‘Sons Of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter Sets Western ‘The Abandons’ At Netflix; Shoot-Em-Up Vet On ‘Rust’ Tragedy & Reforms: ‘I Can’t Wrap My Brain Around The Fact Live Ammo Was Anywhere Near The Set’

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  • Kurt Sutter
    American television director

EXCLUSIVE: Sons of Anarchy and Mayans M.C. co-creator Kurt Sutter has set what he hopes will be his next series. Sutter has made a deal with Netflix to create The Abandons, a potential hourlong that has all the mythology and action of his other show creations, set in the Old West.

It isn’t clear how quickly this all will happen because Sutter has been prepping his feature directorial debut on This Beast, about a trapper’s battle with an elusive beast that is ravaging an 18th century English village. He’s making that one also for Netflix, giving him two projects at the streamer after leaving FX. For Sutter, The Abandons will be the realization of a desire that predates his work on The Shield, Sons, Mayans and The Bastard Executioner.

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“I’ve always wanted to do a western, even before Sons, and then Deadwood came out,” Sutter told Deadline. “There’s that great lore of Ian Anderson wanting to be a great rock guitarist, and he saw Clapton play, and he said, ‘F*ck, I’m going to become the best rock flautist that ever lived.’ And he did just that for Jethro Tull. This is how I felt when I saw Deadwood. I said, ‘Let me stick to the crime genre” and then used just about every actor that was on that show. But I do love the genre, and over the pandemic, I tried to get a western IP.”

That attempt to marry an original series with a pre-existing property he declined to name didn’t work. He continued work on This Beast and then hatched the idea for The Abandons, at the same time one of his favorite FX execs, Danielle Woodrow, moved to Netflix, which was hungry for a Western series. She set Sutter into a pitch meeting, and it turned out to be the fastest he ever set up a show.

So what is The Abandons?

“I’ve always been fascinated with the origins of La Cosa Nostra, how these Sicilian peasant families were being more than marginalized by the land barons and the aristocrats,” he said. “These families banded together to defend themselves from these abusive land barons, and from that taking those matters into their own hands, La Cosa Nostra was born and became the authority and the law and the order of the land. There are other influences. Over the pandemic, I was watching reruns of Bonanza, and first of all, it completely holds up. I remember watching it as a kid, but I just remember there’s an episode where somebody gets killed, and Hoss just wants revenge, and I mean, like, dark f*cking revenge. Ultimately, it’s a Sunday network TV ending, but I just realized that the Cartwrights were a bullet away from being outlaws, right? And I loved that it all came from that deep sense of loyalty to the family, the land, the town. Those were the origins of this, with the working title The Abandons.

“That was an actual term of the period where it was this kind of catchall phrase that described the outliers, the orphans, the prostitutes, the cripples, the bastards — basically the kind of lost souls living on the fringe of society. That is my favorite neighborhood. We are on the Western Frontier, somewhere between the Dakotas and California, small cattle town, circa 1850. So, it’s post-Gold Rush, pre-Civil War, and then, some natural resource is discovered. You have this wealthy family, where the Hearst-like character comes in, and the aristocrats in Italy, and they try to buy out the ranchers. Most sell out, and then the ones that sort of refused are kind of forced out or tragically go away. But there’s this one group of families that won’t sell. They band together. They stand up to the oppressor. Choices are made. Some of them violent, and then, like the peasants in Sicily, they take matters into their own hands and create their own destiny. You have these humble, God-fearing, hardworking people who are forced to become the line in the sand. And of course, ultimately that line is drawn in blood. Thematically, it’s all the shit I love; family, that fine line between survival and law, the consequences of violence, and my favorite and the thing that was so prevalent in Sons: the corrosive power of secrets.

“That whole first season will be about the evolution of them as, you know, turning into outlaws, in a period before all the iconic outlaws that we know, like Jesse James and Billy the Kid,” Sutter said. “All those cats didn’t happen until after the Civil War, but the Pinkertons were around, so you know there were outlaws. So, it’s sort of like the precursor to the James Gang and other sort of iconic outlaws that we associate with the Wild West. So we might wink at history, say in Season 2 or 3 crossing paths with an 11-year-old Billy the Kid, and yet still be able to play in the fictional world, to me, is cool. And it helps me avoid the gunfights in the street and experience the Western while I get to lean away from some of the expected tropes.

The period allows for exploration of themes and representations that have relevance 170 or so years later, he said.

“The thing Netflix was excited about, as well, is because the West is literally wild … in that period, most were territories and the typical boundaries of civilized society didn’t apply to the frontier. So you get to play with race, gender, morality in a really kind of organic and meaningful way, right? Because there are so many f*cking stories to sort of draw from,” Sutter said. “Without preaching, there’s an organic way to pull those elements into stories that really parallel this ongoing tragedy we’re experiencing now. I get to deal with meaningful subject matter in a way that is not shining a light on it, and not on the nose, but a snapshot from a different period that definitely reflects back to what we’re experiencing today. So, that’s the bones of it.”

He said the premise puts the Abandons on the run, meaning they can shift locations if a series goes multiple seasons.

Since Sutter has spent the past 20 years writing dramas where gunplay is plentiful, I asked for his assessment in the ongoing discussion of what steps might be taken to ensure the gunfire tragedy on the set of Rust is not replicated, where cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was fatally shot and director Joel Souza injured when Alec Baldwin demonstrated in rehearsal how he would draw a pistol, which loaded with a live round. Among those who have ventured opinions was Dwayne Johnson, who declared that only rubber guns will be used on his future action films, and Matthew Vaughn’s suggested than a gun-crazy U.S. mentality could have contributed to lax precautions.

“I have tried to avoid talking, because anything I might say would feel like judgment,” he said. “On all my sets, from The Shield to Sons, we had guns in almost every scene, but we never had an incident. We had a machine in place for props and safety. We had some motorcycle spills but never an incident with a weapon.

“That’s because we followed protocol. Especially after what happened to Brandon Lee, that kicked a certain amount of safety protocols into gear. We hired competent prop people, and we had actors who were smart, and there were always gun tests in front of cast and crew. There was always an announcement of ‘hot gun’ on set, meaning that there was a sound load in it, and then everything else was always rubber. I don’t know what went down on that set. My sense, from listening to the information that’s coming in, the letting go of union crew, and bringing on non-union crew, that those safety protocols were not met. You didn’t have people that either knew about them or thought they were important, right? Because, experientially, they didn’t know. Now, whose fault is that? Is it the producer’s fault? Is it the director’s fault? I don’t know where the blame lands, but to me, that’s the hole, right?”

While it sounded like to him, the problem wasn’t the prevalence of “hot” guns on set as much as an inexperienced armorer and a production cutting corners and in a rush, Sutter said his future shows will conform to whatever reforms are put in place by unions and broadcasters.

“If, ultimately, rubber guns is the way it has to go, and becomes the next level of safety, I completely understand and let’s do that because you can do so much with CG now,” Sutter said. “I’ll land on and support whatever the empirical data proves, and whatever the unions decide, and I will wholly support that. But here’s the deal, Mike: I’m sure there have been accidents and near accidents on sets in the past that we’ve never heard of. So the fact that this happened in such a tragic and ultimately, and rightfully so, in a very public way, I don’t think that happens in a vacuum, right? So, perhaps we need to take this as a signal in terms of let’s re-evaluate how we do things.”

Sutter said it needs to be taken as seriously as the Covid protocols that allowed the industry to resume. “Was what happened an isolated incident? Maybe. Maybe not, and I don’t think we can take that risk. So whatever the decision is, I think the point is let’s look at shit and re-evaluate how we do things so that these circumstances can’t manifest into the perfect storm that creates this bizarre and tragic incident.”

As for the finding there were live rounds on the Rust set, Sutter said, “As soon as an actor finishes a scene, a prop master comes, takes the knife, the gun, and puts it in a box in their weapons bin and puts a lid on it and puts it on the tray. If there’s more scenes to do, that tray stays with the prop person. If not, then they’re taken into the prop house, and they’re stored until the next time they’re used. An actor never walks around with any kind of weapon, even if it’s a rubber gun. That’s the first thing they take, and that’s what I saw happen on The Shield, and that’s what happened on all of my shows.”

And the live rounds that led to the fatality?

“That’s idiocy,” he said. “That is people that who don’t give a f*ck and yeah, are using the weapons to shoot tin cans or shoot rats, and that behavior. I don’t know where that comes from; maybe those were the non-union folks that came in, but that, to me…when I heard that, I associated it with what happened with Brandon Lee, which, even though that was obviously a tragedy and lack of protocols were there, but that wasn’t live ammo, but a piece of a shell, a malfunction. As I was thinking, how did [the Rust tragedy] happen and create that kind of devastation? The fact that it was live ammo never even entered my mind until it came out in the press. I couldn’t even wrap my brain around the fact that there was live ammo, in the vicinity of a set, right? That’s just negligence, people not paying attention or not having people who know what the protocol is and aren’t checking. That creates the perfect storm.

“Whatever the potential danger is, you have to have those protocols around, and it always has to be about how do we keep everybody safe? Look, we’ve seen the tragedy that comes with, f*ck it, just get the shot. We see the tragedy of that attitude, time and time and time and time again. It’s great to get the shot, but it’s not about the shot. It’s about the filmmaking experience and about the production. Maybe I’m oversensitive to it because of the world I live in, and it is a violent world, but you have to be hyper-vigilant about putting that safety first, and that can never be the f*cking corner you cut.”

Sutter’s Abandons deal was brokered by WME and attorney Michael Gendler.

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