Don't say Kurt Sutter never gave you anything, Sons of Anarchy fans. Season 5 of the Sutter-helmed FX drama doesn't start until fall, but for now you can catch his six-part documentary series on America's most notorious outlaw groups, Kurt Sutter's Outlaw Empires, Mondays at 10/9c on Discovery. Sutter talked with us about his beloved motorcycle clubs, the Mob, and objectivity for the Devil.
TV Guide Magazine: Why branch out into "non-fiction"? What itch does that scratch?
With Sons of Anarchy, we're able to hang a human face on a misunderstood subculture. And I was fascinated by doing that on a more global level. The challenge is that you don't want to swing so far over that you start justifying some dangerous things. I don't want them to be recruitment videos, you know? And you don't want to swing the opposite way and just have them be judgmental. By nature, some of the organizations, it's hard to get inside and say, "No, you have to understand, this is why he did what he did." It's my job in this kind of project to do that. Some of [the organizations] are easier: People know the Mob, and there's a distance and a certain comfort level there.
TV Guide Magazine: Which ones do you think didn't get that balance just right?
Well I don't want to condemn any of the project. The trickiest, though, has been the Aryan Brotherhood. It's really hard to be objective with people who are covered in swastikas. I'm hoping that we pull it off. But I realized when I started seeing the rough cuts of the footage that we almost had to come at that differently.
TV Guide Magazine: How did you choose the groups? Were there ones like the motorcycle clubs that were obvious? Or did that one require some discussion, like, "Maybe I shouldn't do this"?
Really, some of it was just "Who do we have access to?" We were thinking of doing the Russian Mob, and we had access to a couple guys, but that fell out.
The outlaw motorcycle one is really interesting. Because motorcycle clubs are so democratic in their process, to come on our show and talk about their club as a current patched member, you have to get approval of every member in every charter. That's why I couldn't get any current members to talk to us. For that I ended up talking to three or four members. Some left in good standing, some didn't. Some are on the run. It's three or four different experiences of that life.
Truthfully, I think Discovery really wanted to do an outlaw motorcycle one just because it's me. They were shocked: "What do you mean, these guys won't talk to us?" And I'm like, "No, you guys don't understand. You think your corporate hierarchy is complicated..." [Laughs]
TV Guide Magazine: How did you make the adjustment to non-fiction? Did you find yourself saying, "No! Say this, not that!"?
[Laughs] Well, with my commentary, we have more freedom. They can go back and re-shoot me. But as far as the guys, we have one crack at them. So what I realized was, well, this is the story I have now. How do we take what we have and make it as compelling as possible? That was the challenge; suddenly I didn't have the option to go, "Well, that scene's not working, so let me write this one."
TV Guide Magazine: There's this theme of these groups starting out wanting to protect their community. What, to you, is that line between protecting their community and turning into a nefarious organization? Or is it just a big grey area?
To me, these organizations are not really any different from any other political structure or corporate structure in this country. They all start in this very simple place, be that protection or brotherhood or camaraderie. And then as that expands, you have more and more personalities. And then they start to make money. Money and power corrupt: we see it from politicians that have fallen to Enron. It's not a new concept. So I think what happens is, humanity happens.
When you're dealing with the outlaw component, where it's easier to hang the label of "Bad Guy" or "Bad Thing" on what they're doing, it just becomes more obvious. But the truth is, it's what happens across the board in all organizations.
For a long time, the mafia didn't get involved in drugs, because they knew it was bad. And they didn't bring any new people into the organization, really up until the time Carlo Gambino died. That was all about keeping things right-size and protecting themselves from themselves. And then that door opened up and drugs came in and more people came in. That ultimately creates the capacity for humanity to fail us.
TV Guide Magazine: Okay, let's lighten the mood a little. What are you watching now?
I actually don't watch a ton of TV. There's only a few dramas I watch, not because I don't like other ones, I just don't have a lot of time. Boardwalk Empire is probably my favorite show. Mad Men, too. This season especially, [executive producer Matthew Weiner]'s just loosened the reins a bit, it feels like he's having more fun. It's wonderful. My buddy [Glen Mazzara] runs Walking Dead, and I know it's a great show, but it's just not in my wheelhouse. I'm not a zombie guy. I'll watch it every once in a while. I watch a lot of goofy s---, I love House Hunters International, Yankee Workshop. I love watching people with real jobs. I like This Old House, people that are actually building s---. To me that's like, "Wow."