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KURT SUTTER The Leader of the Pack

BY MARJORIE LEWIS, PHOTOGRAPHY STARLA FORTUNATO, GROOMING JANICE BREMEC FOR SOLO ARTISTS/KIEHLS

At first glance Kurt Sutter looks a lot like the characters he’s created on the FX hit series, “Sons of Anarchy.” He’s got the hair, the tribal tattoos and the attitude, and you just know there’s a Harley parked outside with his name on it. At second glance you see that Sutter is too clean and too polished to be a member of a real-life outlaw motorcycle gang; however, he could certainly play one on TV, which, in fact, he does. In addition to writing (all) and directing (some) episodes of “Sons of Anarchy,” Sutter (technically, the “show runner,” the Executive Producer in charge of the entire production), also plays “Big Otto” an incarcerated member of SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Originals). In previous seasons Big Otto has been beaten up by White Supremacists who stick a broomstick in his eye, has brutally slammed the face of a female ATF agent into a tabletop, and has revenged his attack by stabbing a prison enemy in the neck. As an actor, Sutter holds his own with his incredibly talented cast, but it’s as a writer that Kurt Sutter roars ahead. No question — he’s the leader of the pack.

Born in New Jersey, Sutter spent years commuting between NY and LA working in theater, as an actor and a director, and teaching the Meisner technique until 1995 when he was awarded an MFA fellowship at Northern Illinois University. Inspired by Genet, Strindberg, and other dramaturges, Sutter began to write for stage and screen. His debut feature film script, “Delivering Gen,” garnered critical attention and caught the eye of a literary agent who signed him as a client. Sutter landed his first television gig as a staff writer on the FX series, “The Shield,” in 2001. In the seven seasons that followed, Sutter, who also played a hit man named Margos Dezerian in the series, rose to the position of Executive Producer. When “The Shield” finished its run, “Sons of Anarchy” was born. By creating his own series, Sutter was able to create the plum role of motorcycle matriarch, Gemma Teller Morrow for his wife, actress Katey Sagal and delve deeply into a subculture that had long fascinated him. Sutter’s rise through the ranks of television has been nothing short of meteoric and in addition to his show-running duties on “SOA,” he writes a blog (www.sutterink. blogspot.com) where he frequently keeps the fans of his show up to date on its progress and occasionally rants and raves about the things that piss him off.

Venice:

You have one of the busiest jobs in television. How do you even have time to blog?

Kurt Sutter:

I don’t blog a lot. As the season gets more intense my blogs get fewer and fewer because I don’t have the time. I try to limit it to things I have a very strong point of view about and I feel like I have to say something, and at this stage of the game it’s just trying to catch the fans of the show up to what we are doing this season. It’s a pretty powerful marketing tool and it allows me to keep in touch with the fan base.

The audience for your show has more than doubled from season one to season two, and judging from the huge fan base you have, do you expect the numbers for season three to go up again?

I honestly don’t know, it’s so hard to predict. I was very disappointed when season one premiered because we got sideswiped by the Republican Convention and the whole Sarah Palin announcement (in 2008), and it took us a while to get up to speed, and by halfway through the first season people realized what the show was and were starting to plug in. I think we had a good running start into season two, but I don’t think anyone saw that huge jump in numbers that we had. It’s the biggest numbers the FX network had ever done and we were all very happy about that. We pretty much held those numbers and the finale of season two even came up from those — it beat the premiere. (The finale, “Na Triobloidi,” written and directed by Sutter, was cable’s #1 program for that night and the most watched ever for “SOA.”) Everyone was very thrilled. The truth is there is a ceiling on numbers for the show, and for FX itself, only because we are not in every household and not on every cable system, the awareness of the channel is not as high as some of the other cable networks. I think we’re pretty close to that ceiling already, so while it would be great if there is some kind of jump, I just don’t see it happening as big as it did between seasons one and two. If we can maintain the audience we had I think we’ll be very pleased.

You have a very vocal fan base for the show, between the blog and the facebook pages they loudly clamor for what they want to see. Do you feel the pressure to deliver even more for season three?

No, the interaction with the fans isn’t about “tell me what you want” so I can do it, it’s more about finding out what people respond to. It allows me to know what themes resonate with people and if I’m ultimately on the right track. People have very specific points of view and it’s great, the comments and the tweets are all very specific and personal which means a great deal to me.

It feels like a personal and specific show for you to write. How did “SOA” happen?

The project itself came to me through (producers) Art Linson and his son, John. They were looking to get into the TV business and they were aware of my work on “The Shield,” and also I had been attached to a couple of feature projects that involved the motorcycle world and I had a love of the subculture. We got together and it’s interesting because they didn’t really have an idea or the life rights of a person in that world, but John had a love of the biker life and he had a lot of friends inNorthern California that were in that life. He introduced me to those guys and I spent a lot of time with them, and over the course of a month or two I started to see the idea for a pilot. It began with research I’d done on motorcycle clubs — there’s really only four big clubs: Hells Angels, the Outlaws, the Mongols, and the Pagans, and I did research on all of them. The guys I hung out with were in one of those clubs and I spent a lot of time with them. A lot of these clubs were formed after WW2 and they were guys coming back after the war. They initially got together to blow off steam and they loved motorcycles. It started out as a sort of camaraderie and innocent group of guys that shared this common bond. Over about fifteen years they morphed into what ultimately became an outlaw organization. Some were involved with more nefarious things than others, but part of it is, what I realized, that you can’t really live off the grid and not adapt that lifestyle. I had this thought, like the guy who first said, “Hey, let’s put a vest on with the name and go out and ride our bikes and have a few beers,” what does that guy ultimately think about what became of the club? That was sort of where the idea began with me in the formation of the character of John Teller. I thought what if you had a guy who realized that it, the club, was ultimately becoming something he never wanted it to be and what could he do to stop it. Then the whole Hamlet architecture started to reveal itself. It’s not like I came at it that way, but the idea of the stepfather and the mother conspiring against the father, and the manuscript became the ghost of Jax’s father. So that paradigm inspired the characters and some of the relationships and will ultimately continue to feed the bigger arcs of the series. It’s not something I look to episode to episode, but there are epic themes that will live in the show.

Do you still research stories, or are they more organic as the show progresses?

Not really. I don’t do any kind of “ripped from the headlines,” out of respect for the clubs and I don’t want anyone to think I’m exploiting them. Obviously, we still do research things like the IRA, and we based a lot of those characters on people we’ve learned about. There is research on that level.

Did it matter to you that the biker community like and/or accept the show?

It did matter and it still does matter. As far as I understand, it’s been pretty embraced by the community. They get it; they get that it’s heightened reality and they enjoy the fact that we’re showing at least different sides of the life. Not that we’re exploiting those guys or turning them into heroes. I have an open line of communication with most of the clubs and if something comes up that people are unhappy about I’m aware of it and try to make the adjustment.

When it came to casting, although you’d written the part of Gemma for Katey, was there any resistance to hiring her because of her background in comedy as opposed to serious dramatic roles?

John and Art were really great. They always knew Katey and I were looking for a project to do together. She’d done a role that I wrote in “The Shield,” and we were exploring that idea of wanting to do something together and knew that it would be a great world for her. She really was my inspiration for the role of Gemma — this really strong matriarch who would do anything for her kids. That fierce mothering was really the key, and when I went out and pitched the show I led with the notion that she was who I wanted for the role. We went to a few places and there were a couple of places that wanted it, and one of the places was FX and they liked the idea of Katey. I think it’s easy for Katey to sort of tap in to Gemma because a lot of her motivations are really maternal. In fact, after we sold the idea to FX, I had an original draft where the role of Gemma was much more in the background, not unlike the Nancy Marchant role on “The Sopranos,” where she was in the background but pulling the strings. I think FX saw the potential of the character and the demographic and they asked if I could pull the Gemma character more into the foreground. So, in subsequent drafts we dialed in the relationship between Jax and his mother so it became that trilogy of mother, stepfather, and son; so while the show is about Jax, Gemma and Clay are right behind him.

The show is always about family, but season three hits it even harder when in the premiere we find Jax passed out on the nursery floor, a few days after the kidnapping of his baby, Abel. What was the motivation behind that?

To me, it was the idea that what happened to Jax wasn’t in the outlaw handbook, that stuff doesn’t happen. It’s in the IRA handbook, they do that type of thing, but not the SOA. So it was such a devastating thing and he doesn’t have the tools to deal with it. Jax is a guy who is both too sensitive and too deep a thinker for the outlaw life, which ultimately were his dad’s tragic flaws and are his flaws as well. The flipside of that is that he’s also incredibly impulsive, so he’s got those two sides of the coin working. But the kidnapping hit him at such a deep level and he didn’t have the capacity to be proactive, all he could do was collapse. I knew that’s really where I wanted to find him when we began the season. He’s unable to do anything except wallow in the pain of this and it takes Clay to sort of snap him out of it. It was really important this year for me to show Clay in a bit of a different light. We’ve seen Clay make a lot of bad choices that led to some bad conclusions. I wanted to show him this year as a guy who did make good decisions. You’ll see as the season moves forward that he is a guy who helps Jax navigate through this. He is a guy who is very proactive; he makes decisions that have positive outcomes, so we understand why this guy is the president of the club and why he’s been such a strong and powerful leader. It was important to have Clay land on two feet this season.

Which of these characters are closest to who you really are as a person?

I think there’s a little bit of me in everybody. You can’t help but infuse them with your point of view or your fantasies. I would say that closest to me is probably somewhere between Jax and Gemma. I think Jax has a lot of my frailties and Gemma has a lot of my idiosyncrasies in terms of she’s a person who tends to react first and think later. For me, when I first pitched the idea, I wanted to do a show about a leading man who hadn’t decided what kind of man he was going to become. In pretty much every other show the leading man has made enough choices to where they are who they are and they’re going to navigate through that. They’re still going to suffer consequences, but they’ve made those decisions. I thought it’d be interesting to see a guy, who is in his late twenties, early thirties, who hasn’t yet decided what kind of man he’s going to become, and to see the series of events that shape that and see him through the course of a season become the man who he will ultimately become. It was a bit of a risk for FX because they had never had a leading man that young, and initially they were leaning towards casting it older and it was really important to me that he be the prince, not the king.

Is there a process you have with actors when you meet with them during casting? Is there something special you look for?

It’s a pretty standard process in terms of, some of the bigger-name actors you set up meetings and you just meet and greet, sometimes they read and sometimes they don’t. But mostly, it’s like anything else — they come in and read, you get a little insight into who they are, sometimes you’ll have them come back and read a scene with another actor. In terms of this show, I was very specific about who these characters were and the traits they’d have to have, and even though they were still forming in my head and they weren’t quite three dimensional yet, I knew they each had certain characteristics and you really look for those traits and a level of believability and grittiness.

How have you changed as a person and an artist though the process of doing this show?

Prior to this it was just all about the writing to me and I was very proprietary of that. I don’t particularly like people. I’m fine one on one but I don’t like many folks so it was a real lesson for me that I couldn’t do what I’d normally do creatively, which is lock myself in a room and do my deal. I was sort of forced to interact and to be a manager of people. It was learning a lot of these skill sets and I’ve made some mistakes and ruffled a lot of feathers initially and really had to keep myself in check. I still make mistakes but I get a little better each season and it’s a little easier each season and I tend to navigate a little easier than I did early on. You go through a trial by fire and you learn a lot.

Do you put every episode “through your typewriter” so to speak? Do you make the final decisions and revisions on each script?

Yeah, I do, I‘ll get a writers draft and, although I have really talented writers on my staff, ultimately I do a page one rewrite on every script just because a lot of times I don’t see it or hear it until I’m in it. Shawn Ryan had the great capacity to hear a pitch and guide his writers through the process; I’m really not so good at that. I’ll sign off a story on the board but, ultimately, when I get inside of it, that’s when I see it. Consequently, it’s a lot more work but it’s the only way I know how to do it, it’s been three seasons now and I’m not going to change it. I’m not a writer who wants to be a writer so I can ultimately direct. For me, my desire to direct is just an extension of the storytelling process.

You took these characters, outlaws that people would normally be afraid of or dislike, and you made them loveable and relatable. Yet, with Agent Stahl, you created a character that is so black-hearted that we love to hate her. You made the bad guys good, and the “good guys” (i.e. law enforcement) bad. Why?

My goal in this show has always been to not make a judgment call about whether the outlaws are good or bad. I try to tell these stories and it’s a really violent world and it’s really important to me that none of that violence happens in a vacuum, every action they take has a consequence. We see that happen throughout the series and the same thing happens with the cops as well, every action they take towards trying to arrest these guys, whatever the extreme may be, that, ultimately, also has consequences. We actually initially hired her (actress Alley Walker) for a three episode arc in season one, but she really brought that character to life. Agent Stahl’s character was quirky and had some odd sexual energy and she just really embraced that and always brought more to it than I had originally seen and she just became this great nemesis and really flourished when the IRA storyline began. Again, for me, it’s important that even though she does some things that inspire hatred in the fans of the show, it’s important that you also see what drives her and the humanity behind it, so this season we’ll get a glimpse into her personal life as well.

Has that happened with other actors, that you’ve written them in for an episode or two and they brought so much to it that their roles were expanded?

Yes, the character of Chief Unser (Dayton Callie) was almost a second thought. I had this storyline I was going to create about a guy who owns a trucking company and was also the Police Chief and that storyline played out a little bit, but I loved Dayton, he’s just a soulful guy and he gave that character such pathos and made him much more interesting than I had him on the page. Dayton’s a series regular this year and his history with Gemma’s character is important to the show.

The flip side I guess is that are there some characters who have to be killed for various and unexpected reasons?

[Laughs] Sometimes negotiations go south. I love all my actors and we have a great cast. Everyone has their own quirks and idiosyncrasies as all artists do. For me, it’s important that my set is a safe environment. There are bumps and bruises here and there but it’s important to me that it’s a creative atmosphere, that it’s a safe atmosphere and I never want anybody there who doesn’t want to be there. I know that energy can just suck the life out of a set and just kill it. In season one, I knew (actor) Johnny Lewis was unhappy, creatively the character (Prospect aka Half sack) didn’t go where he thought it would go; he didn’t like being the sort of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aspect of the show and we had some creative discussions and made the decision that he wanted to go and do other things. We had some discussions and decided to find a way to have this character go out with some dignity and we did it. In the case of this season, with a different actor (name not revealed to prevent spoiler), well, there are contract negotiations that go on all the time and there are some harsh realities to the way the actors advance on the show and I had a precedent I couldn’t break. So when things were looking that we may not be able to make a deal with this actor, I went back to my writers and we had to come up with a plan B, and what happened was we all fell in love with plan B. It was a very powerful event and it set up a whole thing I wanted to do with the (fictional) town of Charming, and the truth is there probably wouldn’t have been enough story for this character anyhow and we all felt creatively it was the right thing to do. So it became less about the negotiation and more about a creative decision and that’s where it landed. My guess is that maybe his deal could have been figured out, but creatively everyone loved the idea and the network and studio got behind it. And yeah, if negotiations went smoother we probably wouldn’t have had to figure out a plan B, but I always feel that this stuff happens for a reason and you move forward with it.

The Irish loom large as villains this season. When you began to write this show initially, was there always a natural connection between the SOA and the IRA?

Yeah. For me, I knew the IRA was a big part of the mythology. I knew it had a lot to do with John Teller and his relationships; I knew it was the introduction to the gun business. So I knew that ultimately I wanted to get there. I always knew I wanted to do it in season three because I think a lot of shows sort of stumble in the third season, because they find out what works and they keep trying to do it over and over again, but by season three they start to implode a little bit. I knew that I wanted to open up the world and make it bigger. There are a lot of correlations between the two organizations, but, again, this show isn’t about politics. With the IRA, it’s not about who is right, it’s about telling stories, and telling both sides of it and leaving it up to people to decide whether or not one side is right or wrong.

Speaking of right and wrong, a lot of people have come out of the woodwork lately to claim credit for the idea of a series about outlaw motorcycle gangs. In fact, there are several lawsuits going on presently about this. Anything you want to address?

Trust me, you’ve only heard about a couple of them. It happens all the time. Every successful show has had legions of people that have tried to claim credit. It’s all about the execution; the idea of a show about the motorcycle subculture is not a new thing. There were three other pilots about motorcycle clubs that were out there when I was pitching “Sons of Anarchy.” I’m sure there have been dozens that have not come to fruition because the execution didn’t work. It’s all about the execution which is why there will continually be shows about cops, lawyers, and doctors and hospitals; there will always be  some kind of different execution of that idea. I think that because SOA is about a new world that hasn’t been on TV a lot, people think that they had this idea. But it’s always about the execution. 􀀀

“Sons of Anarchy” airs Tuesdays at 9pm on FX. Check it out.

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