by Jennie E. Park
Often dubbed the biker with an MFA—a tagline overstating the irony of a trained artist having some passion outside of his art that finds its way into it—Kurt Sutter began riding motorcycles in the same decade he completed his undergraduate degree in film. Starting his journey in dramatic expression as a stage actor, Sutter steered course, after completing his MFA, toward writing. Off-roading with a series of feature and one-hour scripts that were occasionally promising but often dead-ended, his creative locution finally found traction with a spec that landed him a staff position on FX’s The Shield. Gaining momentum with The Shield as a writer, story editor, and, during its final two seasons, an executive producer, his relationship with FX ramped up to his roles as creator, executive producer, writer, director, and actor of one of its most successful series, Sons of Anarchy. Sutter’s wife, Katey Sagal, rides boldly alongside as its critically acclaimed character Gemma. Sutter recently executive produced the six-part documentary series Outlaw Empires, and continues to develop feature projects.
Amidst strong speculation Sons of Anarchy will reach its final destination in its sixth and seventh seasons, I decided to take a ride up the canyon, out of the tributaries, twists, and turns of any given episode, and pause at a panoramic view of the biker epic, in hopes of catching a glimpse of the show’s now distant inception, how Sutter arrived as its creator, and his feelings about the show’s evolution.
JENNIE E. PARK: You’ve said you’re drawn to black and white worldviews, and archetypal values like family and loyalty. It seems complexity results from adhering to such absolute values, because wherever you’re pushed or pulled by life or your mind, you need to navigate back to them. How did you decide upon a motorcycle club to explore this?
KURT SUTTER: I don’t think I go into projects with that global sense of, “What themes do I want to explore,” quite honestly—I think I’m ultimately drawn to worlds that have complicated or damaged characters. Through the characters, that’s how you access, or let an audience access, those bigger, broad themes. I think as a writer, you’re kind of fucked if you think, “Here’s the theme I want to explore,” because then you’re working from the outside in, and that doesn’t work for me.
On this project, I met with Art and John Linson, who wanted to explore something in the world of motorcycle clubs in the TV world. Usually when I meet with producers, there’s a book, a story, a magazine article, something [to work with]. The blessing and the curse of that meeting was that they really had nothing other than the passion, and a sense that this was an untapped world in TV, in terms of creating a real glimpse into it. I then began my own research into motorcycle clubs—I’ve been riding bikes since my early twenties, and was always fascinated by the subculture. Through that process, I became fascinated with the arc of the outlaw motorcycle club within the U.S., and really had a sense of, and came up with, the original character of John Teller. The world sort of spun out from that. Then, suddenly, there were a lot of archetypes that spoke to that [world]—the sort of mother-son trilogy, dead father trilogy, and the Hamlet archetype kind of fell onto it in a very interesting way.
Once you’re inside the world, and have stories to tell, then I think you take a step back and go, “Okay, here are my characters, here’s my world, here are the circumstances, and here are the conflicts and obstacles for my characters—[now] thematically, what am I exploring in this world, in this show? And what part of the world do I want to have people plug into?” So that’s the next layer I get it to, ultimately, before I jump to pen to paper and write the actual script.
PARK: You’ve mentioned you write damaged characters well, and that you’ve done intensive research with motorcycle clubs. Did that research involve asking members about their relationships with their family members, particularly their fathers?
SUTTER: Not so much in depth, like, “Hey, how do you feel about your dad?” But I got to spend enough time with them to see the lifestyle, and that really was my hook into knowing that this was a potentially very interesting series. I think, up until this show—and not that it hasn’t been done, but in terms of a project seen by a great deal of people—there was a misconception of the biker community as being goofy, kind of cartoonish characters you see in bad TV shows, or thugs and killers.
The Sopranos tried to humanize and familiarize the Cosa Nostra people—that [mob] genre had been done in a very slick, cinematic way, like in The Godfather, but [through the show] the world became incredibly accessible because it suddenly was about people we could know, or live next door to, or grew up with. And I realized there was the same opportunity to do that with these guys. They all led very sort of simple lives; they weren’t really as ostentatious and overt with their success, if you will, as perhaps the mob—they lived off the radar. They all lived in this one area up in Northern California within, like, two or three blocks of each other, and it really was its own little community. They all had day jobs, they all had families, you know, they all had the same problems—financial and personal issues—that everyone else had, yet they were committed to this organization and lifestyle that most of us wouldn’t have the capacity, or really the desire, to commit to. And that’s when I thought, here’s an opportunity to show a slice of the world that really no one’s ever seen before.
PARK: When writing for women characters on the show, particularly Gemma and Tara, is your process different than writing for men, especially since women’s existence on the show stems from their relationships to men?
SUTTER: I never went into the show with the intention of writing very strong or balanced female characters, quite honestly. It’s very interesting, those female characters really jumped out from the beginning. I think—and I’m not quite sure what this says about me—I tend to write women characters very well; I was pretty much raised by women, so both their voices came very easily to me.
I did know that the relationship between women and members was much different than the relationship between, say, a mobster and his wife. Gemma is a completely different animal than Carmela Soprano, you know what I mean? They’re both strong in their own way, but the Cosa Nostra women live in selective ignorance—Carmela absolutely knows what Tony does, but there’s an ignorance in terms of, “My husband owns a club and he works in the garbage business.” You don’t talk about it. Women and family were separate from it. Whereas in the club world, they really engage their women—the women are essentially tools to them to a certain extent, and they’re very much enmeshed in the life. Not that they’re actual members, but a lot of these members’ old ladies carry their weapons if they have weapons charges, women are used to pass along messages—they’re very much entrenched in the subculture and engaged.
And yes, we take a lot of dramatic license with a character like Gemma; we really set her up as being around at the impetus of this club, so she’s earned a little bit of that juice as the matriarch. There really aren’t women like Gemma out there who are wielding that much weight and power, but there are women who are strong members of that community who do take that role of old lady very seriously and wear it proudly.
PARK: You’ve mentioned you enjoy writing alone with the voices in your head, but that you’ve had to learn to deal with many people in bringing the show to life. Was the learning curve in working with others steeper in one stage versus another, for example, development versus production?
SUTTER: Not so much in the development stage, because I’d been involved in development in terms of features and had gone through that process with executives, taking notes on scripts. It really didn’t hit me until the show got picked up to series. Even doing the pilot, there was a different rhythm, and a lot of choices to make and personalities to engage. But it wasn’t till the show went to series—that’s where you’re suddenly wearing a lot of different hats, making a lot of different decisions, and engaging a lot of different personalities. You really have to have people skills, learn to pick and choose your battles, and learn to empower people. Not that I had no skills, but there was definitely a learning curve for me. It probably took me at least two and a half seasons before I got it down. I think by the time Season 3 finished, I felt pretty good, and I think everyone else felt pretty good, about the show, so we kind of knew we were going to be around for a minute. But it definitely took a minute.
PARK: You’ve mentioned you basically knew at the outset how you wanted the show to play out, but you’ve also said you’re influenced by fan reactions and executives’ notes. Going into what’s likely the final two seasons of the show, how do you feel about the surprises, or changes to your initial vision?
SUTTER: All the surprises, quite honestly, are good ones. What I’ve learned is that the more I do this, the looser my grip is, going into each season. I go into every season with sort of a blueprint of what I want to have happen, what the big mile markers are, and kind of where we want to end up. Each season, my grip is a little bit looser on that, and I think the show has benefitted as a result. I let things happen maybe a little bit more organically, a little bit more off plan. I hadn’t anticipated the character of Opie going quite when he did and the way he did. Ryan [Hurst] put in a great performance in the last couple seasons, really creating this sort of broken, empathic, and very sad character—at the end of it, I just couldn’t go any further with that character. I didn’t know how he was going to sit at the table with any of those guys again and really be part of it, without it just feeling like bullshit. So that was an arc that I hadn’t anticipated as going out quite that fast. When Piney died in Season 4, that arc I knew I was going to do—I knew at some point there would be a moment between Piney and Clay that would end badly, and there would be history played out in that.
A lot of the surprises, the twists and the turns, come out of the magic of collaboration: stuff that my writers bring to it, stuff that actors bring to it, stuff that directors bring to it, and allowing the show to find its own groove. In terms of where I’m at now and where it’s going, I still think I’ll be able to end the way I want. Again, my vision for the end is pretty broad, and a little bit thematic, so it’s not like I have one particular storyline that I’m clinging to that I need to carry out. I have characters that I know I want involved in the end, so I write to that, and keep their lives and their relationships with Jax alive.
The surprises have been a lot of fun, quite honestly. Each season ends and I go, “Oh, okay, that’s how we’re going to get there,” rather than, “We’re not going to get there.” I think we’re all heading in the same direction, but in terms of how we’re getting there, it looks different than I thought it would.
PARK: You’ve mentioned you wrote a lot of spec scripts before you finally came out with the show—as far as that process and the time it took, any words of wisdom?
SUTTER: The best advice I ever got as a writer was from a guy who’d had some success as a screenwriter when I was trying to figure it out. And it was: If you want to be a writer, you write every day. At the time, it kind of sounded like a brush off and oversimplified, but as I got into it, I understood what he meant. The truth is—and I don’t mean this to sound brash or disrespectful—there are a lot of people on the right and left coasts who claim to be writers or screenwriters, and they’ve written one screenplay, and it’s sitting in the back of the car. They spend more time trying to get people to read their script, get a job, and make money, than they do writing, you know what I mean? And I think that’s a mistake. It’s not about selling the script; it’s about writing. So, if you’re a writer, you write every day. And if you do that—if you put in at least four solid hours of writing a day towards what it is you claim to be and aspire to do—you create a body of work. Yes, you can’t just lock yourself in a room and write scripts and think someone is going to knock on your door and buy them; there’s definitely a business component. But I think the mistake people make is that they generate one project, and then spend all their time and energy trying to sell it, rather than move on to the next project and write.
For me, the deal was, I’d written a feature script, gotten some notes, and took it through five or six different drafts; people liked that script enough, and it got me some meetings and representation. That script was great for me, because it made me realize this is something I should be doing. But then the next three or four features I wrote didn’t go out or do well, and nobody bought them or paid attention to them. But I knew that this was what I wanted to do, and I that had to keep writing. So I did, for two to three years: I just wrote spec after spec after spec.
And I got into doing one-hour dramas. I’d always been fascinated with TV—I grew up watching, you know, living in front of, a TV. And the format for that just came incredibly easy for me—I could really generate those drafts in a couple weeks. I had a sense that this is probably what I should be doing, or that I should at least be throwing some energy that way, so that’s what I did. I wrote a couple TV specs and didn’t get staffed, went back and did it for another cast and another season, then finally wrote a spec that got me my first staff position, which was on The Shield. So, you know, it was two and a half or three years of just generating story and churning out pages. And I think that’s what separates writers from people who want to sell scripts.
That’s really the advice I’d give, and I don’t do it to sound flip or obvious, but that is the truth: writers write, and if that’s what you want to be, you should be writing at least four to six hours every day, churning out pages—they can be crap, it doesn’t matter. That’s what you should be doing.
PARK: Were you getting consistent feedback, and did you have a mentor, or were you pretty much on your own?
SUTTER: I was never a guy who could, like, join a group—I don’t really like people, so I was never really the guy who could sit with other writers and get feedback. But I did have a mentor—a good friend of mine was my agent for a really long time, and she had just started at ICM. She wasn’t really even doing features or TV, she was just acquiring books. But she was really good with story, and I would send her scripts and pages, and she’d say, “This is crap, I can’t go out with this,” or, “This is good, what about this,” so she really gave me feedback. She was the one who really guided me towards, and told me to take a crack at, one hours. She read my first one-hour spec and said, “Okay, this is really what you should be doing.” When stuff was done, we’d put an anonymous name on it and put it in for coverage, just to see what kind of feedback it would get, and that was another way I was getting feedback.
I know a lot of people get a lot out of working with groups and writing clubs, and bouncing stuff off of other people, but everything I did ultimately went through that one person. And it wasn’t even so much like, “Hey, you’re my agent, should I sell this?” It was really about, “Hey, is this any good?” Or, “Hey, is there a story here? It’s an interesting character, it’s an interesting world, but is there something here I should explore?”
A lot of times, I’d get to page ninety and realize there wasn’t a script. But I always had that character, I always had those stories, and that’s the great thing about creating a body of work. I look at an artist like [Bruce] Springsteen who is just such a prolific writer, who’s constantly cannibalizing pieces of songs for other songs, you know what I mean? I do that all the time with scripts that didn’t go or didn’t work: “The lead character, that’s a great character, he would work great in this world.” As an artist, if you create that body of work, none of it ever is for naught or just wasted. You’ve had the experience of telling their stories and hearing those voices in your head, and whether you know it or not, they will continue to influence the rest of your writing, and you’ll be able to use pieces of those characters, or pieces of those voices, or cool hooks or ideas or plot twists, and find life for them someplace else.
PARK: FX seems to target males of a certain age range, so it’s interesting how broad your demographic has become.
SUTTER: If any demographic grows from season to season, interestingly, it’s usually women. Most of my Twitter followers are women; we have a big female demographic that watches this show. I love the diversity of our demographic—I love that I have 75-year-old grandmothers telling me they can’t wait for more naked-ass Jax scenes. I’m a little disturbed when I have eleven year-olds telling me they love the show. But no, I think the fact that we appeal to a broad demographic means we’re doing something right.