Entertainment Weekly’s Lynette Rice moderated a conversation in the NAB Show’s Content Theater on Tuesday April 12th with Kurt Sutter, creator, writer and executive producer of FX’s popular show “Sons of Anarchy” and members of his production team, director of photography Paul Maibaum and production designer Anthony Medina. The title of the session was “Sons of Anarchy: Grit and Texture in Small Town America” and the panel spent the hour sharing the creative vision and techniques they use in telling their action packed stories about an outlaw biker’s club and the corrupt town of Charming that they live in, protect and in some ways help destroy.
The show stars Charlie Hunnam, Ron Perlman and recent Golden Globe Award-winner Katey Sagal, who is also the wife of Sutter, and has developed a reputation for authenticity because of the time and attention given to detail despite the fact that it has a seven day shooting schedule and a leaner production budget than network television shows have. Now entering its fourth season, the team onstage has varied backgrounds. Sutter began his Hollywood career in 2001 landing a staff writer position on the first episode of the FX series “The Shield” and continued to stay on until the end spending the last two seasons in the role of executive director. Although he’s remained at FX with “Sons of Anarchy”, he also has feature projects in development at DreamWorks Studios, Warner Bros and Paramount Studios.
Director of Photography Paul Maibaum was best known for his work on the successful TBS series “My Boys” before he began working on all three seasons of “Sons of Anarchy”. In addition to his usual duties, the USC School of Cinema graduate also directed the eight episode of the second season “Potlach.” Another veteran of “The Shield” Anthony Medina spent four seasons as production designer on that show followed by a season designing “Wildfire” before joining “Sons of Anarchy.” His television art directing credits also include “Felicity,” “Providence”, “The Division” and “Mental.”
Rice kicked off the discussion by asking Sutter how he came to create “Sons of Anarchy” and the producer admitted that both he and co-producer John Linson have a love for the subculture. “We had some contacts, some guys who were living in the life and I went up to Northern California to Oakland and spent some time with them,” he said. From that Kurt got the idea for the pilot and ultimately the series. He added, “We began pitching it to pretty much every major cable and pay network and we ended up with FX. I had a relationship with them from “The Shield.”
The show’s unique opening credit sequences were mentioned next, which Sutter admits he loves along with the SOA theme song. The Defy Agency, who also developed the show’s iPhone App, came up with whole tattoo dynamic. Another consideration with the opening sequence when it was being developed was that the prologue can cover anywhere from 2-12 script pages.
“It’s very much associated with the show,” Sutter said. As for the content on the new iPhone app, he told us that he wanted to concentrate on providing back story and content rather than goofy games or a way to play “undress the biker”, so he’s pleased with what Defy has come up with since this area is admittedly not in his wheelhouse.
The word that came up continuously during the conversation was authenticity, which is of great importance to the entire SOA team and includes all details. Anthony was determined to bring that quality to the look of the clubhouse too. “These are spaces that these people cherish. It’s a brotherhood. That’s what their world is. That’s where they live. Every single thing I do is detailed out.” he said. In order to get the right feel for the set he read the script, visited clubhouses and grabbed some pieces, while deciding to design others. Sutter likes the look of the carved redwood table that is prominently displayed in the clubhouse since his characters are supposed to represent the Northern California branch of the club.
Lynette brought up the subject of money and the show’s production budget asking how much of a role it plays in their set design decisions to which Tony responded that he doesn’t thing about that much, preferring to focus on telling the story right. Sutter jumped in explaining that while they have a different, smaller production model than say HBO, he’s learned from his experiences on “The Shield” what they can do creatively within that box that’s never been done before. A process and vision his crew is completely on board with although he admitted it is a tight parameter.
As for the how the actors and production team deal personally with working on a show like this where you have so many outlaw type antiheroes Sutter said, “They can’t help but influence you and I’m not immune to that either. It’s a seductive world to play in.” He added that the actors all really love to ride adding that Charlie Hunnam and Theo Rossi are always riding their bikes and interjecting their characters’ attitudes. “I definitely think it influences you and when all those guys get together in that environment the swagger just happens and it’s fun to watch,” he continued. The producer has been to a couple of the bigger biker outings such as the Hell’s Angels toy run, which he described as good PR and also thinks that Charlie’s made friends with a couple of guys “in the life.” Plus they have a few TAs (technical assistants) on the show. Although Sutter admits they are exposed to the lifestyle, he admitted, “In the end we’re all delicate, creative types.”
Transmedia Panel Shares the Latest in Storytelling at NAB
Although most people might not be able to give you a definition of what transmedia is, most have most likely been a part of the audience for some aspect of it. On Monday April 11th at the NAB Show in Las Vegas key creatives and executives on the forefront of this movement participated in a panel session titled “Transmedia: Telling the Story Through Narrative Content, Games and Real-World Adventures sharing their thoughts about what lies ahead in this part of the entertainment industry. Moderated by Henry Jenkins, who coined the term Transmedia, and is provost’s professor of communication, journalism, and cinematic arts at USC, and author of the award winning book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, the panel featured Danny Bilson, EVP at Core Games, THQ; Jeff Gomez, transmedia producer and CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment; Gale Anne Hurd, producer (“The Walking Dead,”, “The Terminator,”, “Aliens”), Tim Kring, multiplatform storyteller (“Conspiracy for Good,” “Heroes”) and Kim Moses, executive producer/director/writer, Sander/Moses Productions/Slam (“Ghost Whisperer”).
At the outset Jenkins explained that one of the challenges with transmedia is the degree of exposure that different people in the audiences have had to it. While for some it’s a new experience, others have become quite familiar with it, so a definition or starting point is needed. For the sake of the panel, he called it the process by which narrative information is systematically dispersed across media channels. Each channel makes its unique contribution and many can be used to tell a story. Unlike simple franchising or branding each element adds something vital.
Kim Moses spoke about her experience using transmedia to promote the CBS hit TV show “Ghost Whisperer”. She told us how they developed a model called an infinity loop that would drive eyeballs from one area to another using the TV show as a cornerstone. This way they could give the fanbase an experience on all the different platforms including mobile phones, publishing, social outreach, merchandise and gaming. Sharing statistics about the continuing decrease in network television viewers, she explained how these numbers are gaining momentum however on the internet and how all of these categories involving revenue, social networks and gaming are driven by women.
Taking these factors into account they launched transmedia story telling in the 5th year of “Ghost Whisperer” using the birth notice for baby Aiden as a launch pad. It was sent out to mobile apps and on the internet, so that fans got to see the baby before the show. This made an excellent springboard for telling stories on the different platforms and providing the audience with a total engagement experience. One of the reasons this was so important was because “Ghost Whisperer” had a slot on Friday night, so they needed a way to get on the audience’s radar and create loyalty. “You go out and find those fans and give them things connected to the heart and soul of the brand,” she believes.
“The Walking Dead” is another show that has lends itself to transmedia and producer Gale Ann Hurd knows that genre fans are very familiar with it. “Those fans are the most demanding. They feel an enormous connection to the material the way it existed: she explained. Planning a strategy for the new AMC hit she wanted to involve the creators and in this case Robert Kirkman was eager to come on board as a writer, even though he had no experience as a TV scribe. Hearing that Kirkman was on board was great news for the fans showing that not only was he okay with the show airing on AMC, but he also obviously supported it. They also decided that the perfect time to market the show was during the Halloween Fear fest on the network that features horror and Sci-Fi films. Then they decided to launch their first imagery at Comic-Con. They had a clip that showed both how the show was true to the comic book and also how it was going to be different. In addition, they put up a website with a motion clip. AMC was the first place Gale pitched the idea too and she wanted to be sure they did right by the graphic novel’s strong fan base. Hurd has found AMC to be very supportive and she also monitors their comments on Twitter picking up on what they respond to and what they don’t like, which may come into play in the editing room and going into the upcoming season.
Another transmedia frontrunner had to be NBC’s “Heroes.” The creator and executive producer of the show, Tim Kring came out of a traditional TV producer and writer background, but responded quickly when he discovered that NBC wanted to get into that space and he had a show that lent itself to that medium because of its content. He admits that at the time they were lucky because the studio really wanted to do this and at the time there was no pressure on them to monetize what they were doing. However, he believes that’s changed now that networks are getting burned by shows that last for only a few episodes making it tough to get them to jump on board just for the sake of marketing and promotion. Kring is set to produce a pilot for Fox called “Touch” starring 24’s Kiefer Sutherland, which could also lend itself to transmedia, so it will be curious to see if he’ll have the opportunity to explore those types of options for his new show. He also commented on the intense response that his efforts on “Heroes” elicited from the fanbase and the power to reach his audiences where they live although he admitted that it does take a tremendous amount of effort to extend this work and make it successful.