Callie Khouri’s career first took off from the edge of a cliff, when Thelma & Louise sparked a national conversation (and sent Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis hurtling into the great wide open). The 1991 movie won Khouri a screenwriting Oscar and made her, for better or worse, a go-to writer-director-producer for stories about women’s relationships. But it can be hard to get a green light for these kinds of projects in Hollywood—since then she’s written or directed just three features that have made it to the screen—which may explain why Khouri sounds so thrilled to be exhausted. The night before our phone interview, shooting on her new ABC series, Nashville, had wrapped at 3:30 a.m. Now it’s dusk in Tennessee and she’s sitting on a stoop far from her Los Angeles home, trying to avoid the lighting folks who are setting up for another evening shoot. “I’m running from a crane,” she says at one point as something clatters in the background. “I’m sorry—I know that’s really loud.” Loud, too, is the critical acclaim that Khouri’s hour-long drama about the country music business has prompted. The plot sounds like a twangy All About Eve: Connie Britton plays the “aging” superstar, while Hayden Panettiere is the hottie upstart seeking to usurp the throne. But it’s the strong writing and original music (curated by Khouri’s husband, the prolific musician and producer T Bone Burnett) that help the show stand out. Khouri, meanwhile, is striking in her honesty about the vagaries of the entertainment business—a place in which, she says, those who dish it out can’t necessarily take it.
There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about cable becoming the new artistic mecca for storytellers. But you chose to make Nashville at a network. Why?
We always conceived of it as a show that would be ready for prime time. We felt like the audience, and especially the ABC audience because ABC does the Country Music Awards, was primed for it. I hope to be a part of the change in getting the networks to start letting people do real dramas again.
Connie Britton is such a powerful centerpiece. Did you write the show with her in mind?
When I started writing the script, I saw Connie as Rayna Jaymes. But we had no idea if she could sing. We went to meet with her, and when we asked, she said, “It’s been a long time since I’ve been paid to sing.” And we went, “Paid to sing? We’re good with that.”
She sings all her songs on the show?
Oh, yeah. All the cast does. It’s really them. And they are amazing. One of the most fun things is to go to the recording sessions, which other people don’t get to go to, but I do because I’m married to the music producer.
As you were developing this idea, were you and T Bone sitting at the dinner table saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we did a show that would get new music on television?”
I wish it had been that easy. I mean, first of all, T Bone is incredibly busy. So when we were doing the pilot, he wasn’t available. But when the show got picked up, I just thought it would be too difficult for me to work with somebody else.
When I hear a song on the show, then, it’s never been heard before?
Right. With the exception of classics, like in the second episode, we had a Ray Price song. As many of the songs as possible come from Nashville. We know a lot of songwriters, and we are partnered with [Taylor Swift and] Scott Borchetta’s company, Big Machine, so we get a lot of music from them. But again, it’s all songs that haven’t been cut.
The Big Machine partnership is interesting—TV show as generator of music and music revenue. Other shows have featured music by established bands, but you’re unveiling new songs, performed by your cast, and selling them on iTunes. It’s a new business model.
It’s interesting to me that other people haven’t done it. I’m certainly not flagging American Idol or anything, but for me, hearing people do covers, at some point it’s like, “Oh, OK,” you know? You loved it before. Now love it again.
I’m struck by how songs are integrated into this show. They’re less musical breaks, as in Glee or Treme, and more engines of your story.
It’s always been the plan that they would be part of the narrative because to me that’s one of the things that makes Nashville worth doing a series about. The seeds are planted and grow and bloom, and you see the songs come to life. As much as there’s a music business, it’s also a really intimate process, just like any other kind of writing.
You lived in Nashville years back. Had this town always percolated in your mind as a great place to set a story?
Living here had such a profound effect on me. I was a theater major in college, and after I figured out that I wasn’t going to be an actress, I thought I’d move to Nashville and try to figure out what a regular person did. I worked at a theater as an apprentice. When it closed, I just started knocking around, waitressing, working in music clubs, and so I heard live music almost every single night. It was unbelievable. Unbelievable in that I got to hear music that sticks with me to this day, unbelievable in that there was all this incredible talent that no one outside Nashville would ever hear. You can have dinner here one night, and a busboy will clear the plates from your table and the next night he will break your heart into a million pieces with his music in a club.
Did you think of the series as a chance to shatter some rhinestone cowboy stereotypes?
Yes. Nashville has been its own worst enemy, I think, in terms of participating in its representation of itself as a kind of hick haven. It’s so much more than that. There’s 18 universities here, it’s the state capital, it’s an extremely beautiful cosmopolitan city with a rich arts culture, and it deserves better than it’s gotten so far.
A friend of mine said after watching the pilot, “I bet it was hard to get a green light for a red state show in a blue state town.” How difficult was it to convince a TV network that Nashville was a show that America wanted to watch?
I have to say I found the network remarkably receptive, and I think it’s because of the success of shows like American Idol and The Voice and Glee and Smash. I don’t think that I was met with the resistance I might have met with a few years earlier. Also, anytime you’re writing a story about a place where people are coming to have their dreams come true, it’s a pretty rich soup.
Did you have particular icons in mind when you built these characters? Is Rayna Jaymes Loretta Lynn? Is Panettiere’s character, Juliette Barnes, Carrie Underwood?
They’re more amalgams because this story repeats over and over in this town. People get established and have long careers, and then all of a sudden they’re going, “I’m being asked to open for who?” And it’s a tough business to stay in. Longevity in any entertainment business is nothing short of miraculous.
Britton said on NPR that the complexity of the two women living through different stages of their lives drew her to the project. But she lamented that the marketing was amping up the oldie-versus-newbie, catfight story line. She said that that wasn’t exactly what she was hoping. Not exactly what I was hoping, either. Though I’m not sure I would have done it differently because I think it’s a really great place to start—to lead with the stereotypes but then strip away the layers.
Can you imagine creating this show when you were 25 instead of now, at 54?
No. Things are much more black and white when you’re young because you don’t really know who you are. This was something I was dealing with in Thelma & Louise: that idea that you don’t know who is really inside you. You think you do, but you don’t. And then you happen to be holding a gun. Life is like that. In your twenties you think, “Oh, I’m never going to make that kind of a mistake.” But then you realize life is learning to live with having disappointed yourself.
A lot of your projects since that film—from your directing debut, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, to creating this new series—have been focused on women’s relationships. How hard has it been to get those kinds of stories financed?
Well, you’re relegated to a certain level of irrelevance if you’re writing about women, which I find shocking, appalling, annoying. So we females who like to make stories for other females have to come to terms with the fact that no matter how good the story—no matter how complicated, rich, deep, or true—it’s still going to be called a “chick flick.” Which is another way of saying “not serious.” Now, some of it I would agree with. I’m not exactly a fan of the treacly—if there’s emotion, I want it to be about something real, and that’s apparently asking a lot. But I think it just speaks to a larger problem. The number of women who are directing and writing and getting feature films made is preposterously disproportionately in favor of men.
Have you found women executives in Hollywood to be more supportive of women‑focused projects?
I think the women in those positions have the same mandate that men do. Right now studio pictures are all about one kind of storytelling. I don’t see a lot of female‑directed, female‑aimed big‑studio movies.
Has it been frustrating for you to not get more made over the years?
Yes, but that would be a whine you would hear from anybody in Hollywood. But also a lot of the movies that I wanted to get made weren’t aimed at females. I certainly can’t say whether or not my being a woman wanting to direct a movie about NASCAR [a biopic about race car driver Richard Petty that was to star Dennis Quaid] or baseball [Mr. 3,000, about a ballplayer who gets his 3,000th hit in the mid-’80s, then goes to seed] made it less likely, but they didn’t happen. You know, if somebody really wants to get me drunk and start me on a rant, all they have to do is introduce the idea that Thelma & Louise was a soft movie. Thelma & Louise, to me, was not a soft movie. They kill a guy. They run. I didn’t feel like I was making a Hallmark movie, so when those kinds of things start rolling your way, you have to go, “Huh, am I being typecast?”
There has been a debate over the years about that film’s ending—that it wasn’t as happy as some viewers wanted. I presume you stick by it.
Absolutely. For me, the happy ending is that people are still talking about it 21 years later. But a lot of the discussion about it I found a little shocking, to be honest. The idea, for example, that the movie had any anti-male sentiment at all was kind of like “Boy, you sure can dish it out, but you can’t take it.” That was not a very clear analysis of what the movie was saying.
What was the movie saying?
That if a woman really wants to come into her full potential—to really know herself and cast off all societal limitations—then there may not be a place for her in this world the way it exists now. The ending put Thelma and Louise exactly where they were supposed to be: out into the universe, into the kind of mass consciousness where they could live or die as people decided was relevant in their own lives. But they certainly weren’t going to be in a fiery heap at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
What would you tell the 25‑year‑old you to expect from her career in Hollywood?
The Bette Davis line: Put on your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. To be a writer or any kind of artist, you have to be so supersensitive to everything that’s going on, but you also have to have the toughest exterior you could possibly have. Or you will die, because it’s just so brutal. How you maintain both of those things simultaneously has always been the challenge. The number of times I’ve cried over the years about things that were, I thought, artistic losses—it’s not for the fainthearted. You will take it on the chin, and I don’t care who you are. It’s like the line in Unforgiven: “We all have it coming, kid.” Nobody gets away clean.