For all the attention that writer-director-producer Kurt Sutter has gotten as a cantankerous social-media presence and an outspoken critic of the TV business, he’s also established himself as one of the most significant figures in the development of basic cable as a creative and commercial rival to both pay cable and the networks. First as a writer on the groundbreaking cop show The Shield, and now as the showrunner for the sprawling biker-gang saga Sons Of Anarchy—both big hits for FX—Sutter has combined ambitious long-form storytelling with the kind of visceral thrills that bring viewers back week after week. Now Sutter is making his first foray into non-fiction with the six-part Discovery Channel series Outlaw Empires, about the history and structure of criminal organizations like the Crips, the Mafia, and the Aryan Brotherhood. Sutter spoke with The A.V. Club about the new show and how it connects to his career-long fascination with men and women bound by some rough choices.
The A.V. Club: The subject matter of Outlaw Empires fits well with what you’ve done before. Did you shepherd this project, or was it brought to you?
Kurt Sutter: I had actually a different series that I was pitching. It was a reality series that was similar in nature, that was sort of a Rashomon approach to infamous crimes, talking to law enforcement and criminals and then ultimately putting two guys in a room to talk to each other. That was the pitch I went out with, and people were fascinated by it, but ultimately it was too old-school, the structure of it. And I think because it was character-based and it wasn’t all big and splashy, it was difficult to sell. I had really great conversations with people at Discovery, though, trying to make it work. Ultimately, what came out of that was that we really wanted to work together. I liked them creatively, and for them it was smart because the scripted show that their key demo watches most is Sons, so they felt like they had a built-in audience for something that I might do.
We pitched back a couple different ideas about doing something on these outlaw dynasties, and my hit on it was, I liked the idea of it, but I didn’t want it just to be straight-up expository, told from an outsider’s perspective. That, to me, would ultimately feel judgmental. The hook for me was: Let’s make it a character piece. Tell it from the inside out. Talk to members of the organization, and through their experiences connect it to the bigger picture of what was going on. That’s what I’ve been trying to do on Sons, to tell the story of one [motorcycle club]—the big arc, the big mythology—through what I hope to be character-driven drama. Sometimes you find great characters that are part of that world, and sometimes it’s a little bit more of a struggle. We’re still seeing what works and what doesn’t work. We’re still cranking them out. Unlike fiction, which you create before you go into production, with reality you kind of create it after everything is produced. The drama and the storytelling is really done in post. It’s a different process for me in terms of wrapping my head around what each show is going to be like. But so far I’m pleased. I think the Crips one is great. The one we did on the Irish mob I think is fascinating.
Some of them get more difficult. You deal with an organization like the Aryan Brotherhood and you’re trying to get inside and tell an objective story… y’know, it’s that fine line I have as a storyteller when I’m dealing with an antihero. You don’t want to make him so righteous that it doesn’t feel realistic or dangerous. But you don’t want to make him too despicable or deplorable, where the audience can’t get behind him. It’s that constant balance that I deal with on Sons, and it was sort of the same thing with this project. You don’t want it to be so objective that you feel like you’re justifying this behavior and creating recruitment videos. Yet, I wanted to be careful not to come from a law-enforcement perspective and be all, “Look at all the bad things these guys have done.” And obviously, some of them are trickier. It’s hard to get inside and be objective when you’re talking to guys who are covered in swastikas, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] But you have to do it. You really have to make the attempt to understand these men and what drew them to the life and why they made the decisions they did.
AVC: Do you find yourself trying to break these nonfiction stories the same way you would break a fiction story, or is that just impossible?
KS: I’m working with a buddy of mine who is a partner at Studio Lambert, Eli Holzman. Eli and I did a feature project years back at Paramount, so I trusted his story sense. He’s a really smart dude, and I felt like I was going into this with a creative ally. I kind of picked his brain a bit before I got into the process, and became aware of what the procedure was. The challenge isn’t trying to break a story the way I would on the show; the challenge for me is that everything is in the can already, and the schedule and budget is such that it’s not like you can suddenly go and say, “Oh, I need a scene here,” or, “I need something to bridge this.” You really are forced to try to tell the story the best you can with what you have. That’s the difference from when I’m working on Sons, where I can make changes in the script phase, and also if I think I’m missing a scene in an episode, unless it’s at the very end of a season, I often have the luxury of trying to build that scene into another shooting day, or into another episode, to tell that story. Here, everything production-wise is already shot, so it’s like you’re already looking at the script, and the script is all you have.
The cuts are still rolling in for the last three episodes, and as I’m looking at cuts for Segreti Di Famiglia and the Aryan Brotherhood, it’s sort of like, “Okay, it’s feeling too judgmental,” or, “This feels like we lifted it right from Gangland, let’s get rid of it.” It’s about how we take all this footage that we have and use it to tell the story, rather than figuring out the best way to tell the story first, and then going out and shooting it. It’s kind of like putting the hat on upside down, I guess.
AVC: Why do you think so many people are fascinated not just with criminals, but criminal families? Is it the code, the rules, the sense of loyalty…?
KS: Yeah, I think that’s it for me, and that was the hook for this show. Because we all have this fascination. There’s a reason why Sons is successful, and there’s a reason why people are big fans of mafia movies and The Sopranos. There’s something about the men that make the decision to lead this kind of life, who aren’t really all that different from us. They’re just guys, for the most part. Whatever circumstances happened, whatever in their lives pushed them to make that choice… I think there’s a fascination with people who are willing to do that, because we all feel sort of locked into our lives sometimes. And these guys live what we perceive to be much more glamorous, exciting, dangerous lives.
That’s what I wanted to do with the series a little bit, basically get in and say, “Okay, what happened? Why did you make this decision?” And in some cases, “What went wrong?” And in some cases, “Why did you stay in?” And really try to understand the appeal to them. Like, “Why did you do it?” Like in the first one, with Kershaun. He has that great moment, where he says, “After I got my fucking bike stolen for the fifth time, I realized, ‘You know what, fuck it, man. I’m not going to be a victim anymore.’” And that’s really relatable. People hear that and think, “Fuck, yeah. That’s right.” That’s what I’m trying to do, to tell that story, and to be really clear about this isn’t about condemning these clubs or organizations.
I don’t want to piss these people off. [Laughs.] I also don’t want to make it look so alluring or fascinating that ultimately I get slammed for glorifying violence.
AVC: One connection between Outlaw Empires and Sons Of Anarchy is this idea that, yes, there’s loyalty, but loyalty only lasts until either your friend screws you over or you’re in a desperate situation.
KS: Yeah. And I think that’s interesting. It’s difficult sometimes to find guys who are still in the life and willing to talk about it. We couldn’t do it with Outlaw Motorcycle Club, because it’s just way too democratic a process to get somebody currently in a club to come out and speak for the club. In that case, we were really forced to talk to guys who were no longer in the life. Some of them left in bad standing, some of them are in witness protection, and, y’know, some of them left in good standing. I felt it was important to find guys who had different experiences, so that it didn’t all feel oppressive and bad and “I had to get out.”
But, yes, that is definitely the case when you look at these organizations. And it’s funny, I’ve looked at cuts of five of them now, and there’s a very similar theme that develops. It all starts out with a very sort of specific and… not altruistic, but primal kind of need, whether it’s brotherhood or protection or family. And then as these organizations grow, it goes the same way it goes when any organization grows. The bigger it gets, and the more personalities are involved, and the more money it starts making, that’s when stuff gets very complicated. That’s when you potentially have weak links, and a lot of egos. Like Kershaun was talking about, and some of his brothers who we interviewed, suddenly your relationships to the drug dealers and the guys who are distributing your product become more important to you than the ones that you had with the guys you’ve been with for the last 10 or 15 years, because it’s all tied to the money.
And that happens not just in outlaw organizations. That’s why we try to keep coming back to the theme of the hidden America. [Laughs.] That’s a very common theme in corporate America, and in politics and government. It’s a recurring theme because of our own humanity. That’s what I find. That’s the shit that I love to play with.
AVC: Do you consider going left-field and having an episode about the CIA or police force?
KS: No, though I did pitch to Discovery the idea of maybe doing one on Rampart, on the C.R.A.S.H. units of LAPD, which one could easily argue were a notorious sort of outlaw organization. And I think they liked the idea, but probably felt it was too controversial to do in the first six. If they decide they want to continue, I think we definitely could go outside the box a little bit and look at some of the outlaws that are existing within our own structure of law and order. I was very clear in this first episode though that the extreme military approach that the LAPD had established back in the 1950s absolutely led to the growth and spread of gangs in L.A. Because it was a fucking war zone out there. And nobody felt safe, nobody felt protected. They didn’t feel like LAPD had their back, and that was real, man. Unfortunately, it took a lot of bad things to shed some light on that. It’s gotten a little better, but not all that much, you know? So I try to call that out when applicable.
AVC: Back when you were working on The Shield, did you do a lot of research into that side?
KS: We did. We had a very tumultuous relationship with the LAPD when The Shield first started, because that whole C.R.A.S.H. thing was still in litigation, and the PR about it was… well, they were very sensitive. And when they heard about our show, they slapped a lawsuit against us. That’s why we ended up having the gold badges that our cops wore on the other side of the uniform, that people would complain about constantly. [Laughs.] Like, “What? The badge is on the wrong side!”
Never in the history of The Shield was the word “LAPD” ever mentioned. We would mention districts, like Wilshire and Hollenbeck and Marina, but Farmington was a fictitious district, and we never actually uttered the word “LAPD.” So that was sort of the deal we made with them, and then as the show became more successful and blah blah blah, I think they loosened up about it.
AVC: When The Shield began, it was a shock to many people that you could do the kind of things that you guys were doing on a basic cable show. What was the mentality in the writers’ room? Were you always aware of the limits, and trying to test them?
KS: Well, that show was really character-based, so it had its action and testosterone-driven moments, where we would push the limits and have Vic do some really nefarious things, but for the most part it wasn’t about just trying to push the envelope, it was really about trying to do it through characters. And we never really got any friction. I mean, most of the S&P notes on The Shield, and really the same on Sons, weren’t about what we were going to do but how. How much violence is it going to entail? How much are you going to see? And I’m a firm believer that a little goes a long way, and that things are much more potent when you allow people to use their imagination. So that really was sort of our credo.
AVC: Southland handles profanity in an interesting way in that they bleep it, whereas other shows try to find creative ways around swearing or other things that might be considered R-rated. Which do you think breaks the reality less?
KS: For me, I guess I’m just so used to it that it’s almost hard for me to judge. I used to just snicker every time I watched Battlestar Galactica and someone would say the word “frack.” [Laughs.] Some people loved it and thought it was cool; to me it just sounds goofy. And bleeping I find is too distracting. For The Shield and Sons, we just live in a world where the word “fuck” doesn’t exist. And that’s really the size of it. We never, like, run up to it and cut it off. We can pretty much say everything else, and I think what happens is that the emotion is there, the intent is there, and interestingly enough, if you polled a hundred people who watch the show, I’ll bet half of them would believe that we’ve used the word “fuck” before. The visceral approach to the show is such that you don’t even realize that you’re not hearing it, if that makes sense.
AVC: What’s the production cycle of a Sons Of Anarchy season? Are you still writing the later episodes while you’ve begun filming the early ones? And does a season start airing while you’re still in production?
KS: Yes, we have a pretty tight production schedule. I bring my writers in a few months early before we start. Like, I’m writing the fourth script right now, so I will have four production scripts done by the time we start shooting. But my schedule grows exponentially once we start shooting, so that what usually happens is by episode nine I’m backed up and production is waiting for scripts. And then by episode 12, I’m late. I prefer it that way, as intense as it can be sometimes, because I find that I learn a lot by watching cuts. I can see what works and what doesn’t work, and what gets lifted because of time and what doesn’t, and what relationships are working, and what new actors are working. That really gives me the freedom either to tweak scripts that are already written, or it informs the scripts that I’m in the middle of writing, or it informs the story-breaking process that I’m involved in. So I actually like having production backed up to the writing process. And yeah, the show premieres in early September, and we shoot until about mid-October. So there’s about five weeks of production left when the shows start airing.
AVC: Do you pay attention at all to the fan or critical reaction during that time period?
KS: I have. I try to stay abreast to the fan feedback. I’ve had to disconnect from the critical feedback because it just fucks with me too much. So I really don’t. But I try to stay plugged into social media. And it slows down a great deal once we’re in production. My Twitter involvement usually drops to five or 10 minutes in the morning, and maybe five minutes at night. But I stay aware. I know what people respond to and what they don’t respond to, because I just think that’s critical. I’m not writing this show in a vacuum. I’m not writing this for myself. So I think you do yourself, creatively, a disservice and the show a disservice if you don’t stay aware of what people respond to. Not that the response changes my vision, but it definitely informs me in terms of what’s working and what’s not working. And it allows me to go, “Wow, that’s an interesting hook, that people really responded that way. I have this story I want to tell, how can I execute it in a way that I think the fans are going to enjoy it more?” That kind of thing. So I try to stay plugged into that.
AVC: Without spoiling anything, what are your goals for this next Sons Of Anarchy season? You ended season four with a lot of last-minute reversals and people changing their intended courses. What do you think needs to be addressed in this next set of episodes?
KS: For this season, the interesting thing for me is obviously Jax being at the head of the table. And it’s fun to be here now, because here we are in season five and I feel like the show’s sort of creatively reinvigorated, because it’s suddenly a new dynamic, and we get to start heading toward the finish line from a fresh place. Who is Jax as a leader? Can he be a leader of an outlaw organization and ultimately not become Clay? Do you have to be Clay, or do you have to make the choices like Clay to be the leader of an outlaw organization? And if he doesn’t, is he forced to suffer the fate of his father and be viewed as weak and ultimately removed from that position? So it’s really about: Now here Jax is, given the reins and the opportunity, and what does he do with that opportunity? That’s what we’ll try to blow out a little bit this season.