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The Phenomenon of Thelma and Louise:
When Thelma and Louise was first released in the spring of 1991, I
was conducting a screenwriting workshop for Austrian filmmakers in
Vienna, a city of great beauty and culture, the home of Mozart,
Beethoven, Goethe, Schiller, Strauss, Mahler, and Freud, to name just a few, and more recently, the homeland of Billy Wilder and Arnold
That spring MGM was in financial turmoil and executive chaos, and it was possible that many films that were on the verge of release might be locked up in legal limbo until the traumatic events could play themselves out.
One of the films that was affected was a moderately budgeted film called Thelma and Louise, starring Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis,
written by Callie Khouri, and directed by Ridley Scott, director of such highly stylized films as Blade Runner, Black Rain, and Aliens.
But after the legal hassles had been somewhat resolved and the film finally opened, everybody in the Austrian film industry was talking about Thelma and Louise. Word of mouth spread very quickly, and I was asked a million questions about it. I simply attributed the hype to
Hollywood and promptly forgot about it.
When I returned home several weeks later, people were still talking about Thelma and Louise, and it continued to be the subject of discussion and debate. It even made the cover of Time. I didn't know what the film was about, but it seemed everybody had an opinion about it, and nobody agreed about anything. I liked that.
So I finally went to see Thelma and Louise. I had no idea what to expect, so I put all my expectations on the seat beside me and spent the first ten minutes thoroughly enjoying myself. I thought it was a comedy.
Then came the scene with Harlan in the parking lot. He has Thelma spread out against a car, and he's going to rape her. It's starting to turn ugly. He shoves her face down on the hood of a car, spreads her legs open, shoves her dress roughly above her hips, and starts ripping her panties. Wait a minute, I thought, this is getting serious. I thought it was a comedy, and now this is happening.
When Louise comes out, gun in hand, and forces Harlan to stop, I was on the edge of my seat. And when she actually blows him away, shoots him in the chest, I was shocked.
As that green '66 T–Bird barrels out of the parking lot, I didn't know what to expect. I was set up to watch a comedy, and now this happens. But the great thing was that it worked! This film literally grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and forced my attention to be focused on the screen.
Suddenly I understood what everybody had been talking about. This film was fresh and funny, the relationships insightful, the humor laced believably through the dramatic situation. Every moment took me deeper and deeper into the characters and story. I experienced the film scene by scene by scene, and I trusted the screenwriter and director to take me where they wanted me to go—the ending.
I don't see too many films like that.
As the film progressed, I still thought it was a comedy, and it took me a while to realize that these two women had committed a murder,
and somehow they were going to have to deal with the consequences of their actions.
How is this movie going to end? I asked myself. I can usually spot the ending within the first few minutes, but in Thelma and Louise I
didn't have a clue. It was only when Hal climbed into the police helicopter to join the chase that I knew how it was going to end. I
knew they were going to die; I didn't know how it would happen, but I
knew I didn't want it to happen. I wanted them to live. Somehow.
But I had to let go of my last shreds of hope as the two women said their good–byes on the lip of the Grand Canyon with a wall of police cars behind them. Only when Louise floored it and they sailed out over the eternity that is the Grand Canyon did I breathe easily. It worked. The whole film worked.
Over the next few days I kept thinking about the film. Moments of their relationship, the rape sequence, the truck driver sequence,
little bits and pieces of visual memories flooded through me and kept replaying themselves in my head.
The more I thought about the film, the more I liked it. It was a script worth reading and studying, so when I decided to write this book, one of the first films I chose was Thelma and Louise.
At the Time I was working with Roland Joffe (director of The Killing
Fields and The Mission) on City of Joy (Mark Medoff), and one day when I was in the office, I saw a copy of the script of Thelma and
I found that it was a great read. From the very first page it had a strong visual style; it was truly a story told with pictures. It didn't matter to me whether there were unrealistic moments in the screenplay. You always have to suspend your disbelief when you read a script or see a movie. You must try to accept any story for what it is, regardless of whether it coincides with reality as you perceive it. When the unbelievability of the story punctures the willingness of your belief, the film doesn't work for you.
Who was this Callie Khouri person who had written this screenplay? I
had never heard of her before, but I did manage to get hold of a videotape from a Writers Guild question–and–answer session with
Callie Khouri, and the producer, Mimi Polk, and some of the production team. Callie Khouri was bright and articulate, and when she started talking about the film I was impressed by the way she spoke about her characters.
It was hard for me to believe that this was her first screenplay; to be this good she must have had some writing experience. You just don't sit down and write this kind of screenplay.
When I started telling people that I was writing about Thelma and
Louise, some of my writer friends went nuts. "The characters are stereotypes," said one. "It's antimen," said another. "I can't believe the relationship between the two women," said another. "She didn't have to kill him," the wife of a writer friend told me. "There were other ways she could have gotten out of that situation," she said. Everyone had an opinion. Even my aunt, an elderly woman who never goes to movies, went to see it. Somehow Thelma and Louise hit a common chord and jangled people's emotions. What was it that sparked so much emotion?
I did a little research. I went to the Academy of Motion Pictures
Arts and Sciences Library and pulled out the review files of Thelma and Louise.
I was astonished.
It was classified "a crime movie of a different stripe," with headlines like "Desperadas," or "Girls just wanna have guns," and there were statements and judgments about two "strong women who have struck out on their own in a world of men who are either pigs or hapless creatures who try to help and can't." It was labeled an "unabashedly feminist script" with "an explicit fascist theme," and it seemed to represent some kind of focal point in the "battle between the sexes."
It was branded a "pathetic stereotype of testosterone–crazed behavior," yet the movie launched a fashion spin–off on blouses and jeans that seemed to become a comment on the '90s. The distributors were amazed and said "it was defying gravity," and started selling the film as "an existential buddy movie."
Newsweek said the film was "exuberant, spontaneous, and brimful of social comment," and ranked it right up there with Bonnie and Clyde
(Robert Benton and David Newman) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (William Goldman).
The New York Times said that men "do not effect what Thelma and
Louise do. The women become thoroughly independent in a way that is commonplace for male heroes. The freedom they embrace is remarkably complete and not even sexual."
The screenwriter was hardly mentioned. "It is a buddy movie, with a script, someTimes funny, someTimes awkwardly polemical–that serves mostly as an armature for two dazzling actresses, a dazzling director,
and a dazzling cinematographer." Everyone seemed to forget that Thelma and Louise was a dazzling script by a dazzling new writer whose approach to screenwriting was not limited by the old concepts of other road movies.
In other words, Thelma and Louise was fresh and original, with a twist.
Who is this Callie Khouri? And where did she come from? I tracked her down through one of my students who was working for Geena Davis,
called, and we set up an appointment.
It was a warm spring day when we met for lunch in Santa Monica. She apologized for being late and said she was working on a new script dealing with three generations of women; she was very concerned because it was the exact opposite of Thelma and Louise. Her biggest fear was that it was going to be all talking heads and about four hours long. I thought she seemed nervous, and then I realized the
Academy Award nominations were going to be announced the next day.
She had every right to be nervous. Being nominated for Best Original
Screenplay on our first try does not happen too often.
We chatted briefly, and I asked her about her background. She was born in San Antonio, Texas, and since her father was in the Army, she moved around a lot: first to El Paso, then to Paducah, Kentucky. "The first eight years of school," she remembers, "were basically a game of them trying to beat me into shape, and all I wanted was to escape." Her father died when she was sixteen, and his death affected her deeply. The next year found her leaving home to attend Purdue
University, majoring in drama.
"I always felt like a fish out of water," she says, "and it took me a long time to find myself. The drama department seemed like a game for people's egos, and that really bothered me. It seemed like acting was such a powerful thing it didn't really have anything to do with you.
It seems so many people were pursuing acting careers trying to get some kind of validation for their experience. And that's backward,
you know; it doesn't validate you, you validate it!"
Disenchanted with Purdue after three years, she moved to Nashville to be closer to her family. She worked at several odd jobs, and pursued her acting career as an apprentice at a community theater. "It was a great learning experience but basically unfulfilling," she says.
After the theater folded, she moved to Los Angeles. She studied acting at the Lee Strasberg Institute, then later with the noted acting coach Peggy Feury, who died tragically a few years ago.
"People liked my work," Callie says, "but I couldn't get an agent to talk to me. I would meet them and they would look at me and say,
'Well, you're not beautiful enough,' or 'You need to wear more makeup.' I finally got a part at this little theater off Hollywood
Boulevard. It was a horrible experience and it just rang the death knell for my acting desires, so I quit.
"I got a job working as a receptionist at a commercial production company, and they told me they wanted somebody for the job who doesn't want to be in production, who just wants to answer phones,
somebody who has no desire. That was fine with me."
Just about that time they opened up a music video division, so "three or four months later I find myself working in production, and I
worked my way up from being a runner to production assistant to production coordinator to production manager to producer."
I was very interested in how she made the switch from producing music videos to writing screenplays, so I asked if there were any movies that inspired her to write.
"Terms of Endearment" (James Brooks), she answered without hesitation. "The first time I saw it I went with a few friends and they thought it was the greatest thing they'd ever seen. And I walked out of it going, 'I don't know, I guess I missed it; I just didn't get it.' But I went back to see it again, I just fell to my knees. I
couldn't believe it; it was like I didn't know where I was during that first screening. But when I went back and listened to that dialogue, I started to go nuts, it was so great.
"At first I had no desire to write screenplays," she continued. "I
kind of wished I had because I was reaching the end of my time producing music videos. I was struggling so hard to figure out what it was that I was supposed to be doing. I kept thinking I'm supposed to be doing something creative. I can't believe I have such a knack for the vernacular and I don't have anywhere to apply it.
"I felt I had not found my true path. And then a series of events occurred that led me to the point where I didn't have anything to lose if I wrote a screenplay.
"So I started to write a sitcom with a friend of mine, somebody who ended up writing for The Golden Girls. He was a stand–up comedian,
and we decided to write a spec script for some friends who had a show. We started writing together and he kept telling me how great it was, but I just kept thinking he's trying to be nice, to be encouraging.
"It felt so easy and so comfortable that I felt like I wasn't doing anything. So it was suspect to me. I'd always read so much when I was growing up and I have such a deep respect for the craft of writing,
that I felt it was something that was going to be out of my reach. I
know what an incredible art it is. So I completely underestimated myself in thinking it was out of the realm of possibility.
"I kept praying for an answer, contemplating and meditating, asking for help so I could be put on my proper path.
"And that's when I got this idea: 'Two women go on a crime spree.' As soon as I had the idea I felt this strange sense of euphoria.
"The more I thought about it, the more excited I became. I mean, what would make two seemingly normal women go on a crime spree? Why would they do that? Why would I go on a crime spree? I didn't want to do anything sexist, because I was producing music videos and my livelihood was dependent on exploiting women to sell records.
"I didn't want to write about two stupid women, or two evil women who go on a crime spree. I wanted to write about two normal women. The definition of women as presented in films and plays is so narrow, so limiting. I noticed that when I was acting: How many times did I play a prostitute? Dramatically, it seems one out of every four women is a prostitute.
"Where are the real people? Where are people that aren't prostitutes,
that aren't selling themselves for sex? I wanted to write something with strong women in it. I wanted to write something that had I been an actress and read the script, I would have thought: I've gotta do this role or I'm gonna kill myself."
She paused for a moment, looking off into the distance. "I originally conceived of Louise as being this woman in Texas who works at a big oil company in one of those giant buildings," she continued, "and when you walk in somebody's sitting behind one of those big desks with a headset on directing people and taking calls and all that stuff. I pictured her as one of those people who never realized women could be executives until she saw one come in the front door. And then she started wondering how it was that this whole thing had gone on and she didn't know anything about it; she wasn't one of them, and she had an urge for power that's never going to be available to her.
The way it had been explained to her when she was growing up was that because she was a woman her role was so narrow she couldn't even conceive of herself as being something like an executive.
"She was the kind of woman who wears makeup the way Dolly Parton wears makeup, or Naomi Judd; they have these beautiful features, but if you take all that stuff off, what do they really look like? I mean, could you recognize Dolly Parton without makeup? Would you even know who she is?
"That's how I thought of Louise. Now, I love to laugh and I love people who are funny. So I wanted it to be a movie that you were enjoying and having a good Time with because in some ways you were watching these women get their lives back. Even though they lose their lives at the end, you watch them as society's convention is pulled further and pulled out of their grasp, so they become more and more themselves. These were great people to be with, and anybody would have loved to get to know them if they had a chance.
"But when I started writing I suddenly saw her clearing coffee cups into a bus tray and knew she was a waitress, working the night shift.
It was like she said, 'I work in a coffee shop,' and she works the night shift because she's in a well–lit place all night, and not at home afraid.
"Then I asked myself what crime they had committed. I knew they were going to have to kill somebody because I needed it to be a crime from which there was no escape and for which there was no real justification.
Though you couldn't justify it, you could understand it. You understand completely why this woman did what she did. That's another one of the things I've never seen dealt with in a film, the anger women feel about the way they're talked to. In that particular situation, it's almost a natural response.
"The idea that people can speak to you in such a way that if you had a gun you would kill them is something I think women experience every day. It's not that there's something wrong with the world in which we live, it's just that we haven't assimilated properly to understand that. Women don't know their place, because if we have to put up with this, then there really is no place, is there? So I knew the crime was going to have to be something like murder.
"Several years ago I was working as a waitress, and one day I was walking down the street, minding my business, when this old guy in a car starts talking to me. He's old enough to be my grandfather. I'm ignoring him, which is what you're supposed to do in that situation;
you know, I can't hear you, I can't see you, you can say whatever you want, I'm not a human being. Then he said, 'I'd like to see you suck my dick,' and I just lost it for a second. I pulled my sunglasses off and I walked over to the car and said, 'And I'd like to shoot you in the fucking face.'
"That scared him. This guy doesn't know me from Adam, and this is the kind of thing he says to a total stranger on the street? I was so angry, yet I was glad I had ruined his day. That I scared him, maybe dissuaded him from ever speaking to another woman like that. There was a risk in what I did but I felt elated because I'd responded like a normal human being who respected myself. Because I not only allowed myself to feel anger, but expressed it. I put him at risk, making him deal with the consequences of his own words. I giggled to myself for the next block or so until I got back to my apartment. I'm so glad I
did that. Most of the time people do those things to you, and if you're a woman, you're supposed to simply ignore it."
She looked off into the distance and asked the waitress for a cigarette, explaining that she doesn't smoke but she was nervous about the Academy nominations the next day. She took a drag and continued after a moment.
"What also appealed to me," she began, "was the idea that there is a side of you that you really don't know exists. And you don't know what the trigger for it is. You think you're a normal person and you have a normal life, but things can happen and you don't really know what's inside of you. That kind of tenuous relationship we have with our normal life was really intriguing to me. How one little thing can happen and your whole world can fall completely apart.
"I wanted to set up the screenplay where it was like dominoes falling.
It had to be grounded in reality, so Thelma and Louise would never be in a situation that could never occur. Everything had to be real and believable.
"I liked the idea of this woman who's just trying to be normal,
because that's all she wanted to be, but it was completely impossible."
She paused, gazing at a bird flying by, then shook her head slightly.
"I also wanted to deal with the idea of Louise feeling responsible for what happened," she continued. "She started out playing a game with Jimmy, that she wasn't going to be in town when he got back and this is what she gets for not being honest. So she feels like she precipitated the whole thing. If you find yourself holding back your feelings, or having to play games, nothing good ever really comes of it.
"Plus," she adds, "I knew something had happened to Louise, something she wasn't going to expose, and I didn't know what it was. I didn't know what had happened to her until about halfway through the screenplay. And she was never going to expose it, never going to open herself up like that again. Which is why she's sometimes hostile with Thelma, because she felt that if she had really tried, the whole thing could have been avoided,which is really how society feels."
This "something" that happened to Louise was that she was raped in Texas several years earlier. "I wouldn't let myself say she had been raped. I never said it in the screenplay. We added a reference to it toward the end because Ridley felt that people would come out of the movie going, 'Well, what did happen?'
"It doesn't really matter what happened to Louise," she continued. "What happened to her happened to her. There are thousands and thousands of women walking around that have something in their past we don't know about, and they deserve to be treated with respect, whether we had anything to do with it or not."
What happened to Louise in Texas is the structural backbone of the entire story line. It's because of this incident that she runs away from the murder. By the time she realizes what she's done, it's too late.
Because the "incident in Texas" is mentioned throughout the screenplay in a subtle and indirect way, we are forced to make our own discovery about these two women.
And good screenwriting is the art of discovery.