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Sons of Anarchy - Kurt Sutter's take on violence on TV

Kurt Sutter is the creator, executive producer, showrunner of Sons of Anarchy, as well as occasional director (director of all five season finales) and recurring guest star as Otto Delaney. He previously worked on Shawn Ryan's The Shield where he was a major writer, much like The Walking Dead's Glen Mazzara, which is often referred to in this article - SoA and TWD being arguably two of the most violent shows on the air.

If you haven't seen season 5 of Sons of Anarchy, you should skip questions 5 & 6.

1 — Some of the violence seen on TV seems exploitative, but the best dramas series now are extremely graphically violent. As a creator, is it harder to get a dramatic story on TV now without some sort of life and death element involved?

Kurt Sutter : As the viewing audiences get more specific and more demanding in terms of how much there is to watch and when they're gonna watch it, there seems to be that need for some kind of big hook. Having a great script or having great characters sometimes just doesn't cut through. There's a network buzzword for it : they like things to be 'noisy', meaning that it has something that can cut through everything else that’s similar to it. There needs to be something, whether it's life or death – something with high stakes. Something that can distinguish it from other things on the air. Or in the case of network TV, as I'm sure you witness season after season : "what did really well this season - let's do our version of that and piggyback on what we think people want". I see more and more of it. Even to a certain extent on broadcasts that I've never seen before.

2 — I've just been staggered by the ratings that The Walking Dead has been getting. Obviously there's a big demand for this kind of intensity.

I think so. The great thing about The Walking Dead - not that it's enough to just have this, but it's a very specific genre piece. People love zombies and people love vampires. Then you have to have good storytelling and interesting characters. But I also think the gore and the violence on a show like The Walking Dead is – and this is not to suggest that the drama is this way but definitely the violence and the gore — because it's supernatural, it almost crosses into the cartoonish. It gives you a certain amount of distance from it, where it may gross you out. But you don't have a visceral sense of : "I feel awful for that zombie, it just lost its head or had its limbs blown off". So it allows people a certain distance from the gore and the violence because of the genre of it all.

3 — I guess maybe it is because of genre that you have that reaction, where you're grossed out and horrified but you also laugh a little?

Right, because you know the chances that you’re gonna walk out of the house and get eaten by a zombie are pretty slim. Not to sound ludicrous but I think that allows people a certain amount of buffer to the brutality.

4 — Do you have any thoughts, as a writer, on what’s the boundary between using violence in a way that’s dramatically justified vs. cheap or exploitative?

Clearly I’m a guy who has a little problem with boundaries to begin with but I can’t speak for anyone else’s process. There's a sense out there for some shows to try to generate some heat or some buzz and perhaps pump up the level of gore or violence. For me personally and creatively, I’ve always had a very broad sense of the absurd. Even on The Shield, pretty much all the insane shit that happened was a toned down version of a pitch that I had. Shawn Ryan going : "We can’t do that but we’ll do this".

I've always had that creative bent to do that, and as a storyteller I’m always looking for the most interesting and the most provocative, and how can we be organic to the story, organic to the character, yet do something that we’ve never done before or no one’s ever seen before. How can we be a little bit of a provocateur with all this? Coming from theater I have a real awareness that I'm creating something that is going to be viewed by an audience. I’m not up in my ivory tower writing my drama for myself. I do have a sense of entertainment value. I do have a sense of how can I make this compelling and exciting for an audience.

Then the balance always is, how do I do that and yet keep it organic to the world and organic to the character and organic to the show. It's a fine line and I always sort of run up to the absurd line all the time. I really try not to cross it and have it become absurd for the sake of being absurd or crazy for the sake of being crazy. I learned a lot from Shawn Ryan on The Shield that as a storyteller I have an obligation to the mythology, the characters and the world of Sons of Anarchy. But I also have a moral and ethical responsibility to keep my characters and their circumstances real.

For me, violent and awful things happen on my show but they never happen in a vacuum. There's always consequence. As the series sort of winds down in these last few seasons you see more and more of those consequences because we’re running toward the tape. When you don't have that sense of responsibility and when you don’t look at the actions of your characters : What's the reaction to those actions and what are the consequences? Who do they impact emotionally, physically, spiritually, whatever you want to – however you want to look at it. That’s when it gets sort of exploitative. That’s when it then just sort of crosses into violence for violence's sake, and then you get into glamorizing the violence and the shooting and all that stuff – when there is no consequence for that stuff.

5 — Otto bites his tongue off and spits it out, Tig's daughter gets burned alive for vengeance : what is it that you gain by showing this rather than describing it or implying it?

It’s why John Landgraf and I have a really good relationship. John has the awareness more than I do of the impact of violent scenes because he's been doing this a long time. He can say to me : “You think people want to see this but they really don’t want to see this". My experience the first few seasons was really getting a sense of what was an effective use of violence, what ultimately didn’t serve the story and didn’t serve the viewing experience.

As far as the burning goes, I did feel like that the nature of it was so horrific, but the truth is there is probably maybe 7-8 frames of the actual burning that you see. And the truth is, that's all you need to see. The rest of it you just really play off the characters’ face, and it's much more horrific and painful hearing it and watching it on the face of the character than it is actually watching the act.

The same thing when we were burning the tattoo. If you talk to people about that scene, you'd think that we were burning that tattoo off that guy's back for a half hour straight. It was the same thing. Obviously it was a prosthetic but it was literally a handful of frames. The rest of it was just the pain, the screaming, then playing it off the faces of the different characters who had very distinct and different reactions to what was going on.

As far as the Otto part, for me it's just this : there's this story that we're being told with the slow decomposition of Otto in terms of pretty much losing a different part of his body every season. Landgraf's joke is by the end of the series the only thing that's gonna be left of Otto is his middle finger. That was one of those things where I pitched it. It was just such a brutal act of defiance, we filmed it and I didn't know if it was going to work. Because it was all props and it was a prosthetic tongue and the whole window. Then we did it and I had a version where we didn’t do the tongue on the window but it was just, for me, getting the response of Donal Logue's character. You just needed that moment of absurdity when the tongue was hitting the window for him so his deadpan, "Way to go, Otto" was just so much more potent when you saw the violence of it all and knew that he was having absolutely no response to the violence.

6 — What do they make a bloody prosthetic tongue out of? What did you have in your mouth?

There's that famous shop right in North Hollywood where they pretty much do all – they do The Walking Dead stuff. I had to go and do a cast of my tongue. Then they they fill it with blood so I was chewing an exact replica of my own tongue.

7 — Do you ever feel that there is a kind of drama that you wish that you were seeing more of or some of on TV that maybe you’re not seeing out there right now because it’s not "noisy" enough?

It's hard to get a character-based show on the air now. That doesn't have some sort of broad hook to it. I don’t know if a show like Hill Street Blues could get on the air now. I don’t know if a show like LA Law could get on the air, where it was just this sort of an interesting character based drama with a great ensemble cast. I look at a show like The Chicago Code that Shawn Ryan did last year, it was a great show but it was old school cop, character driven, interesting – it wasn't noisy enough for people to like flip the channel and go there.

It'll be interesting to see what happens in the pay world, Netflix & Amazon, and to see how House of Cards does. Those shows that you literally, here's my whatever, $1.99, whenever you want to watch it. It'll be interesting to see how that works in terms of potentially opening up avenues for perhaps things that may not have lasted, like how Damages and Friday Night Lights that, thank God, were given resuscitation through DirecTV.

I don’t want to judge other things but sometimes you flip through the channels and you just scratch your head. It's because people don't know yet. It's just such a different landscape and people are just trying to kind of figure out what works. All of that is really in parcel to what your bigger issue is here. In terms of why all this is happening, there's just that need to say : "look at me, look over here, watch this".


What do you think of the representation of violence on TV today ? Do you think the violent nature of The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, Dexter and Game of Thrones is what makes them so popular ? Do you think it's an accomplishment for a network to have a violent show (e.g: FOX bragging about The Following pushing the envelope with 'cable-like' qualities) ? And Quentin Tarantino's favorite question : do you violent programs is what makes people commit violent crimes ?

Feel free to comment on the article below.

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