Kurt Sutter would like to get something off his chest. The showrunner behind the wildly successful, dearly beloved, bad-ass Shakespearean biker melodrama Sons of Anarchy knows that yes, because his new FX historical epic The Bastard Executioner has swords and horses and castles, some people are bound to compare it to Game of Thrones. He's perfectly okay with that. In fact, he can even see the parallels himself. HBO's show is constrained by the novels it's adapting, he mentions. "And we're like that with actual history," Sutter proclaims.
By the end of his latest project's two-hour debut episode — premiering Tuesday, September 15th — the bodies of 14th-century peasants have been flayed, gutted, and decapitated, all at the mercy of wealthy landowners who sometimes decide their fate while grunting on the privy. (And all without a single dragon in sight.) In other words, there is no mistaking that this is a Kurt Sutter show — one with hard edges, flying viscera, and a fascination with men who feel cursed by their responsibilities. It bears the signature of an artist who spent seven years as the head writer and producer of a series that featured tattoo removal by branding, eye-gouging, and a convict forcibly severing his own tongue — played by none other than Sutter himself.
The two shows even share somewhat similar origins. Sons of Anarchy was born when Art and John Linson brought Sutter a rough pitch for a series about outlaw motorcycle clubs, which he then fleshed out into what some critics called "Hamlet in black leather." His new series, centered around a 14th-century soldier-turned-royal executioner (played by Australian theater actor Lee Jones), started when Imagine Entertainment honcho Brian Grazer became fascinated with the idea of a man who kills dispassionately, under the command of the justice system. At the time, Sutter was in preliminary talks with the network for a Sons spinoff, which may still happen, and had no intention of jumping right into another show. ("I needed a day off," he laughs.) But Grazer asked to meet, and his enthusiasm won him over. "He's, like, crazy in all the right directions," Sutter says. "I came out of that meeting going, 'Fuck, I want to be that guy.'"
The showrunner took that sliver of a premise and started asking himself questions. What did he picture when he thought of an executioner? What era would it be? Why would someone take this job? Before long, he had the rough outline for a show, originally set in medieval England. Then a location-scouting trip to Wales led him to "Valleywood," a.k.a. Dragon Studios, a 100-acre lot roughly 20 miles outside of Cardiff, that had been established by the late Richard Attenborough to help foster Welsh movie and TV production. Sutter dove back into his research, moved the setting to Wales and began focusing on the years immediately after the reign of Edward I and the rebellion of Madog ap Llywelyn; and he named his reluctant hero Wilkin Brattle, a retired knight who begins the series living a bucolic farmer’s life with his pregnant wife. Within months of finishing SOA, Sutter was supervising 170 people, discussing the finer points of the damage a huge blade can do to the human body and making sure that heads were literally going to roll.
Ever since then, Sutter has been shuttling between Wales and California, so that he can work with his writers in Los Angeles "and make sure my kid remembers what I look like." But he'd also prefer to leave his Bastard Executioner team alone at Dragon, so that they're focused on their jobs and not reacting to him. During his run on Sons, Sutter developed a reputation as a smart, passionate, exacting boss. And thanks to his habit of firing vulgar insults at critics via social media — something he's been doing much less in recent years — he's sometimes pegged as having a sharp tongue and a short fuse.
Sutter insists that he's really just a mild-mannered writer, happiest when he's "sitting alone in a room and using my imagination." But he knows he has a presence, and he tries to be careful with how he uses it. "I drop by to approve designs and sign off on shit. But y'know, no one likes when Dad's looking over their shoulders." Instead he spends long, late nights locked away in his office, fighting to forge his own version of the Middle Ages, while his cast and crew slog through pouring rain and knee-deep mud.
Paris Barclay, who directed the premiere and serves as co-executive producer, describes the job as "the most difficult thing I’ve ever done." The multi-Emmy-winner buried himself in historical research, and watched a lot of movies, looking for cues to how to get what he wanted (something akin to Japanese martial arts epics), and how to avoid what he didn't (anything resembling A Knight's Tale or 300).
"We knew we didn’t want it to be precious," Barclay says. "We wanted a Kurt Sutter experience, which means grittier, more immersive. We wanted the costumes to drag in the dirt. We wanted the fighting to seem un-choreographed, as much as possible. We wanted it to be more real, and more on-the-ground than we’re used to seeing on television. And all of that ended up being much more difficult to execute, if you will, than it was to talk about."
"In the end, it all boils down to the same thing: Great storytelling, characters you care about, and killing people in artful and original ways."
The director has worked with Sutter since the writer broke into the business as a contributor to The Shield, and their 15 years together represent the longest collaboration of Barclay's career. "It's the one that challenges me the most," he says. "Kurt is extremely specific about what he wants. More even than Aaron Sorkin [who Barclay worked with on The West Wing], who is specific about what is said, but not necessarily what is seen. For Kurt, it's the whole package." He adds, "In the end, it all boils down to the same thing: Great storytelling, characters you care about, and killing people in artful and original ways."
And authenticity, which means writing dialogue that sounds as if it's been lifted directly from the 14th-century and hasn't been easy for any of the actors to learn. Katey Sagal, who plays the white-haired mystic healer Annora and has been married to Sutter for over a decade, admits that "we're all bumping up against it a little bit. Kurt is spending a lot of time with the vernacular, to make it not sound contemporary. It definitely takes you a minute to wrap your brain around a sentence." Barclay explains, “In 1311 they barely spoke what we know of as the English language or the Welsh language. The nobility actually spoke French. It's so complicated."
Sutter is also balancing the mythology, themes and overall narrative of The Bastard Executioner in his head without letting on what's right around the bend, story-wise, which has required his cast and crew to put their faith in him to a remarkable degree. "Every once in a while he’ll give me the broad strokes," she says. “But when he's in it? He’s just sort of in it. I don’t really know much more than any of the other actors what’s going on. Which is good." She says that the footage she's seen is stunning and mentions an afternoon recently where, in the middle of shooting, the rain started coming down in sheets; following Sutter's by-any-means-necessary work ethic, the crew just popped up umbrellas and kept rolling. "What can you do?" Sagal says. "You surrender yourself to what's around you."
That pretty well describes Sutter's philosophy, too. He knows it's probably too late to change his fundamental way of working — solitary, sometimes too silent — and that "there's good and bad parts to that." FX has certainly had no complaints, given that Sons of Anarchy was the channel's highest-rated original series. Because of that, Sutter is the rare TV showrunner who can get by with only giving his network bosses rough story arcs, skipping the detailed episode-by-episode outlines that’s usually an essential part of being the man in charge. "They trust me enough to let me move forward," he says.
And ultimately, if anyone wants to know why Sutter is making The Bastard Executioner, he'll mention that trust. Twice now, FX has connected him with producers who’ve whispered a notion into his ear that he’s turned into a complex world, built around his own ideas about honor, responsibility, and brokenness. "These opportunities are quite rare," Sutter explains. "When it comes around, you kind of have to grab it and run with it."