“I wouldn’t send any impressionable young woman I know to see Thelma and Louise”
Callie Khouri looks back on working with Ridley Scott, and the strong reactions to her Academy Award-winning debut film.
By David Konow.
One day, as Callie Khouri was walking down the street, an old man drove by and sexually harassed her. Khouri became completely enraged, and if she had acted on her anger with a firearm, her life could have been forever altered in a second, just as Thelma and Louise’s lives were altered with a single gunshot.
She’s known to modern audiences for the ABC series Nashville, but the very first screenplay Khouri ever wrote was Thelma and Louise. She came up with the idea in 1987 when she was producing music videos, a job which in some way inspired her to write the film. As she recalled to The Village Voice, “In order to get my karma straight about women, I had to write this script. When you become known in the business for producing videos that more often than not have naked women writhing in front of the camera for no reason and to not such interesting music, you eventually have to look at what you’re doing.”
Khouri’s first attempt at writing a script turned out to be a joy. “While I was writing Thelma and Louise, it was the most fun I had ever had in my life, bar none,” she says. “It was such a pure experience. There was no self-censorship there, there was no second guessing. From a creative standpoint, it was the freest I had ever been in my life. I loved every moment I got to spend time with those characters. Nothing came close to it, including winning all the awards and everything else. As much fun as all that was, it wasn’t as much fun as sitting alone in a crummy office on Vine at 2 in the morning writing that screenplay.”
Today, female leads in action films are common, but in 1991, Thelma and Louise was all new terrain. As Geena Davis told the New York Times, she was really excited when she first heard about the script because, “It’s not often you see parts for two fully realized women characters and have a movie be about women’s adventures and journeys.”
In 1991, Thelma and Louise opened to critical raves, strong box-office, and a great deal of controversy. The film made the cover of Time, and in that cover story, one woman proudly said the film inspired her to leave her “redneck control-freak husband.” But an article in Newsweek asked, “Is Thelma and Louise feminism or fascism?” Liz Smith wrote, “I wouldn’t send any impressionable young woman I know to see Thelma and Louise.” Rush Limbaugh even called Khouri a “feminazi,” to which she replied in US magazine, “If I’m able to upset him or Pat Buchanan or any of those guys, I’m happy.”
The original idea for Thelma and Louise was simple: two women go on a crime spree. Yet Thelma and Louise would become much more than two women on a crime spree; it was a film that became a litmus test for how men and women viewed each other. Long after the dust has settled, what’s clear is Thelma and Louise is a terrific film that has stood the test of time, and is well worth revisiting.
Where were you when the idea for Thelma and Louise came to you?
I was pulling up in front of my house at 3:30 in the morning after an awful rock video shoot. I was producing music videos at the time. A day on a music video is twenty-four hours, so I was probably in my twenty-seventh hour. It kind of came to me.
How soon after that did you start writing things down and coming up with the characters of Thelma and Louise?
Well from that moment on, I kind of thought of nothing else, but I spent about the next four months really just rolling it around in my mind, trying to just figure out what was motivating people. When an idea hits you like that, it may come complete but it doesn’t come thought out. I had a lot of whys. Why are they doing this? Why does this happen? Why them? Why everything. So I spent a whole lot of time just ruminating I guess, coming up with their life situations and everything. I did that for about four months and then I started writing.
L.A. Weekly wrote that it was “such an obviously terrific idea, you may start wondering why no one had done it before.” Did you feel that way?
Well, I would probably be more likely to ask myself that now than I was at the time. From where I was sitting, in the world I was working in at the time, anything that was centrally or mainly focused on women would have been out of the question. I didn’t really wonder why. With two women, the first thing anyone’s going to say is it’s not commercial. But honestly, I thought the idea was so good I didn’t really ask myself too many questions about why no one else had done it, I was just hoping to get it done before someone else thought of it [laughs].
Many would say Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was a big influence on Thelma and Louise. What were other films that influenced you? Were any of the road films of the ’70s, like Two Lane Blacktop or Vanishing Point, a point of reference?
I loved all those movies, but I can almost say that any outlaw movie influenced me. Lonely Are the Brave was one of those movies that I thought was amazing. Ridley and I watched it when we were working on the film. But I must say, I went about it in kind of a non-academic way. It was a very feeling oriented process. I didn’t want to analyze anything too much. I think any time you’re in the throes of any kind of creative thing, once you switch over and start looking at it from an analytical point of view, you’re going to lose it. So you gotta just keep yourself open, and not trouble yourself with the origins of the idea, or the point even. Just let it be what it wants to be and see what shape it takes on its own. I still feel that way. Anybody will tell you, anybody doing anything whether it’s music, painting, writing, the hardest thing is just staying out of the way of it. That’s what I tried to do.
Once the script was finished, how long did it take to get around to people, and what was the initial reaction?
Well, as you could imagine, there were as many opinions of it as there were people reading it. It was very positively received in terms of the writing and dialog and all that. But there were people who would say, “How are you going to change the ending? You can’t have them die at the end.” There were other people that would say, “You can’t have your main character murder anybody in the first ten pages and expect anybody to have any sympathy for them.” I said, “Wanna make a bet? I bet you can.” I was in a place in my life where I just had nothing to lose by sticking to my guns. It wasn’t like I even had a screenwriting career to lose; I didn’t. I had so much courage and kind of a complete lack of tolerance for anyone who didn’t see it my way [laughs]. I wish that I could maintain that. That helps me as much as anything.
At what point did Ridley Scott get involved? Why do you feel he responded to the script and wanted to make the film?
At first he didn’t want to direct it himself, he was just going to produce it. I didn’t know why he didn’t immediately want to direct it. I think that at the time, he was trying to get his company going and they were looking for other projects to produce that he wasn’t going to direct. But it happened pretty early on. I was trying to direct it myself. My friend Amanda Temple, who I worked with for years doing music videos, was married to Julien Temple, who was one of the premier video directors of that time, and I asked her to produce it with me for me to direct. So we started trying to get financing, and we gave it to Mimi Polk, who at the time was working for Ridley’s company. Amanda knew that they got a lot of foreign financing, so we were going to ask her to read it and see if she knew of any companies that might be interested in doing it for some paltry sum. At the time, I figured I could probably do it for three million dollars. I didn’t have any reason not to attempt it.
So you approached it like you were making a low-budget film?
Absolutely. I wrote it to be a low-budget film. I was working in production at the time, so I was very clear about how the money was going to be spent and how much it was going to cost to do it. That’s what music video producing is. It’s not a creative endeavor from a producing standpoint; it’s a very nuts and bolts kind of operation. From that standpoint, I was completely aware of what I was getting into in terms of what it was going to cost, how long it was going to take, all of that. And I thought it was imminently achievable. All I needed was three million dollars!
No problem, right?
Well you know what? I figured… I moved to L.A. in 1982, this was 1988, and I had been here long enough to go, “Boy, a lot of people with a lot less going on than me have gotten a lot more money to do nothing [laughs]!” It happens. I was convinced I could rope some poor schmuck into forking over the money! And I also really believed in it. I really thought it was worth making. As a first directing thing for me, it certainly seemed ideal.
So Mimi got it, and she asked if I would let Ridley read it. I was reluctant only in that I was so embarrassed to let a real director read anything I had written. But he read it, he liked it, he responded to it very strongly, and we started having meetings. We ended up going through the script a moment at a time and by the time we finished doing that, it was clear that it had a life of its own.
We didn’t need somebody to come in and reconceive it. It was very much there, he felt, and when other people would come up with ideas how they were going to change it, it turned him off. He liked what it was. We essentially shot the first draft. The only work we really did was to combine a few scenes. The script was 136 pages and we had to get it down. There were a lot of mechanics about why the story was unfolding.
I was very concerned that it be logical, that it all worked, and at no point would the audience go, “Why would that happen like that?” Every single thing was explained why it would happen like that, and how this person would get this piece of information. We shortened it, but we didn’t re-write scenes or change anything like I’ve had to do subsequently to everything else I’ve ever worked on. It was a really magical experience in that way, it was just, “Wow, this is easy [laughs]! Why didn’t I do this before?”
Thelma and Louise has a lot of tone shifts. There’s a lot of action, funny scenes, and sad scenes. Was it a challenge to balance the moods and did you want the film to have a lot of different elements like that?
Yeah I did actually, and Ridley would talk about that: “Do you think we can make this turn now?” There was one scene where they were sitting in this coffee shop after the murder and Thelma says, “Well thanks a lot, I’m really havin’ a lot of fun!” And Ridley asked, “Do you think that people are going to be able to do this?” and I said, “Yeah, I do.” I think you can pretty much take people anywhere if you have an emotional logic, you can go anywhere. The actresses got it, Ridley got it. When you read it, you could see it was meant to do that. I like things like that. I always felt that Jim Brooks was able to achieve that, to have incredibly sad or poignant things happen in the midst of broad hilarity. The tone made sense to me. With anybody doing any of these kinds of endeavors, if the tone makes sense to the person who’s doing it, it can make sense to the audience, as long as the person behind the wheel knows what they are doing. So I think I was fortunate that I was willing to let it play.
The first big turning point in the film is when Thelma’s would-be rapist gets shot by Louise. The scene where Thelma is attacked and nearly raped is disturbing and shocking. Was it a hard scene to write?
I guess it was not any more difficult than it is to write anything. You hope that it has the impact that it’s having while you’re writing it. I felt like it was a powerful scene because it’s one of those things where suddenly you find yourself in a situation that’s turned on a dime. And you, Thelma, are asking yourself, “Am I responsible for what’s happening right now? I’ve agreed to all of this up until right this minute.” I think in that way it was difficult for people to watch. I think women especially realized, “Yeah, that’s pretty much how it goes down right there.” But was it difficult to write? No. Just because it’s difficult to watch doesn’t necessarily mean it’s difficult to write. When you’re writing something and you know it’s happening, it’s just good, that feeling of, “Okay, this is working.” I think anyone writing anything from a letter to a grocery list has exactly the same feeling when you’re in the zone, it feels really good.
I remember reading that when you saw the movie with an audience, and they cheered when Louise shot Thelma’s attacker, that it freaked you out. When Louise snaps and kills him, was the intention that you didn’t want the audience to condone what she did but at least understand why she did it?
Right. I wanted them to understand it emotionally and at the same moment, realize that she had made a mistake from which there was no turning back, and she had basically just killed both of them. I always imagined there would be kind of a stunned silence. I certainly didn’t realize that people would cheer, and I found that incredibly disturbing, I really did. I kind of understand it now that we’ve had however many years of Jerry Springer and all manner of gladiator type of revenge fantasy things. But it certainly wasn’t written to be that.
From my point of view, it was like, “Oh why did you do that?!? Do not do that! Hit rewind right now!” So I was very upset by that. But you know, I’ve been to other movies, like in Total Recall where Arnold Schwarzenegger says “Consider it a divorce,” after shooting Sharon Stone in the head. You’d see these things where women get popped in the head and the audience would laugh, and I’d just be like, holy shit. It was like, “Whoah. The audience cheered that?” So I guess I shouldn’t have been shocked, but I was.
While Louise’s shooting was a big turning point of the film, another turning point is Thelma’s sexual awakening with Brad Pitt’s character. She has the time of her life with him, but it quickly turns when they realize he stole all their money. Did you intend that to be a point where the plot turns?
Yes, definitely. First of all, I knew the end while I was writing it, so the idea that Thelma would get to have one insanely fulfilling sexual experience before the end was really important to me. Also, the idea that you could have an experience of great sex and it had nothing to do with rape. They’re two very different things. It’s interesting because after the movie came out, especially a lot of women, said “How could you? How could you have let her?” And I said, “Because they’re two different things. Being attacked by a stranger in parking lot is a different thing than having a wild night in a hotel room with Brad Pitt. They’re two completely different experiences.”
That’s right. Part of the controversy was over Thelma’s having a wild sexual experience not long after she was attacked.
I mean, I suppose if you were going to do it in real time, maybe it would have taken a week. On the other hand, there was something about the thrill of dancing with that guy in the first place. She was already looking. She was in an awful marriage with a guy who didn’t care about her much, I never imagined the sex with them was that great, and he was probably her first one. There was a whole world goin’ on out there that she didn’t know anything about. To me, they were two extremely distinct experiences. I didn’t connect them in my mind at all, and when other people did, I was like, “I think you need to look at that.” You can’t take every bad experience that happens to you and apply it to every good experience that happens to you. When people did make that connection, I was like, “That’s weird.” In so many ways, the movie was a half-full, half-empty glass of water test. There are people who go, “How could you have killed them?!? I can’t believe it!” And there are people who go, “They got away! They flew away!”
Thelma and Louise driving off the cliff was the ending you intended from the beginning. If they had made it to Mexico and gotten away with everything, did you feel that would have been a cop-out ending?
Yeah, I definitely did. It wasn’t meant to be a literal ending, you know what I mean? It was them kind of flying off into the mass unconscious. We purposely did not show the smoke coming up from the bottom of the canyon or the car tumbling down the side of the canyon. It was like a flying away.
If you think about it, what would have happened if they got to Mexico? They’d be these two women in Mexico, like that’s getting away? What they were trying to get away from, you don’t get away from in this world. You don’t still inhabit this world and get away from what they were trying to escape. There wouldn’t be any of that, they never would have gotten away. Louise would have still been living in her own private nightmare, and it just wouldn’t make any sense. To me it wasn’t realistic that they would end up working in a Club Med, or that would even be possible or desirable.
I guess if you had to just say what it is, if you had to put a name to it, it got to a point where they were too big for this world. They weren’t ever going to be able to push themselves back down to what was an acceptable form of life for both of them. They were never going to be able to get themselves back. That was the whole thing of Thelma saying, “I understand if you wanna go back, but something’s crossed over in me and I can’t go back.” She’d become so much herself, that there was never going to be another set of circumstances where she was going to be any less than that. Where does a woman like that go?
This is a completely hypothetical question, but what do you feel would have happened to Thelma and Louise if Louise had never shot Thelma’s attacker? How would their lives have been different if they had just walked away?
You know, I don’t know. I never constructed the story that way. It was interesting because after the movie came out, I got invited to go to a lot of schools and talk to screenwriting classes, and people had very, very, very strongly held opinions about this movie [laughs]! Surprisingly strong and they were very invested in many different outcomes. This one girl said, “Well I thought it was a complete cop-out that they used a gun! Women don’t have to use guns! Why couldn’t they figure out a way to outwit him?” I was like, “Dude, it’s an outlaw movie. If you want to write that movie, go ahead. Knock yourself out. But show me an outlaw movie that doesn’t have a gun in it. Go bother Quentin Tarantino for Christ’s sake. Go bother somebody else! Why are you talking to me about guns? There’s guns in 99.9% of movies made. There’s one goddamn gun in the whole movie!”
What would have happened if a guy had come out and caught the other guy doing that to Thelma and he shot him? There would have been no movie because it would have been so expected, so completely run of the mill, so commonplace, there wouldn’t have been a movie. And it would have been the least surprising thing in the world to have it happen that way. As far as guns go, I wish they only existed in movies. In the meantime, I have made an effort, and certainly not to say I would never use a gun in a movie again, but it’s hard not to write a movie without a gun. You can turn everything in a quick snap of the fingers. It’s a very simple, dramatic device. Telling a story without one, to me, is the mark of a real writer, because it’s really hard.
I think one of the best set-pieces in the film is when Thelma and Louise get the trucker to pull over, they tell him how degrading his catcalls are, then they blow up his tanker. It’s a really sharp and funny scene. Is there a particular story behind it?
I think if you talk to pretty much any woman who’s ever driven down a road, she’s going to tell you that’s just about as common an occurrence as you could imagine. Guys making lewd gestures from trucks, it’s as common as air. And it’s one of those things, you’ve got to just shake your head in utter disbelief. What, I’m going to pull over? What kind of effect are you expecting that to have on people? And maybe there are people that do, but I don’t know any of them!
I remember I was driving across the country with my mom and my little brother. This was back in the days of CB radios, and my brother had headphones on and he started laughing. I asked him what was so funny, he said, “I can’t say.” He was totally cracking up. Then he said, “Okay, one of the truckers just said, `Did anybody catch the Volvo with the two beavers?'” meaning me and my mom! He was totally laughing and shaking his head in complete and utter disbelief. Again, it happens all the time.
The thing that blows my mind is that a lot of people remember Thelma and Louise killing that character, when they didn’t lay a finger on him. That kind of surprised me too. People say, “They murdered all those guys,” I say, “What guys? They murdered one guy who was trying to hurt her.” To me, it was fairly tame. People remember them being on this murderous crime spree, and that’s not the way it went down. I always say it was one murder, one robbery, one destruction of private property! [laughs.]
What were some criticisms of the film that you thought were really off-base?
That the film was man-hating first of all. Maybe it’s because I’m so completely not that way myself. Again, it’s one of those things where people are making very broad assumptions: “Well, this is what you’re saying.” And it’s like: “No, that’s what you’re saying. I was saying something else altogether, but now I know where you’re at.” There was an article in US News and World Report that was kind of scary; it said that the movie was neo-fascist.
You know what’s the one that really blew my mind? Joe Bob Briggs wrote an article for Playboy that was one of the most scathing attacks on Thelma and Louise you’ve ever read in your life. The last line of the article was like, “I’ve seen fifteen thousand exploitation films; this one is truly dangerous.” The bar where the attack happened is The Silver Bullet Bar, so he makes this whole big thing about: “Why is it called The Silver Bullet Bar?” It was such unbelievable horseshit. My mouth was hanging open the entire time I was reading it. The bar was called The Silver Bullet Bar because the bar was called that, and to let us shoot there, they didn’t want us to change the name of the bar. In the script it was called The Buffalo Room or The Idle Hour or something like that. One guy was saying it was some kind of phallic representation when the cop stuck his finger out of the bullet hole (in the trunk). It was making fun of the diminutive phallus or something, this guy’s finger sticking out of a bullet hole. It’s like, “You guys have too much time on your hands! If you think anybody’s got that kind of time to come up with that shit when they’re making a movie, you are sadly deluded, man [laughs].”
The idea that people would take these minute details and amplify them into these meaningful metaphors was just hilarious. People come up with this shit and I’m like, “How do they do that, man? How do they come up with this shit?”
What about the positive effects of the film? When people find out you wrote the film, has anyone ever told you the film empowered them to change their lives or become more independent?
A lot of people were powerfully affected by it. I think mainly it had the same effect on women that other outlaw movies had on men, in that it validates that there’s a side of your personality that exists outside of the social expectations, and it acknowledges you as larger than the perimeters by which you’re expected to live. Thelma and Louise wasn’t setting out to teach anybody. I certainly didn’t set out to change the way that people conducted themselves. I was telling a story. I don’t think you can start at the result and go backwards when you’re writing. Maybe if you’re Martin Luther King Jr. you can do that. But me, Callie Khouri screenwriter, I don’t think about it like that. I just tell what I hope will be a powerful, moving story that will be entertaining. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll crawl on your belly like a reptile. It will be worth your eight dollars, you’ll know that I cared to take the time to spin you a good yarn. And whatever else you attach or don’t attach to it, that’s your contribution. My sole goal is to tell the best, truest story I can. That’s my purpose and that’s what I’m comfortable doing.
Subsequently a number of top action films at the box office have had females in the leads. Do you feel that Thelma and Louise paved the way for that?
Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know whether I could say that. I don’t know if it really did or not, it’s just that the time comes and things change. Thelma and Louise was very much its own creation. It kind of came to me in a flash. There was no reason to expect I’d be able to do it, and I could; no reason to expect it would get made and it did; no reason for any of it, just its time had come. I think change takes a lot longer than people like to think, but it does happen. If it did pave the way in any way, I’m certainly happy and proud to have had any part of that.
The thing I’m most proud of with Thelma and Louise is the quality of the filmmaking. It’s fantastic and I would hope that they would all aspire to that as well. Between Ridley and the cast, just the experience of getting to actually shoot the script with all of them, it was really sublime in that way. I think everybody involved with the film felt very strongly about what they were doing and really gave it 110%. If anything, if I had to say what Ridley’s biggest contribution was, it was being able to take a risk on a movie that might not ever see a dime, if not the light of day. For him to do that, at that stage of his career, was incredibly brave. For that I am eternally grateful, and the fact that he executed it so beautifully, I am forever in his debt.
This article first appeared in Creative Screenwriting volume 8, #5
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