Top 50 Power Showrunners 2011
"Forgive me … I'm working on like 2 1/2 hours sleep," warns Sutter. The Sons of Anarchy creator is slumped in a stuffy edit room inside a trailer on the barbed-wire-appointed grounds of SOA's seedy headquarters in North Hollywood. In the throes of editing episode 11 of the biker-gang drama's fourth season, Sutter appears the opposite of the hardened persona who has used Twitter as a public receptacle for seemingly endless obscenity-laced rants about the Emmys and rival showrunners. He's soft-spoken and almost preppy (save for the sleeves of tribal tattoos), wearing a T-shirt, jeans and gray Converse sneakers.
Sutter is understandably exhausted. He was up all night writing the season finale for what has become FX's biggest drama ever -- its premiere was the most-watched episode in the cable network's history -- an episode he's also prepping to direct. But there's another problem to be solved on this cloudy Tuesday afternoon. After a second viewing of the sprawling 11th episode -- in rough-cut form and laden with visual placeholders like "VFX: Bloody Head" -- Sutter looks worried. "I don't think I can get this down without gutting the whole thing," he tells his dutiful editor Lauren Pendergrass, taking notes on a legal pad. "I'm going to have to e-mail FX and ask if I can do a 90-minute episode again. As we get into the season, even lifting a line of dialogue undermines the narrative."
One could easily imagine Sutter back when he was headed for a career in academia. After a New Jersey childhood that "wasn't happy," he studied communications at Rutgers and in 1997 was awarded an MFA fellowship in performance at Northern Illinois University. It was there, inspired by Henrik Ibsen and Eugene O'Neill, that he started writing plays and cultivating ideas for the screen while also teaching acting and directing. Sutter moved to L.A. and wrote specs and one-minute bumpers for Bravo before landing as a writer on FX's first original series, The Shield, where he stayed for seven seasons. He says his inspiration for SOA grew largely out of wanting to collaborate with his wife, Golden Globe-winning star Katey Sagal, whom he met via a coffee date set up by friends. "And I never looked back," he says.
Today Sutter, 48, is one of FX's most iconic and outspoken creatives. He made headlines last summer with all that Twitter trash-talk about SOA and Sagal getting snubbed by the Emmys, which put him suddenly on everyone's radar (and even defending his behavior on NPR). He says the rants came from a satirical place, but admits it's tough not to get sucked into the hype. "I see a show like Mad Men get gobs of Emmys, as well it should," he says. "But what people don't realize is that it's almost more difficult to make my show look this shitty."
Awards aside, the feedback that rings most powerful is that from his "f--ing committed" fan base. "I was at a party for [Hells Angels founder] Sonny Barger. These guys said: 'Your show is a f--ing soap opera. But it's our soap opera.' I thought, 'Yeah, that's what it's about.' "