'Sons of Anarchy' creator Kurt Sutter on set (Credit: Prashant Gupta, © 2014 FX Networks)
My fiancée and I have binge-watched a lot of TV over the course of our relationship. But we’ve rarely become as addicted to any show as we have Sons of Anarchy, the darkly hilarious, unflinchingly brutal, relentlessly entertaining series about an outlaw motorcycle club, now entering its seventh and final season (the final season premiere is Tuesday, September 9th at 10 PM EST on FX).
We’re hardly alone. SOA, as the faithful call it, is FX’s highest-rated show of all time, and one of the most popular programs on cable TV, period. It was created by Kurt Sutter, a 54-year-old former writer for another bygone acclaimed and violent series, The Shield. Sutter’s active social media presence and outspoken criticism of everything from the Emmy Awards to Google has earned him almost as much attention as his work on TV. But the thing is, while his scathing and profane comments often get him the most press, most of the public talks Sutter has given over the years reveal he’s an uncannily thoughtful, polite, and cool-headed individual.
I got to experience that serener side of Sutter when I spoke to him earlier this week about finishing SOA, the final season’s motley cast of guest stars (Marilyn Manson, Courtney Love, Lea Michele, to name a few), and what it’s like to be a showrunner in the era of social media and cord cutting.
Mild spoilers ahead. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Let me start by congratulating you and the writers on seven — what I expect will be — seven successful seasons. I love the show and I know a lot of people here do too. We’re now less than a month away from the season premiere, so, how are you feeling about the end of the show?
Quite honestly I’m feeling a little tired. But we’re excited. It’s been sort of a blessing and a curse. We’re excited about being able to bring this thing to a close and knowing that people are really excited about it. But there’s a sadness about having to actually put it all to bed. The premieres are always fun for everyone. You get the cast and crew together, and everyone sees the fruits of their labors. It’s also a kick in the ass and a motivator to keep us moving into the last half of the season.
So you haven’t finished production on all the episodes?
No, I just turned in episode eight. I work pretty close to the edge here. I don’t like to write too much in advance. We’ve broken story through episode 10 or episode 11. But I like to really see things in post [production], to see how episodes land and see how relationships work out, rather than writing all the scripts and seeing what works and doesn’t work. I let that [the first few finished episodes] inform me. What new characters are popping? What relationships are developing? There’s an interesting friendship between Nero and Wendy this season, for example, and so then I want to play with that more. It allows me to keep it a little bit loose, but maybe it’s a little too close to the edge [laughs].
Speaking of characters and relationships, you have an amazing cast of guest stars this season. In fact, you’ve had a pretty incredible guest star roster throughout the show. I remember the Stephen King appearance especially. This year you have Marilyn Manson and Courtney Love and a few other people. How do you arrange that? Is that something that you and the writers come up with first, characters that you have in mind that they would be good for, or how does that work?
The Manson thing happened earlier, because I had been working on some music projects with him. I knew he was a big fan of the show. And we started talking about it and then basically, he started to stalk me. [laughs] We had this character of Ron Tully that he ended up playing, a guy on the inside, and he basically plays this shot-caller. It’s fun to see him not wearing mascara. And with Courtney Love, I’ve known Courtney for a little bit and become friends with her. I knew she was trying to do some acting and reinvent her career. She plays the character of a school teacher, one of Abel’s school teachers.
Oh man, that’s perfect. That’s like, a fantasy come to life. Courtney Love is your teacher?
Yeah, she’s in three episodes. And she has a few scenes mostly with Gemma and Wendy. And then with Lea Michele, we heard she was interested from our executive producer and director Paris Barclay, who knew her from Glee and working together with Ryan Murphy [creator of Glee and FX’s American Horror Story]. And so it all sort of worked out. We cast her outside the box. She plays a truck stop waitress. You know, tough, tank top, not a smidge of makeup on her. She completely embraced what the show was all about. It’s a show that people want to play different parts on.
That’s great. I can totally see that. And you know, talking about truck stop waitresses, I think one thing you’ve been able to do really well, more than maybe any other show, is capture this sense of, I guess you’d call it Americana. I’m sure there are biker gangs in other countries now, but just this whole idea of the outlaw riding out west, it feels very American to me.
Yeah for me, it’s all about the subculture [of motorcycle clubs] itself. It’s kind of like jazz, it’s one the one thing we can sort of claim as our own. And biker culture is blowing up all over the world. I’ve always been fascinated by the irony of motorcycle clubs. Because they say they’re all about "ride free" and "fuck the establishment." But within the structure of these outlaw clubs, there are more rules and regulations than you or I have. They’re like little military units. And I love the irony of that. I’ve been riding motorcycles since my early 20s, and I loved the hipness of the subculture. So just honoring that, who they are and their philosophy. And I think what represents the Americana of it all, if you want to get heady about it, is this idea that no matter how greedy or obsessive our country can become, or how it is represented in the rest of the world, we’re really a nation that — when push comes to shove — we take care of our own. That’s really part of the attraction of this show. Yes, it’s about family, but it’s also about community and village and the organization you belong to. Like, this season, with Tara gone, a key parental influence is missing. So the question becomes, how do you manage in the daily upkeep of children? And what we see in this season, we see Brooke, this girl we met last season, stepping in, and even Chuckie is taking care of the kids. And I think what we do in this country is that when we have a need, someone manages to fill that need. That’s part of the positive stereotype we represent as a nation — that sense of no matter how fucked up or damaged these people are, and they are, there’s something wholly familial about them.
Yeah, and I think also your show is coming back at a time when people are thinking more about some of these issues and what it means to be an American, with the situation in Ferguson and all the history it brings up, including the Civil Rights movement and anti-authoritarianism in the 1960s. And to that point, your show, I remember reading the pilot script, and the motorcycle club starts when these guys come back from Vietnam. And you’ve talked about making a prequel or anthology series about that. So I wonder if any of these themes factor into your writing, these national and world events?
Yeah, I mean, the history of motorcycle clubs goes back even further, right after World War II. But you’re right, this club started then. I don’t think or write from big ideals. I do think as a result of who these people are and the life they lead, they end up landing…Well, take the relationship they [the Sons of Anarchy motorcycle club] have had with [rival club] the Mayans. It’s reminiscent of what’s common within outlaw organizations. There’s tensions for a while, then there’s a truce and things are working out, and then tensions flare up again. It’s the exact same thing in terms of the political landscape. You saw it with the US and the Soviet Union. There are tensions inherent in being a superpower. It gets to the point that there’s too much death and destruction, and something happens to relieve the tension. So what we see is, these political machinations happen on a much smaller scale. Jax and [rival/partner drug dealer] August Marks, they’re really just kings and presidents in a much smaller world. And they’re dealing with guns and drugs instead of oil and territory. I think that by dealing with these same ideas of power and greed in much smaller worlds, you can’t help but to acknowledge or parallel these bigger issues.
Yeah, it’s all the same, but just, it varies on orders of magnitude. I did want to ask about this season in particular, with winding things down, are you treating every moment like you’re agonizing over it, or are you treating them just like every other season? For one example, with the violence, people are expecting it to be a bloodbath. I’m curious if you and the other writers feel a need to top yourselves...is there pressure that you and the writers feel going into this season?
I don’t think so...Obviously the stakes are really high this season, and Jax is in a place of a much more heightened emotion as a result of what’s happening. But for me, I don’t think of it in terms of the last season as much as I do just "the next season," you know? We’re just telling stories as we do, not trying to set things up or save things. And I hope that at the end of the season, that the final episode basically feels like, "ok, it was a great season, and now there’s no more story we need to tell," so that it doesn’t necessarily feel like we’re building and we’re building and we’re building to this last moment. I didn’t want to feel like we were sort of treading water to the big finish. It’s really just another season, and the episodes really feel like that for me. I just wanted it to be another good season of TV, so hopefully that will be the case.
Our website covers a lot of technology, everything from social media to Netflix, and how that’s changing the viewing experience. You’ve made yourself readily accessible online. On your Instagram, I saw you did the Ice Bucket Challenge, or a version of it. And you communicate with fans. You’re way more accessible than many, if not most, show creators. You’re always very outspoken and clear in your opinions. I’m curious if that’s something that comes innately or something that you set out to do?
I think a little bit of both. I think that ultimately it’s a necessary evil in terms of the television landscape these days. For me, I came into this show from The Shield where we progressively lost fans season after season after season. And obviously, we didn’t have the advantage of social media or Netflix or iTunes, the way we’re able to sort of able to continue to build our fan base on this show. But you know, when you’re on the air for three months and off the air for nine months, I was just conscious of trying to somehow engage the fans and direct the network to spend some marketing dollars in the offseason, whether through the app or through some webisodes, just to really keep fans engaged so that we didn’t quite take that dip. So that really was the idea behind it. And then I had the opportunity to keep doing that. I think it spawned really into something more than that ultimately. But it really was from this awareness of "fuck man, we’re down for nine months. So what can I do to keep fans engaged and keep the conversation going?"
'Sons of Anarchy' returns for its seventh and final season on Tuesday, September 9th at 10 PM ET on FX.