Interview date: 11/03/2009
Run date: 11/13/2009
After spending so many years working on “The Shield,” you’d think Kurt Sutter would’ve been tired of dealing with characters of ambiguous morality, but based on what we’ve seen thus far in his current creation, FX’s “Sons of Anarchy,” it’s apparently an area where he thrives. Bullz-Eye had a chance to chat with Sutter in connection with the show’s placement in the TV Power Rankings, and he gave us some hints about what to expect from the remainder of the show’s second season as well as how long he can envision the show going on.
Kurt Sutter: Hey, Will. It’s Kurt Sutter.
Bullz-Eye: Hey, how are you? It’s a pleasure to talk to you.
KS: I’m good, man. And thank you!
BE: Now, I should forewarn you that I have had an interview thrust on me that’s set to take place in about 10 or 15 minutes. Do you just want to talk until then, or would it be better if you called me back or I called you back?
KS: Well, uh, how long is this going to take? (Laughs)
BE: Well, in theory, only about 10 or 15 minutes. (Laughs) So I guess let’s just chat until I get the other call, and then see how far we’ve gotten by that point. Is that cool?
KS: Yeah, that’s fine.
BE: Okay, awesome. Well I don’t know if Dom over at FX told you or not, but “Sons of Anarchy” is on our TV Power Rankings for Bullz-Eye…
KS: Oh, yeah, that’s right. Okay!
BE: …but he said he wasn’t sure if you were going to be thrilled at the accolade or just pissed that it didn’t rank any higher than it did. (Laughs)
KS: (Cautiously) Where are we?
BE: Well, you’re at #14, but the people who voted for it tended to put it in the upper tier of their lists, if that helps.
KS: Right, right, right. I got you.
BE: So having already worked on a show with antagonists as main characters (“The Shield”), what drew you to go in that direction again when you created “Sons of Anarchy”?
KS: You know, I think initially it was kind of a fascination with the subculture, and I think I was sort of drawn to characters that live in the grey, kind of challenging those lines between good and evil and what’s acceptable and not acceptable. You know, a little bit of what we did on “The Shield,” only I think the difference being that, ultimately, at the end of the day, Mackey was supposed to be one of the good guys, and it’s sort of the reverse in the outlaw community, where these guys are considered the bad guys, the outlaws. And the challenge of, how do you structure characters and relationships and create narrative story lines that allow people to, at the very least, understand what their actions and motives are, what drives them, and things like that. You know, I just find that stuff much more challenging, and I think it opens up…you know, it gives you a greater, bigger pool, I think, to draw from.
BE: How far in advance do you map out the stories? Is it a season at a time, or do you have a grand timeline with the endgame already prepared?
KS: You know, in terms of the overall show, I have a sense of where I would like it to go and a sense of what it will look like. But what I usually end up doing is, like, half way through a season, I’ll start to become aware of where the following season will go. So, y’know, we’re going to be coming into season three, so I have a pretty good sense of what that season will look like and some of the bigger arcs. I come into it with a blueprint, and then my writers and I sort of hang the meat on the bones. And, yeah, some of it changes as it progresses. So I like to come in prepared. I don’t have the luxury of having a ton of time between the time we tell stories and the time we produce them, but I also don’t like having too much time, because I think a lot of it for me is really seeing what stories take off; what stories work; what characters pop; what relationships work, you know. And if you’re too far in advance, you don’t have the luxury to alter and adjust as you go along.
BE: Actually, this is kind of related, then: how difficult is it to continue to ratchet up the stakes for the club without feeling like you might be going off into an unbelievable story direction?
KS: You know, I don’t really think of it in terms of that. My sense of it was never, “Okay, this episode I have to ratchet it up.” It’s really kind of knowing what those narrative arcs are and kind of staying true to them. So I don’t worry about it becoming over the top, just because I know ultimately that it is all sort of…I mean, obviously, their circumstances are dramatic and the stakes are very high. But it’s not so much about, “Okay, let me have this episode top the last episode.” So I don’t worry about it becoming too over the top. You know, for me, it’s really why the details are important, I think: keeping it rooted in the reality of the outlaw community. Keeping the details very real and very specific and very rich, I think it helps me root the show so it doesn’t ever feel like Telemundo on bikes. So that’s why all of those details are really important to me, because it gives it that sense of reality, even though the stories are highly dramatic and the circumstances are extreme and the stakes are very high.
BE: How has the club community reacted to the show? Because with “The Shield,” I got the impression that the police officers, at least for the most part, kind of liked it.
KS: Yeah, I mean, for “The Shield,” you know, the hierarchy L.A.P.D could never say that. In fact, early on, you know, we had potential lawsuits and blah blah blah, and that’s why we had to put the badge on the other side and change the color of the badge. We had to do all of these things to make L.A.P.D. legal feel like we were not associating with L.A.P.D. And never in the history of the show were the words L.A.P.D. ever mentioned. So, you know, I had concerns, I think, coming into this originally. What I have done from the beginning is I have had an open line of communication with the outlaw community and that…you know, just look, it’s TV, and we’re going to use dramatic license, but I never wanted it to feel like we were exploiting anything or anyone. You know, from what I understand, I think the reception has been really positive. I’ve been contacted by several clubs and they dig the show. And interestingly enough, and I don’t know this to be a fact, this is secondhand, but apparently it has ended up becoming like a good P.R. tool for them, because it’s hung a human face on essentially the myth. And apparently it has improved their relationship with the general public. And more importantly, it has improved their relationship with law enforcement. So, so far, they have really kind of embraced it.
BE: Speaking of “so far,” so far we’ve only known John Teller as the voice of his manifesto. Do you have plans to do a flashback episode that will actually show Teller when he is alive?
KS: No, I think…this is not a show that I think can hold a flashback without it feeling cheesy and like a cheat. I think we will continue to find out about John Teller. I think his back story will continue to be revealed, you know? So I think he’ll stay alive in that way. But other than photographs and the potential…you know, Jax is listening to his book, but I don’t think we will actually ever see John Teller.
BE: So if that happens, we can call it a jump-the-shark moment?
KS: Please do. Hold me to that.
BE: You had Jay Karnes in the first season. Has there been any other talk of recruiting other “Shield” alumni?
KS: You know what? I actually have. I have brought back Kenny Johnson; he’s in episode twelve. And I love Kenny. I would get emails from Kenny, like, constantly saying, “Please put me on a show with balls, please put me on show with balls.” (Laughs) So he plays this little cameo in twelve, and we’ll see if we can make some kind of deal with him. But I would love to bring him back for at least a three or four episode arc in season three.
BE: Adam Arkin and Henry Rollins have been great this season, but are they considered the big bads just for this season, or will the league be a thorn come next year?
KS: I think the league will…I don’t know if they will continue or if it will play out necessarily next season, but I think the league and guys like Zobelle, you know, those are the guys that survived the Holocaust. Do you know what I mean? They are the cockroaches that just don’t die. So potentially, yeah.
BE: Rollins is always so self deprecating, but be honest: did he blow you away with his first audition?
KS: You know what? I’ve always been a fan of Henry’s. And we had him in mind for…actually, when we were testing for the character of Tig the first season, we had contacted him. Not necessarily to give him the role, but just to find out if he was interested. And he was actually on the road with his gig and wasn’t available. So when I came up with the idea for this character for this season, I reached out to him to see if it would be something he would be interested in. I actually knew he was a big “Shield” fan because he had Chiklis on his IFC show. So it was serendipitous and we had a great first meeting, and told him a little about the character. You know, I knew the character would be in his wheel house. Henry is very realistic and very self deprecating about his dramatic chops, and I knew I wasn’t going to ask him to do anything that would be out of his comfort zone. I think it’s very interesting. The character has grown a lot throughout the course of the season and he goes through a lot of changes. And Henry has been great, man. You know, he just gets better with every episode, and I think he turns in a great performance all season.
BE: Are you surprised by the success of the second season? And do you think there’s any particular reason why it’s doing so much better?
KS: You know, yeah, of course I’m surprised. I knew the fan base was growing, and I knew by episode five or six of last season that we were sort of a frozen rope with the ratings, which is a really good sign that not only is the fan base growing, but the fan base is staying, you know? That the people who sample it stick around. So, you know, I knew we would come back to at least that. I had no doubt that we weren’t going to lose fans. I think FX did a great job of promoting it in really smart, creative ways. And I think the same thing has held true. I think a lot more people came out to sample it this season, just because of the buzz from last year. And the same thing happened, where I think the people that sampled it, you know, came back, which is why I think the ratings have stayed pretty strong. We saw very little dip and, in fact, I think episode six or seven, we ended up climbing again. So I think that’s really interesting. Our DVR numbers aren’t as high as other shows and for me it’s cool because I think it’s sort of become a viewing event for people. I mean, I think people make an effort to get in front of their TVs on Tuesday nights to watch the show, and there’s not a whole lot of that going on anymore. And to me, that’s really cool. And you know, I get hundreds of tweets and things on my Facebook and my blog, you know, people are just pretty committed to the show. You know what I’m saying? They are very committed fans and they continue to show up. So I just think it was a good…it was a perfect storm for us, really. To be honest with you, I think FX had a great marketing plan coming out of the gate. I think we had a strong buzz from the end of last season. And, you know, the fact that there wasn’t any competition on one of the big networks…you know, on NBC…I think it all ultimately worked in our favor, and then I think the show was good enough to sort of capitalize on that. We got to take a swing, and we hit a home run. So it’s all of that stuff.
BE: And, of course, now I’m getting my other interview calling on the other line. I do still have some more questions, though. Can I drop them to you by E-mail?
KS: Here, let me give you my office number…
(20 minutes later…)
BE: Hey, man, I really appreciate it.
KS: Not a problem.
BE: I didn’t know if it would help or hurt my credibility earlier, but I feel like I should tell you now: that other interview was with Weird Al Yankovic.
KS: (Laughs) Well, then, I’ll let you have that one.
BE: (Laughs) Thanks, I appreciate it. I meant to mention earlier, by the way, that I read your blog, so I obviously already know some of the stuff that I’m asking you about, but for those who don’t, I have to ask how was it working with Katey on the intense storyline with Gemma this year. Was it something that you had had in mind in the early stages of developing the series, before she even was cast?
KS: No, I mean, I came up with it…as I said, I kind of get a glimpse of the following season usually, like, halfway through the previous season, so I kind of knew by the end of season one where I wanted to go and what some of the big narrative arcs were going to be. So I knew I wanted to do that, and what I did was…and, truly, I would have done this with any actor with as big of an event as that…I gave Katey a heads up and said, “Look, this is what I want to do.” Just to, you know, allow her to start to get her head around it and ask questions and understand the point of it. You know, I try to do that with all of the actors if I know it’s going to demand something…you know, something that’s going to demand a certain amount of homework or research, I always try to give people a heads up. So that’s what I did with Katey, and I think she was up for the challenge. And as she had talked about in a couple of interviews, the actual filming of the event was pretty technical. And I think really it was episode two and some of the following episodes, where she was dealing with the emotional fallout from it all, which were much more difficult for her to do. It took her sort of awhile to emotionally shake some of that, because it was…you know, it’s a pretty dark place to go.
BE: Did the scenario change any from how you originally planned it after you had discussions with her about it?
KS: Not so much. And not to be cavalier about it, you know, I wasn’t going to Katey saying, “Hey, can we do this?” It was pretty much just saying, “Hey, we’re doing this, so if you want to do some work on it…” (Laughs) Look, I knew she would be up for the challenge. And you know, truthfully, I will say…and not just because she’s my wife…that I was blown away by the work that she did, and she brought layers and colors to it that I didn’t see, you know? So I’m really happy with the way that it went down. And you know, I think it was a little bit of a risk in terms of viewers, and the network was, you know, not squeamish about doing it, but they were rightfully concerned. I think understanding that…I believe it’s something that, either through manipulation or denial, ultimately it makes Gemma a stronger character, you know? Hold on a second, I’ve got to check my baby monitor. (Laughs) She’s waking up from her nap.
BE: (Laughs) I’ve got a four-year-old daughter, so I’ve been there. I’ve just got a couple more quick ones. I know you obviously can’t give me specifics on some of these, but…the storyline this year has pretty much dragged the club into a downward spiral, I guess you could say.
KS: Yeah, yeah.
BE: So the next logical step…I guess it’s either to rebound or to get even worse.
KS: You know, again, as I had said, I think this year is really about the club becoming its own worst enemy. And, look, I know of clubs where the infighting ultimately brought the charters to its knees and they went away. You know, obviously the show is about these guys, so they are not going to go away, nor is the club going to go away. Here is what I will say: I don’t know if it’s so much of a rebound as…you know, I think as in life, what happens is these events happen, and ultimately you survive and you move on. The wound may heal, but the scar is always there, you know? And it will continue, I think, to impact relationships. And it will continue to feed the characters. You know, the important thing for me to show was that none of this shit happens in a vacuum. And the great thing about having a serialized drama is that I’m allowed to bring up events and circumstances that have happened in the past in other episodes to show that this kind of violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It has ramifications. It has repercussions. Whether it’s a week from now or five years from now, you know it will play out. Nothing is ever tied up into a perfect knot, you know? You know, recently somebody was saying, “Well, you have all of these open story lines, and there is no conclusion.” I’m, like, “Well, yeah.”
BE: Welcome to real life.
KS: Yeah, exactly. It’s, like, shit happens, and more often than not there are not resolutions. It’s just out there, and it continues to inform the way people respond and react to life. So obviously the club is not going to go away, because then there would be no show. And it’s not so much of a rebound as much as it is, as in life, that it will go where it goes and it will continue to inform the story and form the world.
BE: I have to ask you about one of those storylines, though. Is Jax going to continue to allow Opie to align himself with the wrong side of the club? Or is Piney going to continue to let it go?
KS: You know, I think that will…that idea really happened quite organically. It was never planned to, like, have Opie suddenly go to the dark side. But, you know, the idea of him burying himself in the club, really to sort of escape what has happened to him…? Suddenly I realized that, by him doing that, he’s really essentially aligning himself with Clay. If he’s going to bury himself in the club and what the club does, the only way he can do that is by aligning himself with the leader. And it was just sort of an interesting and ironic fucked up coincidence that that guy is the guy responsible for his trauma in the first place. And, you know, I think, without giving away storylines, Opie is a smart guy and I think ultimately whether it’s…I don’t think Opie will land in anybody’s camp. Do you know what I mean? I think Opie will make a decision based on his own revelations and really make the best decision for him and his family. I think that’s the important thing, you know.
BE: Now, was Tig’s personality shift something that was planned all along ,or did it just kind of grow organically from Donna’s death?
KS: You know, I’ll be honest with you, it really…it was something that was informed to me by the actor. Because Kim is just such an interesting actor, and we were doing a scene…it was in the finale of last year, and it was the episode I directed. It was him talking to Clay about what happened, and Kim just took it to this great emotional place. And, actually, it was the first time we had ever scene Tig cry. And I thought, “Wow, that’s really interesting.” Like, here’s a guy who can compartmentalize everything else, but perhaps not this, you know? And it was really from the performance that I thought, “Well, what would happen if suddenly this fucked Tig up?” You know, not that it turned him into a pussy, but he has to have a certain sociopathic capability to essentially do his job. And wouldn’t it be interesting to fuck with that? And then by the same token, you know the guy who could potentially replace him would be the guy that’s growing closer to Clay, who is Opie. So it just sort of became, again, one of those interesting organic ironies. And again, I think it will take Tig to a place where he’s going to have to make some choices about who he is as well. And that kind of plays out in, I think, episode 10 or 11.
BE: One quick non-“Sons” question: what’s the status on “Delivering Gen”?
KS: (Laughs) I’m actually just shooting off emails. You know, we’re kind of set to go in January. We have all of our financing. Really now, it’s about attaching the right actors. I’m really the one with the very specific window. So my hope is in the next two or three weeks to attach the two main actors. And once that happens, we should be on track to start shooting in January. But, you know, the movies aren’t like TV. It takes a while for stuff to happen. So I remain positive that it will go, you know. I think the big obstacles, the big hurdles have been overcome. It’s really now just finding the right talent who is available to shoot in our window.
BE: And just to close, you touched on this earlier, but how far in advance do you have “Sons of Anarchy” mapped out in a general sense? I mean, do you have it going on for at least a couple more seasons in your head?
KS: I have season three in my head. (Laughs) And you know, I’ll probably meet with my writers at some point before I go off to do “Gen” and just sort of bring everybody up to speed so they can start thinking of story. So definitely a season three, and if it proves to be the way it’s been the last couple of years, you know, as we kind of work through season three, I’ll start to probably get glimpses of where we go from there. In terms of big arcs…? Yeah, I mean, not maybe season by season, but I have mentioned before that I would love the show to go, like, seven seasons. And that’s really based on what I know to be…you know, season seven is kind of the season where, beyond that, it just no longer becomes economically feasible to do the show. Because it just gets too expensive for a cable model. And you know, that’s what we had on “The Shield” and “Rescue Me,” and that sort of seems to be the FX magic number for seasons. So, I mean, I would love to get seven seasons out of the show, and have a sense of ultimately where I would like it to land. But those are really broad strokes.
BE: Excellent. Well, look, Kurt, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me a little bit longer.KS: Alright, brother. No problem. Thank you, and take care.