Interview: Writer Kurt Sutter
Kurt Sutter. If you don’t already know the name remember it. Sutter has a few high profile films coming out over the next couple of years. I questioned him about the new Punisher film and he was very frank with his answers (get it? Frank). He also talks about the studio system and his forthcoming remake of Enter the Dragon. He’s a pretty cool guy and it’s always good to hear an insiders take on film development.
I’m as interested as the next person in the new Punisher (I quite enjoyed the first one) and I hope Kurt and Co have great success with it, to me Punisher film adaptations seem to be like the crazy cousin that everyone has; they want him to do well but they take great pleasure in laughing at him when something goes wrong.
Enough of my crazy ramblings, let’s get to the interview.
First up, what type of films do you enjoy watching? What are your top five films?
Not to be purposely vague, but I really enjoy too many genres to pick just one. I love big summer action popcorn movies as much as I enjoy small character-driven films. I guess the key is knowing what you’re paying for. If I go to see Die Hard, I can’t be disappointed because the arch of the protagonist was not thoroughly flushed out. If I go see A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints I can’t bitch about the lack of action in the second act…
Favourite movies, man, another tough thing to quantify. I like movies for such a wide array of reasons. The list always changes, but today here are the top five, in no specific order: Godfather 1, Toy Story 2, The Professional, Pope of Greenwich Village and The Verdict.
Who are your heroes past or present?
Personal heroes: No one anyone would know. Friends, mentors. People who live their lives with dignity and courage. People who have overcome great adversity.
Creative heroes: I’m not a very well-read guy. I spent most of my childhood in front of a TV, most of my twenties getting loaded. It wasn’t until my thirties that I pulled my head out of the sand. I went back to graduate school and got my MFA in theatre. That’s when I was exposed to the great writers that have really influenced me — JEAN GENET, EUGENE ONEILL, HENRIK IBSEN, DAVID MAMET. Also the modern-day poets — SPRINGSTEEN, WAITS, DYLAN.
What inspires you? When you have an idea how do you develop it before you put it down on the page (screen)?
Life. I can turn the most innocent observation into something really dark and twisted. I’m a sort of a perverse Walter Mitty. My wife is constantly having to tell me things over and over again, because I’m always spun out in some odd fantasy. I spend most of my time in my head. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes it’s a really bad neighbourhood. It’s why I have a difficult time reading other fiction. My mind always wanders from the page into my own story. I’m really good about writing shit down. It’s mostly ego. I just assume every idea is fucking brilliant. Most aren’t, but some of them do grow into full-blown concepts and become scripts. I have a file cabinet filled with ideas, dreams, dialog fragments, scenes, etc.
When starting to write a script do have the entire idea planned or do you just type away and see where the script takes you?
Both. I whiteboard the story an act at a time, beat it out, scene by scene. But it always changes as I write. The most exciting part of writing — the reason I love what I do — is when the characters start talking to each other and it no longer becomes my story.
Rewriting is a huge part of scriptwriting- is its tough trying to keep ideas fresh when working on one script over a long period of time?
TV is a great training ground for the art of rewriting. When you have other writers, a showrunner, a studio, a network and a director weighing in on pages, you best not fall in love with your first draft. I actually like rewriting. I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve surrounded myself with smart people in both TV and features. Not only on the creative side, but on the executive side as well. Most of the notes I get are from insightful people — Lorenzo diBonaventura, John Landgraf to name a couple. If the notes make the script better, then a writer’s an idiot for not incorporating them.
When reworking someone else’s script do you tend to just do minor adjustments or page one rewrites?
All depends what it/they need. The rewrite I did on Punisher was a page 1 rewrite but it kept most of the major story points intact. I just hung new meat on the bones. The guys that rewrote me on that project probably did the same.
How do you feel when the shoe is on the other foot and someone is rewriting your work?
I fucking hate it.
What’s the hardest part of working within the studio system?
In the film industry we often hear of scripts being years in development. However television has a fast turn around, how do you make sure the script is of high quality? What do you do if there’s a disagreement?
Can’t speak for other shows, but on The Shield we have a well-oiled machine. Smart showrunner, talented writers, great crew, good relationship with the studio and the network. When you have all the parts working and everyone is doing their job, you can concentrate on the quality of the product. Good shows turn to shit because of bad people. Bottom-line.
Tell me a bit about the development process that goes into filmmaking?
When I understand it, I’ll let you know.
Do you have any great un-produced scripts? Can you give some details and maybe well get a petition going and put pressure on the studios.
There’s one project, one of my very first feature scripts, Delivering Gen. I won’t bore you with the details, but the saga of that script is a movie in itself. I have a big emotional attachment to that story. It recently has come back in my orbit and we are trying to put the film together for me to direct. It’s still in the early phase so time will tell. I guess, the saga continues.
What can you tell me about The Punisher? Is a straight continuation or is it a reboot like the new Hulk film?
Again, a little of both. It’s a reboot without discounting the events of the first Punisher. There are a lot of great blog sites that do a much better job at describing the story.
What is the biggest difference between this film and the last one? Except of course that there is a new leading man.
I’ll take this opportunity to say that I felt like Nick Santora and myself, who’s names were on the second big draft, got caught in the crossfire when Tom Jane was growing dissatisfied with the turn Punisher was taking. Tom lashed out at the script using it as his scapegoat for exiting the project. I’m not privy to the details, but I’d bet it had more to do with money than words. I like Tom Jane, I’ve had lunch with him, think he’s a decent guy. But I always felt that if Marvel really wanted to re-invent the franchise, you’d have to re-invent the Punisher. It would be like hiring Eric Bana or Bill Bixby for the Hulk reboot. Ray Stevenson is a terrific choice as Frank Castle. He’ll bring a depth and irony to the role that has not yet been explored by any other actor. I also think Lexi Alexander will shoot the hell out of it. From what I’ve been told, much of my draft is still intact and Halloway and Marcum’s rewrite is great. They have become Marvel’s go-to guys.
What will the tone of the film be like?
Tone? Ummmm, dark and violent.
You’re currently working on a remake of Enter the Dragon called Awaken the Dragon, who do you have in mind for casting?
Right now, no one. That’s the truth. I’ve not written the script yet. I usually start to see faces by the time I’m done.
What can you tell me about Unforgettable and Inland Saints?
Inland Saints is a dark Romeo and Juliet-esque thriller set in the barrios of the Inland Empire. Gangs, cops, revenge, teen angst, blood. All the things I love to write about.
The Unforgettable is a huge movie. One of the Warner executives described it as Seven meets Star Wars (gotta love the suits). It’s a dark supernatural thriller based on the source material of the critically acclaimed X-Box 360 game, “Condemned: Criminal Origins”.
These films have Tarsem Singh and Joel Schumacher attached as directors. These guy’s aren’t exactly the critic’s darlings. Does it worry you that the critics might take a shot at your film just because these guys are at the helm? (Just to let you know I do have a soft spot for Schumacher’s films- except maybe Batman and Robin)
Man, if I start worrying about the critics now, I’m fucked. I do my job, I trust other will do theirs. Sometimes you’re the killer, sometimes you’re the corpse.
A lot of writers move into directing, is it something that you’ve always wanted to do?
I come from theatre, so it’s something I’ve done before. I started writing and directing in graduate school outside of Chicago. I think directing is a natural progression of the storytelling process. I didn’t start writing to become a director. I love to write, I love to tell stories. Sometimes I just hear the words, sometimes I hear the words and see the pictures.
Why did you choose Awaken The Dragon as your feature debut? What do you think you can bring to it as a director?
It sort of chose me. I had closed a deal at Warner’s to direct another script of mine, In-Crime. That fell apart, but I had given them the confidence that I could helm a feature. So I started getting offers to write and direct. I had been looking for something in the Noir genre and WIP was leaning towards a Noir re-invention of Enter The Dragon. It all clicked. I have a really cool story, stylistically I’m hoping for it to be unlike any other martial arts film. (Truthfully, that will be a hard fact to claim; there are many great films out of Korea and China that I have not seen. And will probably choose not to before I start rolling the camera).
Are there any actors/producers or directors you’d like to work with in the future?
I fluctuate with wanting to work with seasoned pros and trying to discover untapped talent. It’s why I’m excited about Dragon. Be great to find an unknown Asian action actor. As far as the pros, man I’d love to mix it up with Keitel, DeNiro, Pacino, Duval, Hopkins and Abe Vigoda. Love Susan Sarandon and Gena Rowlands. New kids – Clive Owen, Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal, Matthew Fox, Gerard Butler, Daniel Craig, Reese Witherspoon. I adore Drew.
Oh, yeah, and my wife. I have Katey (his wife) in mind for several projects I’m working on. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to work together soon.
What advice would you give to any young writers out there trying to break into the business?
The best advice I ever got was – “writers write”. Every loser in Hollywood has a fucking script in the back seat of their car. If you want to be a writer, make time to write everyday. Create a body of work. When an artist goes to a gallery to be shown, he or she doesn’t show the curator one painting; they show a portfolio, a body of work. And don’t worry about the result. Meaning, if you start worrying about what will happen to the script after you finish – will it be good? will it sell? will my mother love me? I guarantee you will never fucking finish. One page at a time, my friends, one-mother-fucking-page-at-a-time.
In fifty years what would you like people to say about your career?
He wasn’t a hack.
This interview first appeared on Collider in 2007.