In the first of a special Q&A series, CableFAX Exec Editor Michael Grebb sat down with “Sons of Anarchy” creator, showrunner and writer Kurt Sutter, who talked about his writing process, how his experiences on “The Shield” prepared him for Sons, and the differences between cable and broadcast audiences. Season 3 of Sons premieres tonight (Sept 7) on FX. Stay tuned for more Q&As at CableFAX.com with Sons actors Charlie Hunnam, Ron Perlman and Katey Sagal.
CableFAX: Sons has a spare and efficient writing style. No lengthy exposition. Characters keep things close to the vest. To what degree do you focus on that?
KS: It’s just how I know how to tell a story. Clearly, there is exposition that has to come out in a scene, but it’s really about finding vehicles where that can happen organically. We have the luxury of “church” where the guys sit around the table, which is essentially a pow-wow and a very organic way for them to discuss what the f—k they’re going to do. And the stakes are usually high, so it’s fueled by emotion and it feels real. But that’s a device where we can inform the audience about how they feel about things. The rest of it, I just try to have things come out really organically through story or through character.
CableFAX: The show seems to give the audience a lot of credit.
KS: I think writing that way, as you say, efficiently and having things come out organically—it forces people to pay attention. So rather than watching TV like this [he leans back] and watching everything be spoon fed to you, you’re forced to sort of watch TV like this [he leans forward] and engage. And I think it’s why people are drawn to the show. They do feel like they have to pay attention. They’re drawn into the fact that they have to be aware. Therefore, they feel part of it. They don’t feel like they’re being pandered to or spoon fed. And look, there’s a lot of people who don’t want to watch TV like that. There’s a lot of people who want to come home from work and kick off their shoes—and hey, I do it myself sometimes too. If I’m sitting down and I’m exhausted, and I’m looking at my TV for what to watch, it’s “Family Guy” because I just don’t have the energy that I know I’m going to need to watch a “Mad Men” or a “Breaking Bad.” So I get it. But it’s what I know how to do, and I think it ultimately makes for a better viewing experience.
CableFAX: Does this sort of writing style work better on cable? Is the audience smarter?
KS: I don’t know if it’s in terms of being smarter or not. I think shows on broadcast are starting to get smarter—but I think it’s also the nature of what works and what makes a lot of money in broadcast, which is procedurals. And I think procedurals are all about telling the audience what’s going to happen in an entertaining way. And you know, it’s why I sort of chuckle when I hear people talk about these character driven procedurals because I’ve yet to see one work. Some of it is just that procedurals are much easier to syndicate. You don’t have to worry about timelines. So there’s definitely a financial aspect to it. And that’s why they’re so popular… It’s more of a challenge to get a serialized drama on broadcast for that very reason. I think “Lost” was an anomoly—to have something that serialized. That’s why it was incredibly smart that they made the complexity—the serialized nature of that show—they made it like a hook. So they have all these long “previously ons” where they would talk about it. And they almost made that part of the hook of the show—almost winking at it in terms of “We know this show is incredibly complicated and convoluted, and we keep changing our minds, but we’re going to shine a light on that and show you a 10-minute thing on what you missed it and make it entertaining and interesting.”
CableFAX: But while “Lost” fans became irritated with the convoluted nature of the show, they also kept watching because the characters and their backstories were so interesting. So is character king? Is that something you focus on when writing Sons?
KS: I think so. It was interesting this season because I remember having a conversation with John [Landgraf] after the pilot was shot, talking about how I feel like sometimes shows trip and fall and stumble a little bit in Season Three because they figure out what they were doing in Season One, and then Season Two is implementing that, and then sometimes they try to do the same thing over again—and then it gets a little bit derivative. I’ve seen it happen a lot on broadcast shows. I had this notion of: By Season Three, people will be invested enough in those characters that they’ll crave some of that backstory. So we were able in this season—in an organic way—to give some of that backstory with some things we’ve never seen with John Teller [the deceased father of lead character Jax], and really kind of knock him off that pedestal a little bit for Jax [played by Charlie Hunnam]. So I’m aware of those backstories, and we write from them all the time. Now it doesn’t mean that we give out that information, but we know what it is, so everyone is sort of writing and reacting and working from that consistent place. So the audience may not completely understand why they’re having the reactions that they are or what the investment is or what the relationship is, but if it’s consistent, they at least understand it emotionally, and they can plug in. I think it’s a good thing for an audience to come out of an episode scratching their heads, going “What the f—k was that? And I better stick around to find out.”
CableFAX: How far ahead have you mapped out the story?
KS: I have a sense of really broad strokes of where I want the series to go and how I want it to end.
CableFAX: That must be hard when you don’t how long it will be on the air.
KS: What I’m probably looking at is six or seven seasons if we’re lucky. I have a notion of where I want it to go, and how I want it to end. As I get about halfway through the season, I start to understand and see where we’ll be landing in the following season. So it enables me in sometimes a very subtle way—and sometimes not such a subtle way—to sort of lay track to that. And clearly, the end of Season Two was not a very subtle way to lay track to Season Three, but I think between Season Three and Season Four, the track that we lay will be a little bit more subtle.
CableFAX: That not-so-subtle Season Two finale involved Jax’s baby son getting kidnapped. So does that storyline dominate Season Three?
KS: It does. And really just because our timeline of the show is very condensed. From episode to episode, more often than not it’s literally a day later. So the whole season literally takes two and half weeks. The truth is that at the very least, it has to be emotionally impacting people. It’s not like on “The Sopranos” where [David] Chase would come into an episode and realize that a month or two months had passed from the previous episode. I just don’t tell stories that way because I feel like I would lose too much of the emotional momentum.
CableFAX: How did your experience on The Shield prepare you for being the creator and head writer of your own show?
KS: I came into that as a feature guy, writing features. I refer to that as my virtual career because nothing ever gets made. So The Shield was my first paying gig, and I really went into it kind of naïve about what it all was and how it was all going to work. I just ended up being a really good match for me. I joked that every f—ked up pitch that got studio executives very uncomfortable and wanting to call security when I was in a room pitching it—I pretty much got to use all of those on The Shield. It was just a good fit for me, and my storytelling is somewhat dark, and I love damaged characters. It was the perfect world… [The Shield creator] Shawn [Ryan] was a great mentor and let me own a little piece of that show. I loved going to work every day. I would sit back every couple of seasons with my agents and talk about, “Do I want to make a lateral move? What do I want to do?”—and there really wasn’t another show that I wanted to write for or, quite honestly, would f—king have me. So I got to the point where I just wanted to finish the ride. At the end, Shawn and I were the only ones left who had been there from the beginning.
CableFAX: Do you keep in touch with Shawn?
KS: Oh yeah. We work out at the same place. I see him all the time. Shawn is still a mentor of mine. I tap into him when I have questions. He’s a really decent man. So it was a great training ground for me to really find my voice as a writer. And Shawn was great in letting that happen. So when Sons came around, and I was ready to pitch it, I just knew FX was the right place to do it. We pitched it to a few places, and there were a couple of networks that really wanted it. But ultimately, I just felt like I already had a relationship [at FX] and knew the shorthand—and also that they just knew how to market that genre. And the other networks hadn’t had that experience. I just knew that they just got it.
CableFAX: I’m guessing your previous experience working in TV clued you into that vs. a hot spec writer who comes in with a show concept but isn’t thinking about whether the network has the marketing chops for a particular style of show.
KS: Yes, and don’t forget that if you’re coming in with that kind of situation, they’re not going to let you run a show. So it was my experience working on The Shield. I never ran the show. It was Shawn’s show. But I was in the writer’s room. I had spent enough time that I understood what that process was. So for me, I knew what I was getting into.
[CableFAX subscribers can read about our visit to the Sons of Anarchy set HERE]