Callie Khouri – On Creating Character: Thelma & Louise
I’ve always been a big fan of Callie Khouri’s ever since I saw Thelma & Louise for the first time. The film really knocked me out because I was expecting it to be a comedy, kind of a road relationship story, more like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in size 7, triple A. I remember it so well, watching it and thinking it’s a comedy and not knowing where it’s going.
Boy, was I hooked! At the end of the first Act, after all that humor starts to turn serious when Harlan attempts to rape Thelma, I had no idea where the script was going.
All I knew was that I wanted to be along for the ride. Since that time, Thelma & Louise has been one of my favorite teaching films. It has great structure, yes, it has great visuals, yes, great direction by Ridley Scott (we’re going to talk about Gladiator in the near future), but what really grabbed me was the depth of the two characters.
How did Callie Khouri, in her very first screenplay, create such great characters? Creating characters, you know, is a great art, but it also takes a lot of craft to pull it off.
I called Callie and asked if she would share her experience of creating the characters of Thelma & Louise with us. (I had read several earlier drafts of Something to Talk About and, while the characters and situation are interesting and dynamic, it didn’t come close to Thelma & Louise.)
I wanted to find out how Callie Khouri went about creating such fully realized characters. So, that’s what this interview is all about. It gives some great insight into the art and craft of creating character. I also included some of her comments about how she got started writing screenplays.
“At first I had no desire to write screenplays. 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. He was a stand-up comedian, and we decided to write a spec script for some friends who were doing a TV 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, 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, who 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.
“I originally conceived of Louise as being this woman in Texas who works at a big oil company in one of those giant buildings, 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 women 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 you to enjoy her and have a good time with her 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 know 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, I also 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.
“What also appealed to me 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 falls 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.
“I also wanted to deal with the idea of Louise feeling responsible for what happened. 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.
[Just as footnote; before the story begins, in the back story, Jimmie, Louise’s boyfriend, a musician, takes off for a three week gig. And during that entire time, he never calls her once. She’s pissed, so she decides not to be home when he returns, just to show him how it feels.]
“Plus, to give her more depth and dimension, I knew something had to have 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 fells.
[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 Scott, (the director), felt that people would come out of the movie going, ‘Well, what did happen?’
“It doesn’t really matter what happened to Louise. 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.
“Originally, Thelma had kids and stuff like that, but I realized that she couldn’t have kids. The idea that Darryl wanted her to wait because the kids would be a sacrifice for him financially, fit perfectly. And, of course, she’s really a child herself.
“I had to set it up that way. I love to laugh, and I wanted this to be a movie you were enjoying and having a good time with because you were watching these women get their lives. Even though they would lose them, they were becoming more and more themselves. It was a beautiful experience, a liberating experience to watch that.
“Louise’s boyfriend, Jimmy, is really a guy who’s afraid of commitment for whatever the reason, even though Louise knows they’re eventually going to end up together. ‘What are you waiting for?’ she would ask. She wanted to get married, wants all the conventional things, yet she’s being denied them because of the choice she’s made in this man. Basically, his shortcoming is holding her back from what she really wants.
“Yes, she could leave him, but she loves him. I wanted to show her feelings because she feels responsible for everything that happens. She plays a game with him; when he comes back from his trip, she’s not going to be in town, and this is what happens when she’s not being honest.
“Once I have thought out the action of the story, and have a handle on the characters, I’ll go out in the backyard in the morning, and just sit there and try to open myself up and let the characters come to me; let them talk to me. So much of writing is about getting quiet enough so you can hear your characters talking. Sometimes I feel they choose you because they know you’re listening. You just have to shut up and listen.
“My greatest challenge was not to impose myself on them and just let them say what they’ve got to say. [An important comment] If I’m in turmoil about what a character is doing, I have to be careful not to let my own turmoil destroy what’s happening. It’s very much like a miscommunication between me and them. They same way it would be with a real person.
“As far as I’m concerned, Thelma and Louise are real people. One time I read something Geena Davis said in an interview. She said, ‘I know if I wanted to know what kind of toothpaste Thelma used I could call Callie and she would know.’ And when I read that, I thought, Well, she uses the kind with red, green, and blue stripes, whatever has the most color in it.
“All the time I was writing, I felt like I was telling a true story. And all I had to do was wait until somebody told me the next part.”
[After you’ve read this, go out and rent a copy of Thelma & Louise and see if it helps clarify the creation of character. You can also read more about this great screenplay in my book Four Screenplays.– Syd Field]