Kurt Sutter on His First Feature Film, Southpaw, and Why The Bastard Executioner Won’t Be Like a CSI: Wales

Photo: Beck Starr/WireImage

Between filming close to three seasons of Sons of Anarchy, shooting his documentary series Kurt Sutter's Outlaw Empires, and setting the wheels in motion for his upcoming FX show The Bastard Executioner, screenwriter Kurt Sutter found time to make Southpaw, a wrestling movie and his first feature film. With its release just one day away, John Horn, host of the KPCC radio show and podcast “The Frame,” sat down with Sutter to discuss the differences between film and TV writing, Southpaw's major casting swap (from Eminem to Jake Gyllenhaal), the struggles of writing past stereotypes, and why Gyllenhaal's performance is worthy of everyone's time.

I wanted to talk about your body of work, and this may be kind of too broad a generalization, but I'm going to try it anyway. Part of what you do and have done is to take stereotypes and put a human face on [them], often with people that society doesn't often hold in the highest regard, so that audiences can understand the myths. (a) Do you think that's fair? And (b) Is that what you're trying to do with Southpaw?
No, I think that's fair. In fact, I think I'll steal that from now on when people ask me what my body of work is. As a writer, I like to bend genre a little bit. I like to take things that people might expect to head in one direction and then twist it up a little bit. That's especially true of Sons [of Anarchy], where people had to understood outlaw motorcycle culture two ways, and one was either sort of the cuddly, goofy, teddy-bear one they would see on sitcoms, and then the other one was sort of the white-trash, meth-dealing, darker version. And the truth is, like most things, it lives somewhere in the middle, and they're human beings with somewhat complex lives, so it was sort of fun to go in there and kind of blow up some of those myths and educate people about a world.

The title of your movie is Southpaw. Some people who haven't seen the movie have just seen Jake Gyllenhaal and said, "Well, he's not in a southpaw stance." Does the title mean anything beyond being a leftie?
Yes, I think ... and for me again, the origins of this project go back a few years. I wrote the script originally for Marshall Mathers ...

... who we know as Eminem.
Right. Marshall, who's a bit of an outcast and an outlaw, obviously, in the hip-hop movement when he showed up. And a leftie, I believe. The idea was to tell the second half of his life story through the analogy of boxing, and that was the origins of the piece. And then, you know, as things happened, he decided not to do it, and it moved forward and TWC, the Weinsteins, picked it up and liked it for Jake. It was interesting for me because initially it was very difficult to see it as anything else other than what I had written it for, and I was like, "Ah, I don't know. Jake, I love him as an actor, but, you know." And then I met with Jake and Antoine [Fuqua], who was attached to direct at that point, who was incredibly passionate about the project, and Jake had all this insight into who this guy was. He had done a lot of research. And suddenly I saw it as not necessarily an allegory or a biographic piece, but as sort of a stand-alone story of redemption. So I got excited about it again and went in and did some more drafts. But, yeah, Jake was not a southpaw, and he's an amazing athlete, but he wasn't a boxer. I think they felt it would've been too difficult to not only train him as a boxer but train him as a boxer that goes against his natural strengths. So that sort of got put to the side and then worked into the story line later. But just in terms of what Southpaw means, you know, to the boxing community, not so much now, because there's a lot of southpaws out there, but initially, no one wanted to fight a southpaw because they were dangerous. They had a different style. A lot of promoters would avoid them, and they really were sort of the outlaws of the boxing community.

Is there a boxer that you were thinking of, a leftie, who inspired the boxing style you wanted to depict in this film?
Um, not so much anyone in particular. I love boxing. I train myself, and I've always been sort of fascinated watching fighters like Pacquiao, watching fighters who can adjust and navigate their style within the context of a fight, sometimes within the context of a round, and just make those adjustments. Not necessarily what punch to use but really what style to use, and Pacquiao is definitely a master at that. As Forest Whitaker's character says in the movie, it's really a head game, not a fist game, and you really have to be smart in the ring as well as be strong.

Forest Whitaker plays the trainer for Jake Gyllenhaal's boxer character, Billy. You talked about boxing yourself. Your father was a boxer. Antoine Fuqua, the film's director, has boxed. At what point is a little knowledge a dangerous thing?
You know what, here's what I would say. I mean, my knowledge of boxing is obviously limited to the little bit that I know, but I think there's a pull towards it. There's just something that's beautiful about the simple brutality of it all — man against man and nothing else, no other tools for the sport. So I was drawn to that. I sort of grew up with that. And I'd worked with Antoine before and liked him a lot, and he came in and was so passionate about this project, not just from the story point of view but really from character. Because he had grown up back East and, from what I gathered, it really saved his ass when he was young and gave him the discipline he needed to stay on the right path. So it was personal for him.

It's also very personal to Eminem. He was inspired in part to make this film not just because he liked the movie, The Champ, but because of the death of a friend of his — Proof, correct? Is that a difficult translation, taking this project that starts with one person and one person's very particular life story, and shoehorning it in a different direction?
That was my initial challenge. I didn't want to do a remake or anything goofy, and they really liked the idea of telling the second half of that story and the tragedy that followed. So when Eminem decided to really focus on music, and when it went into development and came back around and Harvey [Weinstein] liked it for Jake, it was really hard. I felt like, "Uhh how do you ..." And then, like I said, when I met with Jake and got his perspective and Antoine's perspective, it was interesting for me as a guy who is perhaps a little bit of a control freak, that I realized, oh, this is bigger than I thought it was. It's not just that. It's bigger, and other people have a different perspective. Truthfully, that became the process for the whole movie. For me, it was an exercise in letting go.

One of the things that is certainly prevalent in the narrative of this film is that there [are] two sides to the characters we meet. Billy Hope, who is played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is very savage in the ring. He's got an anger-management problem, and yet he is a gentle father and a loving husband. 
Yeah, I think that it's always an interesting conflict for a character or a man in general who has those savage impulses, that when buttons get pushed, the reaction goes to 10, and as a result of that creates a lot of wreckage, burns a lot of bridges, and yet the flip side of that passion is a guy who is incredibly sensitive, doesn't have many friends, is very connected to the people in his life. So it's a big difference, but I think it's sort of an organic one, you know?

A lot of film directors right now, I'm thinking of Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Baz Luhrmann, Guillermo del Toro, are going from film into TV, and you're kind of doing the reverse commute. Do you understand why they're going in one direction, and does it make sense that you went in the opposite?
You know, I love features. I started out wanting to write features, and a lot of times during my hiatus I would write features. I always referred to it as my virtual career because I would write these scripts, I'd get great feedback, and I'd give them up and they'd sort of disappear into the [ether]. I'd be like, "Okay." So it's not so much making the decision now to do it. But it makes sense, I think, because there really isn't any dividing line between TV and film anymore in terms of, you know, validity and quality of work.

Can you tell us a little bit more about The Bastard Executioner, and if you think it's a natural follow-up to Sons of Anarchy?
I guess it follows a natural path as far as characters go. As I said, I'm really drawn to sort of broken and conflicted heroes, and Wilkin Brattle, who's the lead in The Bastard Executioner, is deeply conflicted but about different things, you know? And I knew after seven seasons of The Shield and seven seasons of Sons that I didn't want to get into yet another contemporary-crime-ish kind of project. And not necessarily looking for something, period, but just looking for something in a different wheelhouse. Something that scared me a little bit. The process of this coming together happened with Brian Grazer, and it's definitely terrified me.

In what way? 
It terrified me because obviously it's a different world, completely different conflict, the dialogue is completely different, the vernacular is completely different, the rhythm completely different. So I really was forced to reeducate my ear, have an understanding of language and what language would be appropriate. I'm not doing traditional Old English speech because no matter how well that's done to me, it just always sounds goofy. So it's a mix of a somewhat contemporary rhythm, but with words of the period. I never use any modern vernacular. So we strike that balance, but definitely it was an education for my ear and for my ability to write dialogue. It's been really super-challenging, and I love history, so being able to immerse myself in the insane lineage of the Plantagenets has been a blast. Had I pitched any of those story lines or any of those family trees to anybody, they would have thought I was insane and thrown me out. They make my stuff look tame.

But that's what Sons of Anarchy gives you, right? That somebody is not going to laugh you out of the room when you say, "We're going to make this about ..."
That's true. I mean, [FX president] John Landgraf, who I have a great relationship with, and we had talked about this project and his only concern with The Bastard Executioner was that he wasn't sure if people would want to watch something where there was a head in the basket every week. And I said, "I know." It won't be like a CSI: Wales. It won't just be a formula and every week we have to find who owns the head.

Was that the alternate title? The Head in the Basket?
That's right, The Head in the Basket. But we've figured out an interesting way in, and how to work in the rebellion that was going on in Wales at the time, which, you know, ended up being great external pressure for our characters in the world. That all sort of happened in a really symbiotic way.

For people who have not seen Southpaw, they are probably very familiar with the idea that Hollywood loves movies about boxers. For those on the fence about checking out this movie, what's your pitch to them? Yes, you've seen Raging Bull. Yes, you've seen The Champ. How do you think this movie is different, and what is your pitch to them to go check it out?
Oh man. I think you go to a boxing movie with a certain amount of expectation, and there are certain stereotypes you can't avoid because it's boxing —  there's fights and there's winners and there's losers. I would say that this movie has such incredible performances. I think Jake, this is some of the best work I've ever seen him do. The depth he brings to Billy Hope is really heartbreaking and beautiful. So I would say it's worth it just to go see Jake's performance. And for the candy of it all, the fight sequences, Antoine just shot the hell out of them, and they're brutal and they're exciting and incredibly vivid. So it's got all the candy it's supposed to have, but, as I'd like to think some of my stuff does, it's got the brutality, but then underneath there's something that will make you think, and maybe break your heart a little bit.

It probably won't surprise you, but I suspect it would please you that the women I know who have seen this movie like it more than the men I know who have seen this movie.
Uh, that would make sense to me. I think there's a familial component, and a heartbreaking familial component that women can perhaps identify with a little more strongly.