The creator of the gnarliest show on TV has a fear of dolls, but that's about all he's afraid of.
Kurt Sutter isn’t a people person, which is ironic considering the Sons of Anarchy creator manages a cast and crew of hundreds. His outlaw biker soap opera is the highest-rated show on the FX network and that’s turned the 48-year-old, who started out as a staff writer for The Shield in 2002, into one of Hollywood’s biggest showrunners. Season 5 premieres tonight and FX has already renewed Sons for two more seasons. The recluse life will have to wait.
I read you have a fear of dolls. Where did that come from?
It’s dolls with life-like features. Dolls have always creeped me out. In fact, when Katey and I first started dating, she had these weird dolls in the living room of her house. I’d always get up and turn them the other way whenever she left the room because I felt that they were watching us. They didn’t come to the new house with us. I get to live out some of those fears through some of my characters. I gave the character of Tig that same phobia.
What are you into that people wouldn’t expect?
Gaming, being a dad, birds as pets. I wanted a falcon but the state of Cali said no.
Which role do you prefer?
I’m a writer by nature, a storyteller. It took me a couple of years to figure that out because I did a lot of different things, but I’m a writer who enjoys doing other things.
What do you have in store for Otto the following seasons?
I felt last year that character played an integral role in the story line. It‘s really the most we had ever seen that character, other than popping up for exposition. I think I was actually in five episodes last season, which is quite frankly a little bit too much.
As a really big fan, I’m just hoping for Otto to somehow get something. I’m rooting for him.
He’s sort of my Picture of Dorian Gray. All of the bad things that are happening to me emotionally I get to physicalize with Otto. [Laughs.] It’s just a steady downward spiral. Besides the fact that I enjoy acting, and it was my first love, and I’m the only one who will hire me as an actor, it was an opportunity to do that. It really was just because these guys spend so much of their lives on the inside that it was an expositional device to get information and make those connections. That’s the role the character served in the first three seasons.
Then last season we had this arc with Rico that we were able to touch into a bigger emotional arc with Otto and play that out, which was fun. What we do this season with him will not be as integral in terms of story but we’ll be able to play out a little bit more of that Rico arc with him this season.
The big thing about Otto is his undying loyalty to the Sons. Is there anything in your life that you could be as loyal to as Otto is?
By nature I’m a pretty black and white guy, so I don’t have a lot of gray area with people. There’s very little in between with me, and I’m not saying that as a good thing.
There are a lot of things I feel that way about. I feel that way about my show. I feel very proprietary and protective of my show, and therefore of all my actors. I am really clear—as dramatic as this sounds—that I would fucking take a bullet for any of those guys. Of course, my family as well. So yeah, I understand the nature of that.
For me on a personal level, I grew up with two older sisters whom I adore, but growing up without older brothers I just always had this sort of desperate need for camaraderie. I think I’m drawn to that. I’m drawn to characters that need that, that connect to that, because I didn’t have that. So to me it’s a big issue, one that I obviously seek out creatively, and get to write to and play with, but also emotionally I have that desire and that need as well.
In doing research, you’ve hung out with gangs, right?
With both of the shows. On The Shield I met a lot of guys on both sides of the law. Then for Sons I did a lot of research and spent a lot of time with motorcycle clubs up in Northern California. I tried to stay in close contact with at least my circle of associates that I’ve met in the life, just to make sure that the vibe in the outlaw community is that people are still digging the show, and that we’ve never crossed the line where people feel like they’re being exploited. For the most part, I’ve maintained that and I’ve made some deep connections and some friendships.
Has anything crazy ever happened while hanging out with them?
No. The interesting thing—and we played with this on the show, in trying to blow out some of that stereotype—is that all these guys are just guys. They all have day jobs. I’m sure stuff goes on that’s a little bit more nefarious in nature, but obviously they’re not going to play that out in front of me. To be honest with you, most of the time I spend with these guys they’re either down here on set visiting us or it’s a social event. You know, we’ll ride, or I’ll go to a birthday party or something—so more often than not they’re very social occasions.
Look, there are club conflicts that happen in the street that I have to stay aware of. Without mentioning names, there were a couple of clubs that did extra work on our show and they were fine, and then all of a sudden there was a beef between these two clubs. I had to be very aware of that. What you don’t want to do is bring that street conflict onto the set.
Was that something that happened because of the show?
No, it was something else. More often than not these beefs happen someplace else, but then ultimately it becomes this sort of mandate. It’s odd for a lot of these guys because they’re all friends, they all ride, and suddenly these two guys who were buddies, or at least know each other, there’s a beef between their colors, and now there’s an expectation of making things right. So I just try to dodge the conflict and stay aware so I can protect my show and also so that I don’t fuel the conflict. I try to stay as neutral as I possibly can.
Are there any life lessons you’ve learned from hanging out with these guys?
I don’t know if it’s so much about from hanging out with these guys as much as it the process of doing the show itself. Coming into a situation that you’ve never done before and suddenly managing a show and managing hundreds of people and being responsible for the livelihood of a lot of people. Having to deal with networks and studios.
I came into this job with a very limited amount of people skills. I don’t really like people. That’s why I’m a writer. I lock myself in a room with the voices in my head and I’m fine. If I have to interact and suddenly deal with personalities and people’s needs and people’s feelings it’s a challenge for me. So I’ve learned how to do that because it’s part of the job and it’s what I have to do to continue to have the opportunity to do what I love. So you have to learn that skill, and I’ve managed to do it.
It’s been a hard road for me. I’ve had more than one hostile work environment claim slapped against me just because of my behavior. I’ve had to learn the hard way, but I feel like somewhere in the process in the last four to five years I’ve learned how to do that. I’m pretty certain that FX and 20th Century Fox wouldn’t have signed me up for three more years if they felt like I was somehow not capable of doing that.
Speaking of the upcoming seasons, do you have an end in mind for Sons or is it something you think of as you’re writing?
I definitely know how I want the show to end in terms of the broad strokes—schematically and emotionally where I want it to end. And I really have from the beginning.
It’s interesting coming into season five, because now I actually have to think of it in terms of knowing where you want to go. In seasons one, two, and three it's fine because you have plenty of time to get there. You don’t have to worry about the mechanics of story in terms of how you’re going to end up there, as long as the characters you need are still alive.
This is really the first season where I said. “OK, if I’m doing seven seasons and that’s where I’m ending it, now I need to lay the story out that’s going to take me there.” It’s the first season I’ve had to say, "What’s the end going to look like, in terms of story?” I can start running up to it only having two more seasons after season five. So I don’t know specifically what that ending is yet in terms of story, but I’ve had to spend a lot more time on it this year, knowing how I’m going to get there.
On to Gemma, played by your wife Katey Sagal. She’s at this point where she’s lost the men in her life. What kind of changes do you foresee for her?
I think it’s going to be a very interesting year—as vague as that sounds—but it’s really the only way to describe it. It’s really the first year where she’s not kind of locked into an idea and a goal and in the process of achieving it. Gemma is not a person that does well with not having a good grasp on what the day looks like, and she needs that control to feel safe.
So what happens when you take a character like that and you suddenly remove her reason for waking up that day? Or at least throw a lot of road blocks in the way. She definitely begins the season a little bit lost, and it’s a very tumultuous ride for Gemma this season. There are a lot of ups, there are a lot of downs, and she is trying to figure out who she is now in this new environment—not unlike what’s going on with Tara, but in a different way.
It’s like Tara’s suddenly in this new position and trying to figure out her way. They might be at odds this season, but interestingly enough they’re emotionally experiencing a lot of the same conflicts and dilemmas. It’s not a straight story line for Gemma. It’s not like “Gemma will be doing X this season.” It’s really about Gemma trying to navigate around this new position, and bouncing off of Jax, and trying to win Jax back, and have access to the kids, and navigating around Tara. Suddenly she doesn’t know where she fits in and that’s a really interesting place for a character like Gemma, who punches first and asks questions later.
It’s flip-flopped and it pushes a lot of old buttons for both of them. You see a lot of those original conflicts that the two of them had suddenly bubble to the surface; only they each have a different voice in it. So you’d swear you hear Tara say something that Gemma said to Tara in season one. And then you throw Wendy into the mix like we did this season and it gets wonderfully messy. [Laughs.]
What were the most difficult scenes to write for Katey, seeing her play out this Gemma character?
They’re not difficult because ultimately I know that the more complicated and dark they are, the deeper I take her, as fucked as they may be, Katey embraces that shit. As difficult as that scene in season two was where she’s getting raped, as difficult as the scene last season was with Clay beating her up, I know that emotionally she loves the challenge of all that stuff. Not to sound sadistic, but when I’m writing those scenes I get excited because I know what a great challenge it’s going to be for her.
Sometimes the most difficult Gemma scenes to write are the ones that are simple and pedestrian because she’s not a simple or pedestrian human being. The bigger scenes, the more emotionalized scenes for that character, are just easier to do.
In terms of the actual execution of those scenes and the production, what I usually do with Katey is, I’ll go and watch a rehearsal but then I won’t hang around. Me being there just is a layer of awareness for her. For the stuff we did in season two, I go for the rehearsal and make sure it’s being handled the right way. Then I split so the director and the actors can do what they do.
Are there any scenes that you’d like to redo or expand upon? Is there ever a scene where you think, “I never got what I wanted to get out of that”?
That’s always the case. You always leave stuff on the page. Ultimately it looks a little bit different when you’re looking at it in post. That’s a part of the collaborative process. As long as I feel the story’s being served, I like having the director's and actors' interpretation layering things. Sometimes things don’t work. They look good on the page and then ultimately they just don’t work. Sometimes we just have to lose stuff for time.
We do a “creator’s cut” on the DVDs. It’s like a director's cut for a movie, the bigger episode that I would like to see. Most of the time that’s not me thinking, “Oh, I would have done this differently” or “The network made me change this.” It’s really just about, “Oh, if I had an extra 10 minutes in the episode, this is what it would have looked like.” Quite honestly I just wish I had more time. That’s why we end up doing a lot of 90-minute episodes, because I have way too much story. I get a creator’s cut that’s 15 minutes, 20 minutes long, sometimes 30 minutes long, and sometimes it’s brutal trying to figure out what goes away. So it’s more about wishing I had more time than wishing I had the opportunity to do things over.
What are the moments you're proudest of getting on TV, things you were shocked that FX allowed you to do?
I have a very absurd sense of humor and my imagination is pretty dark, and sometimes I’m not aware of that. I’ll have stuff in scripts and I’ll want to do things and to me it’ll just be like “Oh, that’s great. That makes sense. Let's do it.”
That’s really why the network is great in terms of doing their job. 'Cause I can have people I trust, like a John Landgraf, say to me, “That’s really too fucked up.” [Laughs.] “We don’t need to see the blade cutting the testicles off the clown...” To me, it's just, well, everybody wants to see that. Because in my mind it’s like the more the better. And the truth is that’s not the case. I need somebody being the voice of reason sometimes. Not so much to shut it down, but just, “Hey, experience has proven that if you do this, people will stop watching.” [Laughs.]
Also, what I’ve learned, especially with the violence—and this is just a fascinating psychological study—it’s what you don’t see that has the greater impact. When we burned the tattoo off that guy’s back, if you talk to people they would swear they saw that whole tattoo being burned off his back. The reality was there were probably three or four frames where you actually saw the flame hitting a prosthetic piece of flesh. The rest of it is just the sound of that guy screaming and the faces of our guys watching it. That’s the potent way to tell the story. It’s not “how much gore and violence can we show?” That’s a lesson I’ve learned through this process.
I’m lucky in that if there’s something I feel is important to the story I will fight for it and usually get to do a variation of it, from putting an axe in the middle of a guy's forehead in the first season, to cutting the balls off a clown, to burning a tattoo off a back. I wanted that scene with Gemma and Clay to be brutal. If we were going to do it I really wanted to fucking do it. I didn’t know how they would land on that. I didn’t know how they would feel about one of their main characters crossing that line. They got behind it and they had a couple notes for what was shown, but they understood it.
I think that was really effective and powerful. It’s not like she just appeared with bruises afterwards. We were experiencing it with her.
Right, and to that same point, Jax bouncing Ima’s head off the table—we’ve never seen Jax do that to a woman, and that was a risk. Even though what she did was fucked up and who she is by the choices she’s made you can go “Oh, OK. She’s a porn star, and she lives in the underbelly.” That was domestic abuse, and I didn’t know where they were going to land on that. They trusted my creative choice and got behind it.
There are outside gangs that the Sons do business with—there was a black gang and a Latino gang but they’re clearly not the main characters and you don’t get the opportunity to go in depth with these other gangs. Are you ever concerned that they might appear stereotypical?
I think you always run the risk of that when you have characters that you don’t have the time or the page count to develop in a three-dimensional way. Obviously when you have secondary characters like that you write them and give them as much time as you possibly can, but you do run the risk of them becoming “Latino banger No. 1” and “Latino banger No. 2.” I think what we try to do is we usually have a main character or a main adversary that represents that world. We try to make that main character as three-dimensional as possible, and hope that sort of tells the story of that world or that culture in a way that will counter some of that.
Does that tie into your Outlaw Empires show?
What we’ve been able to do with Sons, there would be those that would argue that it’s not a good thing. But I would argue that it is a good thing. Obviously these guys are fictional, and we dramatize, and they’re bigger than life and it is an outlaw soap opera. I feel like because we try to keep it true to the world and try to keep the facts real and honor the subculture, we’ve been able to hang a human face on these guys. We've taken what may have been more of a stereotype or misinformation and humanized them a little bit. Not that you are supposed to love them and get behind them, but at least maybe you understand how they live and why they do the things they do.
That really was the idea behind Outlaw Empires: to give a face to these iconic outlaw dynasties that we have only seen through the eyes of historians and law enforcement, that have been minimized and stereotyped and that we don’t really understand. Just to break it open a little bit and go inside, and actually talk to members and get personal stories and try to use the context of their stories to then tell the larger story of the empire.
The first episode we did was on the Crips. We interviewed this fascinating guy who’s been a Crip since he was 11 years old, and still is a retired member. Hearing the story of his life you’re then able to draw the context of “when he experienced this, that’s when the gang was experiencing this” and “when he did this, that’s when L.A. was experiencing this.”
Through one man's story we’re really able to give context to the larger organization and in that case even Los Angeles to a certain extent. Yes, there are people who argue that this is Gangland with my commentary, but I feel like we’ve succeeded in doing what we do a little bit differently and a little bit more objectively and non-judgmentally, getting an inside look at these guys so they don’t feel like “gang banger No. 1” or “gang banger No. 2.”
Are there any subjects besides law enforcement and organized crime that you’d like to research and possibly write about?
Yeah, it's not like that was my milieu or my experience. The truth is I write damaged characters well, and because of that I’m drawn to more of the anti-hero than the hero. For me, it’s all about the character and not so much about the world. I would love to explore other characters in other worlds. I’m trying to develop a couple things now with FX and I would love to do some kind of cool historical drama and take it out of what has been primarily a contemporary urban setting for me. Go and look at worlds that are a little bit different, and I’m in the process of trying to look at damaged folk, but damaged folk with a different past.