If Kurt Sutter's new docuseries "Outlaw Empires" (premieres Mon., May 14 at 10 p.m. ET on Discovery) sounds like a non-fiction adaptation of his hit FX drama "Sons of Anarchy," that's because the two pieces of work share many of the same themes. Talking to HuffPost TV, Sutter stressed that "Outlaw Empires," which explores the inner workings of gangs like the Irish Mob, Outlaw Bikers, Crips and Nuestra Familia, isn't a spinoff of "Sons," while acknowledging that it is a "continuation" of what he does best: tell stories about damaged anti-hero characters who've spent their lives in criminal organizations.
He set out to tell their histories "from the outlaw's point of view, from the inside out rather than the outside in." His goal was to find "real-life characters" and "understand what drove them to the life." Even for Sutter, a seasoned storyteller who's been writing fictionalized portraits of outlaw characters for years on "Sons" and "The Shield," some of what he heard was eye-opening. "To me, those are the characters that you go, 'Oh man, you can't fucking write that, you can't make that shit up,'" he explained.
Check out our conversation about "Outlaw Empires" below.
This is an interesting transition for you, going from scripted drama to a documentary. What was your approach?
I didn't want this to just turn into "Gangland," which is a fascinating show on History, but it's all sort of told from a very historical point of the view, and usually by law enforcement. Which is, 'This is the bad shit these guys did, and isn't the amount of violence and level of lawlessness fascinating?' So I'm trying to avoid that. I'm really trying to do something differently. Kind of like what we do on "Sons of Anarchy," which is hang a human face on the stereotype or the myth. So we really understand who these guys are as men.
Why do you think our culture is so into stories about outlaws?
There's a visceral connection people feel, in terms of, "Wow, that guy doesn't look that much different than me, why did he make that choice?" And I just think it'd be cool to explore that, and obviously some worlds are easier to do that than others.
I feel these first two episodes on the Crips and the Irish mob, we were really able to get inside these guys and break them open a little bit. And understand what drew you to the life, what were the components of the gang life that you needed and compelled you to go that way instead of some other way. And to understand the humanity of it all and the human nature behind those choices. So it's not just myth or making a judgment call. To sit down with members, either current or past, and really try to understand the decisions that they made and the reasons they get pulled into the life. I keep going back to that.
There's been some push and pull, because this is a new process for a cable channel like Discovery that pretty much just knows formatted TV. "This is what a documentary series looks like." They're used to one specific thing. So it's just about trying to stick to the vision and just re-educate a little bit, and say, "No, it's much more interesting show if we just stick to the humanity of it. If we stick the point of view of these men and try to understand the empire from the inside-out."
How do you balance the human and organizational stories?
One of the things I realized is, there is a component to these shows because they are a documentary, there has to be some sense of how to educate the audience and give them information. And so we are telling the story of the empire. We are giving people the history and background. But what I'm trying to do is, as we lay out facts, I'm trying to tie all that stuff to a human story so there's context to the things that are happening within the empire.
So when we talk about the [intra-gang] violence that happened to the Crips, it's not just some historian or narrator spouting off history. We're getting the inside story from a guy who was there and how that impacted him as a member of that organization.
It almost sounds like there's an element of reality TV within the documentary.
I think that's absolutely true. I think it's all about trying to get that first-person point of view. Look, at the end of the day, yes it's a documentary on the Crips, but one of the things I've learned is that the thing that plugs people into a serialized drama, for the most part, at least in the antihero world, are the characters. They hear a single voice and they go, "Oh, I understand that, that guy's speaking to something I know." And that's the connection, that's where everything gets leveled off and everyone's speaking the same language. So just trying to adopt those storytelling techniques in terms of a documentary and get somebody who's a real-life character.
A real life Jax or Clay?
Yeah, exactly. And speaking from his heart and telling these stories. In the second episode, we talk to Kevin Weeks, who was one of Whitey Bulger's [lieutenants]. And the most fascinating thing about talking to that guy is that he's not angry, he's not remorseful, he's fucking heartbroken. He's fucking heartbroken that Whitey ended up being a paid informant for 10 years. He's truly forlorn. You just realize how much that was this guy's life. It was like a brother or father turning on him. So to me, those are the characters that you go, 'Oh man, you can't fucking write that, you can't make that shit up.'
Did you find similar themes in the stories you've heard to what you explore on "Sons of Anarchy"?
Identical. Which is my connection to it. In the opening of the show, I just try to qualify a little bit why I'm doing this: I'm not a historian, I'm not a member of law enforcement, I'm a storyteller. And I deal with the same themes every day on the show: the ideals of loyalty, brotherhood and family. It's those same themes, only the stories are all true.
Season 5 of "Sons of Anarchy" seems like it's going to focus on Jax coming into his own as the leader of the club. Did you come across any parallels to that shift-of-power dynamic when doing "Outlaw Empires"?
There was definitely a betrayal in [Kevin Weeks'] mind in terms of what Whitey did to him. And little bits and pieces in all the other ones. We did one on Nuestra Familia, where we had this amazing story of this guy who was sort of raised in the life. And watching his rise to power, and his need to know more, and being super smart and educating himself in the ways of the gang. So there's not maybe one specific guy as of yet, but there are definitely pieces of stories that I could definitely superimpose over any of my characters.
How did you come to specialize in the antihero genre?
I've always sort of written damaged characters very well. Even before I started on "The Shield," the features I had written, they weren't all mobster, but they were more in the crime genre, and they were pretty damaged folks. It's just something I know and something I do well. And then I was really able to hone that skill on "The Shield" for seven seasons. And then, I've always been fascinated with the outlaw [motorcycle club] character, so bringing that to "Sons" kind of made sense. I had a sense of what I did well and was very lucky to land on "The Shield" and have an opportunity to find that voice on that show in a slower-paced, cable, 13-episode-per-season kind of atmosphere.
How is the writing going on "Sons of Anarchy" Season 5?
It's coming along, man. I'm just jumping onto my draft of episode 4. We have 3 in the can. And breaking episode 6, so we're moving along. We start production in two or three weeks, so pretty soon.
"Kurt Sutter's Outlaw Empires" premieres on Monday, May 14 at 10 p.m. ET on Discovery.
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