Editors’ Note: Deadline’s latest series, Reopening Hollywood, focuses on the incredibly complicated effort to get the industry back on its feet while ensuring the safety of everyone involved. Our goal is to examine numerous sides of the business and provide forum for leaders in Hollywood who have a vision for how production could safely restart in the era of coronavirus.
EXCLUSIVE: Kurt Sutter has been a central figure in four major drama series over the past 18 years. He broke in with The Shield, created Sons of Anarchy, The Bastard Executioner and co-created with Elgin James the Latino-flavored Sons spinoff Mayans M.C. Sutter left that show and his long-term FX deal in combustible fashion last year, and he’s crafting his next show. He has always been an incredibly honest guy, even in challenging moments, so who better to evaluate the challenges in getting TV series back into production after the debilitating COVID-19 pandemic?
DEADLINE: How are you feeling about the prospect of productions returning, as the town attempts to rebound from an unprecedented shot down?
KURT SUTTER: I have been thinking a lot about this. I read the article you had a couple weeks ago and I thought it was smart. The thing I thought was most insightful in that was not just the pragmatic stuff that this is the new reality until there’s a vaccine. But rather the issues of testing, distancing, and adding an hour and a half to everybody’s call time. And there’s the issue of how you deal with it creatively.
DEADLINE: Every studio is working on their playbook, and the DGA has a task force headed by Steven Soderbergh, whose film Contagion anticipated how a virus like this could cause a societal breakdown. I thought it could be valuable to have a show creator who tells hard truths like you to take us through exactly what potential problems have to be addressed, from a location scout to story meeting to scenes of intimacy between actors. There have been suggestions of creating a base camp where cast and crew stay until completion. Possible for movies but probably less so for TV series. People go home, maybe they go to a party, and then you risk getting a main actor sick and you’re screwed.
SUTTER: I think you guys covered a lot of the broad strokes of that new normal in that first article. I’ll answer your question, but just to set it up, I do think these discussions are beneficial because as difficult as it might be to read something like that, if this is your business, for me, you initially are like, oh, f*ck, but then it also gives me a sense of like, oh, OK, we can figure this out. It’s going to be a pain in the ass, you know, but the closest thing I equate it to is 9/11.
DEADLINE: In what way?
SUTTER: It just changed the fabric of how we live. How we travel…going to the airport was never the same after that, right? And I think that this will bring change. Not that the immediate restrictions won’t ease up after a vaccine is found, but I do think that there will be a sense of vulnerability that this can happen again. You know that’s what happened in 9/11. We realized how vulnerable we are and we had to make changes, and I think no matter how back to normal we get, there will also be an awareness of vulnerability that will change how we do things forever. It’s not a bad thing, but it will be the thing.
DEADLINE: What will be the biggest challenges in working in this new normal?
SUTTER: I’d like to talk about the creative first. I’ll talk all about what I think those points of contact are and the adjustments that need to be made. But I think the bigger issue, almost is from a creative standpoint. How do you address it? Because you don’t want to hit people over the head with it, right? They’ve just come out of it. They don’t want to be overwhelmed with it, but you can’t ignore it, right? It would be disrespectful to the people who have suffered loss. I think initially, especially with shows that are, you know, present-day, it’s going to be a challenge. I don’t know how Elgin [James, his Mayans M.C. co-creator] is going to do it with Mayans. It’s a tricky thing. How does it impact that world, and how do you maintain the energy creatively and acknowledge it? My sense is that it’ll most likely need to be a light touch, right? Like, you’ll need to see the awareness of it in terms of public and without it necessarily being the driving force and story. I think that there’s a real creative challenge in how to address it in shows, because we’ve never had to really do that before. Even 9/11, if you had a show that wasn’t impacted by some sort of security risk, you didn’t really have to address it, and it wasn’t disrespectful. But this is something that has affected the planet. You have to acknowledge it, but it has to sort of be a light touch, and I think that’s going to be a really tricky thing creatively. And that might ultimately be the bigger issue than any of the production things.
DEADLINE: You really think so?
SUTTER: Unless of course you have a period piece, and then all you have to worry about is the production issues. In terms of production, here’s the deal. There are some dynamics where it is impossible to create any sort of social distance. You can’t have makeup applied or your hair worked on without proximity. So those relationships will have to fall under the same standards as the actor relationships. Meaning, the people that you have to come in contact with and can’t wear a mask with. Yes, you can have a makeup person with a mask, but you can’t have an actor with a mask if you’re applying makeup.
So, I think those levels of production that require a certain amount of intimacy, for people to do their jobs, will have to fall under different guidelines. Which is whether it’s being tested every day or once a week so that people feel safe, and those people will be the most vulnerable, like it said in your article. The actors will be the most vulnerable, right?
DEADLINE: Certainly, and I’ve heard it said that if a grip gets sick, you get another one. If a lead actor tests positive, you’ll have to shut down.
SUTTER: So, there has to be a different, higher level of testing for those people, and I think hair and makeup would also fall into that category. If you are looking at this A to Z, some of this is more manageable. The virtual writer’s room is not a new idea. I think David Kelley started doing that, you know, 15, 20 years ago. I know like for Katey’s show [his wife Katey Sagal plays the title role in Rebel for ABC], Krista [Vernoff] had a room going and they ordered a bunch of scripts. They’re able to do that without too much of an inconvenience, without changing the dynamic all that much. But once you get into the production of it all, you have a script and you give it to production and then you begin the prep on it, right, you have a whole different set of challenges now for a location manager.
You have to find locations that you’re going to be able to create a safe space for people. You have to find a location that is separate and safe, away from the public. They’re talking about doing everything on stages, which means that they’re going to have writers try to write towards home sets. But you’re still not going to be able to do everything on a soundstage. And for those things, you’re going to have to find locations that you can isolate. That’s going to be a greater challenge. That’s going to take more time to do. And then once you have those locations, and you get into the nuts and bolts of it, you have a production team that is used to constantly getting into a conference room and discussing how to do things. I guess to a certain degree that can change, and can happen virtually, to a certain degree. But I think once you start working up the ladder in terms of putting together the pieces, it becomes increasingly more difficult to do that without having the proximity of artists and collaborators.
So, I don’t think you can do all that sh*t virtually. I think it’s just impossible. My guess is what they’re going to try to do is really minimize the amount of players involved. What I was thinking about after reading the article, was, I respect and you know and I am a card-carrying union member of several unions.
DEADLINE: Yes, it seems smaller crews are inevitable, just in terms of keeping a limit of people on set.
SUTTER: I was a Teamster in college, but you know I think there is going to have to be some really hard conversations with unions in terms of the amount of personnel that’s needed. I’m not saying that there’s a superfluous amount of union workers on a set, but over the years there’s a standard that was established. And I do think that there might have to be some conversations in terms of how much personnel is actually needed to get the job done. I think everyone is going to have to bend a little bit and be given assurances. People won’t want to feel like they’re making adjustments and then have it bite them in the ass later on down the line. But I do think that there’s going to have to be some hard conversations with unions in terms of doing that, all the unions.
DEADLINE: You mentioned the virtual creative meetings. I’m thinking of Sons of Anarchy and Mayans, and The Shield. These are very edgy dramas. Is it too much to imagine that the creative collaboration is something of a contact sport that is better suited to take place with the participants in close physical proximity? Doesn’t a virtual meeting blunt the intensity when what’s on the page needs to be challenged in person, with full transparency and bluntness? There must be a visceral benefit to that, or am I just imagining that has to exist to create a great TV drama?
SUTTER: No, I don’t think you’re imagining that. Look, the thing I love, one of the things I love most about what I do is, I get to put out a script, and then I get to collaborate. I get everybody’s perspective, and I have a director’s vision about what do they want to do.
I have a production team that is practically trying to make it work, and I’ve been very lucky with Jon Paré, who I’ve worked with over and over again on Sons, on Bastard, on Mayans. JP is an artist in his own way, and he’ll come to me and say, hey, we can’t afford to do X, Y, and Z, but here’s my idea on how to make, you know, LMNO work. And I’ll be like, oh, that’s cool, OK, yeah, we can make that adjustment. Everybody comes to the table with their own work and their own interpretation, and that’s even before the actors see it. And then that process becomes a whole other collaboration, but there’s all these other smaller collaborations that happen before an actor ever says a line. And you’re right. Those are always conversations like, our writer’s room was upstairs, and I felt it was really important that first few seasons of the show to have proximity between writers, producers, and production. We had it on The Shield and we had on Sons. It wasn’t until like season 4 or 5 that I sort of moved offset on Sons, but I really wanted Elgin and the writers to be there.
DEADLINE: You lose something not having that physical proximity…
SUTTER: So, yeah, I’m having a conversation, and then I get a call, and then I go downstairs, and I have a 20-minute meeting about two locations that we think we can get, but they’re not the same as the script. How do we make it work? And so there’s that whole collaboration, and yeah, there is an immediacy. And you’ll lose some of the power of that if you have to stop, take a phone call, and do it virtually, right?
That’s why I think there is going to be a focus on a level of testing for people that have to be in some sort of intimate distance with each other. And then I think there’s going to have to be another level of testing for people that are going to have some interaction, because it’s going to be really difficult for everyone to be on the other side of the world and doing this and making that work. Just the practicality of time, alone, right, you know, to have to get on and schedule this, right?
DEADLINE: Clarify that.
SUTTER: Instead of walking 20 feet to talk to your location manager or shouting out of the office to your first AD or your UPM, that doesn’t seem like much. But ultimately that adds a lot of layers, just layers and layers. If that ends up becoming the protocol, all of that is going to have to be laid into that formula in terms of the amount of time to get things done.
DEADLINE: You mentioned the testing. Sean Penn, who is spending an inordinate amount of time getting people tested in Los Angeles, told Deadline just recently there is still so much they don’t know. You can test negative, go outside and get infected. It could say you have the antibody, but it’s unclear if that means you have any reliable level of immunity. With that much uncertainty, is it feasible that the only way to revive production is create your own hermetically sealed environment and not let people go home to their families? Is that doable?
SUTTER: In my opinion, like, the only way that works is if you’re doing a movie. If you have a movie that will shoot 40 days, you can isolate and quarantine your cast and crew for that amount of time. It is not feasible to me if you’re doing a series. You can’t shut people down, lock people up for six months. And so I do think that for there to be…and I agree with what Sean’s saying, you know? Every day there’s information about a new test as well as information that suggests all of them have their drawbacks. A plus and minus factor of their accuracy. The variables are so great. We took an antibody test recently, and Kate was talking to her doctor, and we found out the test we took has like only a 40% accuracy rate. There’s so many variables, and you’re right. I think that before anything gets back to normal that there has to be enough confidence in the testing that they’re doing. That’s why I think those relationships that demand that kind of intimacy, I think those people are going to have to be tested every day.
DEADLINE: Every day?
SUTTER: Every day. If you’re having that face-to-face contact with somebody, I do think that before you can walk onto that set, you have to be certain that you’re not carrying…you know you’re not having it. I don’t really know the science, and how quickly these things present themselves in a test, but I think the only way to do that is test every day. Because people are going to go home, right?
And then I think for everything else, there’s going to be varying degrees of safety in terms of the practicality of how you’re going to be able to social distance. The practicality of being on set, if you’re not an actor. You have prop people, you have camera, I mean, you know, there are, at any given time, you have dozens and dozens of people, circling your cast. Engaging with your cast.
DEADLINE: Doing their hair, wardrobe...
SUTTER: I guess you can use a mask and gloves. I guess there are safety measures you can put in place, but you know, it’s a contact sport, man, and like I said, my guess is that they will implement as rigid a regimen as they can, in terms of testing, in terms of keeping people safe, in terms of what they demand. But I also agree with one of the things you talked about in that article, which was, how do you get productions insured?
DEADLINE: It was a point of contention, but I have heard that these insurance companies are right now wading through claims from films that had to stop production abruptly. Will they want to insure a preexisting condition like this in future productions? Because if any production shuts down like that, the costs could be astronomical. Facing lawsuits from people who get sick on a set would add an extra set of costs some feel insurers won’t do.
SUTTER: And I think as a result of that, I think everyone’s going to have to sign that f*cking waiver. There are going to be people who don’t want to do that, and I get it. But I do think that if studios want to get productions up and running and they want to get them insured, there’s going to have to be a certain risk/reward that is going with both cast and crew.
DEADLINE: Another issue you have perspective on. You and Katey worked closely on Sons and The Bastard Executioner. Now, she’ll start a new show. You have a daughter at home. So, when Katey reads her script and says, OK, I have an intimate scene, or a close scene with two or three people. And then she come home to the family. How much of a concern is all this to you as husband and father?
SUTTER: Look, I think about that all the time, about the vulnerability for everybody. But here’s the truth. I think, especially for actors…they, and hair and makeup, will be the people who are most at risk. If the testing is being done diligently and there’s a strong sense that people are serious about keeping them safe and making sure that the people they’re coming in contact with have been tested…I think to a certain degree, you have to have to have some trust that it’s going to be done the right way. Because, it’s that balance, right? You don’t want to be naïve and think everything’s going to be fine, but we also don’t want to live in a constant state of fear, because then there’s no resolution. But I don’t think any of this starts back up until there can be some sort of protocol that people at least feel like, based on what we know, you are doing everything to keep me safe, right?
And obviously, there are factors in this virus and the way it spreads that we may not know for some time. But based on what we know now, for us to gear back up, there has to be a certain level of confidence that there will be a protocol in place that makes people feel safe. And we’re not there yet, man. So for Kate, they’re talking about September, and I think that’s doable. I think there has to be enough progress made in terms of testing where, you know, the are levels of protocol put in place that make people feel safe, you know?
DEADLINE: Any areas we’ve missed?
SUTTER: No. You covered so much that first article that I was reading things and going, oh, f*ck, that’s right…there’ll need to be a shift that happens in every area. As difficult as it’s going to be, I think everyone from craft service up to showrunner, is going to have to realize that things are going to be different. There are going to be sacrifices made. There are going to be changes that feel like a compromise. I think everyone has to wrap their brain around the fact that they’re going to have to do their job a little bit differently. And if everyone can go into it with that mind-set from top to bottom, I think we can figure out how to do this. I think when we’re going to hit a wall is when people start getting to that point of like, that’s not how I do this, I can’t do my job this way. I think everyone is going to have to figure out how they do their job under these circumstances.
And if they can’t do it that way, then they need to go away. That goes from the creative end — because we’re going to have to make changes in terms of how we write scenes, where we shoot them, and so on — to the directors, who are going to have to compromise visual integrity. Everyone is going to have to go in and say, I can’t have the same expectations I had a year and a half ago. It will be about, how do I do my job under these conditions? And if people can make that adjustment, we can f*cking get through this. If they can’t, we’re not.
In the short term if people want to get back to work, there is going to have to be that psychic shift that everyone is going to have to make. If they can’t make it, they should just wait until they can do business as usual. I think it has to be from top to bottom, a sense of collaboration and understanding, or it ain’t going to work, you know?