After The Shield ended at FX, executive producer/writer/director Kurt Sutter decided to continue his relationship with the network, when he created the hit drama Sons of Anarchy. Exploring a notorious outlaw motorcycle club’s desire to protect its livelihood while ensuring that their simple, sheltered town of Charming, Calif. stays just the way it is, they have spent the last two seasons confronting threats from drug dealers, corporate developers, overzealous law officers and even a very dangerous white supremacist.
Last season’s finale saw Abel, the infant son of the club’s Vice President, Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) kidnapped, leaving him feeling powerless and sending him into deeper turmoil over his future with the club. In the highly anticipated Season 3, his search will send the club as far as Ireland, where Jax faces not only the Irish Republican Army, but his own personal history as well.
During a recent interview, show creator Kurt Sutter talked about the dual storylines in Charming and Belfast, gave hints about what fans can expect from this season’s even more personal struggle and journey, revealed some of the great guest stars and that he has a definite idea for what the last 10 or 11 episodes of the series will look like, whenever that time comes. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Kurt: Season 3 picks up where Season 2 ended. I think there’s a three or four day gap, so we’re really dealing with the consequences of the baby being taken and Gemma being on the lam. Those really will be the guiding obstacles for Season 3. That motivates most of the action for the season. And, we’re going to Ireland. There will be four episodes that actually take place in Belfast. Because we’re a cable show, we actually won’t be filming in Belfast, but we had a second unit there for two weeks. I held them back there until I had as many scripts written as I could, so that I knew which shots I would need. There will be a lot of footage of Belfast, and some of our actors in those shots.
When you approach a season, do you figure out the overall story for the whole season first and then go back and fill in the specifics on an episode by episode basis?
Kurt: Yeah. I’ll have a pretty good sense of bigger arcs that I want to do in a season and I pretty much know where I want to land. And then, I’ll sit down with my writers, talk about those and flush them out. Then, we’ll figure out, “Okay, this event will happen in Episode 2, this event in Episode 7 and that event in Episode 8,” so we know where our mile markers are. And then, we’ll go and flush out each individual episode.
Will Titus Welliver’s character be a larger part of this season?
Kurt: Yeah, we set that up last season and we will continue. We have Titus for eight episodes this season.
How will Gemma’s arc continue this season?
Kurt: I think the spiritual journey is over. Like anything else, everything that happens in previous episodes informs where the characters go and what they do, but they don’t wear it every day. In Season 2, yes the conflict that Jax and Clay continued to play out, but you can’t walk around with that every day. Ultimately, you’re brothers and you have to get past that. They scab over and then, somewhere down the line, we’ll probably rip that scab off again. Things pull focus and there are other priorities, so those beefs and challenges get put onto a back burner. It’s the same thing with Opie and Tig. You have to move on.
Kurt: That was literally something I had never planned on doing, until I was writing the draft. My actors were like, “What?!” It’s a very incestuous world. It’s not that everyone is sleeping with everyone’s old lady, it’s just incredibly incestuous and very small. I think we earned it emotionally, where both of those characters were, at the time, with their respective loyalties. I don’t think they’ve ever hooked up. I think there have probably been flirtations. Ultimately, it was Tig’s loyalty to Clay that snapped him out of it. I actually had a scene in the premiere episode that we ended up having to lift for time, but it was ultimately Tig being nervous around Gemma, and Gemma just saying, “Relax, I’m not asking you to go down on me.”
How does writing for Katey, who is someone that you know so well, change your approach?
Kurt: It doesn’t really change my approach. I love writing that character. As bizarre as this sounds, there’s a lot of myself in that character. The great thing about writing for Katey is that I know her very well, as an actor as well as a human being, and really created this role not just for her, but as a result of her. It’s influenced by what a strong and maternal presence she has. It’s not that she’s hitting people with skateboards to protect my kids, but she’s a pretty fierce mom.
Who will you be adding to the show this season?
Kurt: We established Kenny Johnson’s character, Kozik, last season, in Episode 12. We’re developing that character this year. He’s got this beef with Tig that we’re going to play out. There are four or five characters in the Ireland arc that we’re introducing. I don’t really want to go into specifics because it will give away too many story points, but we have fantastic actors. We have Paula Malcomson for eight episodes. We have James Cosmo, who’s a wonderful actor, for eight episodes. And then, we have Titus Welliver. Then, we have three or four other actors who play some of our Belfast club members, who are wonderful actors. I just got the overages on our cast costs for Episode 9, and it’s a big season.
Who or what is going to be the primary adversary this season?
Kurt: There are a couple. We have a couple of dual storylines going, in Charming as well as in Belfast. But, I guess if you had to pin it down to one specific adversary, I would say that it’s probably the Titus Welliver character, Jimmy O.
Can you talk about developing this role for your wife, Katey? Did she have any direct influence on it?
Kurt: Katey did a couple episodes of The Shield that I had written, and we wanted to do something together. Then, this project came along and, as I was exploring the world and the dynamic between the members of the clubs and their old ladies, I was influenced by Katey, in terms of her strong maternal instincts. She’s a fierce mom, and I thought, “What would that strength look like in this world?” So, she influenced the role, in that way. She’s not a violent, skateboard-wielding mom.
Because stakes are so high every season, is one of the most challenging aspects of this crafting a season-ender that allows you to make a next season?
Kurt: I don’t necessarily think of these characters as being bad men or bad women. It’s a fairly dangerous world and, although the solution and their actions are quite often different than ones we would choose, their motivations are often the same as ours, whether it’s protecting their family or their hometown, or keeping out who they perceive to be a bad or worse influence. Their means to get that done are quite often bad.
Do you think you’ll hit a point where you’ve killed off too many characters?
Kurt: Hopefully, I’ll never get to the point where I run out of characters. I usually have a blueprint of where I’d ultimately like the show to land. Usually half-way or three-quarters of the way through, I start to get a sense of what the next season will be like, so I can maybe lay some track setting that up. Obviously, between Season 2 and Season 3, there was a lot at stake. Very little time lapses between those two seasons. My sense is that will be different between Season 3 and, if we’re lucky enough to have it, Season 4.
What is it like to write for this ensemble cast?
Kurt: As a creator and writer, I have the luxury of probably the most talented ensemble cast working today. That’s easy for me to say, but I think that’s very true, and the great thing about all these actors is that these men and women have created these three-dimensional powerful characters that have then informed me who these characters are. The great thing for me is that I begin to write to them and what they bring to the role, and they continue to inform me and surprise me with the choices that they’ve made. For me, it’s the perfect creative situation. It’s hard for me not to want to do two or three more storylines an episode, but I have a very limited amount of screen time to tell fairly epic stories. I’m incredibly lucky to have actors like this that, often given very little, show up and bring way more to the page than is on it.
Is there an overriding theme to the third season?
Kurt: I don’t know if there’s one specific overriding theme. The theme is always about family, and about Jax defining his role as a father, a partner, a son and a member of this club.
How far into the season is the Abel kidnapping story going to continue?
Kurt: The Abel storyline really drives us through pretty much the entire season. I don’t want to give anything away, in terms of what that means and where that takes us, but the actual span of time within our seasons is very short. It’s potentially two or three weeks, so there isn’t a lot of time that passes where you can have a lot of things unfold organically. It is a very concentrated period of time, which helps feed the sense of urgency for the tasks that they have at hand this season.
What has someone like Dayton Callie brought to this show?
Kurt: I will say that the character of Unser was really almost a second thought initially, in terms of wanting to put that character in the mix. At most, it really was a 1 ½ -dimensional character. And, Dayton is just one of the most soulful cats I know. He’s a perfect example of an actor bringing way more to the table than is on the page. Because of that relationship and his depth as a performer, I just fell in love with that character and that storyline became integral. That relationship became integral to the club.
Where is Chief Unser headed this season?
Kurt: Without giving away too much of what goes on this season, we’ve defined this relationship between Unser and the club as not so much being in Clay’s pocket, but they made this deal a long time ago where they would each do their part to keep Charming safe. What happens is that gets turned on its head a little bit this season. The nature of the violence that happens is perhaps what neither the club nor Unser had in mind. That relationship will be tested in a very heated way this season.
Will he take on a little more of the role of a foil for the club?
Kurt: I think so. I don’t think that archetype will go away. Someone else will embody it, at some point.
The lack of Emmy recognition for this show, despite all the critical praise and the high ratings, is very perplexing. How do you really feel about that?
Kurt: I so appreciated and it was so important to me to get the TCA nomination for the show and for Katey. It was just one of those moments where I said, “Okay, I’m not fucking crazy. We are actually doing good work, and there is some recognition to that.” All I’ll say about the Emmys, since I’ve clearly had a very specific opinion on it, is that every year when the Emmys are announced, the stories that come out, half of them are about the nominations, and the other half are about the absurdity of the nominations and the snubs. To me, perhaps that suggests that the system is somewhat flawed. That’s all I’ll say.
Kurt: Yeah, I still believe that. I think it’s the truth. I think it was the case for The Shield, and I think it’s the case for our show. The TCA Award nomination meant a lot more to me because it’s decided on by people who actually know TV. There are so many factors involved with the Emmys. After 7 or 8 years of it, you see patterns, and we don’t fall into those patterns. It gets frustrating and disappointing, and I get more mad at myself for being disappointed than I do for not winning the awards. But, that’s just the nature of it.
Does the massive fan support that you have behind the show make up for any of that at all?
Kurt: On that morning, absolutely not. But, of course. It doesn’t last long. It dissipates. Katey and I end up just laughing at each other, and we move on. It’s a great show. I love my job and I love what we do. I get more upset with myself for getting sucked into it and being disappointed, than I do actually not getting nominated.
What more could you do with this show on pay cable, that can’t do with it on FX?
Kurt: On pay cable, I’d probably have about at least 10 to 13 more minutes of story time, which is a big difference. Obviously, I’d have a little bit more room with language. I’d have a little bit more room with violence and sexual content. After seven seasons on The Shield, I just got used to living creatively in those parameters and being challenged by them rather than feeling handcuffed to them. I learned to have guys with bad attitudes and doing bad things, and criminals and outlaws living in a world where the word “fuck” doesn’t exist. Therefore, I take it upon myself to use it as frequently as I possibly can. That’s the parameter that I’ve learned to live with. It doesn’t exist in that world. I constantly have an ongoing dialogue with our Standards & Practices person, in terms of what we can and can’t do. Obviously, I’ve have more freedom to do that on pay cable, but I don’t think that has impacted, creatively, what I’ve been able to do on this show. I don’t view that as a handicap, if that makes sense.
Kurt: Yeah. I meet with them for a couple of reasons. We talk about the broad strokes, emotionally, of where I know the seasons is going, and it’s more about letting everybody know where we’re going, and talking to them about where they feel their characters are going. It’s basically so we’re all on the same page, in terms of the homework we’re doing and how we’re preparing, so that I don’t have an actor working from one premise and going in one direction, and then, all of a sudden, he gets Episode 4 and realizes that he’s been working from a completely different emotional place.
Have you ever had any conflict over any of the storylines?
Kurt: I don’t think conflict. They’re all really very trusting of where we take the show, and they’re open to that. Sometimes it’s about needing to understand it. If there’s a big arc we’re doing, or something that’s a little bit out of a different color or characteristic of a character, then we need to sit down with the actor and have a discussion about why we’re doing that. It’s not conflict, as much as there are certain decisions we make that are going to require us to give them more information, so that they understand where we’re going and an actor doesn’t just get waylaid with a storyline they didn’t see coming.
What kind of notes do you get from the network?
Kurt: It’s interesting, in the first episode, the notes are somewhat extensive because we’re all getting it off the ground, but there are not a lot of notes. I get notes from the network and from John Solberg. Usually, the first couple of episodes, there’s a lot of notes, just because we’re all still figuring it out. But, by the third or fourth episode, when we hit the ground running and everyone knows where we’re going, the notes get fewer and fewer with each episode.
Kurt: Honestly, I don’t know. I got the name Teller from literature somewhere, but I don’t know where I got the Morrow name.
Are you still following a Shakespearean five-act model for the show?
Kurt: I talked about initially being influenced by those archetypes with the characters of Jax, Gemma and Clay, and that manuscript of John Teller’s was the ghost of Hamlet’s father. That is still a paradigm that lives within it. As the season and the show progresses, you’ll see some other parallels, but it’s not an episode to episode thing where I’m following some paradigm. Overall, the archetypes are influenced by that.
Has it surprised you that the cast members have immersed themselves so deeply in this world?
Kurt: Yeah. I think it’s just the nature of it. It just happens. I saw it happen on The Shield. Ultimately, the Strike Team became a family and they got very protective of each other, and it’s happening here. These guys are like a club. They ride together and they hang out together. It’s a fun set to be around. Pretty much every guest actor talks about how it’s one of the most fun sets that they’ve worked on because everyone really wants to be there. It’s just a good working environment and everyone really cares about what they’re doing, which is great.
How many years will your overall story arc run for?
Kurt: I know, in broad strokes, where I want to end, and I have a real sense of what those last 10 or 11 episodes are going to look like, however long we get to do this. With each season, what ends up happening to me is that, about half-way through the previous season, I start to see what the following season is going to look like. That happened in Season 1, it happened in Season 2 and it happened in Season 3. As I’m coming to the end of it, I can shape it and inform my narrative to set me up a little bit for what I want to do in Season 4. I have an idea of what I think needs to happen to get to the end, but not really actually episodic ideas.
SONS OF ANARCHY returns for Seasons 3 on FX on September 7th