An Interview with Kurt Sutter
Creator and Producer of SOA
Coming this Tuesday night is the highly anticipated return of one of FX’s most highly rated and most loved shows, SONS OF ANARCHY. Fans of the show are no longer just bikers, nope, the show has branched out to every segment of the world and it showed at this years Comic-Con. On the final day of the Con, thousands turned out to Hall H to a panel that was nothing short of spectacular.
In early years, the SONS OF ANARCHY panels were small with a few of the shows cast, but this year, put in the huge hall of 7,000 people, the roar was deafening when the ENTIRE cast arrived. Fans got a chance to see their favorite character and the line to ask questions was insanely long.
The fandamonium has been brought about by the shows creator Kurt Sutter who was also on the panel. Sutter is a writer, director, producer and actor all in his own right. Many might not know that he is also responsible for the hit series THE SHIELD that ran from 2002 to 2008. Another piece of trivia that many might not realize is that Sutter is also married to SOA’s Gemma played by Katey Sagal.
A few months ago I was thrilled to put it mildly to be able to ask Sutter about his work with SONS OF ANARCHY and some of the character development from last season that will lead into this season so lets get right to it!
Hi Kurt, thanks for joining me today.
Thanks for having me.
So, Opie had a major time these last few seasons. First he lost his wife and now his father because of the club. Jax has had a hard time with losing his father, son being kidnapped and Tara was kidnapped and hurt. Why are these guys still loyal to their club?
I think ultimately, as we’ve talked about with some of the character, I think it’s really for the most part it’s all these guys know. For me it’s the crux of the drama, at least with Jax, is he was raised in this world, and it’s all he knows. Can he leave it? Can he abandon it? If he can’t, can he fix it? So for me, I know there were some questions in terms of what happened to Opie at the end of the episode. It was just too neat and simple for Opie to come back. Opie’s a complicated dude, and one of the things that was fun this season with him is really, I think it is with some of these guys. They’re not very self-aware. It took marrying somebody else for him to actually begin to grieve the death of his wife. So I think it’s just all catching up with Opie. He’s not a guy that processes things quickly. So in my mind, it’s going to take a minute for Opie to get back to that table if he does get back. It’s something we get to play out next season, but he’s not ready to necessarily be at Jax’s left, especially with Jax not being able to really be completely honest with him. I just think it’s really all they know, and we get to explore that. To be honest with you, if they decided it wasn’t what they want and left, I wouldn’t have a show left. As the storied developed we got a sense that we weren’t going to kill Tara. I’m all about surprising and I have no problem killing off a main character. But I also have to, in some ways, protect the show. I think it would be very difficult for us to continue with Jax and tell that story without Tara. So I knew that that wasn’t going to happen. For me, I just think death – whacking somebody – sometimes it just too easy and you’ve got potential story that it’s much more complex and interesting a story to take away the thing that defined Tara – that being she is a healer. What happens when you take that away? Then where is Tara? What does she become? Same thing with Clay – it would’ve been way to easy for Jax to have that revealed about his father and that we’ve been playing with for four seasons now to have Jax kill Clay two scenes later. To me, it’s much more interesting turf for story to have that awareness and play that out for a couple of seasons. I keep using this example, but it’s really what I’m stealing from is THE SHIELD when we had Vic become aware that Shane was the one who killed Lem. We had that awareness happen, and then we go to play that out for a second and a half where these guys loathed each other and wanted each other dead feeling this enormous sense of betrayal and yet had to suit up and go to work with each other every day living with this secret. We get to play that out now with Jax and Clay. I just think that’s great turf for potent storytelling and what does that look like, and how do these guys interact? It wouldn’t just been to easy, and quite frankly, I want to see what that looks like for a season or two to have these guys aware of this now, rather than just have the reveal and have him avenge it. It’s really about just wanting to create more territory for story.
Tara is beginning to look and act like Gemma, is that planned?
We’ve actually really been playing with that idea since season two. We had conversations with wardrobe and hair about slowly – the more Tara spent time in the world – having it sort of rub off on her and that she couldn’t help but become part of it. We were able to play that out with wardrobe and hair. Yea, I think that’s inevitable, her coming around to slowly kind of morphing into it and then obviously towards the end having some of the emotionality match it as well in terms of who she is and what she does. Yes, that was our intention.
Gemma is a strong personality and I don’t see her being usurped quite so easily. Is there going to be a struggle in Season Five?
I think the interesting thing – just to take a step back – is this season, if you really look at the dynamic – and something I’ve come to use as a little bit of a device is that it’s this world about men, but more often than not we see it through the window of the women. We see Clay through the window of Gemma because she’s the one that knows his secrets. We see Jax’s season through the window of Tara, which is why I ended it the way I did in that ultimately we’re reviewing this world through the eyes of the women. Yes, I think it’ll be an interesting season for the two of them. I think Gemma makes this decision at the end of the last season that’s somewhat hasty, but as she says, she’s a survivalist. She wasn’t going to throw away 20 years of work and make this decision about Clay without seeing the ramifications of what that might create perhaps with Tara. That she’s ultimately created a little bit of a Frankenstein, and that it wasn’t going to be her standing behind Jax pulling the strings – that there was somebody else who was more connected to her son than she was. So you’re right. I don’t think Gemma will be usurped. I don’t think Tara – Tara is not Gemma; she’s not there yet. Next season – not that I’m going to take a step back and bring her back to the wavering Tara that’s she’s been to a certain extent. I think she will have her struggles in that role. I don’t think the struggle will be, “Am I in, or am I out?” I think the struggle will be “how do I stay who I am and navigate in this world, “ not unlike the way Jax has over the last few seasons. So it’ll be a different kind of struggle, but Tara is not Gemma. The example I give is that when she slides over that syringe and says, “This is how you do it,” if it was Gemma it would’ve already been done. I don’t think that Tara has that capacity, if push came to shove, to put a bullet in someone’s head, as I think Gemma could do that pretty much without giving it a second thought and then go hit Starbucks on the way home.
You’ve talked about how difficult the costs are to continue keeping a show going. Is that going to affect SOA in the coming seasons?
It’s always a struggle in terms of – I’m very aware that I’m writing for a television show, so I do want to write storylines that are rich and complex, and characters that are three-dimensional. We do have actors that give tremendous performances. But there’s an element of the show that’s incredibly pulpy and that is very entertaining. To me, that’s as important as the rich, deep character stuff, because I’ve no desire to run a show that only a couple hundred thousand people watch. If I want that kind of audience, I’ll go do theatre. So it is important to me to keep the show fun and entertaining, and I think that’s what frustrates you guys sometimes is the combination of those things. In terms of the fan base and seven seasons – I threw out the seven-season milestone just because that was my experience on THE SHIELF in terms of when the above-the-line costs become too much. I knew I could tell the story I wanted to tell in a seven-season arc. I’m hoping we manage to have that length of time to do that. If for some reason FX came to me or 20th came to me and said we can go two more season, I would have to get that information before episode #710 to figure that out. I’d be open to exploring that.
We have a threat now with Leroy’s dead girlfriend’s father, is that going to be explored more or the internal struggles of the club next season?
I don’t know yet. For me, what I wanted to do is just – obviously I’m trying to be smart and give myself a running start for next season. I’ve learned that that really helps. It really benefits a show to be able to hit the ground running for a new season, so some of it is that. Also, some of it is really just creating some sense of the sword of Damocles hanging over Jax’s head as he’s sitting at that table – that other than the internal conflict, the club is potentially facing a very dangerous foe because of their actions. So some of it was just being able to have something hanging over Jax’s head at the end there when he’s sitting at the table and having the audience aware of that. He doesn’t quite know what he’s gotten himself into – so some of it was just throwing some complexity in there. I don’t know the level of threat yet. I’d love to be able to brand that character. In my mind, he’s sort of a Frank Lucas kind of guy that has a lost of sway and is a few steps above the club in terms of influence and connections. I haven’t really given specific thought to what that conflict looks like and whether or not it will take precedence. Obviously, the internal threats and the internal dynamics will continue with Jax and Clay and the rest of the club. My sense next season is that it’ll be a slower boil. It won’t quite be as fast as kinetic as this season was with the cartel and with Jax wanting to get out. This season, everyone was out of breath at the end of every episode, and my sense is that next season that won’t be the case. It’ll just be a slower boil next season, if that makes sense.
You have been doing an amazing job making SONS OF ANARCHY the most popular show in FX history. Does that give you more creative latitude?
That’s a good question. Obviously it’s very satisfying, and I think it’s attributed to the fact that I surround myself with people who are way more talented than I am – and great actors. I think people have really come to understand these characters and plug in, and they’re along for the ride. I think Netflix helped a great deal. I think people watching the first couple seasons really allowed them to plug into the show and get it. I can’t tell you the number of tweets and comments on Facebook about the new fans we got as a result of Netflix, so I think that was important to the rise. In terms of pushing the envelope, the nice thing is that the more I do this and the more I understand what the show is, the more the network understands what the show is. The notes I get are very sparse. Usually what’ll happen in the beginning of the season, there’ll be a lot more questions and a lot more comments and a lot more notes just to understand what we’re doing. Then as the episodes are delivered, the notes and the comments and the questions get fewer. They’re really come to trust where I’m taking the show. So it’s a pretty good symbiotic relationship. Yes, there will be times when I’ll have a conversation with John (Landgraf) about a thematic point or sometimes even just a piece of dialog, and we’ll have a conversation about it. The good thing is I never get a ‘don’t do that’. I get a “why are you doing that? Can you explain it to me?” What that’ll do is often it’ll force me to take a step back and look at things and try to look at it from a different point of view, which I think as an artist that it’s really valuable. I don’t loathe notes, as hard as they are to hear sometimes. I’ve just learned that ultimately when I’m forced to look at it from somebody else’s perspective, it gives me insight. What usually happens out of that process is the best solution comes out of that. So whether it’s from the network or my writers or a director, I find that process very valuable.
What kind of response have you received from fans about the show; do you hear from any of the motorcycle clubs?
Obviously I think it’s been a pretty potent season with the fans. People have enjoyed the ride – and same with the motorcycle community. I’m fairly plugged into their point of view. Most of the guys that I know in the world dig the show and get it and understand what it is. They laugh at me and at some of the absurdity of what it is our guys do. I think they respect what I’m trying to do and I don’t really get negative feedback. In terms of influencing me, it’s not like the influence is specific like someone has an issue with a story line, and that impacts me to change it. I think the influence is seeing the response that people have to story arcs or character things. I’ll get a general sense of what people are really plugging into, and what they’re responding to, and what’s really hitting an emotional button with them, and just sort of log that in my mind in terms of, “Oh, okay. That’s a component of the show that people really enjoy,” or, “That’s a part of the show that people are baffled by.” So it’s really more of a thematic process in terms of what the fans are responding to. Yea, definitely when I go back to write, I’m aware of those things. I’m not writing the show in a vacuum. I’m not writing the show for me. I’m writing the show for an audience. As I’ve said, I’m an egomaniac. I want to be loved, honored, worshipped and adored by everyone so I want a big audience. I love the fact that we’re beating networks in key demos. I think to do that, I need to be aware of what the fans are enjoying and stay aware of that when I’m writing.
Otto is always interesting when on the show. How did you come about doing the evolution of the character and is he finished on the show?
For me, the character was really a device initially that a lot of these guys are inside and not a lot of information and intel. A lot of the club dynamics often generate from prisons. It was really just a device to get some exposition, quiet honestly. It’s been fun metaphorically to continue to abuse this guy. Then I had this story line, obviously, this season that came up with RICO. Then we sort of took a look at everything Otto had done, and I started putting together in my head the specifics of his back-story. It wasn’t until this season that Otto really – for me as a writer – became three-dimensional and really looked at all that’s happened to him. We get a little piece of that when he gives Bobby the list in episode 12. You have a guy who two years ago would be willing to bounce a Fed’s head off the table for the club, and now he feels this deep sense of betrayal and know that he’s done. In true Outlaw fashion, he’s going to take everybody down with him. For me, it was sort of fun to give him another dimension this seasons. As an actor, it’s fun to do. I’m clearly the only one who will hire me as an actor. I don’t know if he’s done. He’s clearly not going to be a resource for the club anymore, and they’re expediting his execution. Our season’s timelines are usually fast, so we could play that out for a couple of seasons. I’m sure we’ll see Otto again. I don’t know what that will look like currently though.
We saw Wendy this season and she is obviously a thorn in the side of Jax and Tara. Is she going to have it out with Gemma in the future?
I’m not certain yet what the Wendy arc will be in season five. She will definitely be back. I like the character very much and I love working with Drea. We were able to make a deal with her for six episodes, and we played out two of those this seasons. I think we have her for our next season. I’m sure if we expand upon that, we might be able to get her for more episodes. It’s interesting; people had asked where Wendy went and what was going on. I wasn’t sure exactly when, but I knew that it would be thought the evolution of Tara, it would be interesting to bring her back. We were able to do that this season at a really awkward an inopportune time for Tara. I just think in a very general way she will be very interesting to throw into the mix with Gemma and Tara next season. Whether or not Gemma will try to use her as a wedge – I’m not quite sure what the looks like yet. I do know that she will definitely factor in some capacity with Gemma and the Tara arc.
With HAMLET being a sort of basis for this, can you tell us about the writing process for the show?
It’s not like we have the play up on a board with plot points that we try to follow. I think it really more speaks to tone and the operatic nature of the show and the pulpiness of the show – the epic quality that some of the storylines have. The archetypes, obviously, with Clay, Jax, Gemma and Tara are there. There are some overlaps, I think in terms of theme and story that I try to do. Obviously my absurd little wink at all of that with the title of these last two episodes, and just in Jax making that decision of what he was going to do. I don’t know how that’ll play out in the future. I’m sure I will continue to have the show resonate off of those themes somewhat. Whether or not they all end up dead in a big puddle of blood at the end of the series is yet to be determined.
Do you think Jax can handle the reigns now knowing his father vision or do you think Clay has had too much of an influence and its engrained now?
I think that’s some of the things I think will be fun to examine with Jax – the idea that as we see with a lot of our politicians, that people have a lot of ideals and make a lot of promises in the pursuit of an office. Yet, when they get into that office, they’re often handcuffed by the restrains of previous relationships and responsibilities. More often than not, those ideals and those desires to do things differently fall to the wayside. More often than not, they end up repeating the actions of their predecessors. So the question for Jax is, can he replace Clay without becoming Clay? Is Clay just a product of the life and the responsibility of leading an organized crime syndicate, which the club is. If Jax strays from that, if he tries to take the approach of running the club that his father had, will he inevitably suffer the same fate as his father? So it really is about whether Jax can do things differently, and can he be his own man, and can he affect change? Can he stay true to who he is and what he believes and honor this shift he’s had over the last couple of years and still be the visionary behind the club? For me, that’s the fun we get to play out in the next couple of seasons.
Juice is seen more this season. He seems to be a strong character. Was that an intentional decision or did it just happen that way?
Yes and no. For me, and I know it created some confusion, and rightfully so, with the racial issue this season. I had underestimated my awareness and that people had the same awareness I did. Somehow, I didn’t seem to communicate that well enough – the idea that there were no black members of the club. To me, it was always a very interesting dynamic in these Outlaw organizations that I would go and hang out with these guys and – the club I know very well up north has a Latino president for years and has Jewish members and Asian members and a couple Latino guys. Yet, there were no African-American guys. I would go to these parties and they’re hanging out like Hell’s Angels up north, and one of their best friends are the East Bay Dragons which is a black motorcycle club that’s been around longer than the Hell’s Angels. They’re friends with these guys and they associate. They weren’t racists. They had friends who are black. There was just this sense of that’s how it is. It dated back to the 40s when these clubs were established. I just found it just a weird, fascinating thing. When we brought in the character of Eli, I just thought that could be a fun thing to play out and created this storyline with Juice. For me, the absurdity of – and it’s a theme that you see over and over in this show – which is if people just told the truth the first time, things would be so much better. Innately, there’s just that sense of people needing to protect themselves by not telling the truth. As a result of that when Chibs says to Juice, ‘what’s on your birth certificate?” in our research that’s the truth. The piece of paper that proves it is all that matters. Because as Chibs says, half these guys don’t know who the hell their fathers are. That’s all that mattered. Juice getting that piece of information, realizing that all the other things he’s done that he hasn’t told Chibs wouldn’t have had to happen if he told the truth the first time. I just think that’s a recurring theme on the show that it’s fun to play out. I don’t know if Juice finishes as strong as ever – if things are under the rug for now and buried for Juice. Like we do on the show, things don’t happen in a vacuum, and they don’t go away. Juice is still living with the guilt and the remorse of shooting a guy in the face and ratting on the club. There are people out there that have that information. It may not play out next season, but not unlike what we did with Luann and Bobby in season two, that become a bigger story arc in season four because it is now part of the mythology. It is not part of the history of that character and it doesn’t go away. I don’t think that Juice storyline is done. I think at a certain point, I only have so many minutes in an episode to tell a story, so at a certain point some of these stories have to slide into the background and simmer there for a while to allow me to tell other stories. But I don’t think it’s done, and we’ll be able to play that out a little bit further hopefully down the line.
One thing that’s awesome about the show is the fact that the actors return every season. What did you see about these actors that you knew they were meant to be part of the SONS OF ANARCHY cast?
Quite honestly, a lot of them are just my friends, and I like to surround myself with people who I know and trust and who I know can deliver performances. They’re all great actors. There’s a part of me that just loves the meta-factor of bringing those guys in to play roles. Benito (Martinez) this season and David (Reese Snell), and we even tried to get C.C. (Pounder) for a role this season, but she was off doing a movie. I think the one character I probably would not be able to bring it would be (Michael) Chiklis – or Walton (Goggins) for that matter. I just feel like these guys are so iconically Vic and Shane that I think it would be impossible for them to be perceived as somebody else in the world. It would be too distracting to bring them onto the show – as much as I love and adore them as actors and as people. For me, it’s just fun. It’s a little bit too much fun for me. I continuously try to give Shawn (Ryan) and THE SHIELD credit for the success of SOA because I learned so much on that show and take a lot of my cues from that storytelling process.
You say you don’t know where the direction of the show is going or the unpredictability. Do you ever question that style of writing for the show?
I don’t like to live dangerously and I do like nets. My process usually is I come in at the beginning of the season with a fairly in-depth skeleton of the bigger story arcs and where I want to go. For example, this season I knew everything we were doing with Romeo for the CIA. I knew that that ultimately would be the thing that would force Jax not to off Clay and that we were going to end the season with Jax sitting at the head of the table. I knew those bigger story arcs at the beginning of the season. Then, I sit down with my writers, and we go, obviously, episode by episode, and we hang the meat on the episodes with our stories and our narratives and our A stories from our B stories. In that process as you write these stories, the narrative then forms the arcs, and things tweaked and changed. That’s part of the process. Then, we produce the show pretty tightly. So I’m seeing performances of actors as I’m writing episodes that are only a couple as the season progresses. They are close to when they will actually be shot. So I’m able to see what actors are able to bring to a role, and their interpretation. Then it continues to inform me about – especially our new actors like Linc Potter and Eli Roosevelt. They were two-dimensional quite often when these characters began at the beginning of the season. As my writers and I get in, we get to make them richer and develop them more, and then have really good actors that tend to inform of who they are so that usually halfway through the season, they’re three dimensional. A lot of that has to do with the actors and their performances. So it allows me to write to their choices more specifically. It’s not like we’re running loosey-goosey here and shooting from the hip. I do try to have a lot of structure going into the season. What I’ve learned is that it really has to be a blueprint. I can’t lock into an idea or a theme or a story arc and then hold onto it too tightly because what happens is other things continue to form it. So I just have to be open to that process and allow things to change and things to tweak and things to go sometimes in a little different direction. Be open to making those changes. I think that’s what helps keep the show fresh and hopefully compelling to watch.
After working on THE SHIELD, do you see a comparison between Mackey and Clay?
That’s interesting. I think by the very nature of who they are as men – they’re both alpha males; they’re both guys that are living with dark secrets; they’re both guys that have the innate, almost sociopathic ability to compartmentalize. So I do think that there are a lot of characteristics as men that Clay has and that Vic has. I think they’re two very different guys, and I think their defects come from different places. I’ve had this conversation with Ron (Perlman) in terms of Clays past. Clay was a guy who was in Vietnam and I think saw some really horrific things. He has that military soldier mentality of putting his head down and the bayonet out and running full speed ahead. When you see a lot of death and gore and violence at an early age like that, you have to learn to compartmentalize, or you implode. So I think Clay has that past. I don’t think that was Mackey’s history. His alpha characteristics grew out of different soil. I think they’re different men, but I think the nature of those characters – yes, I do think there’s definitely some overlap in terms of how they navigate through the world.
Peter Weller was one of the directors this season; will you be working with others the new season?
Yea, I hope so, although, I just saw Peter got some big role in something. I like the ensemble nature of working with directors – meaning I like to bring around the same people. I’ve done that in the last four seasons. There’s just shorthand that happens. I spend a lot of time with my directors in the process of prep, and I do an extensive tone meeting where we sit down and go through every scene and discuss tonally what’s going on and the important moments for me that I want covered – just so that the director and I are on the same page creatively. I just find that when I work with directors over and over again that that process becomes much more expeditious. There’s a shorthand that develops. I see how my actors respond to directors and how people give different performances. I think there’s a comfort level to bring back the same directors with the actors too. So this season, I was really lucky that I had Paris Barkley on as a director, and my director EP. The actors love Paris, and he gets great performance out of people. So I was able to have him for three. As for Peter Weller – I know Peter personally and through friends and was aware of some of his work as a director. I just had an innate sense of this guy in terms of what he could bring to the show. It’s panned out, and he did two really wonderful episodes for us. Yeah, nothing would please me more than to bring back Peter for a couple of episodes next season – as well Guy Ferlin and Billy Gierhart. Those are people I go to over and over again because they deliver really great episodes, and I really enjoy the process with them. Tone meetings sometimes can be laborious, and they’re very detailed and very specific. But for me, it’s just part of the process that’s fun for me to really sit down and then have a creative discourse with somebody about a scene and expectations and hearing their point of view and then obviously seeing the result of that in post when I’m looking at the cut. I actually enjoy that process, and I think the directors who come on the show have a lot of fun.
How did you manage to get FX to pick up SONS OF ANARCHY?
I was a feature writer on THE SHIELD. I began really writing movies and THE SHIELD was really my first gig. I come from theatre, and I was an actor and director first. Really didn’t start writing until grad school. So it was all sort of new for me. THE SHIELD was my first gig, and nobody quite knew what that meant and what that show was going to be. My relationship with FX really grew out of air! John Landgraf came onto THE SHIELD I think in the third or forth season in terms of becoming the president there. Honestly, I would see John occasionally, but I didn’t really know him or have any interaction with him before SONS. He really deals with the show runners, and his relationship was with Shawn (Ryan). Then when we were going out to pitch SONS, we pitched it to four or five places. Obviously I thought FX would be a good place for this show in terms of the fact that I knew they would understand the material. I knew that they knew how to market shows. I knew it was a show that really spoke to their core audience. So at the end of the day when they wanted to do it and we were choosing between a few places, it made the most sense to go there. One, because I had a certain amount of loyalty and had trust in them, but mainly because I knew it was the best place for the show.
Thanks Kurt, I truly do appreciate your time and for sharing all your thoughts about SOA and what’s to come!
Sons of Anarchy begins this Tuesday, September 11, 2012 on FX!