Photo: Prashant Gupta/FX
Kurt Sutter
“I learned to write TV by getting a big stack of scripts from my agent and studying them and then writing spec after spec after spec after spec. That’s the only way you can learn how to write.”
The Motorcycle Dramatist
Kurt Sutter, the tattooed, motorcycle-riding creator of FX’s Sons of Anarchy, explains why SOA has shown its softer side of late and theorizes on why other shows lose a step in season three.

Written by Dylan Callaghan

Kurt Sutter, the creator of FX’s Sons of Anarchy is that rare type of dude that can pull off an elaborate discussion of Swedish modernist August Strindberg while wearing a battered motorcycle jacket and gnawing on the stub of a cigar.

He’s a tough guy with an M.F.A.

And while Sons of Anarchy doesn’t touch on the literary, it does represent both his rebel nature and his keen understanding of the poetic power of the visceral and the brutal. The series, which stars Charlie Hunnam, Ron Perlman, and Sutter’s wife, Katey Sagal, focuses on the struggles of Jax Teller (Hunnam) to balance being a new father with his life in a motorcycle gang. Now in its third season and headed for a fourth, the show has been a hit for Sutter, who learned his trade working on Shawn Ryan’s beloved cop drama The Shield.

Sutter spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about his academic background, his road mapped approach to scripting Sons, and his response to those fans that are up in arms with this season’s emotional, distinctly non-formulaic direction.

You’re now in season three with Sons. Has this show’s arc has surprised you in any way?

I had a pretty clear sense of where the show is going from the jump. Obviously not episode to episode and A story to A story, but a pretty good sense of the mythology. A lot of writers don’t work that way or might even find that inhibiting. I know when I was on The Shield, I think Shawn [Ryan] had an idea of what would ultimately happen to Vic, but on that show, he let things unfold organically through the seasons.

And you’re not doing that with Sons?

Photo: © 2010 FX
Charlie Hunnam in Sons of Anarchy.

It’s not that I’m not doing that… I have a pretty good sense of how I want to end the show, and by the end of season one, I knew I wanted to shoot Belfast for season three because it would be important to the mythology of the show. It would have been too soon to do that in season two and too late in season four, but it was the right time in season three to expand the palate.

So I had a sense of how it was going to unravel, but of course, when you’re in the process of it and the narrative kind of takes off in its own direction, what happens for me is that the emotionality of the story starts to inform the relationship and direction of the characters. Once that happens, then you really can’t force that into a narrative plan; you have to let that guide the narrative and shape your stories around that.

So I got to reveal all the things I wanted to reveal by this stage in the show, but we definitely had some surprises in terms of the actions of the characters.

I know you a seven season vision for this show. What is the advantage of that roadmap approach for you?

Having those big mile markers gives me something to write to. I’ll come into a season with a half dozen of those or so. In seasons two, for example, I knew the Gemma [Katey Sagal] rape was going to happen and roughly where I wanted to reveal that, so I could write to that throughout the season and lay in the emotionality to earn where I knew I ultimately wanted to go.

To me having a sense of those mile markers helps you do that so things don’t happen by accident or…

You get lost?

You get lost, or even worse, you’re writing one way and then suddenly you realize I’ve gotta be over there, writing this way. That’s when shows go off course and characters take these severe right turns that feel out of context. That’s a writer forcing the narrative where they want it to go.

There’s some controversy among fans that are split over the way this season is going, with the more emotional, less action-packed narrative development. What are some of the important themes you’re dealing with here and when are you planning to get back to the action?

Ultimately, controversy’s good. It means your fans are paying attention. In my mind, shows tend to lose a step or falter in season three, when they sort of figure out what works. Season one is the experiment, then you do that again in season two – and we did that, season two was very formulaic for us – but then the trap becomes when you do that every season – who’s the protagonist, what’s the internal conflict, and that’s when shows get stale.

I wanted to mix it up a little bit this season. I felt like we’d earned the trust of the fans to take the show in a different direction and dig deeper into the mythology. But yes, there’s a lot people that like that clearly defined formula in terms of the internal conflict and a clearly defined bad guy: who do we hate this week and who are we setting on fire this week? Literally.

Can you allude to where the show is heading this season?

The show will always be the show. It’s never going to become a cerebral show. There’s action in every episode. Obviously, a missing baby tends to pull focus and you can’t avoid the emotionality of that. I think that’s what’s fucking with people a little bit this year.

It’s interesting because there’s no gray area – either the fans love it more intensely and are saying it’s the best season ever, and others who are a little bit lost with it. In my mind, it’s the people who pay attention week after week, who are really invested in it, who are enjoying the season more. It’s more the casual viewer who maybe isn’t plugged into all the aspects of the characters who are struggling a little bit more. I don’t say that as a bad thing…

You’re going to get some angry letters, man.

Well, I’m a casual viewer of many TV shows, you know what I mean? But this season was definitely not an accident. I made this decision to elicit the response I’m getting, and the four episodes we do in Ireland are pretty kick-ass. People will dig ‘em. And then we have two more episodes back home and the show lands on its feet, and we get a glimpse of what season four will be like.

You’re kind of a tough guy and a man’s man, but you studied Strindberg, O'Neill, Genet during your M.F.A. fellowship. What have you brought of such elite fine art playwrights to your work on The Shield and now Sons?

As pretentious as all that sounds…

And don’t get me wrong, they were all actually very real, unpretentious playwrights…

Yeah, Genet spent half his life in jail, you know? But I was in grad school studying more performance than writing and was introduced to all those poetic realists. It was really the first time that I was pulled into dramatic literature that wasn’t contemporary, that wasn’t Mamet or Lanford Wilson or something like that. It was a stylized form of writing, but I really got pulled into it. I learned a lot about story structure from those guys. It was obviously very dark. Strindberg is just, you know, you want to hang yourself by the end of the play, but there was a beauty, a poetic quality. Not that Sons is poetic, but I do try to layer in those components in terms of the writing.

The question of whether or not to go the academic route in screenwriting is oft debated. Is that something you would recommend to aspiring screenwriters?

I do. I’m not saying that you have to have a degree in writing from USC or wherever. I learned a lot from the analysis, and the performance aspect really helped inform me as a writer. When I’m reading dialogue back to myself, I have a pretty good bullshit meter, and I can just feel if something feels like exposition or just doesn’t feel real. I wouldn’t have learned that skill [otherwise].

It’s a good place to start, and then from there, move in the direction you’re inspired. But at the same time, for me, I didn’t really learn how to write until I wrote. Literally, I write four to six hours a day. And I learned to write TV by getting a big stack of scripts from my agent and studying them and then writing spec after spec after spec after spec. That’s the only way you can learn how to write. You can’t sit in a classroom and have a teacher analyze a script for four months and then say you want to be a writer.