in season one because I needed to see that bloody clown scrotum lying on the ground. John told me you may need to see a clown scrotum lying on the ground but really viewers don’t need to see the bloody clown scrotum lying on the ground. He was right – people don’t need to see it. I have a sticky note that reminds me of that!
Where is your head on Darby’s return and with Carla and Gemma?
In terms of Darby I don’t bring him back this season, I love Mitch the actor. We’ve had a few pitches but the longer time passes the more difficult it becomes to reintroduce these characters because you ultimately have to lay in more story to introduce or reintroduce characters. It doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t happen but in a show where we pack so much story in an episode and I’m constantly having to do director’s cuts, I still am forced to take out 8 to 15 minutes out of each episode. I’m already up against that challenge so on a story or script level more often than not the story gets scrapped. In terms of Wanda, she is a huge fan of the show and she introduced me to Jimmy. I knew she was a fan and I had this notion of having a bottom bitch, a girl who runs the girl and you’ll see the dynamic play out with Carla and Gemma and I don’t want to give anything away but that storyline will continue to play out through episode five or six so there’s more fun to be had there.
What about the scene with Tara and Gemma, wow, those two are really tensing up. I mean really, how would you react if your daughter-in-law said, ‘I’m not going to kill you but my husband might” – boom!
That was some real potent Gemma-Tara stuff last night. It really speaks to the shift of these two characters. Not that people are going to forget that but I think people were overshadowed with Jax and Opie. As I’ve said for Tara this seasons, her challenge isn’t so much am I in or am I out but to wrap her brain around being a strong ‘ole lady’. Can she wear it? Can she believe it? The difference for Tara now is that she is a Mom and she does have her own cubs to protect and she’s taken Able as her own. Her life has changed drastically as a result of having that child. She relates to it. So when Gemma starts to threaten that and threaten how she raises her kids, its not so much of a learned behavior but a ‘no you aren’t f*cking with my kids’ behavior and its like Gemma. We will continue to see Tara adopt the skills as the season progresses. The last four seasons of Tara being exposed to this life doesn’t go unaccounted for. We will see the influence of Gemma and Jax on this world and the choices she makes. Whether it leads her in or out of the club, she carries with her a new sense of confidence and strength that perhaps season one Tara and season two Tara wasn’t there yet. It was a great episode and seeing Tara in that scene saying ‘f*ck you, he’s mine’ and when push comes to shove Jax will chose her over Gemma. I think Katey and Maggie did an excellent job for that. Thanks for all the thoughtful questions and I’m glad people enjoyed the episode and thanks for giving me a forum to address it.
Where do you see Jax’s path going?
Not to give anything away and not to be purposely vague I think events like Opie reevaluate who your friends are. I think Jax commitment to the club will be true in terms of taking the reigns and get them on the right path as he promised to do last season. The death of Opie has a lot of emotional weight for him and force him to make decisions based a little more on emotion than perhaps logic and reason. My intent is that we see a very much changed Jax this year to a guy who has been influenced by his early tenure as president.
On the SOA website there was mixed reaction.
To be honest with you its best that I don’t read those for all the obvious reasons.
Well I spent last evening after the show going through the Twitter and Facebook reactions because I wanted to get a feeling about fans reaction.
Don’t hurt my feeling
I wouldn’t do that! The funniest one I read is that someone wants to fist fight you! He said, “I’m so f’ing mad right now I can’t f’ing believe it I just want to fist fight Sutter”.
Well, better that than death threats, I’ll take a fist fight any day
So here’s your chance, if you wanted to tell fans – whether they agree with what you did or not – what would it be?
I think the fans understand why it was done. They know that I don’t do things arbitrarily and for shock value. I think there is a sense of how deeply committed I am to the show and the fans as well. I knew this was going to be a gut wrenching show and difficult for fans to wrap their minds around. I do think there is a sense that they understand why it happened and where it will go. I guess what I would say is that yes its incredibly sad but the death of Opie will color the rest of the episodes for the rest of the season. Its not a death that will happen in vain and that I would hope people would still stay plugged in. Of course there will be a sense of vengeance and something that drives the guys to retaliate and its not so much that as the emotional impact that his death will have on the rest of the characters.
It was devastating to some because they loved him so much and being mad about it means your doing something right.
It is something we really try to do, look; I’m very candid about the kind of stories that I tell. We tell big, epic stories and more often than not there is a line of absurdity running through it. I think these are stories that make this world palatable and make this world enjoyable to watch. The trick is how do you root the big stories in some sort of organic reality so that you still feel plugged in, feel complex and three dimensional and your characters feel real within those stories. I never wanted to do an episode that was the Opie episode because then you see it coming and feeling manipulative. I talked a little about this on my video blog, the reason I teased to a certain extend was because of social media and the speed at which information travels and it was really just giving people a heads up. If they weren’t watching the episode to stay away from social media till they watch it and it wouldn’t get spoiled. As far as the brutality goes, that’s what we do on the show and part of the big story telling. It is a bloody show, a violent show and sometimes it does cross into the absurd. When you have really good writing and wonderful directing and acting you can make those big absurd violent things moving and emotional and powerful and that’s what we were trying to achieve last night and hopefully we did.
How did you see Opie’s motivation for doing this?
Part of the complexity of Opie and the choices, Ryan brought such a great pathos and sadness and depth to the character of Opie – when you start writing for these characters you get a sense of who the characters and then the actors that play them. You then start writing for the actor as the character. I felt like we had done so much damage to Opie and his family over the last few seasons. That’s why I couldn’t wrap my brain around bringing him back to the table after last season. To me there is a sense of him having tremendous loss. I do believe that some of it was definitely a sense of an opportunity to go out as doing the right thing and perhaps this is how he could best be of service to the club. In a weird and selfish way but also to his family, he always struggled with the kids after he got out of prison. He never felt connected to family obviously with the Lila thing was abrupt and a distraction. Perhaps this was his way of being a service to his club and family going out doing the right thing. I believe that that had a lot to do with it and it was a personal choice to sacrifice himself. My intention in that scene that Jax wasn’t going to let anybody tell him or force him to make the choice – even if he had to make the choice himself. I felt that Opie saw that in Jax and had to step in and make that choice.
How did you decide this was the way to end Opie’s life?
I knew there was a way to get him into prison. I loved what we did at the end of episode 2 in terms of Opie realizing he wasn’t going to let his friend go to prison unprotected. Not to trick people but there was a sense of Opie coming to his friends’ aide and perhaps it was the beginning of them being reunited and being brothers again. I thought there was a very organic process in the episode where these guys have been through a bumpy road but a sense of Jax being honest with him and telling him everything. The bonding Opie again as a result of these circumstances and Jax not knowing where it was going is something else. I knew that’s what we were going to do. As dramatic and absurd as that dynamic was, its not uncommon. Shit like that goes down in prison all the time. I mean there was just news reports about stuff like that going down in the Alabama prison. Stuff like that isn’t beyond the realm of possibility in terms of the shit that goes down. I wanted Opie to go out a warrior. I wanted him to go out with nobility and a sense of feeling like that he made not have had a lot to live for but at least he was going to go out doing something noble and protecting the people he loves. I felt like we were able to do all that with that death.
There has been so much insanity so early in the season, can you give us a hint of how much worse it is going to get?
Obviously the end was dramatic but there was a part of me that really wanted to, I mean this is the season where Jax really figures out what type of man he’s going to become. We see the decisions that he makes and what kind of leader he is going to be. I felt like I wanted to put this out early because it allows the death to color Jax and the choices he makes. I didn’t want to do it in the premier. I don’t know if things will get more insane, I think Jax will be influenced by the death of Opie. That loss and emptiness will color him throughout the rest of the season.
Your cast has expanded this season with Jimmy Smits and Harold Perrieau – how do you go about your casting choices?
Well, first I don’t want anyone to be a dick, that’s the first research I do. I like my set to stay as safe, creature and nurturing environment so I do my research to not bring a prima dona into my world. Then it’s really about the level of the work and obviously people like Jimmy and Harold have a tremendous body of work that I’m aware of. We try to make interesting casting choices. The obvious choice for Damon Pope would be an actor that might play more hard or dangerous and I wanted to go against that type and cast a guy who has learned to put all that danger and hardness and compartmentalize it and put it in the pocket of his Prada suit. I thought Harold was a wonderful choice for that. He can go dark and scary but there is something warm, charming and vulnerable about him and that makes him an interesting antagonist. As the season progresses there will be this weird mentorship dynamic that happens with Pope. He really is ultimately perhaps when you think in terms of what Jax wants to do and where he wants to go taking the club legit, Pope is the perfect role model for that. Pope is the guy who has taken his dirty businesses and made them legit. We get to play that out with those two. Jimmy, I had this idea for this character and I wasn’t sure what world I was going to place him in and I wanted him to be an outlaw but not another biker. I felt we had the African American dynamic with Pope and the Niners so we wanted to stay away from that world. Smits landed in the Latino world in terms of there is a lot of Latino gangs in Stockton and Oakland. That’s where the roots of the character began. This is one of those circumstances where I could start at the top and get who I wanted. That’s not always the case. The last time that happened in terms of guest stars was probably Forrest Whitaker on THE SHIELD. It was going into the network saying it should be Jimmy Smits and they chatted him up and got him excited about the character to bring him in.
There are still some loose ends from last season, what about Juice’s story line?
Not to spoil but I think the circumstances that we are laying track for now will hopefully lead us to Juice and his involvement. I’m very aware of the level of violence and the bigness of our stories. I think one of the things that keeps them real is that they don’t happen in a vacuum. I don’t play out a huge scene and arc and then just let it exist and not tie it to the ground. An example is Les at the end of the season and the shootout on the highway. It was a big action scene with blood and car crashes and it could have just moved on as another accident on the show but it was brutal. You saw the impact you had and you saw a guy die and that can’t go unnoticed. There has to be some connection to that and that ultimately came back to bite out guys in the ass in terms of Pope using that against them. I think that as most of our story lines try to dovetail into something else we will see that play out with Juice more toward the back half of the season.
Pope seems to be the violent newcomer in the show and can you talk about the ‘mentor’ image?
I don’t know if he’s a mentor in the classic sense of the word. I think part of Pope’s philosophy is a street mentality, the pimp mentality which is ‘I lead with sheer and utter brutality and everything else is gentle and kind’. It’s really that pimp mentality which is then ‘I make you feel safe and loved once you realize how brutal I can actually be’. He starts to play that out on Jax. It’s a ‘let me put my arm around you son and you can become like me if you want to’. There’s a mentorship dynamic going on but at the end of the day its ego and Pope assumes everyone wants to be like him. In terms of his organization, I’ve said this that my model of Pope is a Frank Lucas kind of guy who ultimately has this community presence and becomes accepted by the community. Not just the people living in it but the politicians and community activists, his influence on the people in that town can not be overlooked. Not unlike the way the mob has done that over the years. I wanted to see a guy that has risen above the street but still very connected to it. Half way through the seasons there are a few episodes were we get into who Pope is and why he’s made the decisions he’s made. At the end of the day he’s driven, like most of these guys, by narcissism and that sense of feeling like what they do is okay because they consider themselves extraordinary human beings.
Television has become amazing in the past year with SOA being on top. What do you think about people turning back to television versus film?
I love film and I keep one foot in that arena because its how I started out writing screenplays. I agree with you that it’s the nature of the business right now in television. I refer to my future career as my virtual career because I write stuff and I put it out there and I have no idea what happens to it. It’s very difficult to get movies made and I think that frustration lands on creators, writers, directors and producers. When they look at studio models that only want to create huge tent poles and do sequels the middle class of motion pictures is sort of evaporating. You have a very small pool in the dynamics that people do for a couple of millions of dollars and then you have your Marvel products which makes it difficult to do things in between. Cable t.v. is perhaps the new independent film and you can go there with an idea and a vision and have somebody be aware of it. I can only speak of FX because that’s where I’ve done all my work and have executives like John Landgraf that embrace someone’s vision and stands by his word to support that and allow that to flourish is incredibly rare in the studios system in Hollywood where its all about shutting down creatives. Some of it is just survival of the fittest and people realize this is where they want to go to be heard and express themselves. You have your Scorceces’ now and everybody is sort of moving in because they realize there is a bigger canvas to tell bigger stories and you aren’t confined to two hours or take your vision and whittle it down to two hours. You have a broader canvass where you can tell 13 hours worth of story. I think its very liberating, the same was independent film was 10 or 15 years ago.
I always read that SOA has similarities to Hamlet, how does that come together for you when creating your scripts?
The Hamlet archetypes definitely influence the show and I’ve thought about that quite a bit. The show itself is not directly based on that narrative but the archetypes and relationships are there. As the seasons progress you will see parallels in the story and arcs continue to play out. I use a lot of Shakespearean devises on the show. The only one I haven’t used is the twing device but its only season five. Here’s what I know about screenwriting, I find it very difficult to read people’s handbooks about how to write screenplays. That never seemed to help me. What helped me was reading other people’s scripts. I read a load of scripts, probably about 40 or 50 of them from shows I liked. For me that was the best way to learn was to see it on the page and understand how the stories were performed. I read a bunch of pilots before I wrote SONS OF ANARCHY. I read older pilots like 24 and LOST and that’s the way I learned how to craft a story. When I started writing longer episodes, some of my scripts started banging out to 90 minute episodes and you’re breaking them into six or seven acts. I went back and looked at some SHIELDS episodes to get a sense of things and to see if the structure had changed. That’s the most valuable way for me.
So are you still sticking to the ‘seven season’ rule for SOA?
It’s the practicality of the model and knowing as we did on THE SHIELD, which had the same production model, I understand the model in which I have to work with. For practical reasons after seven seasons, the above the line cost becomes greater than the actual revenue. From the practical notion that this model has a seven-season life span before you have to reinvent it. I was thinking with my original idea coming into it is if that’s the model and this is my mythology, do I have seven seasons of stories to tell? The initial idea of seven seasons wasn’t something I pulled out of the air but based on the practicality of what we do. As I’m moving forward with the mythology having that in mind, that has become the super structure for the show. Not to throw this out there as a potential tease or anything but if half way through season 6 I said to FX I can’t end it in seven, I think the network is committed enough to the show and my vision that they would find a way to accommodate that. I do feel like we’ve been working with that structure of seven seasons. As of today as I’m looking at my board with the finale all beat out I can still see that happening in seven seasons.
Please tell me your not going to off anyone else this season!
I can’t tell you that! Here’s what I will say, if it does happen it won’t be arbitrary. Maybe what I would say is this, if it happens again it would probably be not as sudden. How about that?
Yep, that’s the way it ended. But lets be honest, not knowing the answers to the burning questions swirling like a destructive vortex in our brains is what keeps us coming back every Tuesday night at 10 p.m. on FX Sutter has brought about the fall of a beloved character but remember, there are still others who have to answer for taking our Opie and I, for one, am going to trust Kurt Sutter to make sure that’s done – and done well!