Callie Khouri is the creator and executive producer of the critically acclaimed drama, Nashville, and the Oscar Award-winning screenwriter of Thelma and Louise.
Crowned “the best new drama of 2012” by outlets including USA Today, TV Guide, Entertainment Weekly, TIME Magazine, The New York Post and The Daily Beast, Nashville earned Golden Globe nominations for its lead actresses and a Writers Guild of America nomination. Khouri led the show as its creator and executive producer for four seasons from 2012 to 2017.
Khouri may be best known for galvanizing women and sparking nationwide debate in 1991 with her screenwriting debut, Thelma and Louise, which was nominated for six Academy Awards. She won the Oscar, the Golden Globe, the Writers Guild of America Award and a PEN Literary Award for Best Original Screenplay. Thelma and Louise took home the London Film Critics Circle Award for Film of the Year and was nominated for Best Original Screenplay by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
Khouri followed Thelma and Louise with 1995’s Something to Talk About, starring Julia Roberts, Dennis Quaid and Robert Duvall. She then made her directorial debut with Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, starring Sandra Bullock and Ashley Judd, which she also adapted for the screen. In 2006, Khouri collaborated with legendary television producer Steven Bochco and wrote and directed the television drama, Hollis and Rae.
Khouri has continues to be honored for her writing in film and television as well as her commitment to the honest portrayal of women on screen. Her accolades include Nashville Women in Film’s 2016 Woman of the Year; induction into the 2016 SOURCE Awards Hall of Fame; the 2016 Patsy Montana Award from the National Cowgirl Museum, which recognizes work in entertainment that continues and advances the tradition of the cowgirl in the areas of film, television, music, writing and theatre; the National Women’s History Museum’s 2015 Women Making History Award; and the Austin Film Festival’s 2013 Austin Distinguished Screenwriter Award.
Can you talk to me a little bit about how you came to Hollywood?
Callie: Well, when I moved to Hollywood, I moved there a few years after college where I’d been a theater major, and then after college I’d lived in Nashville and I had worked at a theater here until it closed. Then some children’s theater and stuff like that. And then thought, “Of course I don’t want to be an actress, that’s ridiculous,” and stopped. And then thought “Well, maybe I do,” and I moved to L.A. and started studying acting again. And then realized again, “No, I don’t want to do this.”
So, I got into production at that point and that’s when I started really learning a little bit about how filmmaking worked. Not so much the business, but then I just got a really good idea for a script, and I thought, “Well, what the hell, I’ll try to write it and see what happens.” And that was Thelma and Louise.
So I kind of got shot out of a cannon a little bit, you know? I’ll see if I can write something and yes I can.
Did the success with that surprise you at all or catch you off guard, with it being your first project?
Callie: Oh, of course. Yeah, no, I don’t think that there’s any possible way I would have ever thought going into it that it would turn into something that we’re still referencing now, 26 years later.
What was that pitch process like for you? Not having a long, extensive resume and this being your first project. Did you have any issues pitching it?
Callie: I didn’t really pitch it. The script got to a few people and I met with those few people. Early on it got to Mimi Polk, who was Ridley’s person at the time. So, it wasn’t like I went all over town pitching it, there were only three or four places.
What is your process with writing a film versus writing for a TV series or coming up with that concept? Can you talk to me a little bit about the differences between your approach with film and television?
Callie: Well, television is completely different in that once you start, the format is very different. You know what I mean? You’ve got the difference between doing an uninterrupted feature film and a network television show that’s interrupted by commercials and all of that. They’re very, very different animals and the schedule of a TV show, where you’re having to basically come up with 22 scripts a year in a very limited amount of time, with writing with a team of people. It’s just a completely different animal.
The thing I like about it is you get to really explore characters and grow them and change them and put them in all kinds of different situations over a long period of time. If you’re lucky, as we have been on this show. So that’s fun, I really enjoy that aspect.
Do you find one more satisfying than the other? Especially with getting to explore the lifelines of these characters, like on Nashville, and really grow with them and see them grow.
Callie: I do. I mean, right now I really do enjoy television, just because I think what you can get made in the feature film world is so limited.
Especially for projects that are directed at women. There’s just not that many places that are willing to spend any money on pictures that are directed towards women. Now, that’s not to say they won’t spend money on pictures that are directed towards girls, young women, because they can get those big weekend numbers. But it’s a business that’s driven by that and television is not. So right now long-form television is kind of where it’s at for me.
I feel like in the television space, being a creator in that space, I feel like it’s more of a man-dominated industry for sure. Do you feel like you’ve had any challenges specifically related to being a female in that space?
Callie: I think all women in this business face the same challenge, and that is just limited access. I think it’s somewhat better for women because I think television has typically been more directed at women. Or else, let me put it this way, there’s a solid female audience out there that can deliver for you week after week after week. Whereas, in the feature film business, that does not exist.
But, like most businesses, it’s male-dominated. Like I’m trying to think of one business besides cosmetics or something besides foundation garments. You know what I mean? That isn’t male-dominated. So I don’t think that we’re being singled out but clearly the numbers, based on the proportion of women to men in the population, the numbers don’t lie.
Working on Nashville and coming into each new season that you have on it, I’m curious from a creative perspective. Keeping things fresh and new and interesting for the audiences, do you have a process you go through? Talk to me a little bit about just the challenge of keeping everything fresh season to season.
Callie: Well, at the beginning of the season, we all sit down together and start hammering out a direction, an overall arc for the season of where we want to start everybody and where we want them to end up. We have to go back and look and see if we’ve done that before, or if we have done it before, can we do it in a way that is different and doesn’t feel like we’re repeating the same thing. You know?
We’re in a business, we’re telling a story about a business that is in a big period of change itself, so we try to address those challenges. Careers in these businesses wax and wane, you’re up one minute and the next you’re down. It’s easy to kind of ride those waves and put people in the normal situations of life and just try to heighten them dramatically. And just make the characters interesting enough that you care what happens to them.
When you started the series, did you know where you eventually want to get to with the characters? Do you know in your mind how the series will end?
Callie: Well, no, because you never know from one season to the next if you’re going to even be there to do it. We’re only just now in year six, starting to think, “Well, if we have to wrap this thing up, how are we going to do it?” So we’re just now starting to take that into our consciousness because six seasons is long for a show and we’ll just see. I don’t know that this is our last season but it could be, I guess, depending on our fortunes and ratings and stuff like that. Only because we’ve been out here so long in this territory, being realistic, we just want to start thinking, “If we had to wrap it up, what way would we do that?” But also, if we don’t have to wrap it up, then what are we going to do?
Kind of having both paths determined because for the fan base, I think it’s so rewarding when, if you don’t get picked up for another season and then you’re still able to satisfy the fans with that ending, but then also be prepared for coming back for another season and not ending on a cliffhanger.
Callie: Yeah, exactly. And, you know, we killed off one of our major characters. The fans are still coming to terms with that, some of them just can’t come to terms with it and I understand that. She was a beloved, kind of, tent-pole character and it was a blow but we were in a situation where we didn’t want to hold her hostage, the actress. She’s at a point in her career where she had a lot of other opportunities to do things she wanted to do and we didn’t want to hold her back from that. So, reluctantly, I think she was as reluctant to leave but had been turning things down for years that would’ve been really exciting for her to get to do, so we kind of split the difference. It wasn’t something we loved doing, believe me.
On that note too, I know with some shows the fan bases, especially on social media, can really get brutal. Have you experienced that at all with Nashville? And if so, how do you separate yourself from that and keep yourself not paying attention to any of the negativity from fans that may be upset about certain decisions when you’re the story creator.
Callie: Here’s the thing, I completely understand why they would be upset. There’s no question that it’s … it’s not what I would’ve wanted. You know? I totally get it. I don’t think that there’s any way that you can say, “Oh, yeah, let’s do this, how great.” You know? She’s one of our favorite actresses, she’s kind of the center of the show. I totally get it. Look, there’s no way you can be in the television business and not have people hate what you do. I see stuff all the time that I can’t stand. I don’t understand how it got made, I don’t know why anybody watches it. And I know there are going to be people who feel that way about our show, that’s just the way it is. You can’t please everybody. Hell, a lot of the time you can’t please the people you were pleasing because of decisions like the one we were put in. We’re doing our best, you know? I mean, I get it, I yell at the television.
But at the same time, there’s also this part of me that’s kind of like … given what’s going on around the world and what’s happening in our society, this is really such a microscopic dot in the overall scale of things, that I think there are a lot of other things to be upset about besides this. For me and the fans. It’s like, these are not problems, you know?
Right. Well, I mean ultimately I think that in any form of art, if you love it or if you hate it, it’s an emotion that is evoked on either end of the spectrum, I think is good art. So even if the fans are upset about something, they’re upset about it because they fell in love with a character because that character was made so awesome. You know?
Callie: Right. And speaking to that, I think it’s interesting when people do things you hate. I have friends of many, many years that sometimes I’m like, “Oh my god, I’m going to f**king murder them.” You know?
And other times, you’re like, “Oh my god, I cannot imagine my life without this person in it.” So, I think putting people through that kind of relationships with characters is not very different than you go through with real life. I mean, who do you never have a conflict with? You know? Do you always understand exactly why they’re doing what they’re doing?
You have to have that to make for a good story, you have to have conflict.
Callie: Right. I mean we get a lot of, “I just want to see them happy.” And you think to yourself, “No, you don’t.” How long do you watch that?
Well, for anyone that’s looking to pursue a career in writing for either film or television, what advice would you offer them?
Callie: I guess I would have to say perseverance, one, and knowing that literally nine and a half times out of ten, you’re going to get “no” for an answer. You have to not let that be the thing that determines whether or not you keep going. You have to be prepared for disappointment and you have to be prepared for the idea that you’re not going to get the most perfect version of everything you want to do. You’re going to work yourself to states of exhaustion that you didn’t even think was possible. It’s a very hard, challenging, demanding, frustrating business, with moments of absurdity and complete joy. It’s not boring, I guess I would say.
But, I would say you should really try to stick to writing what you love, writing what you want to see. Don’t try to follow the market. If you see a show that you really like, don’t go, “I want to make a show just like that,” because somebody’s already making that show.
Can you talk a little bit about just your day-to-day with working with a television show versus a film?
Callie: The day-to-day is a little something different every day. I mean, it is the same on a feature, but it’s … a feature is very different in that you’re in prep, then you shoot, then you’re in post, then you’re promoting the film. This is kind of like all of those things are happening at once, so you’re real, real busy all the time.
What would you like to see change in Hollywood? With Nashville, you were able to create these female characters that are not stereotypical at all. They’re real, and complex, and just so beautifully written. What kind of changes would you like to see made in Hollywood to kind of mirror more of that?
Callie: Well, I don’t know how to figure that one out. I mean, what I’d like to see change in the whole culture, I guess, is to not see female-oriented things diminished and looked at as less than. That’s one thing I think would be great to have happened. Having said that, I mean, you look at the Emmys this year and who won, I think that television is recognizing women in a way that a lot of other businesses don’t. I mean, Handmaid’s Tale was certainly a groundbreaking, beautifully-rendered piece of work that was as dramatically compelling as any show that’s ever been made. I’m really, really happy about that. I think, overall, I just would like to see things not be so hard for women in the culture at large. You know?
It seems like there are a lot more roles in television that are really groundbreaking for females as opposed to film. Of course there’s some exceptions, of course, with film, but do you feel like we’re seeing more of those types of roles for females in television that are really kind of changing the game, and elevating, and kind of addressing the conversation of pay inequality or certain types of roles not being available? Do you feel like television’s a little ahead of the game there?
Callie: Yeah, I do. I mean, I do feel like feature films are … well, let me put it this way. Major studio films are completely directed at males, with the exception of Wonder Woman and things like that. But I mean, if you look at the HBO series that won so much, Big Little Lies, that was the other huge winner at the Emmys this year, I mean, that was something that was critically lauded and a completely female-produced show. I mean, I can’t think of a female project in the feature film world that I could compare that to. There just really isn’t one.
The pay inequality is just unforgivable. There’s just zero defense for that. That’s nothing but just pure we value men more than women. That’s all that is. Because it’s like you can’t pay the guys more because they are more reliable in terms of being able to be a box office draw. They have just as many failures as female-driven projects. They have just as many guys that get in there and draw for years and then suddenly don’t. There’s just no reason for it. I don’t have much of a sense of humor about that one.
But that’s just … and it’s not just our business, as we well know, so I just think there’s a basic unfairness here that is very hard to swallow.
It’s great, though, that the conversation is happening. With Hollywood being at the forefront of, at least, that conversation is now in the media, then hopefully, that can spur change in other areas, as well, if we keep talking about it.
Callie: Yeah, absolutely. You know what? I think everybody has to be speaking out about it. I mean, I was really so pleased when some of the male stars were, at least, even disclosing what they were making so that the women could even know that how much less they were getting paid. That’s an act of overall courage in our business where you’re kind of tacitly threatened, if not outwardly threatened, to keep your mouth shut, and take the money, and be happy for what you’ve got. It’s the same as with kind of what the NFL players have been experiencing a little bit. It’s like, “Why don’t you just shut up and be grateful?” It’s like, “Um, we’re not.” You know?
Lastly, I wanted to ask you if you received any advice that you got at the beginning of your career, maybe while working on Thelma and Louise, that has really made a difference for you?
Callie: I didn’t tell anybody when I was writing Thelma and Louise. I guess the only thing I would say is keep going. Just keep going. There’s nothing to be gained by despondency and failure if you stop there. It’s definitely something you’re going to pass through. If you keep finding things that excite you, that you’re passionate about, then you’ve got a good shot. But if you’re easily discouraged, this is not the business for you.
Catch Callie Khouri on TCM this October as the guest on TCM Spotlight: Trailblazing Women, and you can follow her online on Twitter at @CallieKhouri.