Interview: 'Sons of Anarchy' creator Kurt Sutter previews season three
The new season of "Sons of Anarchy" starts on Tuesday, Sept. 7 at 10 p.m. on FX. And since the drama about an outlaw motorcycle club is one of the best on television, I made sure to spend some time talking with the show's creator, Kurt Sutter, after the "Sons" panel at the Television Critics Association press tour a few weeks back.
I've seen the first four episode of "Sons" season three, and they're strong. (I'll have a longer review the day of the premiere.) The new season obviously deals with the abduction of Jax's baby son Abel, has a notable guest star arc for Hal Holbrook as Gemma's father, and brings back Kenny Johnson from "The Shield" as a member of the Sons' Tacoma charter named Kozik. We talk about that - none of it in particularly spoiler-y terms - about the growing outlaw attitude of the cast (in the panel right before the interview, Charlie Hunnam dismissed the Emmys in very profane, certain terms) and more. Note that I didn't repeat anything discussed at the "Sons" Comic-Con panel, so if you want to know about replacing Half-Sack, etc., go read that earlier post.
It’s been awhile since we’ve seen the whole group in action and it’s weird how with each passing year all of you begin to adopt more and more sort of SAMCRO character traits. (On "The Shield"), did you ever get the sense the Chiklis was starting to think he was a little too Vic Mackey?
Well it was very interesting. The strike team, they just ultimately bonded over the years, and I always talk about when it just got weird when Kenny (Johnson) wasn’t around anymore. They didn’t quite know what to do anymore. I think it’s hard being creative people and to not have that stuff sort of influence you. And it does. It trickles down. You spend so much time with these people that they do become in a lot of ways a surrogate family. And it’s happened with our guys, you know? And they do. They give each other shit and they are truly like a club. The interesting thing is Charlie is a street kid from Newcastle, and he’s like the closest thing we have on-set to being a real outlaw. Him and Tommy. Tommy grew up in Glasgow in the fucking ghettos. Those (scars) on his face? That’s all real shit. So, those two guys understand this life, you know what I mean? So for them, I don’t think it’s the show leading into their lives as much as their lives leading into the show.
Piney has a line in the trailer for the season: "We’re the good guys." At this point in the series, obviously the audience has bonded with SAMCRO, but where do you feel the morality of it is in terms of whose side you want people on?
My goal is never to judge. Even with this whole storyline we’re doing in Belfast that involves the IRA, it's never about making a decision to say "These guys are the good guys because of this," or "These guys are the bad guys." It’s really about telling the stories and hopefully have the reasons why they’re doing these things being organic and real and then having the audience really decide whether or not they’re good guys or bad guys. People make their own decisions about whether they’re good or bad and that’s really what I try to do is just tell the stories without (judgment).
Well, the reason I wonder is because I spent a lot of years covering "The Sopranos" and David Chase was always pretty clearly bothered by how much the audience had taken to Tony, who was supposed to be a reprehensible character and yet everyone was sort of cheering him on.
Oh, that’s interesting. The thing is, just knowing the sub-culture - and I guess it would be true for mafia as well - there’s a fascination for the sub-culture and them being the anti-hero and the bad boy. And I’m not surprised that the audience has that reaction, you know? And it’s interesting because knowing the fascination with the mob, I’m surprised that Chase had that reaction knowing people - they were just bringing the mob to life in a modern and relatable way that he did, to me it makes sense that people were related and got behind Tony.
Now you’ve done some blog posts in the past about you have a much more complicated back-story for the club and for all the characters than you’ve been able to put on-screen so far. How difficult is that for you knowing so much more than you have time to tell your audience, or is it just stuff you know you can get to later?
I think some of it we’ll get to later. I mean it’s fun this season for me and I’ve always had the notion of going to do what we’re doing this season—going to Belfast. I didn’t know the reasons why we’d be going to Belfast but I knew in terms of narrative arcs that at that point, people are going to be invested enough in the character and the show where they’re going to be curious. They’re going to be thirsty for knowledge. So this season is about revealing some of that back-story with John Teller and having him knocked off the pedestal a little bit for Jax. And so I knew that would happen in Belfast. So I’m able to reveal some of that this season, but I think for me and for my writers, we’re all sort of writing from the same place, you know what I mean? So we know what we know, so even though the audience may not know it, there’s a continuity. It’s coming from someplace real and it’s why I don’t mind if there’s some stuff in episodes where people scratch their heads a little bit.
But like when Chibs got pushed to center stage late last season, there was all that backstory he had with Jimmy O and the club in Ireland that we'd never heard before, and I assume you guys already knew all of that. It wasn’t like you were coming up with it as you were writing that episode.
Exactly, exactly. And some of that comes out. I try to reveal it if I have an opportunity to organically put it out there; I do so it doesn’t feel like we’re telling the audience, "Hey, here’s some history." So in that arc we’ve got an opportunity for Stahl to talk to Chibs and say, "I know he’s the one that decorated your face" or whatever. So that was an opportunity for the audience to go, "Oh, fuck. That’s what Jimmy's about." You know they must have history. So we know all the back-story and the history for Jimmy O and Chibs and a lot of that won’t come out in terms of the specifics, but emotionally you know exactly where they’re at throughout that arc, which to me is more important.
Has Stahl stuck around longer than you maybe expected her to at first?
Yeah, it was interesting she came in initially because I needed some ramifications and fallout for what we did to Jay Karnes. But Ally was just such a great foil, and had this great twisted sense of justice that she brought to the character and it was just so fun layering a female character with most likely more male traits, you know? That's why there was this interesting moment - I don’t know if it was Season 1 or Season 2 - with Gemma and Stahl where they sort of face off against each other and it was weird, almost like sexual tension. I didn’t plan that but I remember watching that in post going "Oh, wow." But it was just weird that they were sort of the ying and yang. They both had the same equipment. But so, yeah, she’s so much fun to write for and is just now become so invested in these guys because it’s become personal for her.
Now, the jackpot that Gemma gets into at the end of last season, some of it is Stahl framing her, but she does murder someone right in front of Stahl. When you wrote that scene, did you already have in your head like this is how we will ultimately get out of it?
I knew that we would have to. I really had no idea what we were going to do, though. I wrote myself into a bit of a corner, but because of who Stahl is and because of the extreme nature of that relationship and her obsessive need to succeed which she's really shown us, that will ultimately be something that we use to help unravel that. And we’ll find out early on that they found a gun with Polly, so that could potentially be self-defense, but that the other one was clearly murder, you know? So we started setting up potentially what some of the moves might be but it’ll ultimately be about Stahl that helps us sort of get Gemma out of that box.
Well, is this the tightest corner either here on "The Shield" that you’ve ever painted somebody into?
No it doesn’t compare to the money train. The money train, we were like, "Now what do we do?" But look, I knew I didn’t want to have Gemma spend the rest of the series in federal lockup, so I had to figure out something. But I also just knew that the dynamic that we’ve created between Stahl and Jax and Stahl and the club was fucked up and dysfunctional enough that there was room to figure something out. It’s not like she was a straight-arrow. I knew there was going to be room to massage that and find a way out.
And getting back to the question I asked the 3 guys on the stage before (I asked Tommy Flanagan, Mark Boone Junior and Theo Rossi about being patient waiting for their characters' spotlights to come), Juice is basically now the one club member that hasn’t been in the forefront yet. Do you have anything in mind for him?
You know it’s tough this season. It really is tough and I constantly am apologizing to my guys because of that baby and because of going to Ireland, we have these dual storylines running all season really from episode to episode, both with the baby and Gemma's dad. And then when the club ultimately ends up in Ireland, we have these storylines going on in Ireland and Charming, because I need to keep that world alive. So as a result of that, there wasn’t a lot of time this season to really break out other character arcs like we did with Chibs and which hopefully I’ll really be able to do in Season 4. I'm so lucky that I have these guys because like I said, I don’t have to give them much and I can plug them into a scene and get coverage of them and have them tell their own stories, you know what I mean? Now obviously, everyone will continue their roles in terms of Bobby really being the conscience of the club and that role will continue and we’re going to play out this whole conflict that happens in Charming between Tig and Kenny Johnson’s character, Kozik, will unravel in Charming. And then we do a little bit of the Chibs stuff continuing that in Belfast. But we had a couple of things on the board in terms of doing stuff with Bobby and with Juice and ultimately, I just run out of pages. And so that’s the long answer to your question but it just happens.
You wrote a long time for Kenny. Is it difficult having written that one guy for him then to put him as someone else. How much in common do Lem and this guy have?
I haven’t witnessed that because I think I just think the worlds are so distinctly different. Kenny has heart. Kenny’s just a soulful guy. No matter what he does, he brings that to the table, you know? So I think there will be probably parallels between Lemonhead and Kozik but in terms of who they are and their motivations I think they’re very different and I haven’t had the problem of hearing Lem in my head while I’ve written for him.
And that reminds me of something that a fan wanted me to ask at Comic-Con and I couldn’t find time for it. The One-Niners exist in the world of "Sons of Anarchy," there’s been a couple other smaller references. Obviously you’ve now got Kenny, you’ve had Jay on the show in different roles, how far would you go to connect it or is that about as far as you would ever take it?
I mean I don’t think there would ever been any kind of crossover as terms as a main character. A lot of that is just homage stuff for me and the fact that they’re great actors and if I have an opportunity to work with all of them, I would. And the character of Kozik, I love Kenny and I would get e-mails from Kenny all the time, basically saying, "Please give me a penis," you know what I mean? And "I love your fucking show. I want to be on your fucking show!" And so I had a sort of this thought and he was cool enough to come in Season 2 and we did that one episode where we sort of introduce him and set up a little bit of that tension between he and Tig and then we were able to make a deal for him for this season and he had a lot of things on his plate and we were lucky enough to get him. And the One Niners, that was a gang that I created on "The Shield" in one of my episodes and I asked Shawn (Ryan), and Shawn was cool with all that. I don’t think we’d ever do any kind of crossover thing. For me it’s just homage stuff. It’s just winks to people who are paying attention.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org