A lot of times it’s hard to tell how a movie will do, or how the public will react to it, before it comes out. For those of us who were around 25 years ago, you’ll probably remember that Thelma & Louise hit a big nerve. Their names became synonymous with female empowerment, and the film became a litmus test for how men and women viewed each other.
Screenwriter Callie Khouri was “completely surprised, shocked” by the reaction Thelma & Louise caused, good and bad, and there were plenty of arguments for and against the movie. Thelma & Louise made the cover of Time, it was debated on Crossfire, and it was called everything from “the last great film about women” in The Atlantic to “a paean to transformative violence” with “an explicit fascist theme” in US News & World Report. (Rush Limbaugh even called Khouri a “feminazi.”)
As Louise herself, Susan Sarandon, told Entertainment Weekly, “We thought we were doing a Butch Cassidy or a Jules et Jim. Not making some kind of statement.” And as Thelma, Geena Davis, added, “It was overwhelming. It was massive. We were on the cover of Time magazine in five seconds: ‘Why it strikes a nerve.’ Very negative editorials. ‘Oh my God, now the world is ruined. The women have guns.’”
Khouri herself mainly wanted to write “a powerful, moving story that would be entertaining,” and she told the Washington Post at the time, “If you’re looking for a feminist manifesto, you will be disappointed.”
Yet Ridley Scott saw deeper and bigger layers from the beginning. As he told Vanity Fair, he saw Thelma & Louise as “epic … the proscenium – the landscape – was the third big character in the movie, and the film is an odyssey.” Reading the screenplay, Scott realized, “It had substance, it had a voice, and it had a great outcome, which you could never change. Their decision was courageous, to carry on the journey and not give in.”
Now that the initial controversy is long behind us, and we can view the movie on its own terms, Thelma & Louise still holds up very well 25 years later. Nobody involved knew that the film would stir up such a strong debate in society while they were making it, and it’s remarkable the uproar it caused with people of both sexes, making Thelma & Louise an even bigger and deeper story than Ridley Scott envisioned it when he first read it.
Two women go on a crime spree. That’s how the idea of Thelma & Louise first popped into Khouri’s mind in 1988. She was working for a video production company at the time, and like a lot of good ideas, it came to her late at night.
“I was pulling up in front of my house at 3:30 in the morning after an awful rock video shoot,” she recalls. “A day on a music video is 24 hours, so I was probably in my 27th hour. The idea kind of came to me.”
And funny enough, working in the music video world may have been a small catalyst in creating Thelma & Louise. “In order to get my karma straight about women, I had to write this script,” Khouri told the Village Voice. “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 to not such interesting music, you eventually have to look at what you’re doing.”
In addition, Khouri had to suffer several incidents of sexual harassment in her life that helped shape the film as well. One time, an old man yelled an offensive comment at her in a passing car, and “all of the sudden, I was filled with a rage I didn’t know I possessed. I was not a human being in front of this guy. I was like, if I had a gun in my hand, I probably would have raised it, and if not fired it, at least made him think I was going to. And it would have happened (snaps her fingers) that fast.”
There was also a time when a truck driver spewed an obscenity at her, which inspired the scene where Thelma & Louise blew up the gas truck. “I think if you talk to pretty much any woman who’s ever driven down a road, she’s going to tell you that guys making lewd gestures from trucks is as common an occurrence as you could imagine. You’ve got to just shake your head in utter disbelief. What, I’m going to pull over? Maybe there are people that do, but I don’t know any of them!”
Khouri had never written a screenplay before, and the six months it took her to write the script were “the most fun I had ever had in my life, bar none. It was such a pure experience. There was no self-censorship there, no second-guessing. From a creative standpoint, it was the freest I had ever been in my life.”
Khouri wanted to direct the film herself on a low budget, about three million, and she originally wanted Frances McDormand and Holly Hunter in the leads. “I wrote it to be a low-budget film,” Khouri says. “I was working 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.”
Then Ridley Scott got ahold of the script with the intention of producing, but he soon grew to love Thelma & Louise and eventually became the director. (Bob Rafelson, Richard Donner, and Kevin Reynolds were all potential candidates to direct the film, and they all turned it down.) Ultimately, Thelma & Louise cost a reported $16.5 million, which was pretty low budget for a major studio film, and it’s practically an indie film budget by today’s standards.
Scott essentially shot the first draft, and as he mentioned earlier, he boldly kept the ending, which very easily could have been changed or mangled in the Hollywood development process. (Meryl Streep was up for Thelma & Louise, and she wanted one of them to live at the end.)
There were people who said to Khouri, “How are you going to change the ending? You can’t have them die at the end.” There were others who told her, “You can’t have your main character murder anybody in the first 10 pages and expect anybody to have sympathy for them.”
As Khouri explains, “I was in a place in my life where I just had nothing to lose by sticking to my guns.” Thelma & Louise has a lot of tone shifts that go from comedy to tragedy, and Khouri continues, “I think you can pretty much take people anywhere if you have an emotional logic. I always felt that James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment) was able to achieve that, to have incredibly sad or poignant things happen in the midst of broad hilarity. 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.”
Contrary to what Khouri was told, audiences indeed felt sympathy for Thelma and Louise, and when Louise kills Thelma’s would be rapist, “I wanted the audience to understand it emotionally and at the same time realize that she had made a mistake from which there was no turning back and that she had basically just killed both of them. The moment where Louise shoots the guy, I’ve often described it as there comes a time in people’s lives where everything you know about yourself to be true, in one instant, can no longer be true. ‘Oh, I would never do this,’ you know? All the things you know about yourself, the right set of circumstances might come together, and you might find that that was nothing more than a fondly held notion about yourself and nothing more.”
One of the many criticisms lobbed against Thelma & Louise was that they were bad role models for women. Columnist Liz Smith wrote at the time, “I wouldn’t send any impressionable young woman I know to see Thelma & Louise.” Yet as we’ve seen in the great movies of the seventies, Thelma & Louise were antiheroes, and there were a lot of shades of gray in the film, which the major studios are terrified of today. (Thelma & Louise also has some of the feel of the great on-the-road movies of the ’70s like Vanishing Point.)
One of the big complaints about Thelma & Louise was that it was labeled anti-men, and Khouri told the Washington Post, “It’s a totally ludicrous assessment when you look at the long history of violence and misogyny on film. There’s a million examples of women being brutalized for no other reason than somebody enjoys seeing it, which makes the male-bashing thing absolutely insane.”
One of the lighter tone shifts in Thelma & Louise, where Louise had a wild night with Brad Pitt after years of unsatisfying sex with her husband, was also criticized because it happened not long after she was attacked. “To me, they were two extremely distinct experiences,” Khouri says. “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. Being attacked by a stranger in a parking lot is a different thing than having a wild night in a hotel room with Brad Pitt. I knew the ending of the movie 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.”
Oh yes, now about that ending. Sarandon saw the ending as the girls going out in a blaze of glory, a la Butch and Sundance, and Khouri says, “It wasn’t meant to be a literal ending. 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 they were flying away. In so many ways, the movie was a half-full, half-empty glass of water test. There are people who say, ‘How could you have killed them?! I can’t believe it!,’ and there are people that go, ‘They got away! They flew away!’
“What they were trying to get away from, you don’t get away from in this world,” Khouri continues. “Louise still would have been living in her own private nightmare, and it just wouldn’t make any sense. They were never going to be able to push themselves back to what was an acceptable form of life for both of them. Thelma said, ‘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?”
Released on May 24, 1991, Thelma & Louise didn’t make Marvel superhero money at the box office, but it was a good-size hit that made $45 million, clearly a great return on its $16 million budget. It was also nominated for six Academy Awards, with Khouri being the sole winner for Best Original Screenplay. As she said during her Oscar speech, “For everybody that wanted to see a happy ending for Thelma and Louise, this is it.”
Many women felt liberated by Thelma & Louise, and it was clearly a very liberating experience for Khouri as well, who went on to direct several movies herself, as well as create the show Nashville. “Thelma & Louise was very much its own creation,” she says. “The thing I’m most proud of with Thelma & Louise is the quality of the filmmaking. 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. 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’m eternally grateful, and the fact that he executed it so beautifully, I am forever in his debt.”