For a guy who has outlaw biker gangs rumbling around in his head, Kurt Sutter is fairly …. well, “nice” doesn’t seem the right word, but he’s literate and reflective and usually quite reasonable. The times when he gets riled up, though, are what everyone talks about.
Then the ponytailed, tattooed, 46-year-old creator and executive producer of FX’s hit drama “Sons of Anarchy” — the network’s highest-rated series ever, which begins its third season on Sept. 7 — can be as rude and abrasive as they come. His Twitter account (@sutterink) is a launch pad for four-letter tirades. After “Sons” was snubbed in this year’s Emmy race, Sutter filed a blog post calling TV academy voters “lazy sheep.” Last year, when an executive was trying to nail down budget details for “Sons,” Sutter instructed him to back off, except in colorful language that can’t be printed in a family newspaper. The resulting letter from a Fox lawyer, admonishing Sutter for routinely behaving in “an abusive fashion,” now hangs framed in Sutter’s office.
Sutter doesn’t apologize. “I can be arrogant, I can be insufferable,” he admitted in a recent interview on the “Sons of Anarchy” set, located in a studio complex in a hardscrabble, heavily industrialized North Hollywood neighborhood. “You really have to have a big ego and a strong personality to do this job.”
You also have to be a shrewd marketer, and Sutter’s rants and serial misbehavior demonstrate that he can play that role quite well too. Like, say, Marc Cherry on ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” Matt Weiner on AMC’s “Mad Men” or Sutter’s own mentor, Shawn Ryan on FX’s “The Shield,” Sutter has become a “celebrity showrunner,” a writer-producer who’s become almost as famous as the series he or she oversees.
While as recently as five or 10 years ago average fans knew little or nothing about the people who made their favorite programs, celebrity showrunners have become vital in a TV world packed to the rafters with niche programs and fans connecting through social media. Off camera, Sutter flips off authority just like his bikers do on “Sons of Anarchy.” And the fans — on Twitter, at Comic-Con, on blogs — eat it up; it’s more mythology to mull over. Last season, “Sons” drew an average of 4.5 million total viewers, a stunning 72% hike from the previous year, according to the Nielsen Co.
Which is not to say that Sutter’s whole life is a pose. A recovering addict, he still struggles with finding the right balance. “I got clean and sober about 17 years ago and really try to live my life by those principles” of recovery, he said. But the notion of “exorcising the demons” frequently crops up in conversation. He’s not telling off “The Man” simply for the marketing payoff.
“I don’t struggle with the desire to do drugs and alcohol anymore,” Sutter said, “but I struggle with the obsessive and compulsive behavior that sometimes accompanies people with addictions.”
That struggle plays out onscreen and off. “It’s hard for Kurt to be a guy who runs a production that spends tens and tens of millions of dollars and has a lot of accountants and production people around,” said FX president John Landgraf (whose wife, Ally Walker, has a recurring role as a federal agent on “Sons of Anarchy”). “I have no doubt there’s a certain amount of pain for Kurt in that process.”
Or as Ryan, who gave Sutter his break on “The Shield,” put it: “There is an anger in Kurt that fuels his writing. And I think he’s very self-aware that it’s part of what makes him a really great writer. But it also gets him into trouble.”
The third season will be the most ambitious yet for “Sons of Anarchy.” Often described as “Hamlet” on motorcycles, the series tells the story of Jax Teller (played by British actor Charlie Hunnam), a member of the outlaw biker gang run by his stepfather, Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman, of “Hellboy” and “Beauty and the Beast” fame), that rules the fictional central California town of Charming. (Sutter was a regular motorcycle rider in his youth but had fallen out of the habit until he developed “Sons.”)
“He’s a guy who’s impulsive,” Sutter said, “but he’s also a guy who’s probably too sensitive and too deep a thinker for the world.” He was referring to Jax, but he might as well have been talking about himself.
In last season’s cliffhanger finale, Jax’s newborn son was kidnapped, and this season propels the hero through a complicated web involving an Irish motorcycle gang connected to the crime. Meanwhile, Jax’s tough-hearted mother, Gemma (Katey Sagal, Sutter’s off-screen wife), on the lam after being framed for a murder, reconnects with her dementia-addled father, played by Hal Holbrook.
Sutter wanted to ship the entire cast to Ireland for shooting, but FX vetoed that idea. “It’s probably not easy to do really big-canvas, epic things in general, but it’s really hard to do it on a basic-cable budget,” Landgraf admitted. The network ended up agreeing to send a second-unit film crew and a few actors overseas. Sutter has found his own consolation by loading up this season with high-profile guest stars, including author and “Sons” fan Stephen King, who has a cameo in Episode 3 as a “cleaner” a la Harvey Keitel in “Pulp Fiction.”
Sutter downplays the autobiographical elements to “Sons,” but bits of his life do have a habit of creeping into scripts. A New Jersey native, Sutter had a tense relationship with his family and left home in his late teens and later pursued an acting career (he turns up in “Sons of Anarchy” as the imprisoned gang member Big Otto). He patched up some old family wounds in recent years just as his father, from whom he had long felt estranged, was in declining health.
“My dad was really a vital cat. He broke his arm at 82 because he was standing on a ladder trimming hedges,” Sutter said. But the family was forced to come together when the old man attempted a driving trip to see one of his daughters on the East Coast. “He was missing for two days and nobody knew where he was. He was too proud to call somebody up and say, ‘I’m lost.’ ” Sutter used the experience in building the scenes between Gemma and her octogenarian father, who suffers from similar confusion.
Sometimes the parallels between life and art crop up at odd times, giving the drama in “Sons” a sudden burst of eccentric humor. When he was growing up, Sutter was unsettled by his mother’s collection of Hummel dolls, which formed the basis of a lifelong aversion. “When I first started dating Katey, she had these wooden dolls on her mantel piece that just used to freak me out,” Sutter explained. “She would leave the room and I would turn them over. She never knew!” The doll phobia has materialized in Tig (Kim Coates), the violent lieutenant in the Samcro gang in “Sons.”
His better half
Sagal and Sutter married in 2004 and have a 3-year-old daughter. Famous from her work 20 years ago on “Married … With Children,” she’s a full decade older than her third husband and more philosophical about the vicissitudes of show business (her father was 1960s-era director Boris Sagal and her younger sisters Jean and Liz found early fame as the Doublemint Twins).
“He’s just very honest,” Sagal said of Sutter. “He just kind of tells it like it is, in his mind. He’s an emotional guy, that’s what I would say.”
She takes a similarly no-nonsense view of Sutter’s blog and Twitter rants. The dust he kicks up ultimately helps the show, at least in terms of profile. And isn’t that what matters in the end? “You have to think of other ways of getting the word out because it’s such a different advertising climate,” Sagal said. “And that is his motivation for doing all that.”
It took Sutter some time to grasp the possibilities. At first “I didn’t get Twitter,” he said. “I was like, ‘Why do people wanna know when I’m going to Starbucks?’.... Then I realized what the potential was as a marketing tool.”
But in his case, Sutter sees the need for caution as well. His outraged Emmy post (cheekily accompanied by a photo for Marlon Brando’s outlaw biker epic “The Wild One”) was followed by another item that seemed intended as a sheepish apology, explaining that “the blowback is affecting more than me,” he wrote.
“Twitter is just a dangerous device for a guy like me,” he said in the interview. “I try to use it to a good end. But ultimately, me having instant access to anything is probably not a good idea. I’m …,” he said, his voice trailing off. “Just very impulsive.”
That’s fine when it’s all about the work. “You really have to be obsessive to move forward and make it good, in my opinion,” he said. “But at a certain point that can cross the line and it doesn’t serve you.
“There’s not a lot of gray in my life,” he concluded. “It’s pretty black, it’s pretty white.”