Kurt Sutter took some time off from writing the fifth season of Sons of Anarchy to get in touch with his inner gangster — for the Discovery Channel. His new show Outlaw Empires premieres tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern, and each of the six episodes gets up close and personal with a different gang, including the Crips, the South Boston Irish mob, the Gambino crime family, and the Aryan Brotherhood, with current and former members talking about what their lives are like, in ways that might surprise you. Sutter’s so fascinated with their stories that he’s hoping to option a couple of life rights from gang members next, but until then, he’s shaping up what will happen to his SAMCRO riders. The showrunner chatted with Vulture about hanging in South Central, swearing, and why he wants a falcon.
You recently had this line in a bio: “Kurt’s latest passion is birds. No one has the courage to ask why.” Why?
I was just being a smartass! [Laughs.] I think it’s part of my midlife crisis, but I’m sort of fascinated with birds and caging them and having them live with me. I definitely want a bird of prey, but they’re illegal in the state of California. I want a falcon on my shoulder, so I can put a hood on it or sic it on neighbor’s pets and stuff. There’s a lot of hawks where I live, and they make a very visceral screech, and when I hear that, I have to stop work and go outside.
If you had a falcon on your shoulder, you’d definitely be more intimidating in meetings — and it would be easier to convince all these guys to talk to you. What was your pitch?
Oh, if I had a falcon on my shoulder, I’d own the room! [Laughs.] I felt like the approach of the show was not, “Tell us all the bad shit you’ve done,” but, “Tell us about the life.” A lot of these guys don’t have people knocking on their doors asking them, “What happened? How did you feel about that?” And they do have something to say. So it was an opportunity for these guys to be honest, and they were trusting that we weren’t setting them up to look like punks or disgruntled former members, so that was the pitch going in.
There’s a reason people aren’t knocking on their doors — some of these guys are scary dudes! Were you ever afraid?
Kershaun [Scott, of the Eight Trey Gangster Crips] was the one I got to hang with the most. I was with him in South Central, and he’s still part of that community, even though he’s a retired member. I felt incredibly safe. He’s a lovely guy, and as long as I was with him, I was cool. Don’t judge them from the misinformation. See their plight first. See their humanity.
That might be a little tricky when it comes to the Aryan Brotherhood.
You know the interesting thing about the Aryan Brotherhood? The reason they’ve chosen to cover themselves in their symbol, swastikas, to give that sense of shock and awe, is very calculated. It’s very tribal. But yes, some were trickier than others. It’s more difficult to go in and try to understand their plight versus the mafia, because the mafia — we love the mafia! We’ve fucking watched them forever, in movies, on TV. So it’s less of a challenge to break down the mafia and who they are and what they represent than the Aryan Brotherhood.
Did any of your work on Outlaw Empires inform the next season of Sons of Anarchy?
It’s not like I got ideas for stories, but I met some really fascinating guys. And now I have two guys who I’m trying to get the life rights for, because I’d love to tell their stories in some other medium. So I’ve definitely broadened the scope of the types of stories I’d like to tell, because I’ve never tried that before. That would be really cool. Some of those stories, I couldn’t write that shit.
You’ve been talking about doing a prequel for Sons, where you could show the first members. Could it start when they’re kids, and look a little like Grandsons of Anarchy?
[Laughs.] That was so funny, those kids! I’ve been joking that we should do a Saturday morning kids’ show of Sons, something like SpongeBob meets The Sopranos. But yeah, we’re invested in this world and these characters, so I want to pursue a prequel version. I just don’t know if it should be immediately after Sons, or let it gestate a couple years and then come back with it? We haven’t done flashbacks on the show, so we haven’t cannibalized the concept, but I’m very serious about the desire to do it.
Are you ever frustrated that your bikers can’t swear as much as you’d like?
You know, we can’t say fuck, unlike HBO or Showtime, because that’s still the one word that advertisers can’t get behind. I’m used to it, so it’s not a creative hurdle for me at this point, and we use everything else. We’ve lived in a world without fuck for so long, and we’ve used other words where you would use the word fuck, so the intention and the anger is there. It’s semantics. We can’t say cunt. We say gash. But I think that sounds worse than cunt. It’s much more violent. For a while, I was getting notes about saying “Jesus Christ,” for taking the Lord’s name in vain. I can’t say retarded anymore, which we used in season one. I understand that. I personally choose not to use the other F-word, because the hate connotation is too deep for me. But we use cocksucker. Sometimes it’s arbitrary. I have great creative discussions about prick and cock — “How can I use it? What if I did this?”
My favorite thing was in season two, during the porn story, we couldn’t use the actual sexual preferences of donkey punching and Dirty Sanchez. So we made our own ones up, and they sounded so much worse. [Laughs.] I think we called it the Pillsbury Doughgirl and the Anal Raindance. Oh, man — I don’t know what those are, but it sounds just awful. [Laughs.] Those are the things we have to navigate around, and if you were writing for a show on HBO, it might feel like handcuffs, but there was no adjustment. But really, it’s not the networks — they would love for us to be able to say “Go fuck yourself” and have it be real. It’s the advertisers.
So how is season five coming along?
I’ve had a sense how the show will end since the beginning, but not how will I get there, and what I do now in five is going to impact season seven, so I’m figuring out how to back into that. Where do I want to land? How does that impact the end of the show? So I’m laying track. The biggest arc is, can you be the leader of an outlaw motorcycle gang and not be Clay? Or is that the nature of the beast? If Jax doesn’t behave like Clay, if he takes the path of his father, is he weak? Will he then be removed? So that’s the challenge — how does the weight of the gavel impact him?
And Jimmy Smits will be his mentor?
Jimmy will be Nero, and he’s a little bit of an OG, a Latino gangbanger. He will cross paths with Jax and Gemma and ultimately, he and Jax will form a bond and get involved in a project together. He’s been in the life — not the MC life, but the outlaw life, so it’s familiar ground for him. So I think what he says will have a big impact on Jax. We’re still casting Damon Pope, and a couple of other nomads.
Since your boxing film with Eminem fell through, would there be room for a guest appearance for him on the show?
[Laughs.] I don’t think he’s a guest appearance guy! He’s a super-private dude. But I can always float the idea to him. Maybe I could sneak him in as a nomad? Do a Hasselhoff?