How did an ex-food-and-drug addict like Kurt Sutter create one of the decade's biggest hits?
The most important thing to know about Kurt Sutter is that he once weighed 400 pounds. One might wish it otherwise, but what can you do? Without that immense amount of weight planted firmly in his background, he wouldn't be here today, looking tough and trim at 190 tops, 54 years old, arms slathered in tribal tattoos, hair dragged back into a ponytail, tugging at a patch of peppery chin scraggle inside the North Hollywood building where he oversees everything that has anything to do with the ultraviolent, superbloody motorcycle psychodrama and mega FX hit, Sons of Anarchy.
Actually, it's the biggest hit in the history of the network, by far, and its success has been rollicking. It averaged 2.6 million viewers an episode in 2008, its first year, jumped to 4.5 million its second year, and this fall 10.6 million people watched the first episode of Season Seven the night it premiered. Its fans are fanatical. They get themselves tattooed with the gang's grim-reaper symbol. They make their own YouTube teaser trailers. They grieve over the deaths of beloved characters. And it's entirely Sutter's doing. He conceived Sons, produces it, often writes it, sometimes directs it, and right now today, as SOA enters its final season, has gathered together his senior staff for what's known as a "tone meeting" for an upcoming episode. Sons isn't high-minded, highbrow fare, of course, so that's not the kind of tone they're talking about; instead, these meetings are about getting it right – Sutter's vision of life in a gun-running, family-comes-first-unless-they-fuck-you-then-you-fuck-them-back gang of Harley-happy dudes and their ladies.
Sutter slides toward the table. For the past hour, he's dealt with the finer points of blackmail, silencers and how far through a dead guy's back a shard of glass should stick. Then comes the matter of gouging out a man's eyeball and exactly how you do it. But first things first. "In the past, when we've looked at body parts, it's been hard to see what they are," Sutter says. "So this time, let's just make sure we're very clear it's not, like, an oyster or a penis, OK?" A few people nod. Others scribble notes. No one laughs. This is serious business.
"We should arrange it so it looks up at you, and blood is gushing out the socket," says Paris Barclay, a Sons executive producer and this episode's director. "The problem is, his hands are tied, so he can't hold his eyeball, so what do you see then?"
Sutter plucks at his T-shirt thoughtfully. "If he's down and it's dark and he's screaming and moving around, have him close his eye, and it'll be all swollen and shit, and we'll put strips of skin and shit in there, and then just goo. And blood." More nodding. More note-taking. He goes on, "OK, now let's figure out what's going to be used to do that."
At this point, the floor opens up to a free-for-all. "Isn't it traditionally a spoon?" one guy says.
"I'd use a knife myself," says a different guy.
"But then you'd kill him, 'cause you might hit the brain."
"Well, the problem with a spoon is, it doesn't have a good edge to it."
"What about a grapefruit spoon?"
"How about a spork?"
And so on. Finally, Sutter jumps back in. "Let's just look up 'cartel torture' and see how they removed eyeballs, OK?" And that's where the matter is left. It'd be easy enough to just go with, say, the grapefruit spoon and call it a day. Who would care? But that's not how Sutter operates. He cares. He cares very deeply, and darkly, which is what has led to all the many singular delights the show has delivered: castrated child-rapists, tattoos removed by blowtorch, far-flung amounts of Jackson Pollock blood splatter, death by crucifix, death by fork, a chopped-off head simmering in a vat of chili, face-eating ants, tongues self-severed to keep from tattletale-ing, and more histrionic-size emotions than you can shake a cattle prod at, all in the service of trying to answer the question that Shakespeare poses in the first line of Hamlet, whose essential warped triangle of mother, son and stepfather Sons of Anarchy has been most often compared to. Spoken into darkness, the question is, "Who's there?" Which, of course, is a good question to ask of Sutter, as well.
Before Sons, Sutter was a writer on FX's The Shield, a nearly-as-violent Golden Globe-winning series about corrupt L.A. cops, a position he held from 2001 to 2008, rising up through the ranks to an executive producer, and before that he was nobody. He spent his days churning out spec scripts and attending AA meetings. That was about it until Shawn Ryan, The Shield's showrunner, called him in for a meeting based on a West Wing spec and quickly hired him, if only because they'd talked about Sutter's past troubles with alcohol and drug addiction and Ryan realized that Sutter could bring "a really fantastic perspective" to his show's world. "He became a very, very valuable member of the team," says Ryan, "though he was definitely not the most beloved member. He wasn't always the nicest to people in the writers' room."
"I'm a smartass with a big mouth and without filters"
Indeed, these days, all over Hollywood and beyond, Sutter is well-known for his sensational temper and for flying off the handle to an almost operatic, cuckoo degree. For instance, during SOA's second season, after a studio bean counter got on his nerves, Sutter snarled in an e-mail, "Crawl out of my ass and let me do my fucking job," which led to him being slapped with a hostile-work-environment claim. Or, take his more famous public outbursts: Every year Sons of Anarchy is snubbed by the Emmys, and every year it makes Sutter so mad that he goes ballistic via Twitter. Here's a bunch of his 2011 post-Emmy-slight tweets run together as one glorious moment: "The worst part of not getting any Emmy nods is all the wasted blowjobs I gave at the academy picnic. My breath still smells like sour ammonia. Fuck Glee. Hate those annoying, 'please accept me for who I am' singing brats. Best part of not getting an Emmy nod? Now I don't have to pretend I give a shit about the profiteering douche-bag academy." It doesn't get any better than this, does it, kids?
Firing up an American Spirit outside his offices, Sutter kind of chuckles and says, "I'm a smartass with a big mouth and without filters. I made a joke the other day, which was, 'I've learned to make fuel from the heat of burning bridges.' Which is true, you know? But I've definitely calmed down. I'm not as easily triggered as I was the first couple of seasons of the show. I'm not quite so insecure. But, I mean, FX's PR guy has sort of given up. Every once in a while, he'll be like, 'OK, can you do me a favor? Can you at least not use the word "cunt"?' I listen and acknowledge his desire, and then I usually do what I wanna do. Quite frankly, though, some of it for me is just stirring shit up, keeping the fans interested in the show when it's off the air. I tend to feed the beast." He takes a drag on his ciggy. "Look. I know the book on me is I'm bombastic and over-the-top, but I think people who know me know that's a part of who I am, but it's not who I am."
Or, as his old boss Ryan puts it, "There are two Kurt Sutters. There's the outlaw rebel he likes the world to see, and there's a more sensitive, thoughtful Kurt. It's not that the rebel is an act. It's more like a wish-fulfillment deviation and way to mask the pain from what he was as a kid and a young adult."
As a kid, growing up in Clark, New Jersey, right next to the state prison there, Sutter spent most of his time tucked away in the basement. His dad, a General Motors exec, was distant; his mother turned into an alcoholic by the time he was 13, and he had two older sisters who weren't really in the picture. He attended Catholic schools, no horror stories to tell ("I wasn't sodomized"). The only horrors in his life were his mom's collection of Hummel figurines, which terrorized him for reasons unknown ("Those crazy-ass fucking things . . ."); a recurring nightmare that cost him sleep for three years running (he was submerged in water under a corpse and unable to escape: "I just had a sense of the dull eyes and the flesh"); and his weight.
He's outside again. It's a different day. He's leaning against a different wall. He lights another cigarette and again starts fiddling with his T-shirt, which he does a lot, halfway burrowing his hand into the fabric. He says that all he ever did back then was watch TV: Happy Days; All in the Family; Welcome Back, Kotter; Yogi Bear; Bugs Bunny. "Fucking hours and hours of it." And then, around the time his mother started drinking, he started eating. "She was my only friend, and when she checked out, I was, like, fucked. That's when I started to eat. Food was my first drug of choice. By the time I was a teenager, I weighed 400 pounds. I didn't really have a girlfriend. At 400 pounds, people don't want to fuck you, because you can crush them to death." Pluck, twist, knead that T-shirt. "I was very much isolated," he goes on. "My dad was disappointed in me, because I was obese and he was a sports guy. As a result, I spent a lot of time in that basement. I could go down there and escape and be whatever I wanted to be. I had a huge fantasy life. It always involved vengeance. I was really angry, which I coupled with rage and fear, all of which somehow plugged into my imagination. I wasn't daydreaming about riding ponies in the open field. I was daydreaming about, you know, how to fuck things up."
By the time high school was over, in 1978, he'd started supplementing his eating habit with a boozing habit. At Rutgers, where he studied mass media and English, he decided to add exercise and cocaine to the mix. And surprisingly enough, it allowed him, for the first time, to get a glimpse of who he really was. "I've been self-medicating since I came out of the fucking womb," he says. "But at a certain point, I realized I'm never gonna get fucking laid at 400 pounds, and that's when I flipped the switch on the food addiction and swapped it out. I got down to literally half my size in less than a year. Yeah. I halved my body size and doubled my insanity." All along, he'd been a trim guy in a fat guy's body, and now, finally, he could get laid. This was good. This was a start.
After college, though, and for the next 20 or so years, he drifted from one city to the next, from one career in show business to another, unable to find his calling. He was a stand-up comedian in New York for a while. He was a theater actor. He was a guy driving across the country on a motorcycle, later selling his Harley to become a fine-arts grad student at Northern Illinois University. By 2000, he was a husband struggling to make it as an actor in L.A. Then he was divorced and still struggling. He'd been sober for nearly a decade. He was 40. He was sending out spec scripts. It took two years of doing that before Ryan called him about The Shield, in 2001. And so now here he is, having become just what he was meant to become.
"He's a rock-star showrunner," says FX president John Landgraf, fondly. "I really love Kurt. We've had our big blow-out fights, but he doesn't go around unconsciously scorching the earth. He's extremely self-aware and willing to expose the more primitive and unsavory side of his personality. He's an artist. He's a provocateur. He's one of the most entertaining characters there is."
Tight clothes and short skirts must be pretty happy when they see Sutter's wife, Katey Sagal, show up. She's got a way with both, and for that alone, as well as for her vicious and sympathetic portrayal of biker-gang den mom Gemma in Sons, she deserves an Emmy (and another nail in the coffin of her past as the hotsy-totsy wife on the sitcom Married . . . With Children). Sagal has the biggest, deepest root-beer-colored eyes, too, which turn kind of sparkly carbonated when she talks about the first time she went on a date with her future husband. They met at a coffee shop. She brought a friend, just in case he turned out to be a freak. "I didn't really know what it was going to be," she says, "but I was responding to him." She takes a moment before going on: "After that date, I kissed him." Was tongue involved? "Might've been." (Sutter says, "She totally jammed her tongue down my throat. I was like, 'I like this girl!' I don't like ambiguity, man.") The couple married a few years later, with him pitching in to help raise her two kids from a previous marriage and then their own child, a daughter named Esmé.
Sagal has been around Sutter a long time and has no doubt seen a lot; even so, certain things about how extreme he can be still catch her off-guard. For the most part, Sutter's blog, SutterInk.com, is a place for him to vent and then to repent. He's big on apologies. He once said, "If I didn't apologize, I'd have no fucking friends." It's also where he can step back, take a look at himself and conclude that he is most alive when he's in a "state of self-righteous agitation." And it's where he sometimes reveals a darkness almost beyond darkness. In one post, he recounts a daydream he'd recently told his wife about, in which "an obese, mentally challenged teen was vaginally raping the corpse of his dead mother with a forearm he just chewed off his nearly dead, thin older brother." This outdoes by a far cry anything that's been seen on Sons. Today, hearing about it again, Sagal's big eyes sag a little, and she looks pained and confused. "He said that to me? I might have blanked it out. I mean, that's pretty–." She waves her hand. She doesn't seem able to say more.
They live tucked away in the Hollywood Hills, at the top of a steep driveway, bushes, trees, shadows, a swimming pool, a dog and Sutter's pet African Grey parrot. It's cool and tidy inside his writing studio. He sits on the couch, extends his legs, and continues to be self-reflective. He says he gets panic attacks in crowds and would most often prefer to be by himself, like he used to be, back in that basement. "My favorite thing even now is to be locked in a room," he says, "listening to the voices in my head and playing out scenes and seeing stuff happen." He says that, outside of work, his main connection to other people is through AA meetings. He takes the antidepression-and-anxiety drug Cymbalta and visits a talk-oriented psychiatrist twice monthly ("It's maintenance. I'm not on the ledge anymore"). He has no photos of himself at his peak weight, none, and wraps his fingers into his T-shirt talking about it.
"I've pretty much burned all of those," he says. "At a certain time, anything that I had, I got rid of." He says that after losing that 200 pounds, he then had to deal with the flaps of loose skin that hung off his body. "I've had several surgeries," he says. "I've had excess skin removed two or three times over the course of 20 years. Some of it just for health reasons." And some of it, presumably, not. Whatever. Reminders, who needs them?
But, of course, the way things work for him, if it's not one thing, it's another. "I'm way too hypersensitive. I'm not the kind that can let shit roll off my back. I can be in a room where 999 people love me and I will focus and obsess about the one dude who doesn't. I did not get filled as a kid. I am forever hungry. I want to find that one guy and find out why he doesn't like me. But it's not about changing his mind. I wanna fuckin' chop his head off. But then afterward, if I was wrong, I have no problem apologizing."
After Sons ends, Sutter's got a new show on FX to run. It's called The Bastard Executioner, about an executioner in late-medieval England. FX's Landgraf describes it this way: "Ultimately, just like Sons of Anarchy, it's got a very strong Shakespearean journey in the center of it." Of course it does. It also promises to be another bloody affair, full of the stuff that constantly runs through Sutter's mind. He's looking forward to it. His only worry now is the possibility of downtime between gigs. "When I'm not writing, I don't quite know who I am," he says. "I'm lost a little bit. It's like, what am I? Who am I? What am I doing? I don't do well. Idle hands and all. I'm a little bit fucked up. But it's part of my charm." He's smiling, and his fingers are still wrestling with his T-shirt, almost turning it inside out, as can sometimes happen when you aren't paying attention.
From The Archives Issue 1219: October 9, 2014