“I didn’t call you a c—, did I?”
I’m certain Kurt Sutter remembers what he called me, but still I find myself compelled to rehash our colorful past. Five years ago, after I wrote a story about, well, his propensity to hurl words like “c—,” he’d unleashed that very word on me to his sizable Twitter following, which now counts more than half a million. He does have a clearer memory of apologizing to me, which he did after nudges from his FX employers and a handful of horrified peers. “What can I say, I’m a good communicator,” he says wryly, and we both laugh.
In the moment, of course, such insults aren’t all that funny, as many who have been on the receiving end of Sutter’s wrath over the years can attest: those include “c— bloggers,” who have criticized his first FX smash, Sons of Anarchy, as well as executives who have dared to tell him what to do and awards voters who have neglected him. “The worst part of not getting any Emmy nods,” he tweeted in 2011, “is all the wasted blowjobs I gave at the academy picnic. My breath still smells like sour ammonia.” For years, he famously hung on his wall a letter warning him of a “hostile work environment,” which he received after telling a studio bean counter to “crawl out of my ass and let me do my f—ing job.”
Those incendiary rants, coupled with the exceedingly violent material that he writes, produces, sometimes directs and often acts in, are all part of a hyperbolic persona that has helped make Sutter, 55, one of the biggest names in series television. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find another showrunner who has cultivated a more direct and rabid following for his body of work, which extends to that prolific Twitter feed and his widely read Sutterink blog. But as I spend time trailing him on the Southern Wales set of his latest FX series, The Bastard Executioner, a medieval drama that premieres Sept. 15, I find myself wondering aloud how much of the whole tough-guy act is just that — an act. If underneath that intimidating facade — the thick ponytail, the collection of Harleys, the assemblage of tribal tattoos — there is a deeply sensitive man who lashes out at the very people from whom he craves validation.
“Nobody is ever their reputation,” he tells me as our interview in his sparse U.K. production office in early July stretches well past the three-hour mark. “The reason why I embrace it and why I joke about it is because it is who I am in terms of tone and creativity, meaning it’s not bullshit that I’m a dark motherf—er and I say very disturbing things in a creative way. I can scare the f— out of people sometimes, but even in my darkest moments, even when I’m punching holes in f—ing walls, all of that shit happens because of my passion for what I’m doing.”
‘The Bastard Executioner’
Those closest to Sutter — a small subset that includes his wife and frequent muse, Katey Sagal; his longtime collaborator and Bastard director Paris Barclay; and his bosses, FX’s John Landgraf and Fox TV Group’s Dana Walden — are fiercely protective of him and jump to rationalize, if not excuse, his behavior. “I know he’s got that other persona, but the Kurt I know loves his kids, he loves me and he loves being at home,” says Sagal, with whom he shares an 8-year-old daughter, Esme, and has raised two grown children from her previous marriage as his own. She flashes a smile, “I wouldn’t have married an asshole.”
Adds Landgraf, whose network has employed Sutter consistently for nearly 15 years, “Most of us have had some toughness in our childhood, [but] his is worse than yours, and because of that I think that he has more sensitivity, and it manifests itself in a tremendous amount of armor.” Which is not to say Sutter’s outbursts don’t get to them. In the same breath, the FX chief acknowledges, “I’ve had days when I was frustrated with him or was hurt myself or feeling a little bit like Jerry Maguire in that locker-room scene with Cuba Gooding Jr., saying, ‘Help me help you.’ “
What all those in the inner circle agree on is that Sutter has grown up a lot in the past few years. Jokes Barclay, who has worked with Sutter since his early days on FX’s The Shield, “There’s been a long time between ‘c—s.’ ” Some attribute it to experience; others to success, of which Sutter has had plenty. Sons‘ audience grew every season it was on, ending its seven-year run as the top-rated drama series in the network’s history. Eager to secure his next hit, 20th Century Fox TV locked him into a massive eight-figure, three-year deal in 2014, which catapulted Sutter into the studio’s upper echelon with such heavyweights as Ryan Murphy, Howard Gordon and Modern Family‘s Steve Levitan. His first screenplay, Southpaw, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as embattled boxer Billy Hope, overperformed at the summer box office; and his other projects, including Bastard and a not-yet-announced Sons spinoff about Mexican-American biker gang The Mayans, will, if he’s willing to commit, instantly leapfrog to the front of the development pipeline.
Sutter, too, offers multiple theories for his increasingly civil conduct. “Some of it I think is just age. Some of it is having kids and realizing my impact on them. Some of it is being more comfortable or trusting that it’s not all going to go away. And some of it is just, honestly, trial and error. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and for the most part I tend to learn from them,” he says, sinking deeper into the couch. “I think I became aware of my impact on people and the need for me to not move through the world swinging the sword as ferociously as I have. That doesn’t mean that I don’t swing the sword anymore; I just have a lot more sense of whose head I’m chopping off.”
“I feel like I have a job as a storyteller, and part of that job is engaging an audience,” says Sutter, who intends to maintain that populist philosophy that guided him on ‘Sons of Anarchy’ for ‘The Bastard Executioner.’ “It’s not about me sitting in my ivory tower sending out scripts with a sense of, ‘I don’t f—ing care if people like this shit or not.’ ”
The grimmer details of Sutter’s past spill out with little prodding. The youngest of three, he lacked traditional role models: His secretary mother had devolved into a life of alcoholism, and his father, a General Motors executive, didn’t pay him much attention. “My dad was of that generation where there wasn’t a lot of communication,” he says. “I didn’t go to him to feel good about myself.” Sutter spent the bulk of his childhood alone in the basement of their suburban New Jersey home, consumed by a diet of TV shows (All in the Family; Welcome Back, Kotter) and a vivid, twisted fantasy life. “I walked around with a lot of shit boiling,” he adds, acknowledging that his young daughter has inherited many of his early traits. “It’s really wild because now it’s all diagnosable: a little bit of dyslexia, the ADHD stuff, the mood disorder. … I’ll just look at her and go, ‘I’m so sorry.’ ” By the time Sutter hit high school, he had ballooned to 400 pounds.
Then came college and an important realization: “At 400 pounds, I was never going to get laid,” he says, a trademark smirk sweeping across his face. Soon, Sutter would swap food for drugs and alcohol. He fanatically counted calories — bourbon, he learned, offered the “biggest bang for [his] buck” — and began exercising with that same intensity: “I was the crazy guy at 2 in the morning half-drunk on the treadmill.” Within a year, Sutter, a B student at Rutgers, had shed half his body weight. He has had multiple surgeries over the years to remove the excess skin, and remains obsessive about staying trim.
Sutter spent his 20s and early 30s trying to find his way: He studied to be an actor, then taught others to act. He waited tables; he wrote plays; he did “a lot of bad off-Broadway”; he even did stand-up comedy for a while. The only constant was his heavy drinking, much of which was done in secret. “I was the guy who’d have a couple of drinks with people and then go home to my bottle of whatever and drink till I passed out,” he says. “The problem with that is that you don’t have your circle of friends going, ‘Dude, you’re out of control.’ ”
That his late mother had provided him a clear map for where his own life was heading was something Sutter couldn’t see at the time. “You just think, ‘Well, that’s her; that’s never going to be me,’ ” he says, then adds, “But here’s a little insight to my stock: My mom doesn’t stop drinking till she’s diagnosed with cirrhosis. Then she goes from a pack a day to about three packs a day and doesn’t stop smoking till she’s diagnosed with emphysema.” The smirk returns. “We’re not quitters.”
Sutter never bottomed out in classic Hollywood fashion. No string of lost jobs, no DUIs, no nights in jail. “The thing that brought me into recovery was pretty much exhaustion,” he tells me, tugging at the salt-and-pepper scruff on his chin. “I was just so exhausted trying to figure out whether or not I needed to stop drinking that it was sort of a sad surrender.” Sutter was in his early 30s when he tagged along with a girlfriend to an AA meeting. He has been going religiously ever since, a commitment he shares with Sagal, whose sponsor joined them on their first date more than a decade ago. “It’s the only thing I’ve done consistently perfect for 22 years,” says Sutter.
In short order, he headed west to Northern Illinois University, where he earned an MFA in performance; got married for the first time, then quickly divorced; and settled in L.A., where, in his early 40s, his second act as a writer began.
Sutter first tried his hand at writing comedies, but they routinely veered off course. “By page 30, they were just so f—ing dark,” he says. Drama came more naturally. An S&M version of Ally McBeal got him some early Hollywood meetings, but it was a West Wing spec script he sent around in 2001 that caught the right person’s attention.
His take on Aaron Sorkin‘s White House drama was an unusual blend of bleakness and sentimentality — the primary story was an 8-year-old kid killing another 8-year-old on the playground, but a secondary plot about C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) writing a children’s book bordered on cheesy. “I just remember very distinctly writing on the back page of [Kurt’s] script, ‘Really, really great script. Sappy ending. Wonder if he has the edge to write on this show?’ ” says producer Shawn Ryan, who was staffing his crime drama, The Shield, at the time. Ryan invited Sutter in for a meeting, and after being regaled by stories of the writer’s darker years, he concluded that Sutter “definitely had enough edge.” He was hired.
Sutter’s first writers room was heavy on other alpha males, many of whom were younger but had considerably more experience than he did. “I think some thought I was arrogant and boorish,” he says, admitting he had a lot to learn about collaboration. “I’m not really team material.” There’s that smirk again. “I think Shawn even said to me at some point, ‘You’re going to have to run your own show after this because I don’t think anyone else will be as patient as me.’ “
In the early going, he carved out his niche as the “f—ed-up guy” in the room. Though Ryan would have to reel him in on occasion, he encouraged Sutter’s desire to push the envelope. And push it Sutter did, having written many of the series’ most disturbing scenes, including the one in which Detective Holland “Dutch” Wagenbach makes a crude discovery in the home of a sex offender during season one. “I remember saying, ‘Then Dutch opens the refrigerator, and it’s full of mayonnaise jars of cum,’ ” says Sutter. “The room goes dead silent. And I’m just like, ‘What? Nobody else thought of that?’ “
Over time, he became one of the series’ most valued writers — “He had this very rare ability to create a pulpy world that’s exciting but also has 3D people in it,” says Barclay, who directed several of Sutter’s episodes — and as The Shield was wrapping its seventh and final season, he was more than ready to be his own boss. The father-son producers Art and John Linson had been looking to set a show in the world of outlaw biker clubs, and Ryan recommended Sutter.
He was skeptical at first. “I just felt like I’m not the guy you go to to adapt anything,” says Sutter. “My best asset is my imagination.” But the Linsons were offering a mostly blank canvas; no book or life rights, just a Northern California setting and a subculture that had yet to be mined. Sutter signed on and threw himself into the project between writing scripts for The Shield. AMC and FX both made offers on Sons, but Sutter, for whom trust is earned over time, already was comfortable at the latter.
“I think Shawn even said to me at some point, ‘You’re going to have to run your own show after this because I don’t think anyone else will be as patient as me,” says Sutter (left, with Sagal, second from left) of his first boss, ‘Shield’ creator Ryan (right, with his wife, Cathy).
Sons premiered in the fall of 2008. It garnered some early raves — “Few series have exploded onto the scene with such a rich array of potential stories and inherently interesting characters,” wrote Tim Goodman, then of the San Francisco Chronicle and now THR’s chief TV critic — and quickly became one of FX’s most successful franchises. By the series’ final season, it was drawing 8 million viewers, trouncing all but The Walking Dead on cable; and its showrunner, who appeared to embody the rough-and-tumble world that the series showcased, had become a household name. Sutter learned early on how to feed his following on air and off, regularly posting video and blog entries, which would not only let fans into his process but also into his world. Those paying close attention to his social feeds knew about his tattoo collection (his torso is next), along with his ongoing attempts to quit smoking, his childlike passion for video games and his favorite TV shows (The Daily Show and HGTV). “Some of it is definitely my ego and my primal need to be worshipped,” he says, “and then I think I just have always had a keen sense of how to sell what I do.”
But not everybody bought it. A vocal cadre of critics argued, particularly in the series’ later seasons, that Sons became indulgent, melodramatic and needlessly gruesome. (They torched off one man’s tattoo, gouged out another’s eyes and featured more blood spatter than nearly anything else on television.) Sutter, whose own character, Otto Delaney, famously bit off his own tongue, writes off the latter as too literal-minded. “For me, all that violence — because it’s not who I am and it’s not where I come from — it’s all fantasy. I might as well be writing about wizards and fairies,” he says. (After the Aurora shooting in 2012, Sutter wrote an essay for THR about his conflicted feelings on the impact of violence in the media.) And then there was the TV Academy, which annually neglected to bestow so much as a major nomination on Sons, much less an actual award. When the 2015 nominations were announced earlier this summer, the biker drama once again came up empty. But this time, Sons‘ last shot at an Emmy, there was no flurry of expletive-laden tweets. “We’ve embraced the whole ‘f— those guys’ thing,” he says, “and there’s a certain amount of pride with, like, ‘Yeah, f— this.’ “
Which is not to say there isn’t some lingering resentment. “It’s been very difficult for Kurt because on some level he recognizes, quite rightly, that he’s doing some pretty extraordinary storytelling, but he won’t dress it up in a package,” says Landgraf. “If Kurt would write a piece like Downton Abbey, he would win every Emmy there is because it would be a great story at a place that was really, really delightfully elevated and upscale and not only palatable but delicious to the sensibilities of those who vote for Emmys. But he’s just not going to do that.”
Sutter sits with a smock draped over him as a huddle of makeup artists consult a “burn victim” atlas and paint his head with silicone scars. Transforming him into the Dark Mute, as The Bastard Executioner‘s call sheet demands on this early July morning, should take more than three hours, but Sutter will grow restless well before that.
He spent the previous night holed up in his nearby trailer, where he prefers to stay when he’s deep in the throes of writing or editing on location. He admits he didn’t finish the script that Barclay has been waiting on, and the dark bags that sit heavy under his eyes suggest he didn’t get much sleep, either. But this, too, is Sutter’s process, with Sagal telling me how he regularly disappears to his office at their home in L.A., where he often acts out the scenes he’s writing late into the night. Soon, he’ll emerge on Bastard‘s elaborate 14th century set in full Dark Mute regalia, clutching his staples (and the only signs of contemporary life): an oversized bag of Twizzlers, a pack of American Spirits and a can of Rockstar Energy, his second of the day. Between takes, Sutter, whose medieval robe hides a uniform T-shirt and calf-length capris, will hover over a bank of monitors and poke fun at the performance he just gave.
The cast and crew of ‘The Bastard Executioner’ were photographed July 10 on the set of the Fox 21 TV Studios’ drama at Dragon Studios in Bridgend, Wales.
Those closest to him were surprised at how quickly he jumped into another series, having set up the Bastard writers room roughly three months before Sons had ended. Sutter hadn’t planned it that way, he explains, but he sparked to an idea that producer Brian Grazer presented over lunch in early 2014. Grazer, a major Sons fan, had pitched Fox’s Walden a loose concept about an executioner, which both concluded was squarely in Sutter’s wheelhouse. “I really liked that this was as morally complex a profession as you could imagine and one that deals with the highest and lowest order in the culture,” says Grazer, “and I thought Kurt did this amazing world creation with Sons of Anarchy and he would be perfect for this.” Walden arranged a meeting for the two, but says she warned that Sutter was unlikely to sign on. “I was fully expecting Kurt to say, ‘I’m finishing this series that I’ve poured my soul into and I’m not prepared to think about my next show yet.’ “
Instead, Sutter left that lunch feeling inspired. “You usually come out of those meetings and you just want to blow your f—ing brains out, but I came out of that one going, ‘F—, I want to be that guy. I want to channel my crazy that way,’ ” he says. Sutter dove into the research process — reading everything he could about the medieval period and the executioner’s plight — then came back in to present his vision for Bastard Executioner. “It was genuinely one of the best pitches I’ve heard in my entire career,” says Walden. “Kurt just owned the world and the characters, and he tapped in to some of the same themes as Sons of Anarchy, though clearly in a wildly different arena: the notion of brotherhood, of loyalty, of what your responsibility is as a member of a community, of male-female relationships and of something that while set in a very brutal time has a very deep emotional underpinning.”
Bastard moved through FX’s development cycle at warp speed, earning a slot on the schedule before it was officially ordered to series. Virtual unknown Australian actor Lee Jones landed the lead role as the titular executioner; with Sagal, True Blood‘s Stephen Moyer — another Sons fanatic who’d been nudging Sutter about casting him for some time — and British actress Flora Spencer-Longhurst rounding out the key cast. Other Sons vets, including Tim Murphy (Galen), and Sons fans, like pop star Ed Sheeran, will turn up, too. Sutter also cast his 21-year-old stepdaughter, Sarah White, in her first series role, then jumped to make a joke about it before others could. He captioned a “first peek” shot of White and her mother in costume on Instagram with the hashtag “nepotism at its finest.” Those who follow Sutter’s feed see a fair amount of the Sutter/Sagal/White family, often with adoring captions, which can be glaring when juxtaposed with his other posts, including those of animal skins on which he tags the “delusional extremists” at PETA, another favorite target.
“I’m a really passionate person, and that passion crosses the line into aggression at some point and I lose my shit,” says Sutter, photographed July 10 at Dragon Studios in Bridgend, Wales.
Now, as Bastard Executioner nears its mid-September debut, there are some natural jitters. Will the 14th century setting be a turnoff? Will a two-hour premiere demand too much of viewers’ time? And will the critics be able to move past his “c— blogger” characterization of them?
Sutter talks about the coming deluge of reviews as though he were about to enter a boxing ring with his hands tied behind his back. “I’ve pissed off a lot of people, so I don’t have a lot of friends out there in that community,” he says. “I’ve tried to make amends, but they continue to piss me off. So, I don’t know. … I think there are some people out there who will generate a review that I will actually read. And then there are a lot of people whom I won’t because I don’t trust that it’ll be objective and thorough.”
The comments lead us to a larger conversation about the collateral damage his behavior has had on his own career. When I inform him that his expletive-laced emails sit on hard drives all over Hollywood and that I’d seen a handful in preparation for this article, he seems genuinely disturbed. “Do I think that if I had better Twitter etiquette I’d have a shelf full of Emmys? No. And I don’t think it’s stopped me from working and that kind of shit either,” he says, though he acknowledges that calling the TV Academy the “profiteering douchebag academy” didn’t do him any favors. “But it has hurt me because there are a lot of people out there who I’ve probably either insulted or embarrassed. So in the big picture, I think all that hurts me. “
Having worked on three consecutive projects at FX, Sutter hasn’t had to test his viability at other networks; though many say if he had a next big idea, his hitmaker status surely would outweigh his renegade one, particularly in an era where proven talent is in short supply. Retaining writers may prove slightly more challenging given his history of cycling through them on Sons — a likely byproduct of his fiery personality and his proclivity for page-one rewrites — though they, too, are eager to be associated with a hit. As Bastard gets underway, Sutter insists he’s focused on becoming more of a mentor, relying on The Shield‘s Ryan as his role model. He also insists he’ll refrain — or at least he’ll try to refrain — from punching back at his detractors. He has begun outsourcing much of his tweeting to an employee, a decision that has saved him time and inevitable apologies. “I just can’t have my head up my ass about the impact of the shit that I’m saying anymore,” he tells me.
If Sutter is feeling overwhelmed by the pressure on his Sons follow-up — this one is significantly pricier (the pilot alone cost more than $10 million) and higher in profile — he doesn’t let on. “I think I’ve grown up a lot in terms of how to have a career,” he says, “and I don’t necessarily have that crushing need to be loved the way I did [on Sons].” Already, he’s floating the possibility of stepping away from some of his day-to-day showrunner duties at Bastard if and when it finds success. When I ask whether he’s simply too hands-on to ever do such a thing, he cracks a smile: “Why does everybody I mention that to ask the same question?”
He’s been quietly prepping the Sons spinoff, for which he’s mum on details since it’s still early in the development process. At press time, he was still looking to secure a writer to spearhead it. Sutter says he really wants to do more movies, too, though not simply as a screenwriter. “I can’t write feature scripts for someone else to direct anymore,” he says, a nod to the “at times painful” experience on Antoine Fuqua‘s Southpaw, which went through multiple writers’ keyboards, though Sutter ultimately earned sole screenwriting credit in arbitration. If he has his way, he’ll dust off one of his early scripts, Delivering Gen, a love story between a junkie and a hit man. Charlie Hunnam has read the script, and it’s Sutter’s dream for him to star. “He’d f—ing kill it,” he says of his former Sons lead.
As my time with Sutter winds down, I find myself wondering how the man before me — generous, reflective and exceedingly self-aware — could be the same one who hurled the C-word at me all those years earlier. “I don’t know what you expected,” he says, “but you came to the set and I wasn’t stepping on the necks of puppies.” I pose the same question I did shortly after I arrived: How much of it is an act? Again, he laughs. “I’m not a tough guy. I’m a pussy. Now I’ve probably done some things I regret, and I’ve sent a few emails I probably shouldn’t have sent, but I like to think that I’m a guy who learns from his mistakes.” The smirk returns. “I’ve done a lot of learning in the last several years.”