Earlier this season, I had a chance to sit down with some of the writers from Sons of Anarchy to discuss the writing process on Sons. They were kind enough to come in on their day off (I bribed them w/ pizza and beer and it worked!) and we chatted about what it’s like to be in ‘the room’ of SOA, breaking story, working with cast, and other fun tidbits. So a big thank you to our participating writers: Dave Erickson (Co-Executive Producer/Writer), Chris Collins (Producer/Writer), Liz Sagal (Executive Story Editor/Writer), Marco Ramirez (Writer), and Brady Dahl (Writers’ Assistant/Writer). Our fearless leader, Kurt Sutter, and Co-Producer/Writer Regina Corrado could not be there, but were there in spirit. So here are the Q&A’s with the SOA scribes:
WHAT IS YOUR PROCESS IN THE WRITERS’ ROOM? HOW DO YOU BREAK EACH EPISODE?
Chris Collins: I wait for Dave to come up with all the ideas and I agree with everything he says.
Dave Erickson: We have multiple boards in the room. White boards. When we sit down with Kurt initially he says, I want to get here, I want this, I want xyz. We layout 13 episodes and we start placing (on the board) where we think these points might come. We know he wants this in the finale or we think this’ll probably happen around 310, or we know we’re going to Ireland so we knew where we generally wanted that story to be and how many episodes it was going to take place over. Once we have that, we start with whatever happened last season and where the guys were emotionally and we track the major story and it’s just trying to figure out what the A story for the episode’s going to be, and then literally it’s just throwing shit up on the wall, we just write beats, we know we need this to happen in the episode, how do we get to that point. We work backwards from it. What does Jax need in this episode, what’s the obstacle, what’s gonna stop him.
Liz Sagal: This is really cool because, this is my first season from beginning to end, and we did a pre-meeting last November and we started in January and there’s not one mile-marker that Kurt did not present to the writing staff and said I want this to happen that leads to this, and every single mile marker was accomplished in a stellar way.
Dave Erickson: But starting a new episode, we start to layout the potential story. Kurt will come in and pitch what he’s thinking. At that point it’s not fully fleshed out, it might just be a notion, but by throwing sorta what-ifs at him, it provides anchors, ’cause he’ll say, yeah that’s cool, I like that, and then you build on it. And then you gradually start adding more and more beats on the other board until you reach a point where you have twenty-something beats, which essentially every episode we do has around 25-26 beats, on the board anyway.
Chris Collins: On any show, it’s the showrunner that comes in with a vision and says this is the story I want to tell this season, this is where I wanna go, now how do we get there. And as a group of writers, we do that. We help flesh things out, characters, story points, we’re constantly trying to pitch ideas that will add layers and help get him to his vision. I don’t think our formula is 100% figured out yet, in terms of the beats, sometimes we’ll do 25 beats per a one-hour show and that seems a little light, but then all of a sudden we turn in a script that’s 38 pages and realize you’re gonna have 6-8 minutes of additional footage that you need to cut. What I’ve learned from Kurt is that you shoot everything that you write, and then in post he basically whittles down the episode to the essence of the story.
WHAT KIND OF RESEARCH DO YOU GUYS DO FOR YOUR STORIES?
Liz Sagal: We have a technical supervisor who is actually in a real MC.
Dave: Anytime we have a question, part of what Brady does is call our T.A. (technical advisor) and he gets answers for us, and that’s how we try and keep it as real as we can.
Chris Collins: Research is one of the foundations of writing for me, like with the prison episode, I researched the f*&% out of that…
Liz Sagal: And it’s also researching about guns, and what type of guns, the value of the guns and what kind of guns do the alleged IRA deal in …
Brady Dahl: In Season 2, I researched about forty different types of sexual fetishes. We picked one … for the porn fetish that Luann was providing to all the guys, I think we ended up choosing Pillsbury Dough girl Fetish.
Dave: What is that Brady?
Brady: It’s where you, uh, make love to the fat folds in people’s stomachs. Luann was providing that for her clients.
Samcro Blogger: Did you do any first hand research?
Brady: Yeah, I jumped right in.
WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE CHARACTER TO WRITE FOR AND THE HARDEST TO WRITE FOR?
Dave: I do like to write Unser, I mean I love everyone in the cast, but I love Dayton, there’s just something specific about Dayton as an actor, he’s just fun.
I think Jax is hard to write for. Only because, especially this season, he’s been going through a transformation and he’s had so much shit thrown at him, and it’s so dense as to where he’s at emotionally and where the plot is, with the two different story lines. I think Jax has become more and more challenging to write. I think he’s deepened as a character.
Marco Ramirez: I would agree 100% with Unser. I think the cadence is in a language that you can get away with and very different than everyone else on the show. But I also would throw Bobby and Tig in there because, Tig especially, because he can be really menacing and really funny within a beat. And that’s really fun.
Liz Sagal: I love writing for Gemma ’cause she’s like, the Clint Eastwood of the club. She’s the badass girl. And I think Tara’s the most difficult because she has that fine line of like, I’m a Doctor, but I’m also an old lady, and that just gets very hard.
Chris Collins: Can I ask you a question Liz? How is it like writing for your sister?
Liz Sagal: Heh! That’s also why I love it, ’cause I get to put words in her mouth. And I know she’ll take a line that’s maybe an 8 and make it a 10.
Dave: What about lines that are just a 5?
Liz I don’t write lines that are just a 5!
Dave: I meant in my case..
Chris: I would say one of my favorites is Juice because I do find him to be very funny, I like the comedic moments on the show.
WHEN YOU’RE ON SET, WHAT IS YOUR ROLE AND WHAT KINDS OF QUESTIONS DOES THE CAST ASK?
Dave: Once the script is done and we’re shooting, you have to put on your Producers hat, your main job is to protect the script and make sure that the intention that the room had, the intention that Kurt had, is maintained. So, sometimes the questions you get are very simple, ‘I’m walking out this door, why?’ it’s maintaining continuity, maintaining the arc of the episode and the arc of the season, making sure that emotionally the scene is delivering ultimately what Kurt wants to see.
Liz: There are certain things with certain actors, like when you’re dealing with Katey she just wants to know why is Gemma doing this. And with somebody like Charlie, Charlie wants to discuss it emotionally ’cause not only does he have to work really hard on the scripts, but he also has to perfect his dialect. But it’s really trying to track everyone’s emotions and where they’re coming from.
WHAT IS YOU FAVORITE THING ABOUT WRITING ON THIS SHOW?
Liz: The people. The groovy people I get to sit in a room with everyday. The talented people.
Chris: I get to explore very dark themes. I get to explore characters that are outside of my normal life. Writing for outlaws and doing things or saying things that normal society wouldn’t do.
That concludes the Writers Q&A! For more Writers Q&A and to actually see what these writers look like, look for the Writers’ Roundtable on the Season 3 DVD due out Fall 2011.