"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Writer-producer Kurt Sutter made news this summer for reasons that had nothing to do with the content of his show, the FX biker drama “Sons of Anarchy“ (Tuesdays, 10 p.m./9 Central). Furious that “Sons” — a critically acclaimed but rough series that costars his wife, Katey Sagal — had been shut out of the 2011 Emmys, Sutter made his displeasure known via his Twitter feed, blasting the Emmys’ governing body, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and mocking shows and performers that did get a lot of nominations.
“If my mom and dad were alive, this Emmy snub would kill them,” he said. “That’s not true, they were too old to understand my show. Just like the Academy.” And, “Broke into an Academy member’s porn locker. Found sticky fully-clothed photos of Mariska Hargitay, Kathy Bates…and ['Mad Men'] creator Matt Weiner. Very odd.” Even Fox’s feel-good musical fantasy wasn’t safe from his ire: ”Fuck ‘Glee.’ Hate those annoying, ‘Please accept me for who I am’ singing brats. There, I said it. are you happy?”
Sutter later backtracked a bit on some of his sentiments. But soon after, he caught flak for suggesting that the departure of “The Walking Dead” show runner Frank Darabont was a result of its cable network AMC spending too much on “Mad Men” and overpaying Matthew Weiner. “Why Darabont got fired — Weiner,” tweeted Sutter. “He held AMC hostage, broke their bank, budgets were slashed, shit rolled down hill onto ['Breaking Bad' creator Vince] Gilligan and Frank. No one else wants to fucking say it, but the greed of ‘Mad Men’ is killing the other two best shows on TV — ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Walking Dead.’” Sutter subsequently admitted he had no inside knowledge of AMC’s financial decisions, apologized to — well, most of Hollywood, it seems –and then quit Twitter for a few weeks. He offered a partial mea culpa on his blog: ”No one chased me away except me … Eventually, I would have said something that got me or someone else buried in a suffocating pile of irrevocable toxic man shit.”
All this craziness was happening during the run-up to the fourth season of “Sons of Anarchy,” which so far has been both a ratings smash (the numbers for the premiere were the biggest in the show’s history) and a critical success. The new plotlines focus on the show’s hometown of Charming, a 21st century domestic Eden that’s being remade by a new mayor who’s also the area’s biggest real estate developer, and overrun by county law enforcement and feds who hope to ensnare the gang in a racketeering case. The new episodes are engaging, complexly plotted, richly atmospheric, over-the-top soapy and often deliriously cinematic. Thus far, Season 4 of “Sons” has been altogether more engaging than Season 3, which took the characters to Ireland for a change of scenery and back story about the roots of the show’s murderous, gun-running and now drug-smuggling bike gang, the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original Charter (SAMCRO). The show’s problematic but ambitious third season has its defenders, though — and in retrospect I appreciate it more, because its plot helps drive so much of the action in Season 4.
I got into all of this in a long phone interview with Sutter, during which we also discussed the show’s disreputable aura, Sutter’s penchant for making trouble for himself, the morality of crime stories, his obsession with “Deadwood” and the “Godfather” films, and other subjects.
What kind of feedback are you getting from “Sons of Anarchy” viewers right now?
Everyone is very excited about the season. There’s not much of a gray area. I think when you create the persona of someone who is very candid and says what’s on your mind, as I have, you have to be willing to accept feedback in the same vein. People are usually pretty upfront and candid about the show, and fortunately the feedback [on the new season] has been really strong. People are enjoying the dynamics that are happening within the club, they love all the stuff that’s happening in Charming with the new law enforcement and the pending RICO case. So I think they see the fun and excitement of all those external pressures affecting everything else inside the club.
The verdict on Season 3 seemed to be a lot more mixed, not just from critics but from a lot of viewers. I fell into that camp. But a lot of the stuff that the show’s writers are doing in Season 4 is starting to turn me around on Season 4, because it makes it seem as though this might turn out to be one of those shows that turns out to have what I call “a memory like an elephant.”
It seems like you planted stuff [in Season 3] and now it’s flowering.
Last season, narratively … To take people out of Charming and to reveal some of the mythology and back story in Belfast … Look, you know, ultimately, as a writer and producer I thought they were all extraordinary episodes [in Season 3]. I felt like the quality of the show never [declined] from what we’ve done [before]. But the fact that we were veering away from what people had come to expect, that was a bit of a risk.
That’s interesting, and it’s a good thing, because I never saw it as being a risk. I’ve always been fascinated by the mythology component of the show. And because we never use the device of flashbacks or anything like that, you really have to find organic ways to reach back and tell those stories.
That was my way of doing that in Season 3 — all the things we play out in Season 3, in terms of the history of the club and the depth of it, and all that back story. Because of that, the things we play out in Season 4 have deeper resonance. [Now] people understand the dynamic with Gemma and [Jax's biological mother] Maureen, because we saw it play out last season. We can see why Jax is estranged from his dad because we saw it play out last season. We aren’t just telling the audience what to think about the events in this back story; they’ve seen it all play out within the club. I do think that because of what we did in Season 3, we have a better foundation to build on in Season 4.
Now, that was not my intention! It was not my intention to create a season that would just lay track for the next season. But that has perhaps been the result.
As I look at those two seasons back to back — as, unintentionally, a Part 1 and Part 2 — it seems like Season 4 of “Sons of Anarchy” has kind of gone in the opposite direction of Season 3, with a vengeance. Whereas originally you had taken the characters very far away from home, to Ireland, now you’ve made the action very compact and centered. In episodes 4 through 6 of this season, which viewers have either recently seen or are about to see, the vast majority of the action happens in a handful of locations, mostly near or physically within the clubhouse or within the doctor’s office. And it’s so much about the politics of the club, the business end of things, the rules of succession. In a perverse way, “Sons of Anarchy” is turning into a workplace show.
Some of that is determined by budget and where we’ve filmed stuff. Our model for the show is usually four days on home set and three days out. Sometimes we’ll have an episode that has a lot of big action scenes that will chew up two of our days on location, and we really have to be aware of that and write the show, not necessarily change the show, but write it to home sets.
But I think your point is well served, because this season is about the club, it’s about Charming, it’s about seeing Jax in all those familiar places that he’s ultimately trying to extract himself from. All of that has a lot of weight.
Could we take a side trip and get into Jax’s character a little bit? It seems in many ways that he’s the key to the show, because the actor who plays him, Charlie Hunnam, seems like such a traditional leading man sort of actor, in that he’s easy on the eyes and projects sort of a “nice action hero” vibe. But then he turns around and commits acts of violence that are so shocking and so casual — and it happens all the time. I get comfortable with Jax, and think of him as almost the show’s audience surrogate, and then I am reminded that he’s as nasty as the others.
I think about this in context of the show as a whole, where not only are you not drawing a line between us, meaning the audience, and them, meaning the bikers, it seems as if you are trying to erase that line whenever possible. What’s the motivation behind that? What do you gain from doing it that way, and what do you lose?
I think that — and this has been the case from the beginning — this is a show that’s about family, you know? Albeit family that exists in a culture that most of us don’t know, with a set of rules that we’ve never lived by. But ultimately they are still a family. That’s what has enabled me to keep them relatable and real and likable.
And yet they are who they are. They have a credo, and they’re able to compartmentalize things that we aren’t able to compartmentalize, and then move into violence with a certain ease and casualness. “Erasing the line” is an interesting way to describe it.
Here’s something I find interesting. We’re doing this whole story line on Juice, who we discover is half black. He’s afraid he’s going to be thrown out of the club because of it.
This is a subject that we’ve never done a full-on story on within the context of the show. We’ve laid track to it for three seasons — [pointing out] that you’ve never seen a black guy in the club, and that there are rules of the [motorcycle club] prohibiting that.
What I’m finding is that fans are willing to forgive these guys being murderers and gun runners and now drug runners, but they hate the fact that they’re potentially racists!
[Laughs] It’s almost like that hits too close to home for most people. It’s an interesting psychological study, watching people in social media react to that.
Racism is a more everyday sort of outrage that the other behavior depicted on the show. “I might be a murderer” is not something most people worry about. “I might be a racist” is a different story.
It always comes down to character, to me — to the emotional makeup of these characters. Even when you have characters you know are doing things that are nefarious, when you see the emotionality behind it, when you see them have these very recognizable emotional experiences and see their very real reactions to them, they just become humanized.
There’s an innate connection that the audience has. They are experiencing the pain or the anger or the frustration or the absurdities with these guys because I am able to write to that, and because I have a cast that is able to take it and articulate it and raise the bar a few notches, actors who play the hell out of it, who make it real.
There is absolutely nothing in the show that indicates that we are supposed to condemn any of these characters, or disapprove of any of their behavior, or indeed any indication of what’s the proper attitude to take toward these characters. You’re not cueing anybody. When I think about all the other great TV shows that focused to some degree on criminality, including great past shows like “The Sopranos” and “Deadwood,” they all prompted you at some point to weigh the criminal behavior against normal behavior, by contrasting the criminals’ behavior against law-abiding civilians. You really don’t do that on “Sons of Anarchy,” and it seems deliberate.
Ultimately it’s not a deliberate thing.
With the law enforcement component we’ve set up, maybe it’s just coming from my roots on “The Shield,” but I like creating these characters who are as conflicted and flawed as the outlaws. [Former Charming Police Chief Wayne] Unser made a pact with [SAMCRO boss] Clay Morrow years ago. with the understanding that, “Here is what we’re going to do to make our town safe.” And then you’ve got that whole story line later with this ATF agent who’s gone rogue and who gets her comeuppance. Our law enforcement characters have been as flawed as our outlaws.
But I do think that, if you look at “The Sopranos” and see the brutality of Tony Soprano and the way he cheated on his wife, Tony was a much more compromised guy, and not anywhere near to being as plugged into his own family as Clay is with his family.
It’s my experience from spending time with these [motorcycle gang] guys that it is a much more insular family dynamic than we see reflected in most outlaw characters on television. The [motorcycle club] community is tightly wound. That’s why it’s very rare — it has happened, but it’s rare — that you see any of these people flip [and become informants]. It’s not about blood. There is a level of achievement that you have to reach and maintain in order to stay in these clubs. It’s not just about being born into it, and having it all come out of blood. You have to earn your spot.
Speaking of outlaws, are there any westerns that you think about a lot when you’re working on the show? And are there any gangster movies?
When I was conceiving the pilot with [filmmaker and veteran "Sopranos" director] Allen Coulter, who shot the original pilot, we definitely were using some archetypes of the old West. Clearly I’m a huge “Deadwood” fan. I’ve used pretty much every actor on my show who appeared on that show!
Yeah, you have!
“Deadwood” is clearly an influence. In terms of gangster movies, when I do steal, I try to steal from the best. There are a lot of “The Godfather, Part II” themes, especially in the idea of a guy wanting out [of a criminal subculture] but who is too deeply enmeshed, too deeply committed to the idea of The Family. That’s Jax, who is a guy who wants to get out, but who perhaps is a guy who thinks too deeply and feels to much to survive in this life. How does a guy with that emotional makeup succeed in this kind of life? We reveal last season that his dad didn’t really even want him in the life. This season, in one of the episodes, I make reference to the famous Michael-Fredo scene in the rowboat.
Can we talk about Clay Morrow for a minute? He was never the most sentimental character in the history of the world, but I feel like we’re getting to sense the depths of his selfishness this seasons in a way we didn’t before — particularly in the episode where he tells Mark Boone Junior’s character, Bobby Munson, that he wants to push him as a successor after Clay retires if Bobby supports him on the vote; and then you have that moment later in that episode that’s very chilling, the moment where Bobby watches Clay from afar and realizes he’s a very skilled liar who pulled the wool over Bobby’s eyes, just as Clay is now pulling the wool over the eyes of the person he’s talking to at that particular moment in time.
Clay is a guy who probably has the deepest, darkest secret. He sees his days numbered sitting at the end of that table. He has his exit strategy in place. He has a singular vision. He’s a military guy, a soldier. He has that one mission on his mind, and he gonna follow it through to the end.
The older these guys get — and I’ve known a few of them — the more they are able to compartmentalize, to sort of remove themselves from the violence they’ve committed on the rest of the world. They have that ability. And that’s what’s happening with Clay. Nobody is going to stop him from achieving his goal. You have two guys with exit strategies — Clay and Jax — who are eventually going to come to cross-purposes as they try to achieve those [goals].
It’s ironic that almost every one of Clay’s pronouncements to the club comes back to the issue of loyalty, yet the only person Clay is truly loyal to is Clay.
Exactly. I know a lot these guys, and some of them have become friends. Yet everything that Jax is saying this year reflects my experience of that dynamic: “Is it really all about loyalty, or at the end of the day does it all just come back to fucking greed?”
Unfortunately, that was [club co-founder] John Teller‘s dynamic, in terms of why he thought the club lost its way. When you live on the fringe too long, you ultimately attract people who have chosen that lifestyle. You can’t avoid it.
I think that’s absolutely true about Clay. Jax calls him on it: “You fuckin’ pushed a guy off the roof for the same thing.” And Clay justifies it: “Well, but that guy was a rat!” Jax is right. Ultimately everything Clay was doing was exactly what [Sons of Anarchy Northern Ireland president Keith] McGee was doing. He was old, he was tired, he felt like, “I put in all this time, and all I want is a fucking piece.”
That’s what Clay is doing. Ultimately that will continue to reveal itself to other members of the club as well.
I’ve got to ask you about the “Terror of Twitter” incidents from earlier this year. Among other subjects in this interview, we’ve talked about how you don’t tell people how they’re supposed to feel about the morality of the world you’re depicting on the series, and how the morality of individual characters fluctuates from scene to scene depending on what they want at any given moment. Do you think either of these factors has anything to do with the lack of industry acclaim for “Sons of Anarchy”?
Look, I am clearly a guy who needs some filters, you know?
I say that flippantly, but my initial response to the Emmys the year before was much more visceral and angry response. This season — look, was I upset? Yeah. I was kind of shocked, quite frankly, that Katey [Sagal] didn’t get some kind of nod from the Emmys, because she did win a Golden Globe. But the tweets I sent out on the whole Academy thing, quite honestly, were just snarky, and they were not coming from a place of malice in the way that my blog did in Season 2, when I was really pissed off. Critically the response was mixed to the Belfast story line. I was just blowing off steam and making jokes. Did they get taken out of context? Yes. Did they get turned against me? Absolutely.
But the reality is, I should know better. I should know better at this point that when I say anything regarding the Academy [of Television Arts and Sciences], that it’s going to be taken at face value, that it’s going to become what it is. At the end of the day I can’t really get upset because I should just fuckin’ know better!
I’m not asking any of this because I want your interview with Salon to be another stop on the Kurt Sutter apology tour–
Right, right, right.
I know you regret the fact that you made those statements. But to put it as delicately as possible, isn’t there a bit of truth to the sentiments you expressed in those tweets, and last year on your blog? And if you are getting that kind of reaction to the show, might it be due to the sort of show that it is?
I ended up having a long conversation with [FX boss John] Landgraf about this. There are a lot of factors that determine who gets Emmy nods. There are lot of people from all different branches voting on these things. And it’s why, quite frankly — and I say this not to take anything away from them as shows — the costume dramas do very well, because they attract pretty much every area of the business that votes on shows, from costumes to set design to lighting. There are lot more bells and whistles on those shows that attract votes.
We have to work incredibly hard on our show to get it to look like nobody is working hard on our show. Honestly — and I don’t just say this because I love all the people who work for me — it is as difficult, perhaps more difficult, to have set design and costume design and lighting and editing and music that does not call attention to itself, that does not move out ahead of the words, that becomes backdrop and support for stories, so that you are not aware of them. There is nobody in the industry taking notice of [what we're doing] because it’s done, intentionally, to disappear, to just become the fabric of the show. That was our experience on “The Shield,” where we worked hard to make it look as if nobody was doing anything at all. That’s my experience here, too.
And I honestly feel an even bigger part of this is the subject matter, dude. We deal in a world, and with subject matter, that makes some people uncomfortable, and they would rather sit back and watch “The Good Wife” or “Mad Men” or something that feels somewhat nostalgic or familiar or safe. You gotta fuckin’ tighten your belt and put on a pair of heavy shoes to watch my show. And a lot of people don’t wanna fuckin’ do that.
In terms of the voting dynamic, in the end it’s numbers. It’s percentages. But I think it’s a testament to the quality of everyone involved with the show that after four seasons, they continue to not only show up and do the work, but be motivated and inspired to do the work better … It’s easy for me to get excited about the work because I’m sitting at the head of the train, you know? When I walk through the lot and see all my actors and see all my crew and see that they’re genuinely excited and want to do good, and want to do better? That’s rare. It’s really rare.
Because of that, we continue do good work, we continue to attract viewers, we continue to defy the odds. To see a show that’s been on the air four seasons do the kind of numbers we did [in this year's premiere] is kind of amazing on a lot of levels.
It’s also interesting that you are doing well in the ratings after four seasons despite the fact that, to my eyes, you are doing almost nothing in terms of audience hand-holding to bring people up to speed on the plot, and to find some easily digestible way to explain exactly what happened in seasons one through three. As you mentioned before, you don’t even do flashbacks.
No. We don’t. Any of those devices kind of feel like they pull people out of the reality of it, you know? The closest we got to that was last season was in the explosion scene last season, where Jax has the flash of John Teller when he’s looking at Clay. And even that was too borderline-supernatural for us. Flashbacks are a device that I love creatively. I am a huge “Lost” fan, and when other shows do flashbacks, sometimes it works great. I just know that on this show, it’s a device that would not necessarily enhance the drama.
You’re asking a lot when you ask people to follow a story that’s told that way. There are a lot of TV shows that I can kind of half-watch while I’m doing other stuff and not worry that I missed much, but on this show, if I look away for two minutes, I don’t know what’s going on.
[Laughs] Well, a lot of that is just the reality of having to squeeze so much information into 42 minutes. We write it in such a way that people have to be paying attention. But that also speaks to the dedication fans have for the show. This is not a show you can watch while multitasking. You can’t sit there and watch it while you’re answering your email. You have to be there, and be plugged in, and give up the hour.
If you trying to persuade hypothetical viewers who had never seen a frame of “Sons of Anarchy,” and who might not normally be interested in that kind of subject matter, to take a look at it, what would you tell them?
It’s a show about the journey of the family, and the everyday challenges of family life. Relationships. Money. Children. The characters face all the same problems the rest of us struggle with every day. But their solutions to them usually involve a gun.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)