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Kurt Sutter learns to let go of being a 'control freak' for 'Southpaw'

Forest Whitaker and Jake Gyllenhaal in
Forest Whitaker and Jake Gyllenhaal in "Southpaw."
Scott Garfield/The Weinstein Company

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Kurt Sutter makes his feature film debut as the screenwriter of "Southpaw," a boxing movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal and directed by Antoine Fuqua which hits theaters this Friday. Gyllenhaal plays a boxer who is fighting a custody battle for his young daughter and fighting to regain stability as his life spirals out of control.

Sutter has worked mostly in television. He created "Sons of Anarchy" and was a writer/producer on "The Shield" for seven years. He's currently working on "The Bastard Executioner," a new series for FX.

Sutter talked with the Frame's John Horn about making his feature debut with "Southpaw," working in TV versus film and why his next project is a 14th-century Welsh period drama.


Interview highlights

While working on the screenplay for "Southpaw," Sutter drew inspiration from the life and struggles of rapper Eminem, who was originally planned to play the lead part in the film. Giving up this plan wasn't an easy one. 

Initially it was very difficult to see it as anything else other than what I had written it for. I was like, "Oh I don't know, Jake [Gyllenhaal], I love him as an actor but..." Then I met with Jake and Antoine [Fuqua], who was attached to direct at that point. He was incredibly passionate about the project and Jake had all this insight into who this guy was. He had done a lot of research. Suddenly, I saw it not as necessarily an allegory or a biographic piece, but as sort of a standalone story of redemption.

When I met with Jake and got his perspective and Antoine's perspective  — it was interesting for me as a guy who is perhaps a little bit of a control freak — I realized, "Oh, this is bigger than I thought it was. It's bigger and other people have a different perspectives. It's sort of a story on to its own." Truthfully, that became the process for the whole movie. For me it was an exercise in letting go, you know?

Relinquishing control is something that does not come naturally to you?

No it does not, my friend. Some of it was — I was back on the last season for "Sons [of Anarchy]" and my time was limited. It really got to that point where I had to hand it over to Jake and Antoine.

One of the things that is certainly prevalent in the narrative of this film is that there are two sides to the characters that we meet. Billy Hope, played by Gyllenhaal, is very savage in the ring. He's got an anger management problem, and yet he is a gentle father and a loving husband. Is that something that you wanted to make this movie about outside of the boxing and outside of the redemption that happens inside the ring? The redemption that a man can go through when he is faced with a tragedy? 

Yeah. I think that it's always an interesting conflict for a character, or a man in general, who has those sort of savage impulses to life. When buttons get pushed the reaction goes to 10, you know? The result of that creates a lot of wreckage, burns a lot of bridges, and yet the flip side of that passion is a guy who is incredibly sensitive, doesn't have many friends, and is very connected to the single people in his life. So it's a big difference but I think it's sort of an organic one.

This is your first produced feature film screenplay. At the time it had been in development and kicking around you probably did three or four seasons of "Sons of Anarchy"?

Two into three.

So a lot of filmmakers right now are going from film into TV. You're kind of doing the reverse commute. Do you understand why they're going in one direction, and does it make sense that you went in the opposite direction?

I love features. I started out wanting to write features. I always kept my toe in that pond. A lot of times during my hiatus I would write features. I always referred to it as my "virtual career," because I would write these scripts, I would get great feedback, I'd give them up, and they would just disappear into the ethos. I'd be like, OK. I've always sort of been doing it, so it's not so much making the decision now to do it. But yeah, it is sort of interesting. It makes sense because there really isn't any big dividing line between TV and film anymore.

Do you respect and admire the speed at which you can work in TV when the stars align? Obviously not every show is like, Yeah, let's make this — it's on tomorrow. But maybe in your next series, "The Bastard Executioner," the progress of production that you have on something like that versus the movie "Southpaw," are they different beasts? Is one, just in terms of the speed, more satisfying to you as an artist?

Look, TV is sometimes a little too fast — as I'm a few days behind on a script as we speak. [laughs] The idea of having an idea on Monday, beating it out on Wednesday, writing it on Thursday, shooting it on Friday, and watching it over the weekend, is incredibly satisfying. It can be daunting at times, but as a storyteller it is really satisfying. That doesn't quite happen in features.

Can you tell us a little bit more about "The Bastard Executioner" and if you think it's a natural follow-up to "Sons of Anarchy" in some way?

I guess it follows a natural path as far as characters go. I am really drawn to broken and conflicted heroes. Wilkin Brattle, who is the lead in "The Bastard Executioner," is deeply conflicted, but about different things. I knew after seven seasons of "The Shield" and seven seasons of "Sons of Anarchy," that I didn't want to get into yet another contemporary crime-ish kind of project. I was not necessarily looking for something period, but looking for something in a different wheelhouse. Something that scared me a little bit. It definitely terrified me.

In what way?

It terrified me, in a good way, because obviously it's a different world and a completely different conflict. The dialogue is completely different, the vernacular is completely different, and the rhythm is completely different. I really was sort of forced to reeducate my ear. I'm not doing traditional old English speech, because no matter how well that is done to me it always sounds goofy. It just sounds bad. So it's a mix of somewhat a contemporary rhythm but with words of the period. I never use any modern vernacular and things like that. We strike that balance.

For people who have not seen "Southpaw," they are probably very familiar with the idea that Hollywood loves movies about boxers. There have been a lot of great movies about boxers. For those people who are on the fence or on the ropes so to speak, about whether or not they are going to jump in the ring and see the movie — what is your pitch to them to go check it out? 

I think that you go to a boxing movie with a certain amount of expectation. There are certain stereotypes you can't avoid because it's boxing, there are fights, there are winners, and there are losers. I think I would say that this movie has such incredible performances. I think Jake — this is some of the best work I've ever seen him do. As I said, he and Antoine had run away with this story and taken this character and this film to a place I had never imagined it could go. The depth that he brings to Billy Hope is really heartbreaking and beautiful.

I would say that it's worth it really just to go see Jake's performance. For the candy of it all, the fight sequences, Antoine just shot the hell out of them. They're brutal, they're exciting, and incredibly vivid. So it has got all the candy it's supposed to have, but I think — as I'd like to think some of my stuff does — it has got the brutality, but then underneath is something that will make you think and maybe break your heart a little bit.  

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