Mike Fleming

EXCLUSIVE: Because Kurt Sutter made incendiary comments each time his series creation Sons Of Anarchy got no Emmy love over the past few seasons, it’s easy to see him as a tattooed long-haired Rodney Dangerfield, craving respect that just won’t come. The FX show is more popular in the ratings than ever, with audiences showing no sign of fatigue over the twisted journey of MC leader Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), his murderous surrogate father Clay (Ron Perlman) and his manipulative mother Gemma (Katey Sagal). Season 5 bore more turmoil and traumatic death than usual, but will it be enough to make Emmy voters take a closer look? When I visit Sutter in his SOA offices, he’s surprisingly laid back for the guy who runs TV’s toughest show and who also plays Otto, the long suffering SOA member who sacrificed himself for his gang by going to prison. There, he committed murder, was half blinded and bit off his own tongue rather than blab, and stabbed a woman to death with a crucifix. As I enter, Sutter is talking shop with a group of his staffers including regular director [and just named DGA president] Paris Barclay. Sutter casually mentions he submitted for Emmy consideration Season 5 scenes involving a transgender stunner named Venus Van Damme. Since that character was played by Sutter’s former The Shield cohort and current Justified star Walton Goggins, it seems as good a place as any to start an Emmy-themed dialogue.

DEADLINE: Did you really submit Walton Goggins for his transgender cameo?
SUTTER: I think we did. Venus made TV history, and Walton was brilliant. I was only half-kidding about suggesting a spinoff.

DEADLINE: Does Walton know you’ve put him in the Emmy mix for this? I would imagine his priority to be Justified for his carefully drawn cool outlaw with the sweet drawl, Boyd Crowder. You’ve put him up in a role where as I recall, he’s dressed in form-fitting ass-less chaps, and a black wig. Was it your idea or his to try and get him the Emmy for that role?
SUTTER: You know, man, at this point, I’ll kick down the Emmy door any way I fucking can. T-Girls, Best Fake Tits, Most Profound Tongue Biting. I’m considering dressing Jax in a fur cap and replacing the Harleys with Golden Unicorns.

DEADLINE: You were a feature writer who gravitated to TV with The Shield, and with Sons Of Anarchy you carry forward a cable series tradition that has turned network programming on its ear by routinely knocking off beloved characters and taking protagonists to the darkest possible places. You started SOA Season 5 with Jax’s best friend and moral compass Opie getting brutally murdered. Jax then became as bad as any villain to gain retribution. Besides the murders, Jax injected heroin into his former junkie ex-wife when he feared losing custody of the son they share. How much of a challenge is it to make sure your protagonist doesn’t lose all sympathy to the point we can no longer root for him?
SUTTER: I do have to take a step back now and then and look at the bigger picture, to be aware of perception and, where is that going to lead to? But I try to have things happen organically, and that was one of those things honestly that didn’t break in the room that way. I remember Shawn Ryan being fantastic in the room on The Shield, how he saw the whole script from beginning to end. I kind of see it in the room, but I don’t really see what will happen until those characters are talking in my head. And that was one of those scenes where it wasn’t pitched, it wasn’t on the board, but through the writing it just sort of happened. It wasn’t, hey wouldn’t this be cool, it was organic, like here is what he would do in that moment, because of who he is and the circumstance he finds himself in. And we don’t know, is he going to kill her? It’s much worse than pulling a gun on her. If it happens through that organic process, I don’t worry so much about being able to bring that character back, because even an audience may think “oh my God that’s so fucked up and I would never do that,” but if it’s coming from that right place then it’s “yeah, I kind of see why they did that.” That is usually the test for me: if I can tie it to character and relationship as well as having it feed and set the story on fire a little bit, then I always feel like I can bring him back. But you are right. We are getting closer and closer to that point as we wind down, where it is getting harder to bring him back.

DEADLINE: Clay passed that point, he is beyond redemption for all of the terrible things he has done to the members of his motorcycle club.
SUTTER: Absolutely. And it is always interesting when a character crosses that line and then tries to buy his way back from there and can’t because he has passed that point. I think that happened by Vic Mackey in The Shield. By the end of that show, he crossed that point and while you still liked the dude, you understood he was going to have to pay.

DEADLINE: There is a tradition in screen criminals, from Michael Corleone to Tony Soprano, even when they are un-redeemable, they still think they are moral, and they can’t see it.
SUTTER: Jax is walking that fine line and he will have that moment in the next few seasons where he wonders if he’s passed that fine line. And if he has, can he cross his way back? It was much easier in the first few seasons for his character and what he would and wouldn’t do, because I always had the contrast of Clay to keep him on the right side. That’s part of the mythology. Now, as they become part of the same individual, those shades are getting much closer.

DEADLINE: Did you see all of these creative opportunities when you started this, or did it evolve organically?
SUTTER: A little bit of both. I always had a sense of what the kind of big mile markers were. Where I ultimately wanted the direction of my show to go and where I wanted my characters to land, who will be redeemed, and who won’t, and what would happen. I learned a lot after the first couple seasons, when you’re heavily scrutinized and wondering if you’re going to be picked up. That energy fed into the way that I creatively ran the show and I was much more, like, “we gotta do it this way.” Not that they weren’t great seasons, but I did feel like I was saying, ‘this is what we have to do.’ By the end of Season Two I thought ‘Yeah okay we’ll probably be able to ride this out.’ The ratings continued to go up, and I came into Season Four more relaxed, the network was more relaxed, and people left me alone. I was then able to loosen my grip on the show, and that was a good thing. It allowed things to then happen more organically, and just kind of happen unexpectedly. I didn’t see what was going to happen to Opie, but because I was able to loosen up…

DEADLINE: You hadn’t planned out far in advance that Ryan Hurst’s character was going to be beaten to death in front of Jax, as retribution by a rival criminal whose daughter was accidentally killed by Kim Coates’ Tig character?
SUTTER: Yeah. I never anticipated that.

DEADLINE: Viewers still feel that loss because he was maybe the most likeable character on the show.
SUTTER: Oh yeah man I know. It was brutal, man, just brutal. As that character developed, as that actor took him down that road, made those decisions and gave those performances, I just got to the place and realized over the hiatus between Seasons Four and Five that, “Oh man, there’s no place left to go with this guy. He’s done.” And then the light bulb goes on. The one that says “Oh, that’s the inciting event that’s going to bring my hero into our last act.”

DEADLINE: You effectively took away Jax’s moral compass, and made possible all of the bad stuff that followed.
SUTTER: Yeah. I just had my sort of pre-season lunch with Charlie a few weeks ago where we kicked around the emotional broad strokes for Season Six. I told Charlie that one of the driving forces for what Jax will do, and his desire to stay plugged into the club and take the right road, is that he feels the burden and the guilt of Opie’s death and is not going to let that be in vain. It will be Opie saying, “You need to finish this ride.” That will motivate him to do certain things so that A, Opie’s death isn’t in vain, and B, we feel Opie’s presence throughout Season Six

DEADLINE: So many of the great cable series are generated by guys who felt the frustration when they tried to write features. You had a number of promising scripts that haven’t gotten made.
SUTTER: I still write movies, but I refer to that as my virtual career. Because I write the script, and I don’t know what the hell happens. It’s a joke at this point dude. I’ve had two movies that were on the boards and being prepped at Warner Bros and got wiped out. One was because the Poseidon Adventure remake tanked. I’m like, really? Then we had Southpaw, a fight film that was a lock with Antoine Fuqua and Eminem. And then Marshall, God bless him, he decides that his ass is still sore from Curtis Hanson on 8 Mile, and so he’s not ready to do a movie. That goes away, and now Harvey Weinstein has it. I hear all kinds of people are attached, and at this point, I say, “Just invite me to the premiere.” I think I was first innately drawn into TV because of that. The first TV spec I wrote in a week and a half, and I just instinctively took to the format, I just intuitively understood the structure and format, even better than I did features. Creatively, it was very easy for me to make the transition and the benefits are obvious. I know what happens in the feature land, what studio notes feel like, and you know there is nothing worse for an artist to have to endure them. I remember doing this project at Paramount. It was a cool idea…

DEADLINE: Which project?
SUTTER: I don’t remember what it ended up being called. At first it was called Sixth Street, a cool origin story of vampires, where vampirism was like a blood disease. I always had this idea of telling a story like that. I hooked up with this guy Eli Holzman who had a script from Project Greenlight. I took that script and applied my theory to it, and it became this really cool dark thing. And what happened is what happens. We attached a big producer who attached a big director and then we had Paramount. An awful moment for me came when I was tapping out Act Three of my script, and I’m sitting in my office going “I have no idea what the fuck I’m writing anymore. I don’t know who these characters are, I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t know why I’m writing it because suddenly it became Twilight with guns. That is just the worst thing that can happen to you. The great thing about TV is there’s no time for that to happen to you. There’s such an urgency and immediacy. I’m in there breaking shit on Monday, writing it on Wednesday, and shooting it the next Monday. Within 10 days, I’m watching footage of that idea. That is incredibly satisfying creatively, in terms of needing to express yourself and wanting to see your vision come to life. Not that I don’t get feedback from the studio and network – I do – but because of the urgency, there’s no time. Broadcast networks are a little bit different; they spend more time in that development process, and they’ll beat you to death to find the middle. I’m blessed that I am in the cable world. I could do a broadcast show, but I think my tastes and my strong suits probably live in cable. And my lack of people skills, it’s probably best that I’m in a world where people have a little bit more tolerance.

DEADLINE: I look at all these cable series, from Walking Dead to Boardwalk Empire to your show, Game Of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Americans, and I wonder if you guys feel the way that filmmakers did in the ’70s, which is viewed as a golden age for movies.
SUTTER: Look at French Connection and all those great character-driven, ground-breaking movies. There were some crazy fucking maniacs directing those movies, and they were great storytellers. They created the genre and the formula. And then someone in a suit said, ‘Wait a minute, that’s a good idea, let’s recreate that.’ And then, suddenly, that sense of ownership went away. It’s not that you can’t have a commercially successful movie enterprise that is also artistic and good. There is a world where art and commerce can meet. But what happens more often is you have a formula, a demographic you’re shooting for. You’ll get notes about ‘We need a certain amount of love interest stuff, we need a certain amount of action.’ There’s a formula applied to a lot of movies that has nothing to do with story or vision, or even the creative process. It’s all about the manufacturing of product. Sometimes you can end up with something that feels good and real: most of the time, you don’t. You have small movies where a director or a writer will have the final cut. There’s a reason Silver Linings Playbook was so good. There are small movies where studios and investors trust the artistic vision of a filmmaker and even in the big ones, the ones that really land come from a single vision and do not have 20 writers and a dozen producers. That’s why the Batman franchise was so successful, with Chris Nolan at the helm, and his brother doing the writing. I’m sure they take studio notes, but there’s consistent vision in those projects. Yes it’s formulaic as it needs to be, to be a comic book action movie. But there’s a depth there, a sense of story and character that a lot of these bigger other formulaic movies can’t have.

DEADLINE: You started on The Shield, where Michael Chiklis’ detective turns around and shoots another cop in the face in that first episode. You depict shocking violence like that often, like having Opie execute a female FBI agent. Your audience understood, because that manipulative agent got Opie’s wife murdered a season or two prior. How quickly did it become clear to you that TV would be your home, a place where it is you who gets final cut?
SUTTER: That was why I found The Shield such a perfect fit. I was so naïve coming into it, it was my first TV job. Shawn Ryan was brand new in running a show and it was a brand new thing for FX. We were all virgins, with this great script. I wasn’t sure about Michael Chiklis because I’d only seen The Commish. Would this work? I remember having a conversation with Glen Mazzara, we were walking to the set together, and we both asked that same question. We didn’t know if the ship was sinking, we didn’t’ know what the fuck it was. And then I saw the final cut of that pilot and said, Okay, this can work. It had a different, documentarian style. There, being naive was good. I was able to learn, and I always joked with Shawn that every crazy fucking feature pitch that had executives wanting to call security, I got to do on The Shield.

DEADLINE: They must have rejected something of yours? 
SUTTER: Well, Shawn didn’t shoot it down, but here’s one I remember. Glenn Close was great on the show and I loved that she was just like one of the boys, a lot of fun to work with. But Glenn has a certain pedigree. We had a line in a script I wrote in Season 4. She was threatening Anthony Anderson’s character. He had a son in jail, and I think the line was “I’m going to make sure he has a back full of shiv and an ass full of cum.” At the read through, Glenn said “Oh, I’m not saying that.” Out loud, to the room, she just refused to say the line. And I looked at Shawn and he was like “Look, she’s not saying it.” So we ended up giving the line to Walton Goggins’ character.

DEADLINE: Who obviously is up for anything you dream up.
SUTTER: Well, that was an example of an actor saying “Oh no, I can’t say that. Those words cannot come out of my mouth.” But they didn’t drop the line.

DEADLINE: You mentioned Mazzara. You were vocal when he became the second show runner on The Walking Dead to be dropped. Is there a brotherhood among the show runners of edgy cable shows?
SUTTER: I don’t know if it’s a fraternity. Glen is a friend of mine, his kid and my kid are best friends, and so I have personal connection. And Frank Darabont was a friend of mine and the whole way that thing went down was really fucked up. I think there’s a commonality of people doing this, who experience the pressure and the agony and defeat of whether it’s a good season or a bad season, and who gets nominated for awards. Everybody is going through that same angst, you’re soldiers on the same battlefield. I’ve had my bumps vocally about Matt Weiner but I think Matt’s a brilliant writer and when push came to shove I’d fucking back the guy on anything. There is a sense of awareness of the burden of seeing through your vision. And when you see that being abused, or taken advantage of, or manipulated into something it’s not supposed to be, people get vocal. Shawn and I were the ones who were outspoken about Glen but I follow that stuff on Twitter, and a lot of other writers weighed in on what a bullshit move that was. I got a lovely email and phone call from Frank, basically saying, thanks for having my back.

DEADLINE: When I asked you to do this interview with me, you laughed and said, “Is it going to be about why the Emmys ignore me?” And I’m sitting here with you, and I can see the intelligence as you describe your craft, and then I think of your onscreen character Otto biting off his tongue and spitting it against the interrogation room window glass…
SUTTER: No intelligence involved there.

DEADLINE: My point is, people in the industry can see you as a gifted storyteller, or they can marginalize you as the guy with tattoos who rides motorcycles. Has it been a challenge for Sons Of Anarchy to get respect for Emmy voters if they marginalize you because of how you look and because that “biker guy” has been quick to express outrage when the show is ignored?
SUTTER: We are the dirty white boys people are afraid of, and so what you say may be true. I can laugh about it now, but after a first season of The Shield where we were recognized as being ground-breaking, all we heard on the awards circuit were crickets. To bring back the Batman analogy, we’re not an art series, we’re perceived as the big action violent series. And the same way Batman never gets the Oscar love because it’s that summer blockbuster, we fall in the same category. They say forget Batman, let’s look at the art stuff. What’s Harvey doing? My rabid fan base would tar and feather you for limiting us to that, but there is a similar perception. I’m not comparing myself to Chris Nolan, but we’re “that” show, and let’s look at the cooler artier things. Breaking Bad has that art house dynamic, and obviously Mad Men does. And you have shows with a lavish production component; it’s magical what they do on Game of Thrones, and the meticulous nature of capturing that world of Mad Men is really extraordinary. Voters aren’t all writers and directors; most are crew people, set designers, lighting designers, costume and casting people. What we do here is perceived as small and gritty and noisy. We used to joke on The Shield, and it’s the same thing here, that it takes a lot of work to get my show to look this shitty. My costume designer works just as hard to make our guys look like scumbags. That ultimately becomes the perception of what people think we are.

DEADLINE: How much does that bother you?
SUTTER: If our viewership was going down I might be doubting myself, but critically we have tended to stay in good favor generally, and obviously our viewership keeps going up each season. That would suggest that we’re doing something right.

DEADLINE: What should Emmy voters be considering from Season 5, performances or story arcs you are particularly proud of?
SUTTER: The whole Opie arc was pretty powerful. Ryan Hurst was only in the first three episodes, but the ramifications and impact that it had on Charlie reverberated through the season. Charlie had an amazing season. His work gets more nuanced and better with each season, and it baffles me he’s not thrown into that category with those guys. Ron Perlman had a great season and I think my wife had an amazing season. The betrayal scene Gemma had with Clay at the end was something; she can’t look at him when he leaves, and is left by herself there with the weight of all that. Look, I love writing action, I love blowing shit up and all that guy shit. But that’s the candy that gets people to show up, and then you surprise them with depth of emotion, and the intricacies of the relationship and the family drama component. And that’s character-driven art-house-worthy shit to me.

DEADLINE: Every time I read about you, you’re saying something incendiary. Have I not done my job in that you haven’t really kicked the shit out of anyone here? Isn’t there anyone we want to beat up before I leave?
SUTTER: It’s very funny, and sort of the joke now. I do say some very bombastic things, and I have a strong point of view, but in measured reserved conversation it’s not like I’m gunning for anybody. I’ve also realized that the Twitter-verse doesn’t really understand my sense of humor – like all that crazy shit with the Emmys a few years ago. All those tweets I sent out…like apparently I’d lost my mind? They were all humorous, I was just cracking myself up and to me they were so absurd and funny. Then I get a call from my wife saying “What are you doing? You’re talking about your father? What are you doing?” That’s when I realized it was just everywhere and that they were picking and choosing what to run to make me sound like I was on a rooftop with a high-powered rifle. So that’s some of it but I also really try to be who I am. It’s not that I don’t censor myself or edit myself because clearly I have to, but I don’t let that intimidate me. This is who I am, this is my sense of humor, and I lead with that.

DEADLINE: When I read those comments, part of me was thinking, how much does this guy get to complain when he married the actress who played Peg Bundy. The other part is, do you hurt the Emmy chances of Katey and other cast?
SUTTER: No. My strongest reaction was after Season 2, when Katey wasn’t recognized. Obviously she’s my wife but it just felt lazy to me, the people that they chose. Not that they’re not good actors; it just felt really fucking lazy to me. A lot of things piss me off but nothing more than fucking laziness. Did I alienate enough people that I hurt the show? Possibly. I try not to do that now, because I realize that I’ve moved out in front to a certain extent. I am responsible and the things I say can impact the show. I try to be clear when what I express is opinion, and I try to have some awareness so that I don’t create any blowback for the show or actors. While what I say may be my truth, it can be irresponsible truth, so I try not to do that.