Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Sons of Anarchy: Kurt Sutter Q&A

After the jump, "Sons of Anarchy" creator Kurt Sutter talks about his original plan for Opie, explains the real reason for hiring Kim Coates to play Tig, explains how his wife/leading lady Katey Sagal inspired the direction of the show, suggests where the Dutch cat-strangling story on "The Shield" might have gone if he had been in charge, and a whole lot more (click here for my review of the season finale)...

Every new show has a learning curve in its first season. What were the things you learned making this show?

I've been abreast of your original review of the show and how some of that has changed as you've been blogging. I've learned a lot from the blogosphere on this show. It's allowed me to take a step back on the process, and I've had these conversations with John Landgraf. I think what happened initially on the show -- and I will defend the pilot, I think it's a solid pilot -- but part of the deal with the curve in terms of people coming on board the show is that it was a really different world, and it was a lot of information, and I think it took people a couple of episodes to understand that and plug into it.

We did a version of this pilot originally with Scott Glen that did not work. When we reconfigured the character of Clay and what that needed to be, the network and studio dumped another 2 million into the show, and you have this time to go, 'What else can we fix?' It was the first time for me creating the show, and I was as guilty as everyone, and you begin to overanalyze, and overnote and overwrite. If the pilot is uneven in areas, it's because, quite frankly, we probably spent a little too much time trying to fix it.

And not to lay blame -- because I love working with Landgraf and FX, they're very smart people and compared to a network show, they're a dream -- but we were on such an accelerated schedule for this show when they decided they were going to premiere it with "The Shield" instead of after it. By the second episode, there wasn't time to overanalyze, I just had to trust my storytelling instincts, and there wasn't time for me or anyone else to overanalyze it. That's really when the show hit a groove. Like anything else, there's always bumps out of the gate, even if it's in terms of talent trying to wrap their brain around a character.

We had all those glitches in those first two or three episodes. We had a director come in for episode three, Paris Barclay, and I think he was the first guy who, we had figured out how to do it by then, and Paris is such a great storyteller, and it was from that episode on that we really fell into a groove. And we all just started trusting what we were doing here, and let the stories take the show to where it was going to make it or not make it, but at least it was my vision, and I was sort of putting it out there. I've been very happy with the progression of it.

Well, were there certain things that you realized were working and things that weren't working as well as you had hoped?

It wasn't so much what was working and what wasn't working. It was some of my frustration sometimes when we were getting a lot of comparisons to "The Sopranos" out of the gate, due to the outlaw nature of the show. You know as well as I do that comparing an ad-driven show to pay TV is apples and oranges. I have to answer to a studio and a network, I have to answer to advertisers. There's a lot of restrictions about what I can and can't do. I only have 41 minutes to tell these stories, 3 minutes less than we had on "The Shield." As the shows got more expensive, we needed to sell more airtime.

What we realized is that, initially, some of the episodes were probably too ambitious in terms of how much story we were trying to tell. We just got really simple. My scripts now, Jesus, they're like 38 pages long, 39 pages long. These are really tight scripts. We'll have a really big A-story, and we may not even have a B-story, may just have a series of small beats about the supporting characters. Where on "The Shield," you could tell a big Dutch/Claudette story with a big Vic and the strike team story. We tried to do that initially (here) and realized we couldn't service it with the screen time we had. It's not that it got dumbed down, but it got simpler in terms of how we told the story. We tried not to get too ambitious.

The first episode that I think really hooked me was the one with Brian Van Holt as the guy who got kicked out of SAMCRO, and we find out just how important that tattoo is and get a sense of how their world really works.

That's a lesson I really learned on "The Shield." The first season or two of the show, it's not like we spelled everything out in terms of the areas we were going to explore, "This is how the strike team works." You try to do it organically and have it happen through stories, so you're never handing out exposition. It takes a few episodes, or sometimes a whole season, for people to really have all the pieces fall into place, and they can start to connect the dots a little bit. I think that was one of those episodes where you went, "Oh, that's how this world works."

How much of the season was plotted out from the start, and how much of it came together as you were going along?

I had a pretty good idea of what this season was going to be, only because I had so much time to think during the writers strike. I knew what I was going to do with the whole Kohn arc and Jax's deeper involvement into the club. My original plan was to kill Opie. I had a one-year deal with Ryan Hurst, we were leading down that path. The network was very squeamish about that, and rightfully so. Once Lem was killed on "The Shield," it became a different show. Not better or worse, but different. And Ryan has that great vulnerability, and he was becoming a very sympathetic character that people were plugging into. The fear was if we offed that guy from the jump, it would be hard to recover from. Plus, I love the actor. There's a lot more I can do with that character from here on.

The plan was never to kill Donna, but I knew I wanted to end this season on an exclamation point and not a question mark. We land with Jax having a definite point of view about what he feels he needs to do. To have that happen, you need to have that tragedy, which initially was going to be Opie, but we served that purpose, maybe in a more dynamic and visceral way, by killing such an innocent character.

So I take it then that Ryan Hurst is going to be around for a while?

We just signed a series regular deal with Ryan.

Were there any other characters or stories that changed significantly from your original plans?

We had reconfigured a character in the original pilot, Emilio Rivera, who plays Alvarez, the leader of the Mayans, was a character who was a club member. We reconfigured that character because we felt it was a little too confusing to have a cholo member in the club. So we reconfigured that character into Tig, and we were going out to actors, and we were starting to film the new pilot and had not cast that actor yet.

Kim Coates had come in and read, probably for two other characters on the show, we loved the actor but it never worked with any of the other characters. I met with Kim, and he wasn't initially my first choice in terms of who Tig was, but he's such a great actor, and quite frankly, he could ride a Harley. That was half the reason he got the gig. We were filming the next day! Kim was such a great actor, and I had a couple of those things early on that I had envisioned for that character that he just brought to another place. Everytime that guy comes on screen, he's just money. I used him in 12 of the 13 episodes, and he was only hired for 4.

Speaking of being able to ride a Harley, has Ron Perlman got any more comfortable with it?

God bless Ron. He was so gung ho, he took all these lessons and came in, then had a couple of near death experiences and got a little spooked. He's off doing some knights of the round table movie now, but has assured me that he's going to come back Harley-bound for season two. Once that happens, it's really hard to recover from that. We didn't push him on that.

Can you talk a little about the dichotomy in Jax as the guy who'd like to take the club in a more peaceful direction but also this guy capable of incredible violence?

One of the things I had to convince the network on was they'd never had a leading man this young. Most of their leading men are in their 40s, and the characters are very well-established in their worlds. For me, Jax had to be a man but hasn't decided what kind of man he is. He's more a Christopher or Shane than he is a Tony or a Vic. It's all about "What kind of man am I going to become?" That's an interesting struggle. So you have a guy who is conflicted by his own genetics. I think he's a guy who has been raised in this environment and is comfortable and understands the need for that violence and has a quick temper, and yet is probably like his dad -- as Gemma says in the finale, he thinks too deeply. He needs to know the reasons why. To me, that's the guy who hears a lot of noise in his head.

How I wanted to land at the end of the season, it's not about him ever thinking, "I'm going to get out of the club," because that's all he knows. It's "I do stay, and the only way I am going to stay and the only way I can change things is from the inside out." Next season will really be about him, it's not like there'll be a big coup afoot. It's a somewhat democratic society, and (we'll see) what happens when you have people breaking off into alliances -- what happens to that structure and that lifestyle when you have a two-party system.

Given how entrenched Clay and Tig are, it seems like the only way Jax can create a more peaceful club is through violence.

It's the age-old archetype of you have to become the devil to destroy the devil. It's not about him suddenly -- they won't be selling cupcakes and going on love rides. But I do think he feels like there are some things he can change. There are no new ideas in this show, let's get real, but it's Pacino in "Godfather III" -- "Everytime I think I'm out, they pull me back in!" You know, it's, "We're going to be outlaws, but what's a smarter, less violent, potentially less dangerous way to still have this brotherhood, and what we have here, without necessarily destroying ourselves? Clearly, if we stay on Clay's path, we are going to be in trouble."

What are the challenges of writing for a main character who isn't fully-formed like a Vic Mackey?

It requires a lot more thought on my part. I have to be careful that there's consistency in that fluctuation, and it's coming from an organic place. Me personally, I'm a guy who it took a long time to figure out what I'm supposed to be doing. I relate to a lot of that finding oneself a little later in the game, or being thrown a curve later in the game. I think throwing in a lot of complications in terms of love interests, the deep bond Jax has with his mom, I like that all that stuff still influences his decisions. S--t like that never influenced what Vic was doing. No matter how tormented Corrine was or how much she was being hurt, Vic still did what he did. Jax is still impacted by the people in his life.

I think, if we're blessed enough to have a long run, my hope is by the end of that run, Jax will become who he is supposed to become.

To me, it's more fertile ground, it's more interesting. People had initially a hard time wrapping their brain around Jax because he wasn't black and white. But I think ultimately, that struggle is who he is. And I think people, as the episodes have revealed themselves, and definitely after the death of Kohn, people realized, "That's what's going on this guy's head."

Yes, I definitely was informed by the Hamlet archetype in this show, but the trap in Hamlet is he's the most passive of Shakespeare's characters. He's not a Richard III, not out there taking a lot of action. It's a lot of asides and soliloquies where he's wrapped in angst, and that's not a very interesting character. The trick is keeping Jax a really proactive character in the midst of him making that decision. Week after week, I throw him into circumstances where he's forced to make a decision. Sometimes, it's just the day-to-day of the club and it doesn't necessarily inform the mythology, but the trick is always making sure that he's put into active circumstance.

Your mention of Jax shooting Kohn made me think about Jax and Tara having sex a few feet away from the corpse. When I was talking with Shawn Ryan about some of the more messed-up things on "The Shield," he said, "I could blame Kurt Sutter for that stuff."

I will defend every one my twisted, f---ed-up pitches. I will prove to you why they work psychologically and organically, from David (Aceveda) having to blow a guy to Jax and Tara having sex. That was one of those things, I saw that scene when I was writing the pilot, and I knew the first time they were going to have sex was four feet from a dead body. And, yes, one of the things I lead my writers with is, "What's the obvious and linear narrative choice in any circumstance?" And then, "Let's never do that."

It doesn't mean, "Let's do something absurd that has no roots in the nature of the show," but to me, that (traditional) storytelling, people can go someplace else to watch. As a storyteller, I love to use my imagination, and that's what I hire writers to do. All that stuff is, from the burning off of the tattoo -- I'm not going to say that somebody told me one of those stories, but I can tell you it's a very real thing. For me, the psychological and emotional catharsis that happened when Kohn was killed, maybe it went too far, but to me, I bet you I can get you at least one or two psychologists that can back it up.

Well, on "The Shield," Shawn always got the final say about what stayed in the scripts and what was too extreme. What's it like to be the guy who now gets to make that choice?

I have writers and I trust a lot of my writers, and the network is very conscious of that, and they will always question what's too much and what's too violent, and I hear that. I do feel like, and I don't know that I would call it a signature of the show, but it's the kind of storytelling I love. I love doing stuff that's real but unexpected. Because of the nature of this world, a lot of times that does mean violence. If I was doing a hospital show, it probably would be something completely different. It's a storytelling device that I like and, what I do, I do well.

But trust me, there were other things that didn't make it into episodes, because I trusted somebody telling me , "That didn't work," or "That's too much," or "That's gratuitous.'"

One thing that got vetoed, the character I play of Big Otto had a f---ed-up eye, there was a scene where Stahl offered to give him plastic surgery, and the scene where Otto smashes her face into the table was originally me grabbing a pen and stabbing her in the eye. To me, that felt organic, and the network felt it was one step too far. But I listen to them. It became about the story point, which was him sending a message to the MC that he was not ratting.

Until Kohn got killed, it was really interesting to see Jay Karnes on back-to-back nights every week playing these two completely different characters.

Jay's great. I had him in mind for that role. My pitch for Dutch, and in fact we did something in a gag reel at some point, my pitch for him in season three was that we find out he's a serial killer and has a basement full of bodies.

I know Jay has that level of intensity, and I've had him in mind for that obsessive yet likable -- the trick to Kohn was, on the outside, he's a nice guy, he's at the family picnic, he's ingratiating himself into the town, and yet underneath is the obsessive, dangerous.

Any plans to bring in anyone else from "The Shield"?

I love all those guys. Kenny Johnson constantly sends me e-mails, "Hey, uh, I'm not back on my show until the end of April..." And if there's a role that makes sense, I would love to bring in those guys. But right now, a lot of them are working and I don't have anything specific in mind.

You wouldn't expect a show set in such a macho world to have so many strong female characters. How did that come about?

I went into this project knowing that I wanted to do something with Katey and knowing it was a great world for her. I wrote that character for her, but she helped inspire that idea that took me to the Hamlet archetype. Having a really strong maternal figure in this world, not unlike the Livia Soprano character, who's sort of in the background, maybe not pulling the strings, but at least psychologically responsible for the strings being pulled. Initially, the character of Gemma was much more in the background, and it was the network reading a draft who wanted her pulled out front more. It's probably one of my favorite characters to write, and as a result of that, because of her relationships, it really helped pull Tara's character into an interesting direction, and the Wendy character. You have this great maternal powerhouse who then becomes the light to the moths that surround it.

It wasn't my plan from the jump to write a testosterone-driven show that had a lot of strong female voices, but it was much to do with what a great job Katey was doing. Someone mentioned it to me at one of the panels, and I realized, "I guess that's true." That's great. Some of it speaks to the world, as was discussed somewhat in the exposition in the episode "Better Half" -- unlike the mob, these women become tools for a lot of these guys. One of the guys that I know up in Oakland has felony gun charges and his girlfriend carries his piece. They're more plugged into the lifestyle, and they are aware of pretty much everything that goes on.

I've gotten some reader feedback from people who claim to be in motorcycle clubs, and the one complaint they keep bringing up is about Jax wearing sneakers when he rides instead of boots.

The new subculture, Charlie (Hunnam) and I both did a lot of research hanging out with these guys in Oakland, there's a new wave of bikers, the prospects are influenced by the hip-hop culture. Guys that really want to be bikers are the guys that feel like they need to wear the uniform. Most of the guys I know, 40-odd-year full-patch members, these guys are on motorcycles all the time, they ride for comfort, that's why their bikes aren't all tricked out, they wear sneakers because they're comfortable, they don't have anything to prove. Especially if you have a death's head on your back, nobody's going to say "Why are you wearing sneakers?" But it's definitely influenced by these kids who are influenced by the hip hop culture, and one of the guys Charlie modeled his character after, who has since been gunned down and killed, was a guy who wore these clean white sneakers.

It's like "The Shield." Up until the last episode, from the first episode people write in, 'Why are their badges on the wrong side?" But I love that you're getting complaints about things like the sneakers.

What kind of feedback are you getting from real club members?

I've gotten my share of death threats. Some people are not happy, but I'm actually surprised at all the really good feedback. The outlaw culture by nature is about not being put into a box. The fact that we're making a little TV show about that world flies in the face of that. I wasn't expecting to be embraced, but for the most part, people get it, that it's a TV show, that we're at least trying to make it as organic and real as we possibly can, within the framework of having a compelling narrative week after week. They appreciate the fact that somebody is attempting to tell dynamic stories, and attempting to at least show it as it really is. I would say that the majority of the feedback has been positive.

But you don't usually expect death threats as a showrunner, do you?

Death threats, not as good. For the most part, it's people upset that we're doing it at all, we're having Hollywood actors, and none of these things would happen, and you'd never have a character like Gemma. People don't understand that we're creating entertainment as well, the ones who think we're making a documentary.

I've really enjoyed those modern covers you've done of all those '60s folk and rock songs. Where did the idea for those come from?

When we were doing the origins of all of this and coming up with the tone of the show, I just knew culturally, that music was going to be really important, that northern California sound. I knew I didn't want to just do traditional needle drops like we did on "The Shield." I hired a guy named Bob Field Jr., who's our music supervisor, and Bob is a great musician. He produced a couple of Katie's albums and a lot of local bands, and I knew he'd be able to do some scoring for us. I know how expensive it is to get masters, so I knew he'd be able to do some covers for us, and he just ran with it. I'd be able to say to Bob, "Hey, what about an acoustic version of 'Fortunate Son?'" and then four days later, I'd get an MP3 of a couple of people doing it. He's very plugged into the independent music circuit here, and found people like Audra Mae who did the Dylan cover in episode 12. For me, it's become thematically important to the show.

How did Katey wind up doing that "Son of a Preacher Man" cover? And do you have to fight the temptation to ask her to record half of these?

Obviously, I'm a big fan of my wife. I love some of the stuff that she does, it's pretty soulful. I was thinking originally of using the Aretha Franklin cover of that song and couldn't afford the master. It was 60 thousand dollars, something like that. And I had the idea, I knew Katey had a couple of these blues singers who sang on her album, and I knew I could get her cheap. And then she just knocked it out of the park. She loved the song.

You're going to be called the heir to "The Shield" now.

I think it's a different kind of show. There were two set of shoes laid before my feet. One was, obviously, "The Sopranos" because of the world. And the other was "The Shield." They're two fairly big sets of shoes. But I'm proud of the show and of this first season. And hopefully we continue.

Alan Sepinwall can be reached at


Dan said...

as much as I want to see the cast of The Shield in other stuff, Kenny Johnson is the one I would love to see on SoA.

Fantastic season one. Just some great tv.

Anonymous said...

Alan -- Can you clear up this quote for me?

It was some of my frustration sometimes when we were getting a lot of comparisons to "The Sopranos" out of the gate, due to the outlaw nature of the show. You know as well as I do that comparing an ad-driven show to pay TV is apples and oranges. I have to answer to a studio and a network, I have to answer to advertisers. There's a lot of restrictions about what I can and can't do. I only have 41 minutes to tell these stories, 3 minutes less than we had on "The Shield." As the shows got more expensive, we needed to sell more airtime.

Was he saying it was a bad thing to be compared to The Sopranos? An unfair thing? I would think most would take it as a compliment.

Anonymous said...

Ah, he was Otto!

Alan Sepinwall said...

Was he saying it was a bad thing to be compared to The Sopranos? An unfair thing? I would think most would take it as a compliment.

I think he was saying it was unfair -- too high a standard for a new show with a first-time showrunner to live up to right away.

UnwantedTouching said...

Interesting how Kurt seems to use the word "organic" often in describing his creative process. In thinking about how Sons compares to The Shield, I'd say the latter there was always such a laserlike focus on the "how Vic gets out from under this week" in every episode, yet there was always such a strong tie to an overarching, compelling storyline over the course of each season that the innate ridiculousness of Vic doing something that he had to avoid getting caught for each week was easily forgivable. Sons doesn't have that same constant need to get into and out of scrapes, which definitely seems much more conventional and organic to me (though I don't think that's how Kurt meant it when using the term to describe the show).

Thanks for the notes on the show's strong casting. Ally Walker has been really fantastic in her role, as well as Jay Karnes - and in general, everyone is pretty believable in this world Kurt's created.

And for the love of God, please bring Kenny Johnson on - it's bad enough that we've not gotten our Lem fix for the last few seasons of the Shield...besides, I seem to recall a Shield ep or two where he had seemed pretty comfortable on the back of a chopper...

Anonymous said...

Theres no better network right now than FX

Anonymous said...

I'm curious about how things develop among the distaff side of the Sons next season. They got rid of Taryn Manning (small loss, though I felt for Half-Sack) and Sprague Grayden (bigger loss, since both Opie/Donna as characters and Grayden/Hurst as actors were really compelling) and I'm not sure where Ally Walker and Drea deMatteo stand. The scene in the finale with Jax's three women in one room was a nice one ("How's he doing?"), but I've never been clear on where that storyline could go.

I'd also like to know what Sutter plans for Jax's dad. I often find the voiceovers discordant, just because this I can't quite see the line that leads from the thoughtful Emma Goldman spouting (Native) American history inflected anarchist to all the rest of these guys. At the same time, I really like the notion of a true anarchist founding the Sons of Anarchy, and I think the history of the club, founded as a lifestyle by Vietnam vets in the sunny southwest, makes the show distinct from gangster shows focused on immigrant communities (Sopranos, Brotherhood). It's a criminal enterprise emerging from an intentional community rather than a family tradition.

Unknown said...

Gotta tell ya, my biggest complaint is that SOA is purely imagination overkill. (Gun running for the IRA...mmmm no. White supremacists, militia, drug dealers, I'll buy that.) This stuff would never even be discussed in mixed company or w/ someones old lady present in an east coast outlaw MC. Nope, never.

And sneakers? Yeah....not gonna happen, not here not by a prospect and CERTAINLY not by a 40 something or an old timer for "comfort". We wear full leather almost year round and boots even in the summer, cause those sneakers will take your foot right off if you go down.

But alas, that's entertainment. I remember all the 'gangsters' were up in arms about The Sopranos initially as well.

I really disliked this show right up until episode 11. It's highly over dramatic and almost stylized.Think "Life On Mars" but not as cheesy.

We'll see what the pressure of the sophomore slump brings.

Karl Ruben said...

Great interview, great show. With the season-best performances he got out of his actors, I hope the directorial debut was not the first and last such outing for Sutter.

Off-topic: For all the Kenny Johnson fans, I can't recommend Saving Grave enough. The second season had a pretty amazing uptick in quality, after they seemed to find their comfort zone with the supernatural elements. From a show mainly about the title character's redemption and moral qualms, it has evolved into one of the better workplace dramas I've seen in a while. Johnson is a big part of the show's appeal, his acting - especially in the last half of this season - was pretty darn spectacular.

Anonymous said...

The music is incredible on the show. It's been pretty deep and seems to go along exactly where Jax's head's at. I've been trying to find a copy of the covers of "Fortunate Son" and "John the Revelator" everywhere on-line, but they're nowhere to be found. Is there a soundtrack coming out? I'm starting to wear out my TiVo everytime I wanna hear these songs.

Lost Mythos said...

SOA is the best new show on TV. I loveit and this Q $ A was fantastic. Thanks Alan. More shows like SOA, less BS Greys stuff... thanks...

Anonymous said...

The Fortunate Son cover is by Donovan Frankenreiter and you can download it on LimeWire, etc.

me said...

One comparison I haven't heard yet, but is so obvious to me, is "The Wire".

Specifically Season 3.

The Clay/Jax difference in POV is not unlike Avon/Stringer, when considering the future of their respective business ventures.

Clay and Avon rely on violence, while Jax and Stringer look for legitimate and nonviolent opportunities for economic expansion.


Anonymous said...

Please, can you tell me what make of halmets does S.O.A. use, i would love to get one. thanks