Kurt Sutter: Cable Outlaw

Kurt Sutter is one of the most interesting faces in the cable television world and one of the most creative and outspoken talents in the TV business. His star has risen concurrently with the boom in original cable programming.

Sutter started as a writer on The Shield and he worked on over 80 episodes of Shawn Ryan’s gritty cop drama before creating Sons of Anarchy, which remains FX’s highest-rated drama.

However, it appears that Sutter did not have an easy ride to get there. His official biography says that he barely graduated high school and “a fucked up home, childhood obesity, food, drug addition and relentless television watching all contributed to his absurd, insular world of violent fantasies and sexual dreams”.

He has consistently pushed the envelope on Sons of Anarchy and has received wholehearted support from FX president John Landgraf.

Possibly his most controversial move is casting High School Musical star Ashley Tisdale as a high-class hooker in season six of the show, which starts in September.

When Sutter wanted to produce a documentary series about outlaws, Discovery stepped up with the cash. He tells TBI about his new documentary series and his other work.


TBI: Why did you cast Ashley Tisdale as a high-class hooker?

Sutter: Just because I could.


When TBI spoke to Sutter, whose office is adorned with skulls, anarchy dolls and complaints from Fox’s HR department, it was principally about his entry into the documentary world, rather than about turning Disney tweens into prostitutes.

Sutter recently created Outlaw Empires, a six-part series about some of the nastiest real-life crime organisations in the US, including the Irish mob, the Aryan brotherhood and the Crips.

“It started out as a little bit of a Rashomon scenario. Discovery liked the idea and they wanted to be in business with me; Sons of Anarchy is the number one scripted series for their key demo. I wanted to do a documentary series and it evolved into Outlaw Empires,” he said.

Sutter has made a career out of scripting the lives of fictitious antiheroes and wanted to learn about the lore and history of the real criminal organisations that have influenced his work.

“I knew enough of these guys to be aware of the potential level of violence,” he said. “Most of these organisations sprang up out of a need for protection or survival rather than just because of out and out violence. As it happens, when you’re living off the grid, you’re exposed to rogue elements and criminality follows.”

He adds that there wasn’t a huge difference between producing a series like Outlaw Empires and scripted dramas such as The Shield or Sons of Anarchy. “There are similarities and the similarities are in the detail. Ultimately, it’s about characters and that was the hook to the show. Sons of Anarchy and The Shield are all about characters and then I write out rather than write in. There are some things in Outlaw Empires that if you pitched in the room, they would be too on the nose,” he added.

Previous documentaries have attempted to tackle these outlaw groups before, but Sutter approached the gangs with empathy and without judgement. “It was not objective or subjective from the police point of view. This was not for the History channel. It’s about why they got involved and where they’re at today; listening to their side rather than judging them,” he added.

Outlaw Empires, which was produced by Studio Lambert, launched on May 14 and averaged just below 1 million viewers through its initial run, lower than cable series including VH1’s Basketball Wives, A&E’s Duck Dynasty and The Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

Sutter was disappointed with the numbers and doubts whether Discovery would commission more episodes. “I think it’s done at Discovery. It was a bit of an experiment for them, they’re more used to reality shows, which do well, things like American Chopper. This is a past-tense documentary, it’s not necessarily what their fans show up for.”

Team Sutter is now looking for a new home for the project. “There’s talk of taking it somewhere else. We could possibly take it to another Discovery channel or someplace else. It’s not necessarily finished but we couldn’t get the eyes [on Discovery],” he admits.

Sutter is finishing up season six of Sons of Anarchy and is also developing new series for FX as part of the deal he recently signed with 20th Century Fox Television. At the end of June, he tweeted: “I just sold a pitch to FX that is so fucking out there, it even scares me.”

“A component of my deal at 20th is development so I’m always looking to develop new ideas for either me or other writers. I’ve got a couple of scripted projects in development,” he told TBI.

Surprisingly, he is also considering pitching ideas to the broadcast networks. “My sensibilities lie in the cable world, but [another] component of my deal with 20th is if a project better fits broadcast, I’m open to that. It’s a bit more of challenge, but I’m not closed to that,” he said.

While, the major networks may be wary of his objectionable language and common cursing as well as his prevalence towards violence, they could use his imagination.


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