What were the most difficult scenes to write for Katey, seeing her play out this Gemma character?
They’re not difficult because ultimately I know that the more complicated and dark they are, the deeper I take her, as fucked as they may be, Katey embraces that shit. As difficult as that scene in season two was where she’s getting raped, as difficult as the scene last season was with Clay beating her up, I know that emotionally she loves the challenge of all that stuff. Not to sound sadistic, but when I’m writing those scenes I get excited because I know what a great challenge it’s going to be for her.
Sometimes the most difficult Gemma scenes to write are the ones that are simple and pedestrian because she’s not a simple or pedestrian human being. The bigger scenes, the more emotionalized scenes for that character, are just easier to do.
In terms of the actual execution of those scenes and the production, what I usually do with Katey is, I’ll go and watch a rehearsal but then I won’t hang around. Me being there just is a layer of awareness for her. For the stuff we did in season two, I go for the rehearsal and make sure it’s being handled the right way. Then I split so the director and the actors can do what they do.
What I usually do with [my wife] Katie is, I’ll go and watch a rehearsal but then I won’t hang around. Me being there just is a layer of awareness for her. For the stuff we did in season 2, I go for the rehearsal and make sure it’s being handled the right way. Then I split so the director and the actors can do what they do.
Are there any scenes that you’d like to redo or expand upon? Is there ever a scene where you think, “I never got what I wanted to get out of that”?
That’s always the case. You always leave stuff on the page. Ultimately it looks a little bit different when you’re looking at it in post. That’s a part of the collaborative process. As long as I feel the story’s being served, I like having the director's and actors' interpretation layering things. Sometimes things don’t work. They look good on the page and then ultimately they just don’t work. Sometimes we just have to lose stuff for time.
We do a “creator’s cut” on the DVDs. It’s like a director's cut for a movie, the bigger episode that I would like to see. Most of the time that’s not me thinking, “Oh, I would have done this differently” or “The network made me change this.” It’s really just about, “Oh, if I had an extra 10 minutes in the episode, this is what it would have looked like.” Quite honestly I just wish I had more time. That’s why we end up doing a lot of 90-minute episodes, because I have way too much story. I get a creator’s cut that’s 15 minutes, 20 minutes long, sometimes 30 minutes long, and sometimes it’s brutal trying to figure out what goes away. So it’s more about wishing I had more time than wishing I had the opportunity to do things over.
What are the moments you're proudest of getting on TV, things you were shocked that FX allowed you to do?
I have a very absurd sense of humor and my imagination is pretty dark, and sometimes I’m not aware of that. I’ll have stuff in scripts and I’ll want to do things and to me it’ll just be like “Oh, that’s great. That makes sense. Let's do it.”
That’s really why the network is great in terms of doing their job. 'Cause I can have people I trust, like a John Landgraf, say to me, “That’s really too fucked up.” [Laughs.] “We don’t need to see the blade cutting the testicles off the clown...” To me, it's just, well, everybody wants to see that. Because in my mind it’s like the more the better. And the truth is that’s not the case. I need somebody being the voice of reason sometimes. Not so much to shut it down, but just, “Hey, experience has proven that if you do this, people will stop watching.” [Laughs.]
Also, what I’ve learned, especially with the violence—and this is just a fascinating psychological study—it’s what you don’t see that has the greater impact. When we burned the tattoo off that guy’s back, if you talk to people they would swear they saw that whole tattoo being burned off his back. The reality was there were probably three or four frames where you actually saw the flame hitting a prosthetic piece of flesh. The rest of it is just the sound of that guy screaming and the faces of our guys watching it. That’s the potent way to tell the story. It’s not “how much gore and violence can we show?” That’s a lesson I’ve learned through this process.
I’m lucky in that if there’s something I feel is important to the story I will fight for it and usually get to do a variation of it, from putting an axe in the middle of a guy's forehead in the first season, to cutting the balls off a clown, to burning a tattoo off a back. I wanted that scene with Gemma and Clay to be brutal. If we were going to do it I really wanted to fucking do it. I didn’t know how they would land on that. I didn’t know how they would feel about one of their main characters crossing that line. They got behind it and they had a couple notes for what was shown, but they understood it.
I think that was really effective and powerful. It’s not like she just appeared with bruises afterwards. We were experiencing it with her.
Right, and to that same point, Jax bouncing Ima’s head off the table—we’ve never seen Jax do that to a woman, and that was a risk. Even though what she did was fucked up and who she is by the choices she’s made you can go “Oh, OK. She’s a porn star, and she lives in the underbelly.” That was domestic abuse, and I didn’t know where they were going to land on that. They trusted my creative choice and got behind it.
Because we try to keep it true to the world and try to keep the facts real and try to honor the subculture, we’ve been able to hang a human face on these guys. So that we’ve suddenly taken what may have been more of a stereotype for misinformation and humanized them a little bit.
There are outside gangs that the Sons do business with—there was a black gang and a Latino gang but they’re clearly not the main characters and you don’t get the opportunity to go in depth with these other gangs. Are you ever concerned that they might appear stereotypical?
I think you always run the risk of that when you have characters that you don’t have the time or the page count to develop in a three-dimensional way. Obviously when you have secondary characters like that you write them and give them as much time as you possibly can, but you do run the risk of them becoming “Latino banger No. 1” and “Latino banger No. 2.” I think what we try to do is we usually have a main character or a main adversary that represents that world. We try to make that main character as three-dimensional as possible, and hope that sort of tells the story of that world or that culture in a way that will counter some of that.
Does that tie into your Outlaw Empires show?
What we’ve been able to do with Sons, there would be those that would argue that it’s not a good thing. But I would argue that it is a good thing. Obviously these guys are fictional, and we dramatize, and they’re bigger than life and it is an outlaw soap opera. I feel like because we try to keep it true to the world and try to keep the facts real and honor the subculture, we’ve been able to hang a human face on these guys. We've taken what may have been more of a stereotype or misinformation and humanized them a little bit. Not that you are supposed to love them and get behind them, but at least maybe you understand how they live and why they do the things they do.
That really was the idea behind Outlaw Empires: to give a face to these iconic outlaw dynasties that we have only seen through the eyes of historians and law enforcement, that have been minimized and stereotyped and that we don’t really understand. Just to break it open a little bit and go inside, and actually talk to members and get personal stories and try to use the context of their stories to then tell the larger story of the empire.
The first episode we did was on the Crips. We interviewed this fascinating guy who’s been a Crip since he was 11 years old, and still is a retired member. Hearing the story of his life you’re then able to draw the context of “when he experienced this, that’s when the gang was experiencing this” and “when he did this, that’s when L.A. was experiencing this.”
Through one man's story we’re really able to give context to the larger organization and in that case even Los Angeles to a certain extent. Yes, there are people who argue that this is Gangland with my commentary, but I feel like we’ve succeeded in doing what we do a little bit differently and a little bit more objectively and non-judgmentally, getting an inside look at these guys so they don’t feel like “gang banger No. 1” or “gang banger No. 2.”
Are there any subjects besides law enforcement and organized crime that you’d like to research and possibly write about?
Yeah, it's not like that was my milieu or my experience. The truth is I write damaged characters well, and because of that I’m drawn to more of the anti-hero than the hero. For me, it’s all about the character and not so much about the world. I would love to explore other characters in other worlds. I’m trying to develop a couple things now with FX and I would love to do some kind of cool historical drama and take it out of what has been primarily a contemporary urban setting for me. Go and look at worlds that are a little bit different, and I’m in the process of trying to look at damaged folk, but damaged folk with a different past.
Interview by Shannon Metzger (@ShannonAM)