Kurt Sutter Talks Season Four of SONS OF ANARCHY; Says He Hopes to Have Seven Seasons to Tell His Story

     December 14, 2011

After its highest-rated season ever, Sons of Anarchy closed Season 4 in a way that clearly paves the way for an already highly anticipated Season 5. By the end of the season finale, everything was shaken up and everyone’s future was uncertain, which should make for very interesting storytelling when the series returns in September 2012.

With the season over, show creator Kurt Sutter took some time to reflect on the events that occurred and how they’ll affect things, going forward. During this recent interview, he talked about the rise in ratings, the influence that fans have on the show, where he sees things heading with everybody’s favorite characters, what he sees for his own character, Otto, and how he’s hoping to have seven seasons to tell this story, but that he’d be open to more. Check out what he had to say after the jump, which does include spoilers from Season 4.

Question: What do you attribute the rise in ratings to, this season?

KURT SUTTER: That’s a good question. Obviously, it’s very satisfying, and I think it’s attributed to the fact that I surround myself with people who are way more talented than I am. I think people have really come to understand these characters and plug in, and they’re along for the ride. I think Netflix helped a great deal. Watching the first couple of seasons really allowed them to plug into the show and get it.

Especially after this season, what type of response have you received from fans and members of any outlaw club that may follow the show? Will their insight influence any future writing?

SUTTER: I think it’s been a pretty potent season with the fans. People have enjoyed the ride, and same with the community. I’m fairly plugged into their point of view, and most of the guys that I know in the world dig the show and get it, understand what it is, and laugh at me and some of the absurdity of what it is our guys do, but they respect what I’m trying to do and I don’t really get negative feedback. In terms of influencing me, it’s not like the influence is specific, like someone has an issue with a storyline and that impacts me to change it. I think the influence is seeing the response that people have to story arcs or character things. I’ll get a general sense of what people are really plugging into and responding to, and what’s really hitting an emotional button with them, and just log that in my mind, in terms of, “Okay, that’s a component of the show that people really enjoy,” or “That’s a part of the show that people are baffled by.” It’s really more of a thematic process, in terms of what the fans are responding to, and when I go back to write, I’m aware of those things. I’m not writing the show in a vacuum. I’m not writing the show for me. I’m writing the show for an audience. I’m an egomaniac. I want to be loved, honored, worshiped and adored by everyone, so I want a big audience. I love the fact that we’re beating networks in key demos. To do that, I need to be aware of what the fans are enjoying, and stay aware of that when I’m writing.

This season, it felt like you were setting up a big death with either Clay (Ron Perlman) or with Tara (Maggie Siff), but you’ve proven that you’re very unpredictable. Why did you decide not to kill either character off?

SUTTER: As the stories developed, we got a sense that, at least with Tara, that we weren’t going to kill Tara. I’m all about surprising, and I have no problem killing off main characters, but I also have to protect the show and I think it would be very difficult for us to continue with Jax and tell that story without Tara, so I knew that that wasn’t going to happen. Sometimes, whacking somebody is just too easy. To me, it’s a much more complex and interesting story to take away the thing that defined Tara – her being a healer. What happens when you take that away? Where is Tara? What does she become? Same thing with Clay. It would’ve been way too easy for Jax to have that reveal about his father that we’ve been playing with for four seasons now, and then have Jax kill Clay, two scenes later. To me, it’s a much more interesting story to have that awareness and play that out for a couple of seasons. I keep using this example, but what I’m stealing from is The Shield, when we had Vic (Michael Chiklis) become aware that Shane (Walton Goggins) was the one who killed Lem (Kenny Johnson). We had that awareness happen, and then we got to play that out for a season and a half, where these guys loathed each other and wanted each other dead and felt this enormous sense of betrayal, and yet had to suit up and go to work with each other every day, living with this secret. We get to play that out now with Jax and Clay. I just think that’s great turf for potent storytelling. Quite frankly, I want to see what it looks like, for a season or two, to have these guys aware of this now, rather than just have the reveal and have him avenge it. It’s really about just wanting to create more territory for story.

Opie (Ryan Hurst) has lost his wife and his father because of the club. Jax (Charlie Hunnam) has lost his father, his son was kidnapped and Tara (Maggie Siff) was injured. Why is it that these guys can stay so loyal to the club, despite it being so bent on destroying them?

SUTTER: Ultimately, for the most part, it’s all these guys know. For me, it’s the crux of the drama, at least with Jax. He was raised in this world and it’s all he knows, so can he leave it? Can he abandon it? And, if not, can he fix it? I know there were some questions, in terms of what happened to Opie, at the end of the episode. It was just too neat and simple for Opie to come back. Opie is a complicated dude, and one of the things that was fun with him this season is that some of this guys are not very self-aware. It took marrying somebody else for him to actually begin to grieve the death of his wife. I think it’s just all catching up with Opie. He’s not a guy that processes things quickly. So, in my mind, it’s going to take a minute for Opie to get back to that table, if he does get back. It’s something we get to play out next season. He’s not ready to necessarily be at Jax’s left, especially with Jax not being able to really be completely honest with him. But, it’s really all they know, and we get to explore that. To be honest with you, if they decided it wasn’t what they wanted and left, I wouldn’t have a show left.

What are your thoughts about this new era in Season 5? Do you think Jax can handle the reins with his father’s vision, or do you think there’s too much Clay coursing through his veins now?

SUTTER: I think that’s some of the things that will be fun to examine with Jax. There’s the idea that, as we see with a lot of our politicians, people have a lot of ideals and make a lot of promises, in the pursuit of an office, and yet, when they get into that office, they’re often handcuffed by the restraints of previous relationships and responsibilities. More often than not, those ideals and desires to do things differently, fall to the wayside. More often than not, they end up repeating the actions of their predecessors. So, the question for Jax is, “Can he replace Clay without becoming Clay?” Is Clay just a product of the life and the responsibility of leading an organized crime syndicate, which the club is? If Jax strays from that and tries to take the approach of running the club that his father had, will he inevitably suffer the same fate as his father? So, it really is about whether Jax can do things differently. Can he be his own man? Can he affect change? Can he stay true to who he is and what he believes, and honor this shift he’s had over the last couple of years, and still be the visionary behind the club?  For me, that’s the fun we get to play out, in the next couple seasons.

Can you give some insight for Gemma in Season 5 and where Season 4 will leave her now?

SUTTER: I think the interesting thing, with this season, if you really look at the dynamic, is that it’s this world about the men, but more often than not, we see it through the window of the women. We see Clay through the window of Gemma because she’s the one that knows his secrets. We see Jax’s through the window of Tara, which is why I ended it the way I did. Ultimately, we’re viewing this world through the eyes of the women. I think it’ll be an interesting season, for the two of them. I think Gemma makes this decision, at the end of Season 4, that’s somewhat hasty, but she’s a survivalist, and she wasn’t going to throw away 20 years of work. I don’t think Gemma will be usurped, and Tara is not Gemma. She’s not there yet. Not that I’m going to take a step back and bring her back to the wavering Tara that’s she’s been, to a certain extent, but I think she will have her struggles, in that role. I don’t think the struggle will be, “Am I in, or am I out?” I think the struggle will be, “How do I stay who I am and navigate in this world?” It’s not unlike the way Jax has struggled, over the last few seasons. I don’t think that Tara has the capacity, if push came to shove, to put a bullet in someone’s head, as I think Gemma could do, without giving it a second thought, and then go hit Starbucks on the way home.

Ray McKinnon Sons of AnarchyWhile the guys were in prison, Tara (Maggie Siff) came to resemble Gemma (Katey Sagal) so much. Did you plan that out?

SUTTER: We’ve actually really been playing with that idea since Season 2. We had conversations with wardrobe and hair about it. The more Tara spent time in the world, the more it rubbed off on her, and she couldn’t help but become part of it. We were able to play that out with wardrobe and hair. I think it’s inevitable, her coming around to slowly morph into it, and then towards the end, having some of the emotionality match it as well, in terms of who she is and what she does. That was our intention.

Do you think external threats, like Leroy’s dead girlfriend’s father, are going to take a backseat to the more focused internal threats in the club, for Season 5?

SUTTER: I don’t know yet. I’m trying to be smart and give myself a running start for next season. I’ve learned that that really helps. It really benefits a show to be able to hit the ground running, for a new season, so some of it is that. Also, some of it is really just creating some sense of the sword of Damocles hanging over Jax’s head, as he’s sitting at that table. The club is potentially facing a very dangerous foe because of their actions, but I don’t know the level of the threat yet. I’d love to be able to brand that character. In my mind, he’s sort of a Frank Lucas kind of a guy that has a lot of sway and is a few steps above the club, in terms of influence and connections. I haven’t really given specific thought to what that conflict looks like, and whether or not it will take precedence. Obviously, the internal threats and dynamics will continue with Jax and Clay, and the rest of the club. My sense, next season, is that it’ll be a slower boil. It won’t be quite as fast and kinetic as this season was, with the cartel and with Jax wanting to get out. This season, everyone was out of breath at the end of every episode. My sense is that next season, that won’t be the case.

Can you talk about the evolution of your character, Otto, over the years? Is his story done?

SUTTER: A lot of the club dynamics often generate from prisons, and it was really just a device to get some exposition, quite honestly. It’s been fun to continue to abuse this guy. I had this storyline this season, that came up with RICO, and then we took a look at everything Otto had done, and I started putting together the specifics of his backstory, in my head. It wasn’t until this season that Otto really become three-dimensional for me, as a writer. We really looked at all that’s happened to him, and we got a little piece of that when he gave Bobby (Mark Boone Junior) the list, in Episode 12. You have a guy who, two years ago, would have been willing to bounce a Fed’s head off the table for the club, and now he feels this deep sense of betrayal and knows that he’s done. In true Outlaw fashion, he’s going to take everybody down with him. For me, it was fun to give him another dimension, this season. As an actor, it’s fun to do. I’m clearly the only one who will hire me, as an actor. I don’t know if he’s done. He’s clearly not going to be a resource for the club anymore, and they’re expediting his execution. Our season’s timelines are usually fast, so we could play that out for a couple of seasons. I’m sure we’ll see Otto again.  I don’t currently know what that will look like, though.

Was it a conscious decision to show that other side of the club with Juice (Theo Rossi), or did that just come along, as you developed that storyline?

SUTTER: Yes and no. I know it created some confusion, and rightfully so, with the racial issue this season. I had underestimated my awareness, and that people had the same awareness I did. Somehow, I didn’t seem to communicate that well enough – the idea that there were no black members of the club. To me, it was always a very interesting dynamic in these Outlaw organizations that I would go and hang out with. The club I know very well, up north, had a Latino president for years, and has Jewish members, Asian members and a couple Latino guys, and yet, there were no African American guys. I would go to these parties, and they’re friends with these guys and they associate. They weren’t racists.  They had friends who were black. There was just this sense of, “That’s how it is.” It dates back to the ‘40s, when these clubs were established. I just found it a weird, fascinating thing. And, when we brought in the character of Eli (Rockmond Dunbar), I just thought that could be a fun thing to play out, so I created this storyline with Juice. A theme that you see, over and over, in this show is, if people just told the truth the first time, things would be so much better. But, innately, there’s just that sense of people needing to protect themselves with deceit, and not telling the truth. As a result of that, when Chibs (Tommy Flanagan) says to Juice, “What’s on your birth certificate?,” in our research, that’s the truth. The piece of paper that proves it, is all that matters because half these guys don’t know who their fathers are. And, Juice getting that piece of information, realizing that all the other things he’s done, that he hasn’t told Chibs, wouldn’t have had to happen, if he told the truth the first time. I just think that’s a recurring theme on the show, and it’s fun to play out. Things don’t happen in a vacuum, and they don’t go away. Juice is still living with the guilt and remorse of shooting a guy in the face and ratting on the club. There are people out there that have that information. That may not play out next season, but not unlike what we did with Luann and Bobby in Season 2, that became a bigger story arc in Season 4 because it is now part of the mythology and the history of that character, and it doesn’t go away. I don’t think that Juice storyline is done. I only have so many minutes in an episode to tell a story, so at a certain point, some of these stories have to slide into the background and simmer there for awhile, to allow me to tell other stories.  But, I don’t think it’s done. Hopefully, we’ll be able to play that out a little bit further down the line.

Michael-Ornstein-sons-of-anarchy-image-3One of the things viewers love most about Sons of Anarchy is the actors. What is it about these actors that fits Sons of Anarchy so well?

SUTTER: Quite honestly, a lot of them are just my friends, and I like to surround myself with people who I know and trust, and who I know can deliver performances. They’re all great actors. There’s also a part of me that just loves the meta-factor of bringing those guys in to play roles. We had Benito [Martinez] this season, and David [Rees Snell]. We even tried to get C.C. [Pounder] for a role this season, but she was off doing a movie. I think the one actor I probably would not be able to bring in would be [Michael] Chiklis, or Walton [Goggins], for that matter. I just feel like those guys are so iconically Vic and Shane that it would be impossible for them to be perceived as somebody else, in this world. It would be too distracting to bring them onto the show, as much as I love and adore them, as actors and as people. For me, it’s just fun. I learned so much on The Shield, and I take a lot of my cues from that storytelling process.

Being that you worked on The Shield in the past, do you see a bit of Vic Mackey in Clay, and vice versa?

SUTTER: That’s interesting. By the very nature of who they are as men – they’re both alpha males, they’re both guys that are living with dark secrets, they’re both guys that have the innate, almost sociopathic ability to compartmentalize – I do think that there are a lot of characteristics that Clay and Vic have, but they’re two very different guys and I think their defects come from different places. I’ve had this conversation with Ron [Perlman], in terms of Clay’s past. Clay was a guy who was in ‘Nam and saw some really horrific things. He has that military solider mentality of putting his head down, holding the bayonet out, and running full-speed ahead. When you see a lot of death and gore and violence at an early age, you have to learn to compartmentalize or you implode. I think Clay has that past. I don’t think that was Mackey’s history. His alpha characteristics grew out of different soil. So, I think they’re different men, but the nature of those characters definitely has some overlap, in terms of how they navigate through the world.

How much experience did you have before working on The Shield, and how did you break into working with FX?

SUTTER: I was a feature writer. I began writing movies, and The Shield was really my first gig. I come from theater. I was an actor and a director first, and really didn’t start writing until grad school. It was all new for me. The Shield was my first gig, and nobody quite knew what that show was going to be. My relationship with FX really grew out of air. John Landgraf came onto The Shield, in the third or fourth season, in terms of becoming the president there. I would see John occasionally, but I didn’t really know him or have any interaction with him before Sons. He really deals with the show-runners, and his relationship was with Shawn [Ryan]. And then, when we were going out to pitch Sons, we pitched it to four or five places. Obviously, I thought FX would be a good place for this show because I knew they would understand the material, I knew that they knew how to market shows, and I knew it was a show that really spoke to their core audience. So, at the end of the day, when they wanted to do it and we were choosing between a few places, it made the most sense to me to go there. I had a certain amount of loyalty and trust in them, but I also knew it was the best place for the show.

With Hamlet being the basis for this, how does that work, in terms of the writing process?

sons-of-anarchy-season-4-posterSUTTER: It doesn’t figure into the writing of the show. It’s not like we have the play up on a board, with plot points that we try to follow. It really speaks to tone, the operatic nature and pulpiness of the show, and the epic quality that some of the storylines have. The archetypes, with Clay and Jax, and Gemma and Tara are there. There are often some overlaps, in terms of theme and story, that I try to do. There is also my absurd little wink at all of that, with the title of the last two episodes, and in Jax making that decision of what he was going to do. I don’t know how that’ll play out, in the future. I’m sure I will continue to have the show resonate off of those themes, somewhat.  Whether or not they all end up dead, in a big puddle of blood at the end of the series, is yet to be determined.

How do you juxtapose the balance of commerce and art, and how’s that going to affect the way that you wrap up, in the next couple of seasons?

SUTTER: It’s always the struggle. I’m very aware that I’m writing a show for TV, so I do want to write storylines that are rich and complex, and characters that are three-dimensional, and we do have actors that give tremendous performances. But, there’s an element of the show that’s incredible pulpy and very entertaining. To me, that’s as important as the rich, deep character stuff. I’ve no desire to run a show that only a couple hundred thousand people watch. If I want that kind of audience, I’ll go do theater. So, it is important to me to keep the show fun and entertaining, and I think that’s what frustrates viewers sometimes. In terms of the fan base and seven seasons, I threw out the seven-season milestone just because that was my experience on The Shield, in terms of when the above-the-line costs become too much. I knew I could tell the story I wanted to tell in a seven-season arc, and I’m hoping we manage to have that length of time to do that. If, for some reason, FX came to me, or 20th came to me, and said, “We can go two more seasons,” I would have to get that information before Episode 710, to figure that out. But, I’d be open to exploring that.