'Sons of Anarchy' creator Kurt Sutter on his finale frame of mind
In EW’s Sons of Anarchy cover story now on newsstands (read it online), creator Kurt Sutter discusses how Jax may react if/when he finds out the truth about Tara’s death, why Jax’s fate is a more difficult decision than Vic Mackey’s was on The Shield, and what he hopes to accomplish with the Dec. 9 series finale’s final shot. Here is more of our chat with Sutter about the emotion of a final season and the things Sons will be remembered for beyond its great storytelling (with a couple of interjections from FX Networks CEO John Landgraf).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We saw you get emotional at San Diego Comic-Con in July talking about walking through set and seeing that everyone still wants to be there in season 7. We saw you get emotional at the show’s premiere screening last month in L.A. when talking about the camaraderie you seek and the brotherly relationship you found with Charlie Hunnam. Have you gotten emotional at times when we haven’t seen you?
Sutter: I’m sure I have. I’m in the mix of it most of the time putting everything together, so I think it hits me at times where I have the opportunity to slow down and take a look at it in the big picture. Most of the time, I’m in it incrementally, so it usually happens in situations like that where you’re sort of hit with it all.
After the massacre at Diosa in episode 4, Nero (Jimmy Smits) and Jax (Hunnam) are going to come to blows. That’s in the promo for the Oct. 7 episode, but it’s also something fans saw months ago when paparazzi photographed the guys filming that fight. Is that a concern for you in the final season?
S–t getting out? It’s always a concern, especially this season. For casting, we were getting screwed because people were taking sides and giving away story points, so now we write separate scenes for auditions that don’t give out any story points but essentially cover the same emotional range that we need. You’re always at risk when you’re doing something outside. Everyone has a f—in’ camera. So you just hope that it doesn’t give away too much. I don’t think it’s ever gonna stop people from watching, but you hate anything getting spoiled, especially on a show where we sort of pride ourselves on doing things that are unexpected. It’s interesting; I find some really, really dedicated fans don’t even like to watch the commercials because they don’t want to know anything.
Talking with Charlie, exec producer Paris Barclay, and others, one recurring theme is that everyone believes new people will continue to find Sons of Anarchy on Netflix long after the series ends. Does that afterlife put more pressure on a showrunner today to stick the landing of a finale, because people may be less likely to start watching a show if they’ve heard mixed reviews of the ending?
No, I can’t think that way. I can’t worry about what the perception is going to be, I just have to tell the story. I know how I want it to end, and that’s the way I’m going to end it, and however it lands in terms of the landscape of things, that’s the way it will land. As long as I know I’m telling the story that I intended to tell, then I know that I’ve been organic in terms of the narrative and didn’t compromise the vision, I can feel good about it going in. That’s the perspective I think you have to have.
Let’s talk about some of the things Sons of Anarchy will be remembered for. We’ve talked before about how you use montages, like that epic cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the season premiere.
I pretty much know what songs I want for the montages, just because to me it’s part of the storytelling, and the song I pick enhances the storytelling. Here’s something you can spoil if you want: there’s another song that I’ve been wanting to use, ’cause I just think it speaks to the period, which is “The Age of Aquarius.” We’re gonna use that this season. That was another one where I said to Bob [Thiele, the show’s composer/music supervisor], “This is huge. I don’t know how you’re gonna do it, but here you go.” Bob tracks down the right singer. He scores it in a way that honors the piece of music and yet feels like part of the show. So Bob is just such a great musician and composer, and I can throw those ideas at him and very rarely does it not work.
Bob told me the song you’ll use to close the series finale is one you’ve been wanting to use for seasons now.
There was a song I’ve been trying to get for a while, and it’s by an artist that very rarely lets his music be used, and I had to tap into some of my big connections to get it. I still have to send the artist pages to get approval, but as far as getting permission, we got permission to use it and we’ll use the master of that most likely. I think it’ll tell the story that I want to tell.
You can do pretty much whatever length of episode you want now. Has John Landgraf ever been like, “What have you done to me? Now everyone wants to do this.”
No. I don’t think so. We always had this timeline on The Shield. You really had to fight for extra time. I did the first few seasons [on Sons], and it was hard. The interesting this is the page count hasn’t changed: I have incredibly tight scripts. They’re all between 38 and 42 pages. It’s just that the characters have gotten deeper, the relationships have gotten more meaningful, so the episodes really just need more time to breathe because more s–t happens. What in the first couple seasons might be a throwaway line and a look, now there’s just so much more going on, you have to honor so many more pieces of stuff that doesn’t have dialogue. It just becomes so much more intense. So I got to the point where I didn’t know what to cut anymore. I really went to the network and it wasn’t like I was like, “F–k you, I don’t want to take that out.” It really was, “I need help here because I don’t know what the f–k to get rid of. What do I do?” The worst thing to do is to truncate stuff for time and basically gut the purpose of the scene. The mythology was getting so thick and the serialization so complex that it was hard to just pull out a scene, which quite honestly means my writers and I are doing the right thing because there’s no fat, there’s not a wasted scene. Every scene, even the character s–t, informs story and gives you the next piece of the narrative. [Laughs]
I think it was like season 4, they were like, “Okay.” And I’m like, “All right.” And we were turning in episodes, and they’re like, “Okay, just give us an extra act so we can sell some commercials.” And then being who I am, I was just like, “All right.” I didn’t ask questions. The ad space is very valuable because it’s that core [18-49] demographic. Usually, when you have an episode that runs long, that extra time is really difficult to sell because advertisers are afraid. “Oh, we don’t want to be the loose three minutes that someone’s gonna have chopped off their DVR or not gonna watch.” But on this show, ultimately all that extra time became very easy for them to sell. DVRs are sophisticated enough to cover entire episodes, and on FX, at that time [of night], you’re not backing into more [original] programming. I’ve been very fortunate. [Laughs] I’m sure I’m not gonna have the luxury of episodes as long as I want when I do the next show until it actually reaches the point, if it ever does, that they can sell that extra time. [Ed note: Good news, maybe not! John Landgraf says, “No, I don’t think that’s true. We changed our philosophy and Kurt’s been a big part of that. What makes advertiser-supported television predictable is the fact that it runs on a clock. If you think about it, while you’re watching an episode, you just have a sense of when things are going to happen because they have to because the show has to end at a certain time. We’ve decided that surprising the audience is almost the most important thing, and that giving the creative people the leeway to make episodes of variable length is really helpful because it keeps you on your toes when you’re watching it, keeps you a little off-balance. You can’t look at your watch and say, “Oh, the end is coming because it’s the end of the hour.” It may go another 10 minutes, it may go another half hour.”]
Fans have the impression you can also do whatever you want violence-wise. Is that the case?
I still get lots of Standards & Practices notes about violence and nudity and language. And it’s arbitrary in that it changes every year. Like, suddenly this year, they’re very sensitive about the N word. Which I’m like, “I’m doing a whole storyline on white supremacists so, you know.” [Laughs] I have to go in and fight for those things a little bit. “Jesus Christ” is basically my f—, because I can’t say f—. And there was one season where they were, like, counting my “Jesus Christs” because somebody on the Fox food chain thought it was so blasphemous. It’s the kind of thing where I’ll find some kind of compromise where I’ll fight for a couple and pull one out. [Ed note: Ask Landgraf for one of his most memorable conversations with Sutter, and it takes him a moment to settle on one that’s fit to print: “Going all the way back to the first season, I don’t know if you remember the carnival came to town, and there was a clown who was a pedophile,” Landgraf says. “[SAMCRO] managed to rescue this girl, who was the daughter of Oswald, and then they castrated the clown with a knife. I had a huge knockout, drag down fight with Kurt—not about whether or not we allow him to depict the castration of the clown, but whether we would allow him to show the removed part landing on the ground. Kurt insisted that you had to actually see it, and I insisted that sound effects and context would provide it, and that’s really where all our fights have come from. I totally acknowledge the need for violence. It’s a violent world and a violent show. He’s portraying really tragic, dark consequences of violence. Kurt wants to show it in very graphic detail, and I want to leave more to the imagination.”]
Looking ahead, there are plans to keep the Sons of Anarchy brand going after the series ends: A novel due out in November, a forthcoming tablet game, and a potential First Nine prequel on FX. How do you look at each of those?
They’re all different scopes. We’ve been trying to get the novelizations to happen because the graphic novels did well, so that’s kind of cool. We’ve been trying to get a game off the ground, and I think we found a really good compromise in terms of it being high-end tablet, so I’m excited about that. There’s some sort of gaming conference coming up where they’re going to announce stuff. I didn’t want to do anything that repeated stuff people had already seen or that stepped on narrative or ran contrary to stuff that we’ve seen or we will see. I know it’s set in a different charter, but there will be some intersection with our characters. The First Nine is potentially another series or a miniseries, so there’s been serious conversations about that, and I think that at some point that will happen a season or two down the line. It’s a period piece, and tonally it will be very different from Sons. I don’t think it will be quite as action-driven, so I’m sort of excited to take a look at the mythology with a different style of writing. If we do it, I hope to begin it with JT and Piney, so it will take place when they’re finishing their tours of duty and getting out, so late ’60s.
Do you already have people pestering you for auditions for that?
Yeah, all the time. People send me headshots telling me how much they look like Piney and Clay.
But first, you’re focused on the FX pilot The Bastard Executioner. What’s your timeline for that?
I think the plan is for me to actually write the script in November or December. We’ll probably go into preproduction sometime in February or March, and then hopefully shoot it April or May. If that goes well, if we figure out the production model and if FX likes it or thinks it’s feasible, we’ll move ahead.
It’s about a knight in 14th century England who lays down his sword, then picks up “the bloodiest sword of all.” It sounds apropos of what you’re doing on Sons this season.
Yeah. Though Jax has never left the life—he’s struggled within it. This is a guy who has full-on walked away from it ’cause he felt like it was his destiny, and he’s sort of forced back into it. Obviously the world’s very different. Our hero is complicated in a much different way. It’s what I like to write, so I do think there will be themes that run through Sons. My sense is that Sons fans will like it. It will push some of those same buttons for them. We’re not on motorcycles and in leather jackets, but I think it’s ultimately a complicated and relatable character.
Watch a behind-the-scenes video of EW’s cover shoot with the Sons cast.
For more on Sons of Anarchy, check out this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now.
Sons of Anarchy
Kurt Sutter’s original series, starring Charlie Hunnam, Ron Perlman, and Katey Sagal.