Q & A: Kurt Sutter on the Season Finale of ‘Sons of Anarchy’, Casting and Why He Cut Off His Characters Tongue
Capping off a great season of Sons of Anarchy, FX and show creator Kurt Sutter held a conference call to discuss the impact of the season and outcome of the bang-up finale.
I got a chance to ask him about how he cast’s the show and he told me that when they’re making casting decisions, most of the time, he’ll defer to that episodes director. But, other times, he said that he’ll “see something in a character or in an actor that I feel is not right or would be better served because I know where the story is going to, and then I’ll make a different choice than the director.”
He also talks about what might be coming for the show, dealing with the deaths of characters, social media and more.
Check it out!
You have one—probably the best cast on T.V. It’s just amazing from the guest stars to even the day players. How involved are you in the casting process? Even for the one-liners.
Kurt Sutter: Right. I’m pretty much involved. I don’t go to ─ the first couple of seasons I did, but since I brought on Paris Barclay I’m not in the physical auditions anymore. If I’m meeting with a major cast, a major role I’ll have meetings and I’ll sit down. I sat down with Jimmy Smits, obviously, and I sat down with Harold, and with Donal Logue. At that point, it’s not making them read or audition, it’s more of a creative discussion about whether or not it’s a good fit.
In terms of the day players, what will happen is they’ll do a general audition. Paris, my line producer Jon Pare is on those. Wendy O’Brien, my fantastic casting director, is running those, and then whoever is the writer or producer is on the episode. They’ll do a general audition and then they’ll do call backs. Then I’ll usually get their top three or four picks with their recommendations.
The director is obviously in on those auditions. I’ll get the first pick or the second choice of the director; then they’ll send me their choices. I would say 70% of the time I’ll go usually with the director’s choice.
Sometimes I’ll see something in a character or in an actor that I feel is not right or would be better served because I know where the story is going to, and then I’ll make a different choice than the director. That’s pretty much my involvement. I’m pretty much plugged in to every actor that is in the show.
You have such a rabid fan base who goes into such deep details on the show, how important is it for you to focus on the little details when you’re creating a character and designing a scene, everything from props to wardrobe?
Kurt Sutter: All that stuff is really important to me, in fact I’m really sort of tyrannical with the little details of the show in terms of costume, and a scene, set design and transpo the bikes.
I’ve done a lot of research on the subculture, and I have a really pretty solid working knowledge of how these guys live. I feel by rooting it in all those really rich, small details what that then allows me to do is then tell much bigger, epic, dramatic stories. I feel if I can root it firmly in the reality of the subculture, to all the grittiness of it, all the fine details of it are true and accurate. Then I have the ─ it just gives me a lot more freedom than sort of perhaps push the boundaries on the realities of perhaps the stories and their circumstances.
That’s always been very important to me from the beginning, and we’re a pretty well-oiled machine now. We get it all done. I can’t tell you, just choosing the crucifix was at least a dozen conversations, me looking at about 30 or 40 different crosses. All that stuff is really important.
When you have a season like this where you have a major death early on, is it difficult to then build to a season finale that is going to live up to the earlier season moments?
Kurt Sutter: That’s always a challenge, doing something larger in the beginning. I really wanted to do that with Opie. I didn’t want to drag it out, sort of have people, not see it coming because of bad execution, but see it coming because of the natural progression of the world. I really wanted it to be shocking, come as a complete surprise, and kind of knock the wind out of not only the audience, but the club as well.
What I was able to do really with the death of Opie, and not so much about worrying about having the rest of the season be a let-down, but really what it gave me was such a life-altering circumstance for my hero that it really allowed me to accelerate his journey. I really wanted to get to the place where we had to force Jax’s hand to see what kind of a leader he was going to become. I feel like the death of Opie, that deep tragedy, that’s such an unsettling event, really allowed me then to sort of accelerate the emotionality of that journey, so we could sort of organically push Jax to the edge to see what kind of a man, what kind of a leader he was going to become. In that way, it really probably opened up my story possibilities rather than hindered them.
It felt at the end of the finale that certainly Donal Logue almost needs to come back at this point, and it seems like the door is open for Jimmy Smits, as Nero, as well. Can you talk about that at all?
Kurt Sutter: I can definitely tell you that Donal will be back. We’ve made a deal with Donal. We’ve made it for a total of 10 episodes so far. I think he was in two or three this year. We definitely have him locked up for seven or eight next season, and most likely it will be more than that. What we usually do is make a minimal deal with an actor, and then if we need them more we can do more.
That character, I believe, will be a big character next season, and probably the most dangerous threat that the club has ever had. Just in terms of a law enforcement guy with kind of law enforcement weight, law enforcement credentials or connections, and yet because he is retired does not have perhaps the legal handcuffs or morality hurdles that maybe some of our other law enforcement members have had. With a guy like Donal, who is just … fun to work with and such a great actor, we have a lot of places we can go with him.
Jimmy Smits, I would love to bring back. I think Jimmy adds such a gravitas to the show, good experience. I love bringing in that new sort of culture to the show. His sort of Latino past and that energy, mixing it into our world is really fascinating for me. I love the relationship that is going on with he and Gemma. I would love to bring Jimmy back.
We left it sort of open-ended because I wasn’t sure on his availability. I feel like there’s enough emotional weight on the table, there’s enough relationship weight on the table for us to continue that storyline, and yet I was careful not to pin any major story arch to his character just in case that couldn’t happen. I think we’re in the process right now of trying to figure out Jimmy’s availability and trying to make that work.
In addition to what it did for the story, does having Otto bite off his own tongue, was that your way of sort of writing yourself out of the show?
Kurt Sutter: It was my what? It was my way of writing myself out of having to learn dialogue. If Otto comes back it will be a lot of, it will just be grunts, and me scribbling … on paper.
Were you eager to sort of play that scene out yourself? There have been some shocking moments this season from the fire in the first episode to Opie’s death. Were you looking forward to having that kind of memorable violent moment for yourself?
Kurt Sutter: My pitch on the first day in the writer’s room was that I want to find a way for Otto to bite his tongue off so I don’t have to learn any more lines. We were going through the season and everyone just laughed at me. We got to the end here and it was my way of Otto, as Donal Logue’s character says, it was my way of Otto committing.
I didn’t know if we’d actually get a chance to do it. We sort of joked about it, and then we got to the finale and there was an opportunity for us to sort of organically play it out. I thought with a guy that’s as … up and damaged as Otto, what a better way of saying, “I’m not talking.” Literally removing the organ that articulates speech.
How do you find the balance in terms of Gemma’s character with her being completely despicable on the one hand and yet making us root for her in her relationship with Nero on the other hand?
Kurt Sutter: It’s always a fine balance with any of our three major characters: Jax, Gemma, and Clay. A trilogy with such strong familiar characters that have won the hearts of the audience, yet they live in this very dangerous, dark world and have to make decisions all the time, and some of those decisions are really bad and reprehensible decisions.
It’s always difficult trying to find that balance. What I try to let be my guide is the story. I’d like to think that things happen organically, and they’re never forced one way or the other in terms of trying to manipulate a reaction from the audience.
Gemma, and I mean this in the most flattering way, Gemma is just a … cockroach. She’s just hard to kill. She was really adrift at the beginning of the season. She was … up. She hit a bottom. She crawled her way back up, and she made some really very defining decisions. I think at the end ─ my intent for her was at the end of the season for her to sort of have her balls back. I think we got there at the end of the finale.
Yes, it’s hard to cheer that on, but yet at the very least there’s that sense of … she always … lands on her feet. Her justification is always I’m taking care of my family. That’s what allows her, in her mind, to do the things that she needs to do. It’s definitely a fine line.
In terms of the plotting, the show is always so dense and detailed. I wonder how much leeway you leave yourself in the midst of the season. If something ─ if the storyline you feel isn’t working or you have a different idea and a different approach to storylines, are you able to leave yourself leeway to change on the fly?
Kurt Sutter: Yes, my general rule, what I tend to do is, I come in with a blueprint in the beginning of the season and I sit down with my writers, and I sort of lay out what I want to do for the season. It’s a loose blueprint, and the more I do this and the more confident I get with the show in terms of the stories that we tell, I’ve really been able to hold onto them a little more loose each season. My grip gets a little looser as the mythology progresses.
That was the case this season. I had these ideas, and we started writing toward those ideas, but if something happens organically in the process of telling the story, if something else comes along and we want to play it out, then I have the room to do that and to go in a different direction. If I see something that’s popping on screen in terms of a relationship or a conflict that’s really suddenly taking on a much more compelling quality than I thought it was going to be, then I’ll throw some energy and some story at that. I have some leeway.
You have to be careful at a certain point, usually in the back four or five episodes, then your leeway really starts to diminish. Not that you have to start writing to tie everything up in each story, but I do have the reality of okay, this is how much time I have left this season to tell these stories. As time progresses, as the episodes pass, then you’re ─ that doorway gets a little more narrow.
Drea de Matteo, is she going to come back?
Kurt Sutter: Yes, I’d love to bring back Drea. I think Drea has a show. She got a pilot, and that will remain to be seen whether or not that gets picked up. That’s always a tricky thing. Sometimes networks and shows are open to have the actor step out and do a few episodes, some aren’t.
I definitely think there is more story to be told with that character. I love where we went with it this season. The timing felt right. It felt really organic. I think Drea had a lot of fun to sort of have some bones and some meat to chew on again with that character like she did early on. I would definitely love to bring her back. I definitely have more story I want to tell there, and again it’s really her availability, which I guess we’ll find out as we get into next season.
What are you watching on T.V. right now, and what’s maybe exciting you that other producers are doing?
Kurt Sutter: That’s a really good question. I’m a huge Boardwalk fan, always have been from the beginning. Jack Huston’s become a friend of mine. I don’t know if it’s the comradery of the one-eye thing. I’m a couple of episodes behind, so I have not seen the finale yet. I watch that. I’m not a zombie-genre fan, but I’m a big fan of my buddy, Glen, so I’m about four episodes behind on The Walking Dead.
I’ve been desperately trying to get into Game of Thrones, and I’ve been having a very difficult time. It’s just not my wheel house. What else? My wife has me now watching Revenge. It’s her favorite show, and she’s pulled me into some of that. That’s kind of soapy and delicious.
What else do I watch? I watch a lot of, this is really goofy, but I watch a lot of HGTV. House Hunters International, it’s my favorite show. I like to watch shows where guys actually build …. Guys that could actually have real skills, and put things together that actually serve a purpose.
Were you watching Last Resort?
Kurt Sutter: I did. I’m, again, I’m about three or four episodes behind on that as well. Whenever a show gets let go, it becomes more difficult to then plug in and watch the remaining episodes.
My buddy, Paris Barclay, is out there shooting an episode now, which I’m sure is difficult because I think his was the first episode after the cast found out they weren’t picked up. That’s always a difficult emotional hurdle to do.
I almost think Last Resort was too ambitious for network. I think it’s the kind of show that maybe would have done better if they kind of dirtied it up a little bit more, and did it on cable where they could spend the time telling the stories and cultivating an audience. It’s a great cast. It’s a great premise. I just think it was too ambitious, and I don’t mean this the way it sounds because it’s not that I think ─ because I watch network T.V. ─ that they’re not smart, but I think it was almost too smart for network. Maybe I’m just saying that because Shawn is a buddy of mine. I just wish that show had a chance to find it’s seat.
Are you still stuck on ending at Season 7, or do you see maybe things going a little further?
Kurt Sutter: My response to that is that Season 7 was always my goal because I know how this cable model works. I know that at the end of seven seasons, the above-the-line costs usually outweigh the value of the show. I thought, well, can I tell this story in seven seasons? Do I have enough story? I’ve always had that number in my head, and I thought, yes, I can do that.
I have the loose constructs of those seven seasons in my head, and I still have those. We’re still heading in that direction and working towards that. If I get halfway through Season 6 and I have a sense of wow, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this, and tell all the stories that I need to tell in seven seasons, then I think I can probably have a conversation with John Landgraf.
I don’t know what the solution would be. Perhaps the solution would be to extend the amount of episodes in maybe the last two seasons, or is there enough story for us to then do a Season 8? Would that actually be viable? Could we afford to do that? It’s not like I would shut the door on seven.
Here’s what I definitely don’t want to do. I don’t want to just extend the show for another season for the sake of doing an eighth season. What I don’t want to do is pad and fluff and drag … out that really should be happening in seven seasons for the sake of just doing another season. Even though I’m sure the fans would love another season, I know I don’t want to do that. My sense is if I get halfway through the storytelling in Season 6, I’ll have a pretty good sense of whether or not I can tie it all up in seven.
You made it through five seasons, and you have maintained your focus, your integrity and not jumped the shark, and the ratings have gone up. You’re so atypical, yet you still manage to break up the craziness with an episode like what you did with Walton Goggins. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say thank you for not losing your way. It’s so hard to pull this off.
Kurt Sutter: Thanks, I appreciate that. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and what I was good at. I’m probably about ten years older than a lot of my fellow show runners doing this job, so I just have a great appreciation and a lot of gratitude for where I’m at, and I don’t ever take that lightly. I dig what I do. I’m plugged into it. I think because I do enjoy it and because I have such a deep sense of ownership and pride involved in it, I don’t think I’d ever want it to let it “jump the shark.” I think that when that happens on a show it’s because the creative motor behind it just becomes distracted or bored, quite frankly. I try not to do that.
This show is my priority. I do other things in my downtime. It really is kind of my labor of love, and I have every intention of maintaining that and following through and finishing that as strongly as we’ve managed to do so far.
How important has Twitter been to kind of extend the show to fans when the season is not on. Now that the season is over, how do you plan on using Twitter and your blog to keep fans engaged so they’ll tune in next September?
Kurt Sutter: Pretty much the same way that I always do. I just don’t blog as much anymore. I’ve become sort of a lazy blogger, mainly because of Twitter. I tend to ─ and also my “What the Sutters,” mostly it’s a video blog now. I’ll continue to do those each week. I have fun with those, and now I’ll really be able to go back to answering the questions that fans send in every week.
That’s my way, as we develop stuff, I’ll let people know. When we’re back in February and I start meeting with the writers, I tell the fans I sat down with the writers. We had our first meeting with the writers for Season 6. I just think it’s such a long wait between seasons, and I try to do everything I can do to keep people engaged, to keep people excited. If there’s an announcement to make, and I can make it without stepping on the toes of my great media team at FX, I’ll make that announcement.
As I start to develop stuff, we’ll do something like we did this year. We did the behind the scenes of the before the anarchy stuff, which I really loved. HD films did a really great job. Maybe we’ll do another variation of that this season. As we start to develop those ideas, I’ll put it out to Twitter and get people’s feedback on it, and whether or not they dig it. I just try to keep people plugged into my process as I’m coming up with these ideas.
I think the success that I’ve had with the fans, and why it’s been helpful for the show is that it’s really just me opening up people to kind of my process with all of this, and making them feel like they’re part of that. My fans are very vocal, and they have a lot of opinions, and they have no problems sharing them. It will be the continuation of that.
We’re doing some really great stuff with merchandising this year, and expanding the content world. We’re doing novelizations and graphic novels, and really expanding the mythology in a lot of different directions. That will be happening this year. I will keep people plugged in to what we’re doing with all of that. It will continue to allow me to do all of that.
Did you expect Sons of Anarchy to hit to the success that it is hitting now?
Kurt Sutter: It’s always a surprise. The first thing you hope for is that a show is actually going to get on the air, and the next thing you hope for is that a show will actually stay on the air. All that I think is a blessing. I’ve had this conversation with John Landgraf, and we’re all really thrilled and surprised that the show perhaps has its best season ever in the fifth season. That’s pretty rare. There are shows, not that I’m comparing my show in terms of quality to these shows, because I’m not, but I’m just saying there are other shows like The Wire and Friday Night Lights that maintain that level of quality and level of interest five seasons deep. I think we’ve been able to do that.
I have to give a tremendous amount of credit to the digital availability of this show. We didn’t have that luxury with The Shield. We didn’t have Netflix. We didn’t have iTunes. We didn’t have Amazon Instant. If people wanted to catch up they had to buy the DVD.
I think the success of that growing fan base is, in a large part, due to the accessibility of those previous seasons. Now, because the quality of the show is good, I think those people who watch those previous seasons then are interested in seeing what’s to come. So many people catch up with this show, not just on DVR, but through those outside sources. We sell a tremendous amount of DVDs in what is an ever shrinking market. I have to say that that is probably the reason why the numbers continue to explode from season to season, and we continue to add fans every year. I can only hope that that continues.