"Nashville's" Callie Khouri: "Watching two women go at it is boring"

The "Thelma and Louise" writer never wanted to do TV. Then she realized she could make shows like "Nashville"

Published October 21, 2012 8:30PM (EDT)

Callie Khouri, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Thelma and Louise" and the director of "The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," is responsible for one of the best, and certainly the most musical, new shows of the fall season: ABC's delightful, grounded soap opera "Nashville."

The show stars Connie Britton as Rayna Jaymes, an aging country music star embroiled in a love quadrangle, career trouble and a rivalry with a conniving, jealous younger musician played by Hayden Panettiere. It features original songs by the likes of Elvis Costello and Lucinda Williams. (T Bone Burnett, who is Khouri's husband, is the show's executive music producer.)

With the series heading into its third week, Khouri spoke with me about how the show came to be, her disinterest in catfights and how much easier it is these days to make TV for women than it is to make films for women.

How did “Nashville” come about?

Well, the idea came from a shotgun wedding -- well, wedding’s not exactly the right word, but my agency, CAA, signed the company who own the Grand Ol’ Opry. So I went to CAA for this meeting, which I had been trying to get out of for quite a while because I was like, "I don’t know what to do about the Grand Ol’ Opry." So I meet this guy in the lobby, R.J. Cutler, and he introduces himself, and I’m thinking, “gosh he’s awful friendly.” I had no idea who he was until I go to the meeting and he goes with me. And it turns out, they also wanted him to do something about Nashville. So I just started talking about my time in Nashville, when I lived here. And I’ve been coming here since I was a little kid because my aunt and uncle lived here and my cousins. And after college I moved here because I kind of didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had been a theater major, and I thought, “You know what, this is stupid. I’m really going to be in theater? Really? No. I have to go to some place and live as a normal person.” So I thought Nashville would be a good place to start, for me. That was the next biggest city I thought I could move to because I had been brought up in a small town and had gone to college in a small town. [Laughing.] Nashville seemed like a good gateway city to big-city life. And I was just such an incredible music lover -- I almost said freak, but that’s not quite right. But when I moved here I just immersed myself in listening to live music. I found all kinds of music, really, except country music. You had to really kind of dig, at the time, because all the country music went on in sessions, in the studio. But the level of songwriting and musicianship is so deep in this town it just blew my mind. I’m not musical myself. I don’t play any instruments, I don’t sing, and it was just one of the most incredibly frustrating experiences in the world being around all of this and not being able to do anything about it. So I ended up moving to L.A.

Where you could write at least.

Yeah. But I went there to study acting. I went to the Strasberg Institute and then quit that again. Because every few years, I would have this realization, “No you’re not doing this! This is not what you’re supposed to be doing!” I didn’t know that I was supposed to be doing what I’m doing now.

So then, you’re in this meeting, and they said you should do this project.

We start talking about Nashville and the agent, goes “Stop talking, we’re just going to go pitch this.” And R.J. and I just kind of look at each other and go, “Pitch what?” She goes, "Just go to Lionsgate and say exactly what you said." So I do, and they go, “Yeah, this sounds great.” And then R.J. and I leave the meeting, and I’m like, “Holy shit! Are you telling me we have to pitch a television show?” He’s like, “It looks like we do."

Did you say you wanted to make a show about women in Nashville?

I didn’t say I wanted to make a show at all. I said, this is what it was like when I lived there. I really didn’t want to make a show. I mean I did, I did, but it wasn’t like I was driving this thing. It was kind of like I went to this meeting and someone said, "here, hold this," and it was a bullet train leaving the station. I just like held on for dear life -- although that’s an overly dramatic characterization of thousands of hours of thankless work. It was the perfect marriage of all the things I care about.

Which are?

Which are: women’s places in this world and business, and these very high-pressure careers, and certainly just the world of music, making music and putting it out there. I absolutely love that. I’m kind of around it all the time; through my husband and everything, I get to hear a lot of great stuff, so it just seemed like a natural fit.

Had you been wanting to do a TV show?

You know, I’ve toyed around with it. I’d written one pilot that didn’t get picked up several years ago. And I have to say I was a little bit relieved because at the time I don’t think I was really ready. Then I pitched another pilot. Fox got the script but it didn’t get picked up, it didn’t even get shot. And then this. And by the time it was this, I’m just liking TV so much more than features right now, just in terms of what you can get made. For me, the movies I like are all independent. And getting an independent feature made, it’s like you get down to the selling organs part, and it just loses some of its luster.

You’re like, “Here’s my kidney, but I don’t know if I want to make it that badly.”

Please, I hope it gets released. I’m not running out to the movies every week to see big studio features. I don’t think any studio — it was a long shot at the time – but I don’t think any studio in a million years would make “Thelma and Louise” right now. But there’s so many other kinds of movies they won’t make right now.

People who make TV also seem much more comfortable making shows for women than people making movies do.

Because you’re allowed. You’re allowed to make things for women on television and there’s not like ... you don’t have to go through the humiliation of having made something directed at women. There it’s just accepted, whereas if it’s a feature, it’s like “So, talk to me about chick flicks.” It’s like ... I don’t think you want to hear my opinion about this.

I want to hear your opinion! Even though it’s probably not very nice.

No, it’s not. I just think it’s insulting that if there is something with women in it, it’s relegated to this kind of trash heap. It doesn’t matter what it is, how good it is, if there is emotion in it, it’s immediately going to be talked down to. And I’m obviously irritated by that. Probably all women are. Certainly a lot of women filmmakers are.

Whereas network TV, and ABC in particular, is often aimed at women. That’s who their audience is.

I mean, again, it’s like, works for me. I want to make something that’s respectful, and respected. And I think you can make something for women that is respected on television. Anyway, I don’t want to just complain about features, but it does seem unduly hard given the number of women that exist in the world.

Connie has said in a bunch of interviews that she would not have been interested in this show if it were about a catfight. But that is the hook of that pilot. I assume that’s not what you are going for long-term?

No. That’s the place to start. You always start — not always. I don’t know what I’m talking about — but you start in place where you are coming at it from the stereotype. You come at things from the place where everybody thinks they know everything about what they are seeing. And then you just slowly peel back the layers until you’ve got very complicated human beings with very different sets of problems, all of them doing something that’s impossibly hard to begin with and trying to make their place in this world. Watching two women go at it is boring. There are so many other shows where you can get that. I want it to be about something more than that.

How do you include all the soapy elements without the show becoming ridiculous?

I’m really committed to keeping it real. The last thing in the world I want to do is make another stupid show about Nashville. It’s a balance obviously. It’s a ten o’clock drama on ABC, so there is a certain mandate that we really include the soapy elements, which I’m fine with, as long as it is grounded completely in reality. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why those things can’t coexist.

Were you imaging the three major female characters — Rayna, Juliette and Scarlett — as being at different places on a similar career path.

Yes, just because I think that is certainly the arc of the characters that you meet in Nashville. You meet people who are bussing tables and then you hear them sing, and you’re just like, “Oh my God! Why are you not the most famous person in the world?” For all the people that we know and get to hear about, there are so many that are every bit as good that you will never hear about. When you look around right now, Nashville is kind of going through another changing of guard; you’re watching the Martina McBrides and the Faith Hills and all of them that have been the big stars for the last however many years, and the next generation is coming in: Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, those girls. And behind them is the next generation. It just seemed to me that every generation is pissed off about the one that comes after it. That just seems like it never stops. Because when I lived here in the '70s, people were complaining that the music was going to hell, and now when you look back, it’s some of the best music there was. It just seemed to me to be an interesting thing to talk about, like Taylor Swift, obviously, is somebody who people will go, “That’s not even country, that’s pop.” Well that’s an argument that’s been going on since the beginning here. And all the people who are doing country music, even pop-country music, I think have been really affected by the tradition of country music and what it allows you to express. But they are also living in a market where there is real demand to cross over and speak to a young audience. There’s music and then there’s the music system, and they are often in deep conflict with each other.

So, you’re not quite on Rayna’s side with how dismissive she is of Juliette and her musical style.

I hope that all of these characters are suitably flawed enough to be real. I just think it is interesting and funny for Rayna to have a side that is just like, “Oh, shut up.” At some point she just doesn’t want to deal. Doesn’t want to be bothered with these people who are coming in, who have paid no dues, who don’t know the road they’re on, who don’t know the long haul of it, who don’t know what they’re in for. I see young actresses in Hollywood all the time and it’s like they think it’s never going to happen to them. They think they’re never going to be 35 and not getting the part.

You had always wanted Connie for Rayna, right?

I was seriously not going to make the show if I couldn’t get her. I mean somebody might have made it, they would have made it, but not with me, because I really could not see anyone but her doing this.

Is that just from watching “Friday Night Lights”?

Yes it is. When I started working on it for real, I had to write this character, and usually you kind of just sit there and wait and a person will appear to you and you go, “Oh! Now I know who the character is.” Sometimes, rarely for me, an actor will embody that. With this, Connie popped into my head. I was like, “Okay, got it. I know exactly how to do this now. I know exactly who she is.” That made me really want to do it.

I've been really impressed with how much Juliette’s songs sound like Taylor Swift songs.

Well, more than going, “Okay, we need a song that does this,” we find these great songs and go, “Oh my God this could be so perfect for so and so, and this would have to happen for her to write that song.” Because it’s just not that easy to get somebody to write a perfect song, that says everything you need it to say. Sometimes everyone will do their pass on the script and it will be, “It would be great if we could get a song that said something like this.” And I’m just like, “Yeah it would, but we’re not going to get that.”

So you have music way ahead of having scripts?

We start looking for the music way ahead, yeah. Because we have to record it all. And we want to be the first one to get our crack at the great song, so we’re listening all the time.

Does that mean you hear the songs, and you start to imagine how they would work in the script before the script exists? Even though you haven’t written it yet, the songs must give you some sense of where the story is going to go.

Yes, exactly. You hear the song and it just evokes something, and you just start kind of writing toward that.

By Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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