Screenwriter Callie Khouri: In tune

Screenwriter Callie Khouri looks for the story in the score and scripts of the hit TV show Nashville.
By Kinney Littlefield | Published: August 21, 2013


CONNIE BRITTON, BRAD PAISLEY

Photos courtesy of ABC/Katherine Bomboy-Thornton

True to herself and to her characters. That’s film and TV writer Callie Khouri. As creator, writer and executive producer of the ABC smart musical drama series Nashville, returning for its second season this fall, Khouri is part of the hard-working TV industry elite. But it wasn’t always that way. If hers seems a bit of a Cinderella story, well, yes, in a sense, it is.

Before Khouri got her writing start, she waited tables for a time and worked her way up, in classic Hollywood style, from production company receptionist to production assistant to music video producer. Then in 1991, her first screenplay, Thelma & Louise, snagged the interest of famed movie director Ridley Scott, who turned Khouri’s heartfelt words into a filmic tour de force. Deftly nuanced as it is, Thelma & Louise details the downward spiral of two women’s lives as they run from the law after Louise (Susan Sarandon) kills a man who nearly rapes Thelma (Geena Davis). Upon release, Khouri’s tender, trenchant vision drew fire for alleged male-bashing while it shattered stereotypes of women as sex objects. It also won the novice screenwriter an Academy Award for best writing for what has become an iconic film.

Since then, Khouri has added directing to her repertoire with the feature films Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002), which she also adapted for the screen, and Mad Money (2008). Transitioning to TV, she now writes, executive-produces and on occasion directs the tuneful, emotionally fraught tale of music industry grief and glory that is Nashville.

Shot on location in the Music City, where Khouri lived after college, the series follows country music diva Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton), rising crossover star Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), aspiring singer-songwriter Scarlett O’Connor (Clare Bowen) and a clutch of others as they struggle with fleeting fame, ill-fated romances, financial traumas and drug and alcohol addiction. Along the way, Nashville serves up some of the best music on TV, overseen by executive music producer T Bone Burnett, Khouri’s husband.

Fun romp that Nashville is, it also reflects Khouri’s skillful way with storytelling. In a recent chat, the savvy scribe talked about crafting Nashville and Thelma & Louise and surviving as a writer in Hollywood.

When did you first know in your heart that you were a writer?

I didn’t call myself a writer until after Thelma & Louise. I toyed with writing, but never considered myself a real writer and still wrestle with it.

How do you divide your time on Nashville, since the show is shot in Nashville, but the writers’ room is in Santa Monica, Calif.?

I spend about 50 percent of the time
in Nashville, and the other 50 in Los Angeles.

You started writing the first episode of Nashville’s second season in July. How does the process of prepping a new season work?   

All the writers [about a dozen including Khouri and executive producer and showrunner Dee Johnson] get together, and we talk through the whole season. Then we start breaking down the stories one at a time. We’ll talk about where each character is going to go, how those characters are going to interact, what are going to be the big challenges for each character – you know, where they’re going to start and where they’re going to end up. We do as much of that in advance as we possibly can, and then we kind of start taking it one show at a time, and breaking it down that way. This all takes place in the writers’ room. Everyone sits around, and we go through each character and each act.

Then we have to write that up and give it to the studio, and then they give us notes, and then we rewrite it and give it to the network, and then they give us notes.

We have dry-erase boards, with everything up and color-coded, and we also have our outlines. We have very thorough notes on every word that ever gets said in the writers’ room. We can always go back and check what we’ve decided hours before.

We kind of divvy up the episodes. Basically by the time the season’s over, everyone has written at least one and sometimes two scripts.

On Nashville, do the characters’ complicated desires and obstacles develop organically as you go? Or do you and the other writers need to plan out “X” numbers of crises per character, per episode?

Honestly, I would have to say it’s both. A character that’s not in conflict, you know, you’re not really doing your job. Conflict is basically where it has to live. So it’s like how can you do that in a way that’s realistic and relatable, and do something that the audience is going to understand, relate to and care about? How can you make it something that’s exciting for the actor to play? So all those things go into it.

Because this is a network show, there’s kind of a lot of pressure to have what they call “event,” which is very strong. They like big things, big and splashy. They don’t want to do Downton Abbey. That definitely influences it to a large degree. My tendency as a storyteller would probably be to do things in a little bit more subtle or quieter way. But I think whatever makes them happy.

CALLIE KHOURI (CREATOR/EXECUTIVE PRODUCER), KOREY POLLARD (FIRST A.D.), DAVID ALFORD, BRAD PAISLEY, CONNIE BRITTONHow do you know when it’s time to kill off a character on Nashville? For example, near the end of last season when Jolene, Juliette’s drug-addict mother, committed murder and then suicide, which devastated Juliette?

We knew from the very beginning, when we started the character of Jolene [Sylvia Jefferies] that that’s what was going to happen. We knew it was just a matter of time. It was kind of like, once we had completed her full arc, and by the time we felt she was at a place where it would be the most devastating and most dramatic exit, her time was up – when it would it be worst for Juliette, and where we had accomplished all the stuff that we already wanted to do – have Jolene go through rehab, have her relapse.

Do songs serve as a kind of dialogue in Nashville? For example, at the end of last season’s finale, when Juliette seems so tough yet so fragile, singing Nothing in This World Will Ever Break My Heart Again, after her mom has killed herself?

As soon as I heard that song [written by Kate York and Sarah Buxton], I knew it was going to be the finale, because it was the perfect encapsulation of everything Juliette had been through. It said exactly what I wanted to say. I wanted to put her character in a place where she was the most vulnerable, and the least vulnerable, that she was ever going to be.

We don’t have people write songs for the show; we find the songs. We usually try to listen to as many songs as we can in advance, and we try very hard to make sure that we are picking songs that actually are working for the narrative. You know, that they are working as dialogue, without being specific and super on-the-nose. We don’t want them to be exactly what the character is going through. But in that one particular case, I kind of did want it to be exact. I thought it was really important for us to see where Juliette was at. And I just thought it was one of the most beautiful songs I had ever heard.

So how do you feel about the term “soap opera” – and all the melodrama it implies – to describe Nashville?

I’m of two minds about it. On the one hand, I hope that we’re doing something that’s just a little beyond a soap opera. We certainly shoot higher than that. Whether or not that’s what anybody wants us to be doing, I’m not sure. We try to stay out of the world of melodrama and ridiculous things that could never happen – which is what I think of as soap operas. We try to stay really grounded in reality as much as possible to make a nighttime show like this.

If The Sopranos is a soap opera, then I probably wouldn’t take such offense – I mean, not that I’m taking offense. There’s something about “soap opera” – to me, it’s almost like you’re trying to say “not as good.” To me, soap operas are always going to be afternoon television with a lot of bad acting and unrealistic things taking place. You know, a serialized drama is what I feel like we’re doing. So many terms used to describe certain things sound like they’re belittling to me, and “soap opera” sounds like that to me and “chick flick” sounds like that to me.

Speaking of “chick flicks,” when you wrote Thelma & Louise, did you know in your heart that you were writing a seminal film, a film that would transcend that dismissive label?

I tell you, it felt important to me. You know I’d never written a film before. I didn’t have anything to compare it to. There was just no way for me to know ahead of time what would happen to it, whether or not anyone would ever be interested in making it, whether I would ever be able to get money to make it myself. There was no way to judge that. So when I was writing it, it wasn’t like I was thinking, “I need to write a screenplay and get a movie made and this is going to be my big thing.” I went into it from a very different place: “This is a story that is coming out of me whether I like it or not. I’ve got to tell it. It speaks to me on every single possible level.” It was almost like I didn’t have a choice. It was like that to me, and I had no way of knowing whether it would be like that to anybody else.

But when I would tell the story to people, they would react very strongly. There was a lot of “oh my God, that’s amazing.” There was a feeling I had that it was a movie that I had not seen, that I really wanted to see, and that it was long overdue – things told from that point of view, protagonists that weren’t sex objects that made me ashamed to be a woman.

From Thelma & Louise to Nashville, have you seen opportunities for women change and grow in the film and TV industries?

I would not say that they’ve changed sufficiently. I just don’t think that the numbers reflect that.

How is writing for TV different from writing for film?

You know, it’s really kind of great. It’s not like when you’re writing a screenplay [for a feature film] and you’re just locked in a room by yourself until it’s done. It’s a very fluid process because you have so many people who are helping. The good thing about having a writers’ room is that by the time you finally get it together, the writing process itself goes very quickly. And then you have people to help you if you go, “OK, I’m having trouble with this scene, I need some help.”

KOREY POLLARD (FIRST A.D.), CALLIE KHOURI (CREATOR/EXECUTIVE PRODUCER), BRAD PAISLEY (BACKGROUND), CHARLES ESTENDo you have any personal writing quirks or rituals?

It’s funny. I actually really like to write in my bedroom. I like my office, too, but I always feel like my bedroom is the one place that nobody’s going to come in. And there’s just something about it that’s very soothing to me. So I like writing there.

I do what a lot of writers do. I procrastinate until I have no choice but to sit down and finally do it. I usually like to do everything else I can besides write. So I’ll make sure the closet is organized, the place is all straightened up. Every little thing I can do, like the change is all counted and stacked in neat piles, whatever. But I find that in that procrastination, I’m actually usually working – how I’m going to get into it, and what my approach is going to be and where I’m going to start.

You certainly worked your way up in the entertainment industry. Did you have any lucky breaks?

I had worked with a very, very close friend. We did music videos for her husband who was the director, Julien Temple. And I gave the script of Thelma & Louise to her because I wanted her to produce it with me, for me to direct. So we started trying to make that happen, and she gave the script to her friend, Mimi Polk, who was working with Ridley Scott, and she thought she might be able to help us. And so, yes, that was incredibly fortuitous because not only did Mimi help us, she gave the script to Ridley and ultimately we were able to get the movie made with a strong director.

What qualities do successful film or TV writers need?

You know, it’s very strange. It’s the weirdest business, because you have to have the thickest skin and the thinnest skin at the same time. You have to be able to sit there and listen to people who have never written a word tell you how you should do it. There’s so much input, there are so many people telling you how to do it, especially so many people who have never done it telling you how to do it, or how it should be. And that’s tough because it makes you lose your voice – what’s you talking and what’s them talking?

You have to be strong. You have to be very, very strong.

What advice can you give new, young or aspiring writers?

You have to tell the story you want to tell, no matter what else is going on out there in the marketplace. Here’s the thing. I think there are two ways of looking at it. You can look at it as “I really want to get a movie made, and I’ll just keep slogging away till that happens.” You can keep doing it until that happens if you’re very, very lucky. Or you can say, “I’m a storyteller and I have to tell this story and I’m not going to stop until it’s told.” Your goal is to get a movie made, and you may get a movie made or you may not. But if your goal is to tell your story, the story that you want to tell, then you have a much better shot at having that happen, because it’s a much more specific goal. There has to be a single-mindedness about it.

Kinney Littlefield is a New York-based entertainment journalist who has covered TV for The Associated Press. She is a former staff TV critic for The Orange County Register in Southern California.

THE CALLIE KHOURI FILE

Callie Khouri was born in Texas and grew up in Kentucky. She studied drama at Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind. She also studied acting at the Lee Strasberg Institute in Los Angeles and trained with famed acting coach Peggy Fuery. Married to award-winning musician-songwriter-producer T Bone Burnett, she divides her time between Nashville and Los Angeles.

SELECTED CREDITS

  • Currently creator, writer, executive producer, Nashville (TV series, ABC);
  • director, Mad Money (feature film), 2008;
  • director and screenwriter, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (feature film), 2002;
  • screenwriter, Something to Talk About (feature film), 1995;
  • screenwriter, Thelma & Louise, 1991.

SELECTED AWARDS & NOMINATIONS

  • Nominated for Writers Guild of America Award for New Series for Nashville, 2013;
  • received Horton Foote Award for Special Achievement in Screenwriting, 2005;
  • won Academy Award for Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen for Thelma & Louise, 1992;
  • won Writers Guild of America Award for Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen for Thelma & Louise, 1992;
  • won PEN Center USA West Literary Award for Screenplay for Thelma & Louise, 1992;
  • won Golden Globe for Best Screenplay – Motion Picture for Thelma & Louise, 1992;
  • won London Film Critics Circle Award for Film of the Year for Thelma & Louise, 1992.