Callie Khouri: Against All Odds
Not only is Thelma & Louise the first movie Callie Khouri's ever written, it's the first fully realized movie about women Hollywood's made in a long time.
"Women," says Callie Khouri, "have the right to be whole human beings." But Hollywood has rarely portrayed women as whole." More often than hot, Hollywood portrays Woman as "hole." Either the bottomless hole of sin, moral anarchy, and death (Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction), or simply a hole--a vagina (Annette Bening in The Grifters), a mouth (Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman), a tear duct (Demi Moore in Ghost). There are exceptions (Blue Steel, The Silence of the Lambs), but the percentages are insulting. That's why the new Thelma & Louise comes as such a bizarre surprise. This moving, hugely entertaining film is unusual for its clever, raunchy, real female protagonists, and for its story of how they run for their lives. It's also unusual for the extremely unlikely combination of artists involved in its making.
It was directed by Ridley Scott, who, though highly respected for Alien and Blade Runner, has more recently come to represent everything depraved about contemporary Hollywood--Black Rain was one more big-budget, visually stunning, boy-boy-boy blow-out, and Someone to Watch Over Me was plot-stupid, character-poor genre shtick. With Thelma & Louise, Scott succeeds spectacularly filming material you'd think would be utterly foreign to his sensibilities and talents. Scott's about-face is not the most amazing element of the story behind Thelma & Louise, however. It's screenwriter Callie Khouri who's the biggest surprise. Not only had Khouri never had a script produced before this one, she had never even attempted to write one. Thelma & Louise is Khouri's first completed screenplay.
"I wrote Thelma & Louise because I just got fed up," Khouri tells me. "I wanted to put two women on the screen that you haven't seen before. I'd had it with going to the movies and seeing women I do not relate to. I don't know who they are."
These are the kinds of characters Khouri likes: Thelma (Geena Davis) is a housewife living a life of silent suffocation with her husband Darryl (Christopher McDonald), a carpet salesman who expects his meals on the table every day even though he philanders half the night. Louise (Susan Sarandon) works as a waitress in a coffeeshop, sustained by the hope that someday her unreliable boyfriend Jimmy (Michael Madsen) will propose to her. Thelma, sweet-natured and defiant; Louise, sharp and wound too tight. The two of them decide to take off for a weekend of fishing and confession. When they stop at a honkytonk along the way, Thelma gets drunk and dances with a stranger. And when the guy tries to rape her in the parking lot, Louise shoots him. Knowing they won't get justice in a court of law, Thelma and Louise drive-- broke, exhilarated, scared--90 miles an hour down the deadend highway of their lives, chased by husbands, lovers, a sympathetic homicide detective (Harvey Keitel), the FBI, and their fate.
Although Khouri complains that there are no decent female role models, she clearly didn't intend Thelma and Louise to serve that purpose. "They're criminals," she says. "But there's this book called Writing a Woman's Life by Carolyn Heilbrun where she talks about how you have to break with convention so that you can never go back. When she breaks the bonds that society puts on her, that is the point in a woman's life when it becomes her own."
With background reading like this as inspiration, it's no wonder Khouri's story defies categorization.
"The best description I've heard so far for Thelma & Louise," Khouri laughs, "is '9 to 5 meets Easy Rider.' "That is, it's a tragic road movie with comic female protagonists in it. There's an old joke about how every woman who goes to film school dreams of making a road movie. Khouri never attended film school, however, and maybe that's why she managed to get Thelma & Louise written where thousands of other women didn't. A film school credential doesn't, after all, guarantee that someone will be a good or interesting moviemaker. It does practically guarantee they'll be well-versed in cinematic models and precedents, at least in the arena of American commercial filmmaking. But when you're aiming to make something nobody's seen before, an education can hinder more than help. A well-schooled, budding female filmmaker might be convinced, however subtly, that what hasn't been done can't be done. In writing Thelma & Louise, Khouri didn't think to herself, "I'll do 9 to 5 meets Easy Rider--a comedy about feisty dames with a beef overlayed with a tragedy about two people who go searching for America and get gunned down by it." She wanted to write something different and worked consciously outside any cinematic models. Sometime in 1988, Khouri simply looked at a couple of screenplays to see how they were laid out, thumbed through Sid Field's how-to-write-a-screenplay book for a few nuggets of wisdom, and launched right in.