Kurt Sutter Talks the Politics of 'Mayans MC,' Calls "Bulls—t" on All-White Writers Rooms

THR - Creative Space -  Kurt Sutter -Photographed by Austin Hargrave- H 2018
Photographed by Austin Hargrave

FX's bad boy showrunner, back with a 'Sons of ?Anarchy' spinoff, explains why he chose Disney over "f—in' crazy" Netflix money, his colorful past ("I didn't Weinstein anybody"), and why he "marvels" at Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes' deals: "When you see that money, the first thing that goes through your head is, 'F—.'"

Hanging in the entryway to Kurt Sutter's Santa Monica office is a 9-year-old legal letter from his longtime corporate bosses at 20th Century Fox Television.

The framed correspondence — a hostile work environment claim, which came after Sutter told an executive at the company to "crawl the fuck out of my ass and [producer Kevin G.] Cremin and I will deliver our show on budget" — serves as a valuable reminder for the notoriously foul-mouthed showrunner. "It hangs on my wall not to say, 'I'm a rebel,' " says Sutter, 58. "It hangs on my wall as, like, 'You're an impulsive fucking asshole, and think before you hit send.' "

Having gotten his start on Shawn Ryan's dark drama The Shield, Sutter — a father to three with his actress wife, Katey Sagal — went on to create his own equally dark series in Sons of Anarchy. For seven seasons, the gritty biker drama shattered ratings records for FX. Along the way, its New Jersey-reared creator feuded with journalists (famously calling this reporter the C-word), railed against Emmy voters ("all the wasted blow jobs I gave") and solidified his status as one of the biggest names in television. Now, three years after a short-lived Sons palate cleanser, The Bastard Executioner, he returns to that universe with Mayans M.C. The spinoff, set on the Mexico-California border, centers on Sons' Latino motorcycle club.

On a late summer morning ahead of Mayans' Sept. 4 premiere, Sutter opened up about his colorful past, his now unavoidably political series and the post-#MeToo conversation that accompanied his new overall deal.

Did you have any reservations about revisiting the world of Sons?

I just wanted to make sure I was doing it for the right reasons. I came into this project with a sense of, like, "OK, this is a thing that makes sense and I need to work and how do we do this." And it was [Mayans co-creator] Elgin James' excitement about this world and this project that really made me excited about TV again. I didn't think that it made creative sense to be the sole voice of a show that takes place in an entirely different culture. I'd seen buddies of mine — great writers — try to do it on other shows and have failed miserably. So, I knew that I wanted to find a writer of color who knows the world and I met with a lot of writers, both men and women.

I assume you have read about Magnum P.I. showrunner Peter Lenkov, who recently got in hot water for incorrectly stating that he didn't have any Latinx writers because it's "incredibly hard" to find them?

Yeah, you know what? That's bullshit. It's a smaller pool and you have to do a little bit more work — you have dig a little deeper and you have to make choices outside your comfort zone, but that's bullshit. I clearly am not a guy that gives a fuck about being politically correct. And not that I don't think it's important or I'm being disrespectful, it's just not a priority of mine. Hiring the right voices for this show, anything other than that doesn't make creative sense to me. With Sons, I obviously wasn't raised in an M.C. world but I did the research and I could relate to small town, white, blue color, working class needs and vulnerabilities. To me, that was my wheelhouse. I can imagine the plight and the challenges of being of color, but I can only imagine it, right? So, there's only one dimension to that and I needed people who experienced it, like Elgin, and my other writers. Other than me, there were six. Three men and three women. I was the only white guy.

By the nature of its border locale, this show becomes political. You never actually mention Donald Trump by name, but is that a nod to him with the heroin label "Tiny Hands"?

Yeah. (Laughs.) When I was doing research on the M.C.s and spending time with these cats, one of the things that struck me and made me realize that I could deliver this world to an audience was their really dark and acute sense of humor. And I realized that the only way these guys can navigate this world is if they look at it with a sense of irony 'cause otherwise their heads would explode. So, yeah, insert "Tiny Hands." (Laughs.) And obviously it's not a political show, but to not acknowledge it, to not make a joke about it or bounce off of it would feel inauthentic. It just wouldn't feel real. In fact, the opening frame of the pilot is the wall that says, in both English and Spanish, 'Divided we fall.' And that was on the wall on the Mexican side when I was doing scouting on the first pilot. [The pilot was reshot.] I thought, "Oh, that's a really cool image," so when we had the opportunity to do it again, I was like that's how I want it to begin. And then as time unraveled and I'm looking at the pilot, I had this sense of, "Oh my God, does that feel like right from the jump I'm making some sort of political statement?" And I almost took it out but then I'm like, "Fuck no, I can't do that, I can't edit myself."

Pretty much anything in the world today is a political statement.

Absolutely. And my experience spending time with these guys is that most of these guys are conservative more than liberal. There's that famous story about the Hell's Angels wanting to be recruited to go to Vietnam. But the same way I can't have a political agenda in writing the show, I can't have an agenda that says don't do that. Because if I do, I'm fucked, right? I'm editing myself and I'm not letting story happen.

When The Bastard Executioner wasn't working, John Landgraf famously allowed you to cancel it. What did you learn from that experience?

At the end of it there was this realization of, like, "I don't know how we sustain this pattern." Landgraf asked me what I wanted to do, did I want to change things and blah, blah, blah? But I felt like, I wouldn't have done anything differently. The story was the story. But I'm also not the man in the high tower, I'm not doing this to tell stories to myself — I'm a storyteller and I need people to listen to my stories, and if we couldn't find the audience, then to me it was like, "All right, it lived in the space and time it was supposed to and let's not try to reinvent it or change it or manipulate it to sell it."

In January, you re-upped your deal at Fox.

The irony was I was the first deal they made after the whole Disney thing. (Laughs).

You did so against the backdrop of its pending acquisition by Disney and also in a hypersensitive #MeToo climate. Given all that, how did the process differ?

It was really at the height of that and obviously FX was dealing with the whole Louis C.K. thing and they were neck-deep in it. And then the Disney thing. But the truth is nobody really knew what the fuck was going to happen. So, you had a lot of people making decisions based on what they thought or think might happen. And not that it was all fear-based, some of it was just being politically smart and protecting themselves, but normally when I renew a deal, it's paperwork, it's a conversation. But a couple of things happened. One, because I didn't currently have a show in production, there was a sense of, like, "OK, what do you bring to the table and is it worth the investment" because those deals are few and far between. I ain't cheap. And then John Landgraf and Dana Walden were trying to ... to say they were just protecting themselves is not true, the truth is it was more about protecting me from myself. (Laughs.) So, it was really just a conversation.

What did it entail?

It was about not resurrecting season two of the Sons of Anarchy Kurt Sutter. I've mellowed a lot mainly because my fear subsided and I realized, "Oh, maybe I can do this and I don't have to be so aggressively on the attack and I can trust myself a little bit." So I calmed down and I've extracted myself from circumstances [that could rile me up], like I still can't read reviews. I wish I had tougher skin but I don't. In the last three-year deal I made, it was different: my behavior, my understanding, my maturity. But now they knew coming into a new relationship with new partners who weren't privy to the evolution of that, they're gonna look at everything and not know necessarily the progression of it. So, I think they felt like they needed to do their due diligence for the people coming in [and be able to say] "A conversation was had, this is what we know, this is what we trust."

And the conversation with John and Dana?

It was just a conversation about, "This is the current climate, we don't suspect that you're going to sabotage anything, but we need to do the due diligence." And at first it was disconcerting because I'm like, "What does that mean? Does it mean there's a new watchdog on my shoulder?" And it didn't mean any of that. It was basically, "We know who you are, we know what you can do, we have to make sure that when new entities come in that we can vouch for [you]. And at the very least we can say we have had this conversation."

You're about to work for a company that just fired Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn over offensive tweets from years ago.

Right, right, right.

And I've read your tweets …

Right, and we're friends 'cause I called you a c--- [on Twitter] about eight years ago. (Laughs.) Then there was, in a very politically delicate way, a, "Are there any skeletons in your closet that are gonna come back and bite us in the ass?" And I was like, "Well, as far as I know, I didn't Weinstein anybody. I may have upset people, I may have said inappropriate things, but there was not [any of that]." But again, they needed to do the due diligence. And as Landgraf says, "It's a different climate and you have to acknowledge it and be aware of it and move in step with it."

To that end, I was surprised to see you still have the hostile workplace letter hanging on your wall.

The reason why that letter was hung up in the first place and the reason why it's still there is not about, like, "Fuck you, I'm a bad ass," it's about "I'm a fuckin' idiot and that behavior creates fucking lawsuits."

What does the Disney version of the Kurt Setter brand look like? And do you have any concerns about that?

I had those conversations in depth with John [Landgraf]. And John obviously had concerns as well. Look, I don't know Bob Iger personally, but what he told John was the reason we're making this acquisition is so we can compete in a digital platform-driven world, and we can't compete against a Netflix or an Amazon with just Disney PG content. The only way we can compete is if we have a broader spectrum of content, and that's what FX brings to us. So, it's not about Disney-fying it. And if Landgraf trusted that then I have to trust it too, right?

Right. Just don't touch Mickey.

Yeah, don't fuck with the IP. (Laughs.)

You've told me in the past that you're "not exactly team material." Has that changed?

I say this not to be ironic, but I don't like people. I'm not, like, a gregarious guy. I don't walk into a room and want to engage people. I'm just not wired that way. One on one I'm fine. And my education on The Shield was so important because up until that point I only wrote by myself in a room. So, to suddenly have to be part of a team, I pushed back on it and it was weird. But, ultimately, I saw the power of discourse and of fighting for something you want. Me and Glen Mazzara used to go to the mat on shit. And the result of it, I believe, was always the best choice. In fact, I encourage that in my writers room. Sometimes my writers are way too nice to each other, and I will literally set fires just because I know that that pushback is important. So, collaboration isn't about being on the same page; it's is about people having two different points of view and having a creative discourse about it, and out of that comes the best idea. That's the power of collaboration and so, in that way, I enjoy being part of a team now.

I sense a but coming.

But, in a broader sense, in terms of being part of a bigger organization, I will never be the go-to guy for network. (Laughs.) There'll never be a big meeting where they'll go, "Oh, we should bring Kurt in." Because it's just not who I am, it's not what I do. It's not that I can't collaborate with people, but I'm a guy who has a very specific point of view who then can surround himself with people who can take that point of view and elevate it.

Netflix is signing eight-, nine-figure overall deals left and right. Was there any piece of you that thought, "Maybe I should check that out" rather than simply re-upping at Fox?

I don't mean to sound self-effacing, but I don't do this for the money. I do this so that I don't end up swinging from a pipe by my neck. For me, money is about respect, and that is really important to me. So, if writer x is getting x, y, z, then I fuckin' better get x, y, z 'cause that's the respect you owe me. So, in that regard, yes, money is a big, important part of that process 'cause I need to know that I'm valued and respected for me to show up and do what I need to do. Whether money is a good motivator for that or expression of that is a different conversation. I know Ryan [Murphy] a little bit and I know how talented he is, and when you see that money the first thing that goes through your head is, 'Fuck."

As in, "Fuck, I want that"?

Yeah, as in, "Oh my God, that's fuckin' crazy." But a person like Ryan or Shonda [Rhimes] — and I mean this in the most envious and respectful way — they're corporations. They've surrounded themselves with people and a process that allows them to generate a lot of content. And I marvel at that because I just don't have that skill. I don't trust people enough to go, "You do it." So it's not that it's not interesting to me, it's just not my skill set.

A version of this story also appears in the Sept. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.