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'Sons of Anarchy' creator Kurt Sutter moves to documentary TV

By Mike Ayers, Special to CNN
updated 4:01 PM EDT, Fri May 18, 2012
"Sons of Anarchy" creator Kurt Sutter is putting the finishing touches on the final episodes of "Outlaw Empires."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Kurt Sutter's Outlaw Empires" is a six-part series airing on the Discovery Channel
  • Documentary series looks at people who have defined their existence outside the law
  • Sutter is also the creator of "Sons of Anarchy," the FX show about a biker gang

(CNN) -- For years, Kurt Sutter has told stories of criminal activity -- first as a writer for "The Shield" and then as the creator of FX's wildly popular "Sons of Anarchy," a dramatized version of an outlaw biker gang in California.

Now he's branching out and focusing his lens on real-life criminal organizations.

The Discovery Channel recently premiered "Kurt Sutter's Outlaw Empires," a six-part series that looks at the micro and macro reasons behind groups that have defined their existence outside the law. Episode one tackles famed Los Angeles gang the Crips, with subsequent shows exploring outlaw bikers, the Irish mob, the Italian mafia, the Nuestra Familia and the Aryan Brotherhood.

"On 'Sons,' we exposed a lot of people to a new world," Sutter told CNN from Los Angeles. "It humanized what was a stereotype for a lot of people. Yes, our show is highly dramatic, and we take a lot of dramatic licenses. But the reality of it, and details of it are very true, very specific. For me, that's what I wanted to do with this series."

The show sprang from a different concept Sutter was pitching that looked at criminal activity from two points of view, the criminals and law enforcement. For the final act, the two sides would be brought together in the same room.

"The pitch was to have a high-level crime and get the point of view of the criminal party involved and law enforcement and hear their retelling of the same events," he said. "People were intrigued by the concept, but ultimately it felt a little too old school. Discovery was interested in a variation, and they've wanted to do a high-end documentary series."

"Outlaw Empires" explores case studies of a few people involved in the criminal organization, using their stories and knowledge to make larger connections to the context of the outlaw group.

Sutter pops up from time to time in cutaways to offer insights into the story he's trying to tell. He's not interested in getting law enforcement officials, psychologists or other talking heads to weigh in on why these people are "bad." Success, for Sutter, is telling a story that doesn't pass judgment.

The approach that Sutter and his team took wasn't the typical "let's pick a subject and tell their story" usually associated with documentary storytelling. For him, they started small and worked outward.

"We tapped into people that had relationships; some of these guys have been cleaning up their acts -- there's networks to get to these people," Sutter said. "We talked to people to see who had the most interesting story. It came out of character: who had the most interesting people with the most interesting stories.

"It wasn't so much like 'Let's go do the Crips. Let's go do the Aryan Brotherhood.' It was about let's cast a wide net and be led into the worlds by the characters."

Sutter is putting the finishing touches on the final episodes of "Outlaw Empires" while also in preproduction for the fifth season of "Sons." And like the way he portrays his fictional characters, he aims to give viewers a new look at a group of people who have been largely portrayed in a certain way.

"It's a challenging thing to do when you're dealing with guys covered in swastikas," Sutter said. "You try to go in and give it some context, so people have some point of view to why people did what they did. It doesn't mean you're going to get behind it."

He added, "The challenge is similar to writing 'Sons.' When you write an anti-hero, it's that balance between 'anti' and 'hero.' You can't make them too righteous and good so they don't feel dangerous or believable. But you can't write them so deplorable that the audience can't get behind them. It's similar with this series."

"Kurt Sutter's Outlaw Empires" airs at 10 p.m. ET Mondays on Discovery.

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