by Rock ‘n Roll Ghost
Sons of Anarchy creator/executive producer/writer/director Kurt Sutter knows that FX has his back creatively, that’s never been a doubt. FX has been the only network Sutter has dealt with and he’s been able to make an impact there. First, over The Shield‘s entire seven seasons where he started out as a staff writer and eventually appeared in three episodes, directed one and became the show’s executive producer in its final two years. Now, he’s the man behind Sons of Anarchy, the network’s highest rated series ever, a show that has already been picked up for a fourth season (the current third season finale premieres this Tuesday, November 30th at 10 PM ET/9 PM CT). Sutter does, however, bristle when he’s not given the room he feels he’s earned.
“It’s all the hard line stuff that you ultimately think, ‘Okay, I’m three seasons in, I’m not going to be getting those calls,’ but you just do. At the height of 70 –80 hour weeks, an extra four or five of those moments of scrutiny, can really be overwhelming,” Sutter explains. He continues, “Those are the times that I wish I could have bought a little bit more trust.” With an explosive finale in order this coming Tuesday, one would hope that Sutter can be given a little more of the trust he’s earned for season four.
Sutter has precious time in between wrapping post-production on season three and beginning to hash out what happens in season four, however. The process from start to finish is nine months long, leaving him with little time to get the film projects he wants to tackle off the ground. He does his best to wash the show out of his mind immediately after it ends, spending time with his family (which includes wife and Sons of Anarchy star Katey Sagal, their with their three children Sarah, Jackson and Esmé), and taking feature film meetings.
Sutter recently announced on his blog, Sutterink, that Paris Barclay (executive producer of HBO‘s In Treatment, as well as director of a wild list of film and television titles) will be joining Sons of Anarchy in season four as directing producer.
Below is an edited transcription of a conversation Rock ‘n Roll Ghost had with Kurt Sutter recently. Be sure to tune in to FX this Tuesday evening, November 30th, at 10 PM ET/9 PM CT for the third season finale. Seasons one and two of Sons of Anarchy are available now on DVD and Blu-ray.
Rock ‘n Roll Ghost: How satisfied have you been with this season?
Kurt Sutter: Very much so. I think it’s been creatively my most satisfying season and probably the most fun to write.
I was looking at your blog where you had last expressed some expressions about pressure from above…you were saying something about more success leading to less creativity…
Kurt Sutter: I think that’s the nature of the beast. I think that what happens is the more successful something is and the more revenue it generates there tends to be heightened scrutiny that that be maintained and continued. Going into three seasons and thinking, not that I’ve been restricted in any way creatively, just in a general sense of hopefully establishing more trust that ultimately the frustration is that can happen. I don’t think it’s a product specifically of FX or 20th Century Fox, it’s just the nature of the business. From people I know and other situations, that kind of happens across the board and I guess I was sort of naive to think that it somehow wasn’t going to happen with me, but I think it just does.
Was something expressed to you specifically?
Kurt Sutter: Oh no, it’s never creative. Everyone was very excited about this season and were behind it creatively. It’s about money, about bottom line stuff. The scrutiny has nothing to do with the creative process, it’s all about budgets. It’s all the hard line stuff that you ultimately think, ‘Okay, I’m three seasons in, I’m not going to be getting those calls,’ but you just do. FX, the truth is, I don’t have any other experience, because they truly are the only organization I’ve worked with. Seven seasons of The Shield and now three seasons here. Creatively, they’re very supportive. Of course they weigh in and express their opinion and they give notes, but they realize that the show succeeds when it has a strong vision. The network landscape is littered with shows that are over developed…so many cooks in the kitchen that it gets watered down and it’s dreck. They understand that all of their successful shows have unique voices.
Were there things you were hoping to do in terms of your budget?
Kurt Sutter: Not specifically. It really is just that sense of…there’s a lot of people that observe the process and weigh in with different things…it was an ambitious season financially for us this year. I know how much money we have to spend on an episode and we try to stay within those budgetary reigns. The biggest challenge this season was the fact that I was juggling two shows almost with the Belfast story line and the Charming story line and had huge cast budgets this year. Ultimately, you have a lot of people ringing your bell about overages and all that stuff. Some of it is just me having to man up and say these are the mistakes I’ve made in terms of not realizing my budgets were going to reach as high as they did. And then some of it is…again, I think as a show becomes more successful, there’s a sense of not wanting that to get off course, so the scrutiny doubles a little bit. So you have more people watching your bottom line and weighing in. It’s much easier for me to talk about it now that I’m winding down and have only another week or so in post before I’m all done. At the height of 70 –80 hour weeks, an extra four or five of those moments, in terms of scrutiny, can really be somewhat overwhelming. Those are the times that I wish I could have bought a little bit more trust.
What has the dispute between Dish and Fox done to you?
Kurt Sutter: Anything that pulls focus and ultimately fucks with your ratings, it’s a pain in the ass. I had a long discussion with John Landgraf and ultimately understood why they were doing it and the need to do it and how it ultimately will benefit us, the network and the show, in the long run. It’s just taking the hit for those few weeks. I was really glad, last week, when our ratings were back up to what they were week three. Which means that the fans really made an effort to either stay plugged in to the story or to buy them elsewhere. Which says a tremendous amount about our fan base.
How did the idea of the show come to you and how did you come to realize that you could map it out for seven seasons as you’ve stated you want to do?
Kurt Sutter: The seven seasons for me is just knowing the model for the network and knowing that that was the model for The Shield, in terms of economics. After seven seasons it just doesn’t become financially feasible. So, thinking in terms of if I could get that many seasons, could I tell this story over seven seasons? I had a sense of being able to do that and how that would break down from season to season. The original idea for the show was I always had a sort of fascination with the subculture and had been involved in a couple of feature projects pursuing that and I have ridden motorcycles since I was in my twenties. My other executive producer, John Linson, also shared that passion. He and his dad (Art Linson) were mostly feature people and wanted to get into TV. John hooked me up with a couple of friends that were in outlaw clubs in northern California. I spent some time with those guys and hung out with them and got a sense of what the lifestyle was. I had a pretty good notion that if I could capture some of this, it could be a fascinating show. After doing some academic research and with my first hand research with the club members, it grew into the Hamlet-esque paradigm that I applied to it and really saw what the series was.
There seems to be some removal of Jax digging into his father’s desires for the club this season. Understandable that you have to play out the search for his son. Is there going to be a move back to that?
Kurt Sutter: Yeah. Ultimately this season for me is digging into the mythology and history of John Teller and we get that through what happens in Belfast. It’s not so much Jax pursuing or trying to wrap his brain around it, it’s being jammed down his throat and seeing the consequences of that.
In your time off, do you have any plans to do anything?
Kurt Sutter: Not much. I really try to detach from the show and do something else that puts my head in a different place, so I can wash it out a little bit. But really it’s just catching up with some family stuff. And a lot of it is general meetings, a lot of stuff that I don’t have time to do during the season. I like to keep my feet in the feature world, so I’ll go out and take a lot of feature meetings and meet people. Just generally stay plugged in, because when you’re in the throes of a season, it’s really difficult to be aware of the fact that it’s not your life.
Does it help having your wife, Katey Sagal, as part of the show or is that oftentimes as difficult if you both were working separate jobs?
Kurt Sutter: I think it helps. It’s difficult some days, because it’s hard not to bring your work home with you. We’re both very invested in the show, but the truth is we both work very hard. My hours are a lot longer than hers, and the truth is I would probably see a helluva lot less of her if she weren’t involved. It is an opportunity for us to spend time together. We’re the presidents of each other’s fan clubs. We definitely have a lot of mutual respect for each other’s process. So I think that helps tremendously.