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Sons of Anarchy screenwriter Brady Dahl on writing about bankers and bikers

Whether you’re trading in stocks or assault rifles, the stakes are high. But who are the real gangsters? Don Rowe talks with one guy who might know – Sons of Anarchy screenwriter Brady Dahl.

Someone, it might have been Immortal Technique, once said that the real gangsters are the ones wearing suits. Anyone who’s seen the Wolf of Wall Street might be inclined to agree. In the opinion of Joe Public, suit jackets are just two ripped sleeves away from being gang cuts. You don’t have to look any further than the NZ Herald comments section to see that Prime Minster John Key’s (remarkably successful) background in finance remains a black mark on his reputation.

But the more traditional gangsters, the guys with the motorbikes and machine guns? Provided they keep their heads down, in New Zealand at least, the public seems to keep an out of sight, out of mind attitude. Unless they’re on TV that is, in which case we buy counterfeit shirts with SAMCRO patches and wear them to Pak’nSave on our mini-choppers.

Brady Dahl is maybe the only guy on earth with a foot in both worlds. As an author and screenwriter, Dahl has written extensively on both stock traders and bikers. He worked on the first five seasons of Sons of Anarchy, the story of television’s favorite biker gang, as a writer’s assistant and eventually staff writer, compiling the show bible and developing an encyclopedic knowledge of SAMCRO in the process.

He also released a book earlier this year called Momo Traders, an inside look at the world of day trading – not the cocaine-and-martini day trading seen on the big screen, but real, down in the trenches trading, the sort of wheeling and dealing one could do without collapsing their nostrils and losing their family through a series of violent breakdowns and affairs.

I spoke with Brady about his journey from engineering student to screenwriter to published author and trading whiz. We also discussed some of the challenges of triumphs of writing Sons of Anarchy, and the correlations between bikers and bankers on the big screen and in real life.

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How does one become a screenwriter on Sons of Anarchy?

I got a degree in creative writing and moved to Hollywood because I figured that’s the only place I’m going to make money writing at the time. I went to Minnesota State, they gave me a scholarship to go to the State College, so I went. I was going to be a civil engineer but when I went to school and kind of figured out who I was a little more, I switched to writing.

Then I got an opportunity from the show creator Kurt Sutter, he became an acquaintance through a weird connection with my girlfriend at the time, now wife, but he read some of my screenplays, I was just writing movies and spending all my time writing screenplays, hoping to make a movie, and he read some of them and said ‘you know, I see a lot of promise in you.’ I was a young writer and sort of reminded him of when he was starting.

He mentioned he might be getting a show in the future and he’d keep me in mind for a writers assistant gig. In Hollywood, it happens all the time where you’ll get a show and it’ll get cancelled, so I was sort of like “Ok, great, whatever.” But then like three years later he finally ends up getting Sons of Anarchy (originally it was called Forever Sam Crow) and he said “Hey, they’re picking up my show, do you want to be writers’ assistant?” I couldn’t believe that it was actually happening.

Did your screenplays have anything to do with bikers or gangs? Or was Sutter just picking up on fundamentals in your writing that he liked?

I think it was just the writing. I wasn’t writing about any gangs. I’m trying to think what my screenplays even were back then, I’m pretty sure it was just dramas and it had nothing to do with Sons of Anarchy, but I think he just liked me more than anything and thought he’d give me a chance.

Where were you living?

I lived right in the middle of Hollywood, right by the Chinese Grauman Theatre by the Walk of Fame. It was weird, it was a touristy area so it was quite a difference coming from Minnesota, from a small farm community, to Hollywood where people are walking around your neighborhood at 3 or 4 in the morning like it’s day time.

When you moved into writing for the show, did you have any knowledge of biker gangs? Did you consult with any gangsters?

I have no specific personal experience, no. I knew a little bit about bikes because a lot of guys where I grew up like to ride Harley’s, but they’re not in gangs, you know? We had TA’s on set, technical advisors, that were part of an actual biker gang. They came into the writers room a couple of times and we’d ask them a couple of questions – would this ever happen, would this be true to the real world, that sort of thing. As the seasons progressed we didn’t utilise them as much but one of the TA’s actually became a cast member.

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Were they rough guys?

It was pretty interesting. They’re personable people, if they didn’t wear their cut you might not know they’re a gang member, but it was wild. There were six or seven of us writers in this office sitting around our little table and then this larger than life kind of personality comes in and sits down with you and it was kind of intense at times, you’d ask him a question and then it was almost like you were scared to get the real answer.

What were some of the biggest surprises around what they told you? 

I guess, I don’t know any specifics, but just the truth of what came out. There wasn’t a lot of filter there. I was honestly surprised by how honest they were with us.

What were the difficulties in writing their characters? Were there things that came up during the consultation with these guys that made you think ‘Shit, we better get this right,’?

I don’t think they really changed how we would portray them, just little details here and there. Everyone thinks that bikers wear black boots and stomp around but Charlie Hunnam [Jax] actually went and visited this gang for a little research on his own and he noticed that a lot of the younger ones wore tennis shoes. It was kind of a unique thing that many people don’t realise. When the show came out people criticised Charlie about wearing tennis shoes because they didn’t think it was accurate when actually it was, it just wasn’t what people expect.

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Was the show’s success anticipated? Even in New Zealand it became a cultural phenomenon, people wearing SoA teeshirts and everything almost overnight.

Well that’s great! But I wouldn’t say it was anticipated. We all definitely felt like what we were doing could be interesting to the audience, but you just never know when you put it out there. There are so many other variables besides quality that contribute to a show being a hit. There are plenty of good shows that just never catch on with an audience for whatever reason, you know, it could be timing, promotion, it could be anything, but I don’t think we really anticipated it. We just felt like we were doing good work. You put your best out there and hope that people like it.

How did the writing pressures change as the show became successful, particularly considering your transition to a full-time staff writer during that period?

You know, I’ve thought about this and I don’t think the writing pressure changed as far as the show goes. As a unit we all set out to tell the most interesting story we could every day and whether or not it played to the audience really wasn’t considered at the time. As a writer you just do your best, put it out there and then the audience judges it. I would say their reaction is a result of what you do, but not a goal.

But on a personal level I would say that for me the pressure ramped up when I became more of a full-time writer on the show. Obviously I wanted to do well but I knew everybody involved and I had been working with them for a couple of seasons and they were super supportive. After I wrote the first couple of things that I worked on they were all glowing over it, whether it was truthful or not, and saying what a good job it was, so that was nice. 

What did you bring to the table when you transitioned to a staff writer?

I wouldn’t say that I brought anything better than anyone else, but what I would say is that I was very connected to the world. Because I was the writer’s assistant I did so much research. I read many, many books, and when someone wanted something found out, they’d ask me to find it. I also wrote the show bible at the end of each year so I had a pretty strong grasp of every detail.

Describe the feeling in hindsight of going from a potential engineer, to a creative writing student, to a struggling screenwriter, to all of a sudden working on a seriously big show.

It’s hard to put it into words. I’m not sure, I just kept moving forward. There was a break in there after college – I didn’t get the gig for a few years, but I just kept writing. I knew that writers write, so I kept writing every single day. I lived off some income I earned while working construction in the years before that. I saved up all of my money and I was gonna live off it right until it ran out, and it pretty much did.

But then you landed the gig with SoA, which obviously went quite well. Why do bikers resonate with so many people?

I think the appeal worldwide was because of a couple of reasons. First because bikers are an oddity, they’re something different, they’re scary, so it’s kind of a peak behind the curtain. But they’re also facing a lot of the same problems that we are. Even though they might have a gun in their hand, a lot of the problems are the same. Jax faced problems with his marriage, you know, love, friendship, all the same kind of things that we deal with. Loyalty. So if you can relate to what they’re going through, even if it’s more extreme, then that’s what makes them resonate.

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Your book on day trading came out late last year. What was the cross over there?

When I was writing for Son’s in 2008 I started trading because I didn’t have to go to work till 11 in the morning. In California the market opens at 6am, so I would get up at 5.30 and start trading until I had to go to Son’s. I just got drawn to it, I wanted to invest my own stuff because, like everyone else, my funds when down during the financial crisis in 2008. So I just started slowly investing. I got drawn to trading because of the returns. I was trading every day and when I came home to Minnesota I decided to do a book covering actual day traders – not these legendary hedge fund managers but actual guys sitting in offices like us trading on their computer. So we decided to do a book.

Was your initial interest in generating an income or having a bit of a gamble?

The initial interest was to learn how to invest money. I wouldn’t say it became gambling, but I was definitely trying to make money trading. I was drawn to the glitz and glamour of it. I would go on the internet and see that people were making 50, 100 percent in one day trading and it was very addicting to think that maybe I could do that to.

That’s incredible returns in one day. But what are they doing, and what does Momo mean?

Momo means momentum. This means that a stock is moving, people will say a certain stock has ‘momo’ and it’s going up or down. A lot of stocks don’t move. There are stocks that just move within 10c ranges all day, but what traders like me do is they look for stocks that are moving significantly so you can actually capture a dollar or two of movement.

You say $1 or $2 of movement, but that’s extended over what you have invested in the stock, right?

Yes. If you have 10,000 shares you can make money on a 10c move, but it depends on how large of a position you’re taking.

You mention in the book’s description a bunch of sleazy companies operating on the market, which is probably unethical at the least, but what about the people you interviewed?

In the book I’m talking about guys that are family men, they’re at home, they’re not the sleazy side of Wall Street that everyone sees on the big screen. Everyone has the right to buy stock, these guys are just doing it multiple times a day. Where it becomes unethical is where you have companies that will do what are called pump and dumps. There’s a lot of companies out there that will get inflated by promotion, put out flimsy, BS news releases and inflate their price targets by paying some shill to say the stock is worth $1000 a share. It’s the same activity that goes on in the listed stocks like NASDAQ and AMEX. Basically these companies have very little, if any, revenue. Some of them lose money every year but supposedly they’re developing some groundbreaking new drug or technology when really their only purpose is to pay their executives.

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How can your average trader be successful against businesses which are intentionally muddying the waters as well as things like algorithms to time the market?

Basically what happens is those algorithms just become another influence on the market just like the other many influences. They either become predictable or their actions result in predictable patterns. For instance, take an algorithm that is set to buy a stock once it goes higher than the VWAP [volume weighted average price] or any other indicator. Well, that becomes a predictable pattern and you can use that to your advantage. Of course once it’s exploited the creators of the algorithm have to change it, and the market changes with it, so it’s an ever changing evolving entity. But successful traders like the 10 featured in Momo Traders are able to adapt and change with the market environment.

Does that make it difficult to write a book about trading? Or are there fundamental basics that carry through regardless of conditions?

Both. It does change, but most of this book covers techniques that these guys do, we work through trades with them and they explain what they did and why, but mainly it’s psychology that is the important part. You read about how they do it, why they make such moves, and that can be applied across any market. They’ll still be using these same tricks years from now, it might just be a slightly different version.

Describe the parallels between these traders and the characters you were writing in SoA. Without having to force it, there’s an obvious connection with the high stakes on both ends. I mean, obviously one ends with you getting shot, but the other you lose all your money and that can be nearly as bad.

Yea, I didn’t think about it that way, but that makes a lot of sense. It is high stakes. In fact, most of these guys have lost all of their money. Not all of their money, but they’ve blown up accounts. I’ve blown up accounts myself. It’s one of those things where it’s almost to be expected. On SoA, those characters pretty much know they’re going to spend some time in jail, it’s just part of the job; they might go to prison for a stretch. Same with traders, they know they’re going to blow up accounts in the beginning, they’re not going to come up perfect and they’re going to have to learn their way through trading and that’s really what people forget.

But the biggest thematic correlation I’ve found is freedom or independence. The traders I’ve known and interviewed, including myself, they do it for the money, yes, but really they do it for what that money brings to their life. These guys do what they want, when they want, with who they want. They’re their own boss because they don’t have anyone to answer to but themselves. The money allows them to do that. If they want to take an afternoon off, or the next three months off, they can. And they do. And the characters on SoA want the same thing. They want the freedom to do what they want, to live outside the rules and away from societal norms. I find that very similar between the two groups.

Is that also something you wanted, considering you decided to ditch engineering, chase a creative writing career and essentially gamble it all going for this gig?

Absolutely. I’ve always been a risk taker, some might say gambler, but I’ve kicked those habits mostly. But everyone who knows me knows I’ve never wanted to have a boss. I’ve never filled out a resumé in my life. My goal is to make it through this life without having to fill one out. I’ve always wanted to work for myself and do what makes me happy. And what’s funny about that is when you work for yourself you often work harder than you would at a job. 

Are you going to combine trading and screenwriting?

I would love to write a movie about trading in some regard, it’s just gotta be the right one. Recently there’s been quite a few movies out with a focus on the market like the Wolf of Wall Street and stuff like that. I’d love to combine them in some way but for now this book is as close as it’s getting for me.

Speaking of the Wolf of Wall Street, that’s a guy where it all went to shit for him really. Who are the real gangsters here, people like him or the Sons of Anarchy?

I would definitely consider myself jaded to the market. I really don’t trust people, not so much traders, but I’ve seen so many companies, I’ve seen the tactics they use to inflate their price and put out PR and push their stock and get third parties to promote their stock, then all of a sudden they raise money. So the stock will go up 50% in a couple of days and then they’re raising money at that higher price and diluting shares. You really start to see the inner workings of how Wall Street actually operates and honestly the only reason that any of these companies become public is to raise money, they want to sell shares to raise cash, so it’s all a big game. 

But the attraction still remains.

It definitely does. It’s still so enticing, you can make a lot of money doing it and as you can see in this book, these 10 people make a lot of money.

Do you think there’s a parallel there with screenwriting? Because one sold script could set you up for life.

Definitely. I’m not going to lie and say I wasn’t drawn to the money. I was. I was in school writing short stories and poetry at college and I liked doing those things but I knew that I wasn’t going to make money. So I thought what can I do to make the most money and that was honestly what I thought, although I always loved movies and television, so I won’t say it was all about the money. But a big part of it was “Ok, I’m going to go to Hollywood and see if I can make it big.” Television over the years has become a very lucrative gig – if you can get it.


Click below to see Brady Dahl’s fine work in Sons of Anarchy, with the full series available to watch ad-free

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