In this week’s issue, New York Magazine surveyed fourteen of the top TV showrunners about their process and craft. All during upfront week, we’ll be running longer transcripts of these conversations: some will include extended answers to our questionnaire, some will break free altogether, but all will provide a revealing and insightful look into the minds of the people who make our appointment television. One of those people is Kurt Sutter, the creator of FX’s Sons of Anarchy. (Full disclosure: Earlier this week Sutter got pretty heated on Twitter about a photo shoot of the SoA cast that New York Magazine did but didn’t have space for. You can see those photos on Vulture.) We spoke with Sutter about his experience on The Shield, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and “trying not to be a dick.”
What was your first job?
I was writing spec scripts and trying to get my writing career off the ground, and I had a buddy of mine at Bravo who was an executive producer. So I was writing those little one-minute bumpers that you see between shows on Bravo. That was right before The Shield. I didn’t land the Shield job on the strength of those; it had nothing to do with that. But in terms of making money as a writer, that was sort of the job that kept me afloat for almost two years. Then I wrote a couple of specs, and that’s what ultimately got me the job on The Shield.
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned, and from who?
It’s hard to pin it down to specific lessons. I know that Shawn Ryan was my boss on The Shield, and he came in to run that show as a young … he was a co-producer prior to that and was still learning. It was interesting to be under his tutelage as he was learning. Shawn’s a very generous guy and incredibly patient, and I’m a fairly obsessive guy and can be volatile at times, and I’m sure if I were under the mentorship of anyone else, I might not have had the growth that I’ve had, but Shawn was able to see what my potential was and really manage to point me in the right direction.
Do you have a showrunner philosophy?
My philosophy is very flexible and it always changes, because I’m always learning shit. But I would say that it’s: Be willing to compromise on your execution but never compromise on your vision. And try not to be a dick in the process.
What show do you wish you had created? (Doesn’t have to be on now.)
This Old House. There are a lot of dramas I watch because I love dramas, but I don’t watch a lot of TV in terms of just putting on the TV. And, literally, you know, I’ll put on HGTV just because I love shows that have people who actually build shit. Not that I’m not creating something, but what we do is very heady, and there’s something tangible about a guy with a hammer who, at the end of the show, is looking at something he built.
What’s your best show pitch that didn’t make it on the air?
I really haven’t pitched a lot of shows. I’m very lucky in that the one show I’ve pitched I’ve had an opportunity to do. I came right off The Shield onto this project. I’ve been involved in trying to sell movies. I’m a really big video gamer; I have thousands of games. I got the rights to this British video game Second Sight, which was this really obscure British game that I loved. The story line was so fascinating to me, in terms of playing with time travel, but ultimately I think the narrative was too esoteric. I pitched that as a film all over town but couldn’t sell that.
Is there a dream show you’d like to get on the air?
Yeah … but I’m not gonna pitch it to you!
What’s your worst experience on a staff of writers?
I really don’t have one. I mean, the first four seasons on The Shield, we loved it and we were really committed, but they were brutal — we got there at 10 a.m., and, more often than not, we were there until one or two in the morning breaking stories and stuff. By season five, we had figured it out a bit more, but … we loved it and we gave 110 percent, but those were four intense seasons.
What show made you want to work in TV?
I grew up in front of a TV, and as flippant as this sounds, I really learned basic storytelling from Hanna-Barbera. All of those great, crazy violent cartoons that we watched as a kid, from Tom & Jerry to Scooby-Doo. In terms of drama, I remember watching Hill Street Blues for the first time as a kid and knowing that that was a different kind of TV show. There was a level of reality that was almost uncomfortable. And then I remember watching The Simpsons and that was one of the times when I thought, Wow, that would really be fun to do. It would really be fun to sit in a room and write those voices.
What are some great moments in showrunning — a twist or character addition that turned a show around or made it somehow better or more interesting?
I don’t know if they’re mastermind in terms of showrunning choices, but there are certain things that definitely stand out to me and that I remember. One of them was on The Sopranos when Tony killed Big Pussy. To see sort of one antihero whack another antihero was huge. Because Big Pussy, at that point, was a significant regular. The other thing I remember, and I remember as a kid asking everybody about this and then finding out when I was older … but I used to love The Dick Van Dyke Show. I think they used to air the reruns on Nickelodeon, and halfway through the series, Dick Van Dyke stops tripping over the ottoman during the intro, he skips around it, and that was sort of the first time I thought, Oh, there’s somebody who is making creative choices that we don’t necessarily have to know what they are or why, and ultimately I found out that it was because he got sober, and that was his acknowledgment to say, “Hey, I’m not tripping over shit anymore.” I also always loved the Happy Days episode where the Fonz had to admit that he was wrong. And the Seinfeld masturbation episode. I don’t know if they’re monumental showrunner moments, but they’re moments that stand out for me as interesting and memorable choices.
How much do you care about what fans think?
I’m pretty aware of our fan base. I’m pretty plugged in. Fans don’t influence my vision, but they sometimes influence my process, meaning that I’m not creating this show in a vacuum. This isn’t a self-portrait or performance art; I’m very aware of what they respond to, and some of that I get through critics channeling what other people are feeling, a lot of it I get through the message boards and Twitter and Facebook and my blog. I learn what impacts them, what makes them feel and experience the show on a visceral level. Then I try to deliver my vision in a way that addresses some of those needs. I think creative people and writers are doing themselves a disservice if they don’t stay aware of that stuff, because this is TV; it’s not me up in a loft with a paintbrush and a canvas.
Do fans ruin shows?
Fans don’t ruin shows, networks ruin shows.
Do you tweet?
I do tweet. I’m very active with all that.
And how is that changing TV?
I think everything is changing so rapidly on the digital landscape. You see it. It’s what our strike was all about two years ago. The digital landscape and how content gets delivered is just changing at an extraordinary rate. In my mind, social media is part of that process, and I don’t think it’s changing it in a bad way. I think we’re seeing what’s good and what works, and what’s bad, and I think we’ll continue to make those adjustments. I love the analogy that people use with this, which is: Everyone thought that TV was going to kill movies, and ultimately it ended up enhancing and strengthening them and creating a huge symbiotic dynamic. And I think all that is going to happen as the Internet and TV become one, and I believe that ultimately there won’t be programming, there’ll just be content, and the trick will be figuring out a revenue source between that.
What are the best and worst ways to push the envelope (examples are good)?
I think it really needs to come from an organic or character-based place. Like on our show, when we had Gemma raped in season two, that could have been gratuitous sexual violence for the sake of ratings and kicking off the new season, but I felt that it was organic in terms of who those new characters were and that it ultimately became the emotional through line for that entire season. So we didn’t do it for the sake of being sensational.
You make a show about antiheroes. What do you think the state of the antihero is right now?
It’s cyclical. I think the network was very aware of the decline of the antihero [in doing Justified], although we kind of fly in the face of that on Sons, so when the idea of Justified came around … we’re aware of the potential of that. And it’s interesting; the show doesn’t do the numbers we do, but it definitely gets more awards buzz, I think because it is a more straight-up … I mean, he’s definitely a flawed guy, but there is definitely something about this guy, literally, wearing the white hat. But again, all that is a reflection of the times. The network is very away of research and are on top of that in terms of what people want. But it’s cyclical and it will swing back. If there weren’t shows like NYPD Blue and Homicide and The Sopranos, there wouldn’t have been a Shield and a Sons of Anarchy.
Any super-geek trivia or inside info about characters on your shows that you want to share?
I was thinking about this, and I think some people are aware of this, but the original pilot was a very different setup. We recast the part of Clay. Originally we had cast Scott Glenn. Scott Glenn, a tremendous actor and did a tremendous job, but ultimately we really wanted to fuse some dark humor into the show and do it through Clay, so we really wanted to find someone who it was more of their forte to do some of that sardonic humor, which is why we ended up replacing Scott. Also, one of the original characters was a Mexican called Hawk, who we actually cast Emilio Rivera (who plays Alvarez) in. So Emilio was originally a series regular as a member of the club. And then, as I rewrote the pilot, I realized that when we set up the whole dynamic with the club and the Mayans, it might be too confusing initially for viewers to have us have a Mexican member in the club. Not that that doesn’t happen, but I just thought it might be confusing just as viewers were trying to wrap their heads around this world we created. But I love Emilio; we used him on The Shield, and he’s just a great guy and a great actor. And that’s when we decided to expand the character of Alvarez as the Mayan presence.
Are you a control freak or a collaborator?
I’m definitely both. I’m a very obsessive personality and a perfectionist, but I am also very aware that you can’t do this alone. I have a great writing staff and an amazing crew and great directors, and I’m very aware of the network’s needs and their input. I think when you stop listening, even to shit you don’t want to hear, then you and the show stop growing.
If you could change one thing about how network shows are made, it would be …
Here’s my advice to networks: Stop making decisions based on research data and hire development executives with degrees in art, literature, and theater instead of marketing, business, and law. I’m telling you, if people followed those two rules, TV would be a fuckload better.
More Showrunner Transcripts
Community’s Dan Harmon
30 Rock’s Robert Carlock
Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan
How I Met Your Mother’s Carter Bays and Craig Thomas
The Good Wife’s Robert and Michelle King
Justified’s Graham Yost
Cougar Town’s Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel
Grey’s Anatomy’s Shonda Rhimes
Parks and Recreation’s Michael Schur