“I don’t remember ever feeling this awake. You know what I mean? Everything looks different. You feel like that too? Like you’ve got something to look forward to?” Thelma says in an experience of striking realization in the groundbreaking classic “Thelma & Louise” (1991). It’s been almost 30 years since the release of this road movie – and it still feels as elating, funny and thought provoking as that first time I saw it. I tell my students that journeys in cinema should be seen not only as the movement from one place to another, but as an inner journey for the characters – where the individuals through challenging and inspiring experiences arrive to a place of enlightenment and self-realization. This is not a new concept, it’s been around since Homer. In this way, I’ve always approached “Thelma & Louise” – less literally and more symbolic and representational. “Who’s gonna believe you?” says Louise. “We don’t live in that kind of a world.” Thelma and Louise drive away and redefine their world.
Thelma stays at home with her domineering and cheating husband. Louise is a world-weary waitress whose genial longtime boyfriend is not willing to commit. The women decide to go on a weekend fishing trip to a cabin – away from it all. On their way they stop at a honkytonk for a drink. “You said you and me is gonna get out of town, and for once, just really let our hair down. Well, darling, look out, ‘cause my hair is coming down,” says Thelma. A cowboy named Harlan gets Thelma drunk and insists on them going to the parking lot where he attempts to rape her. Louise pulls out a gun and asks him to stop. “In the future when a woman’s crying like that, she isn’t having any fun,” She tells him. He arrogantly insults her, and she shoots him. Knowing that the police will not take their word, they go on the run. Thelma and Louise are breaking away from a sexist society – and in a long tradition established in outlaw movies like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” – they find freedom on the road.
When this movie came out – there was some controversy about its depiction of men. Some critics claimed the men were portrayed unjustly. “Any movie that went as far out of its way to trash women as this female chauvinist sow of a film does to trash men would be universally, and justifiably, condemned,” read a piece published in People magazine. First of all, there are two major sympathetic depictions of males in this movie. Louise’s boyfriend, Jimmy (played against type by a terrific Michael Madsen) is non-committal but caring – and goes as far as culling money to come to their aid. Detective Hal (played by a sensitive Harvey Keitel) is a good cop who tries to protect both women. “There’s two girls out there that had a chance,” Hal tells J.D. (played by Brad Pitt in his star-making role) who steals the money Jimmy had brought them – leaving Thelma and Louise – with no money – forced to rob a convenient store. “They had a chance. And now you’ve screwed it up for them.”
What male critics were shocked at was that here you had a story about two women who had each other – who have real conversations with each other – and come to the realization that they want a better life in which they’re equal and empowered. Here’s a movie that usurped the myth of the male road movie, turned it upside down – radically redefining cinema. “Something’s, like, crossed over in me. I can’t go back. I mean , I just couldn’t live,” says Thelma.
This was Callie Khouri’s first script – and it’s an exemplary piece of writing. The structure is phenomenal and there is such memorable dialogue in it. Director Ridley Scott nurtured the project but he didn’t intend to direct it himself. The stylish auteur of “Alien” and “Blade Runner” turned out to be the perfect choice for it. The film has such panache. Notice the very first moment of the film – a shot of this stunning Western landscape – we first see it in black and white – then it turns into stunning vibrant colors and it fades to black. He tells you the internal journey in an instant. There’s a heightened quality to the mise-en-scene. Thelma and Louise’s world starts in blueish tones – the coffee shop and homes seemed confining. As the movie progresses – Scott switches to long shots and warm tones – there’s a visual sense of freedom and expansion. We go from stagnation to the awe-inspiring heights of the Grand Canyon.
Geena Davis as Thelma and Susan Sarandon as Louise are superb. Their calibrated physical and psychological transformation is a thing of wonder. They’re one of the greatest pairings in movie history. Their journey together take us joyfully where we’d never been before.
Thelma: “Let’s keep going.”
Louise: “What do you mean? ”
Louise: “Sure? ”
Available to stream on Hulu, Amazon Prime, Vudu, Sling TV, and EPIX Now and to rent on YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime, Microsoft, FandangoNOW and DIRECTV.
Written by Callie Khouri
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Christopher McDonald, Stephen Tobolowsky, Timothy Carhart and Brad Pitt
Writing “Thelma & Louise”
“In a city where every cater-waiter had a script in a drawer, Khouri had never tried to write a screenplay. (She had, though—after a childhood in Texas and Kentucky, as the daughter of a Lebanese-American doctor and a southern belle, and three and a half years at Purdue—studied acting and done a little theater.) And yet, as she drove that morning, she says, “I saw, in a flash, where those women started and where they ended up. Through a series of accidents, they would go from being invisible to being too big for their world to contain, because they’d stopped cooperating with things that were absolutely preposterous, and just became themselves.” Over the next six months, Khouri spent all her spare time getting her vision on paper: Two Arkansas women—lower-middle-class, with no status, no entitlement, both in far-from-perfect relationships—drive off to spend a couple of days at a borrowed fishing cabin. They stop at a roadhouse and have a few drinks. Then, suddenly, things get out of control, and one of them shoots and kills the man she catches in the act of raping her friend. Their innocent weekend turns into a headlong, obstacle-pocked getaway, but as their desperation grows, so does their exhilaration. “I don’t remember ever feeling this awake,” one of them marvels as law enforcement descends. Khouri wrote the screenplay in longhand at odd hours and typed it out on her office computer.
The script was infused with her own personality, a model for the older protagonist. “Callie’s got a great acid tongue and was wise beyond her years,” says Amanda Temple, who was producing with her then, the two of them working on “horrific” Mötley Crue and Foreigner videos in “the era of excess, macho guys, big hair, and spandex pants,” when “everyone was snorting away their lives.” Temple recalls “casting sessions when a particular director—a huge movie director today, who will go nameless—said, ‘I want more girls with bigger tits, Callie! And less clothes!’ Callie doesn’t suffer fools, and there were a lot of foolish people around in those days. Callie and I used to say, ‘You get what you settle for.’ Sometimes she’d say, ‘I’ll show them one day.’ ” Khouri’s other great friend was the country-music star Pam Tillis. They had met in their early 20s, at Nashville’s Exit In, where Khouri was a waitress and Tillis a struggling singer. “We threw in our lot together,” says Tillis. “We had more power as a team.” Khouri says, “We were very different, but, together, we were like a third thing,” often “racing the sun home” after a wild night out. “Callie had a toughness, but she still had problems,” says Tillis, “and she was meticulous—a real Wasp.” Tillis says she, by contrast, “was a bit of a space cadet.” According to Khouri, “Pam was one of the funniest people in the world, and scattered—she’d borrow a pair of shoes and return just one.” Khouri had been the victim of two violent encounters. Soon after she moved to L.A. and started waitressing at the Improv, the comedian Larry David was walking her to her car when “two terrifyingly young kids, one with a sawed-off shotgun, came up and relieved us of our personal effects.” Just before that, as she and Tillis had been leaving a party one night, they got jumped from behind. “I was the levelheaded one,” says Tillis. “Callie was hanging on to her purse, because she’d been working her ass off for every red nickel. I had to yell, ‘Callie! Quit your dogheadedness! Let! It! Go!’ She dropped her purse and we ran.” But Khouri later realized, “If I’d had a gun, I’d have killed them.” All of this came out in the screenplay: the two friends, one orderly, wounded, and sardonic, the other a pliant, lovable flake; the shifting of power in a crisis, where the ditz takes the reins and saves the day; the sweet revenge served to tits-and-ass-obsessed jerks; that “third thing” two people become in a fast car; the fact that being violated once can make a law-abiding, shell-shocked person snap the next time, raise a gun and pull the trigger. “You get what you settle for” became the script’s tagline. The two characters “kind of named themselves as I wrote,” says Khouri. The zany one was Thelma Dickinson; the controlled one, Louise Sawyer.” (vanityfair.com)
Bringing “Thelma & Louise” to the Screen
“They wanted to make a low-budget indie, with Temple producing and Khouri directing. (Temple’s husband, British filmmaker Julien Temple, had just directed “Absolute Beginners” and “Earth Girls Are Easy.”) “We thought we’d find some fool to give us $5 million,” says Khouri. They even had the stars in mind: Holly Hunter and Frances McDormand. Temple shopped the project and got consistently turned down. The protagonists, “basically detestable and unsympathetic, will never get the audience’s support,” one major producer decreed. Ridley Scott Enters the Picture Temple had a friend named Mimi Polk (now Mimi Polk Gitlin), who ran Ridley Scott’s production company and served as his producing partner. The British Scott, a former wunderkind director of international commercials, was coming off three well-received features: “Alien,” starring Sigourney Weaver; “Blade Runner,” starring Harrison Ford; and “Black Rain,” starring Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia. He was not yet in the position he occupies today, as one of the most successful producer-directors in the world, but he was confident and moneyed. “I was not a ‘learner,’ ” he says. Before moving across the pond he had directed “two and a half thousand television commercials in England and Europe; I could pay for my first movie.” Stymied by the rejections, Temple gave Khouri’s script to Gitlin, saying, “You’re connected, Mimi. Will you tell us if we’re mad? I mean, shit! Why are people not getting this?”
Gitlin read the script and nodded at the running riff of the women being lewdly gestured at by the oil-tanker driver; Gitlin had run into such creeps when she and her college friends drove from Minnesota to Florida on spring break—what woman hadn’t? Thelma and Louise goad, stop, and confront him. When he doesn’t apologize, they shoot out his tires. When he calls Louise a bitch, they put bullets into his tanker, and it explodes. Temple had merely wanted Gitlin’s opinion; she and Khouri were still determined to produce and direct. But Gitlin wanted to show it to Scott. Khouri feared that, with “a real director, it could all come crashing down. What if he thinks it’s some amateurish, bullshit thing?” ‘Mimi gave it to me and said, ‘This is kind of interesting. I don’t think it’s for you, but maybe we can produce it,’ ” says Scott, sitting in a conference room at his and his brother Tony’s Scott Free studios, at the eastern edge of Beverly Hills, its casual opulence attesting to his nonstop work as a director (which has earned him three Academy Award nominations for best director, two Golden Globe nominations, three Directors Guild nominations, five British Academy of Film and Television Arts nominations, and a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth) and his entrepreneurism (his 70-director operation produces, among other things, TV’s “The Good Wife”). “I saw what was unique about it immediately. Women tended to get parts as somebody’s girlfriend; this was about no one else but them. 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.” “Callie rang me up,” recalls Temple, “and said, ‘Ridley wants to produce it. What do we do?’ ” Khouri continues the story: “Amanda said, ‘Well, we can spend the next 10 years trying to scrape together money, or you can get the movie made right now.’ And both options were equally appealing.” Temple insisted, “Callie, this is an incredible opportunity! The movie will take off and become a whole other animal than you can imagine.”
“I was, in a way, a very good choice to do it,” says Scott. Given the relentless machismo of his recent films (Gladiator, which was 2000’s Oscar-winning best picture, “Black Hawk Down,” “American Gangster,” “Body of Lies,” “Robin Hood”), it might not be obvious that this unabashedly feminist piece would appeal to him. Still, Scott says, “I’d never had trouble letting women tell me what to do. All the years I’d run my company, I’d found that women were the best men for the job. Scott Free L.A. was run by a woman; Scott Free London was run by a woman. I could sit around and analyze the foolishness of men, since men are fundamentally the children in any relationship.” Scott told Khouri the script could be lighter. “I said, ‘There’s really a lot of funny shit in the movie—you should not let that go.’ I’m not sure Callie got this initially; she was going a little more seriously.” But he pressed her. “I said, ‘I want a universal reach. Comedies are so powerful because they don’t shut off half the audience. You want the males to listen. You want them to actually eat crow. Because every male in that movie”—except the Arkansas state-police detective, who alone understands the women’s desperation and decency—“is damaged goods.” Khouri and Temple agreed to transfer rights to Scott and Gitlin if they could get name actresses on board, at which point Scott would option the script, for which Khouri would be paid $500,000. Actresses’ agents were already calling. As Scott says, “Once a script goes into the printing room, it’s all over Hollywood.” Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer were soon attached, and, Gitlin recalls, “they were over the moon.” After all, the number of first-rate action scripts floating around in which women carried the whole movie was just one: Khouri’s. Meanwhile, “through story discussions we had, Callie started feeling comfortable,” recalls Gitlin. “In fact, Callie and Ridley were having so much fun we could have kept the script process going for six months.” (vanityfair.com)
Bringing Ridley Scott on Board “Thelma & Louise”
“With Foster and Pfeiffer on board, Scott went out looking for a director. “I went to four,” he says, “and they all turned it down!” He won’t name the four directors, but Gitlin remembers three of them: Bob Rafelson (who hadn’t made waves since his early-70s films, “Five Easy Pieces” and ““The King of Marvin Gardens”), Kevin Reynolds (who would soon start on “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” and later direct the financial disaster “Waterworld”), and Richard Donner (who had recently directed “Lethal Weapon” and its sequel, and would later do the third). One of the four, Scott recalls, “said, ‘Listen, dude, it’s two bitches in a car.’ I said, ‘Why are they bitches? Because they have a voice?’ Another said, ‘Oh, it’s small,’ to which I said, ‘No! It’s epic!’ And I started talking about how the proscenium—the landscape—was the third big character in the movie, and that the film is an odyssey. I didn’t realize that while I was interviewing these guys I was talking myself into it!” “I kept pressing Ridley,” says Gitlin, “telling him, ‘This kind of movie will not come around again! It’s completely a gift that it’s available to you!’ At the same time, I was helping Callie feel less reticent about Ridley as director. Because, you know, he’d done mostly action movies, and you wanted someone sensitive.”
Scott conveyed his ambivalence to his friend Alan Ladd Jr., who had served as studio executive on “Alien” and “Blade Runner.” Laddie, as he is known, who is the son of the star of such major 1950s movies as “Shane” and “Boy on a Dolphin,” was a major force in Hollywood. As the president of Twentieth Century Fox, he’d given George Lucas the go-ahead for “Star Wars;” as an independent producer and then as chairman and C.E.O. of Pathé Entertainment, he had shepherded “Body Heat,” “The Right Stuff,” “Chariots of Fire,” and “Moonstruck” to the screen. He had also produced some of the highest-quality “women’s movies” of recent years— “Julia,” “The Turning Point,” “An Unmarried Woman.” Today, surrounded by photos of these triumphs in his Sunset Strip office, Ladd wears his years of authority with appealing humility. It was to his offices at Pathé Films that Scott went with Khouri’s screenplay. Pathé was financed by a mysterious Italian investor, Giancarlo Parretti, who was rescuing troubled Hollywood studios, and Ladd’s wistfulness as he talks about “Thelma & Louise” now may well have to do with what eventually came of that union. “Ridley gave the script to me—he’d never done a women’s picture—and I loved it. We all loved it. We thought it was perfect.” In Ladd’s recollection, Scott wouldn’t let the directorship go. “We kept coming up with directors, and Ridley kept saying, ‘No, I don’t think he’s right.’ ” Ladd’s friend Richard Donner “even told me Ridley stood him up for a meeting” to discuss Donner’s directing it. “I said, ‘Ridley, obviously you want to direct this movie.’ ” But Scott couldn’t make up his mind. Meanwhile, the two stars went off to do other movies, Foster to play opposite Anthony Hopkins in “The Silence of the Lambs,” Pfeiffer to appear in the Kennedy-assassination-era drama “Love Field.”
Soon there was an enthusiastic new pair of A-listers. “Meryl and Goldie called me and said, ‘Can we come in and meet?’ ” says Ladd, of Streep and Hawn, who were good friends. “They read the script; they loved it, thought the parts were great. Meryl thought that, at the end, one of them—Thelma or Louise—should live. Of course, we didn’t particularly agree with that.” (No one involved in the movie had any doubt that the controversial ending—the women driving off a cliff, their car freeze-framed in midair—wasn’t perfect.) Scott met with them. “I had a long chat with Meryl, who would have played Louise, and I found her absolutely wonderful,” he says. As for Hawn, “She’s so funny! She said, ‘I’m buying you breakfast! I really want to do this movie!’ ” However, Streep had a conflict with another movie, and Hawn … well, as Ladd puts it, “I’m very fond of Goldie, and she was a big star at the time. But I didn’t think she was right for the part.” By then Scott had made a decision, after Michelle Pfeiffer told him, “Come to your senses and direct it yourself.” He came to his senses.” (vanityfair.com)
About Director Ridley Scott
“Ridley Scott was born on November 30, 1937, South Shields, in Durham, England. “Scott’s father was in the military, and the family lived in several different places during World War II. After the war they settled in the Teeside metropolitan area of northeastern England. Scott attended the West Hartlepool College of Art, earning a bachelor’s degree in design in 1958, and in the early 1960s he received a master’s degree in graphic arts from the Royal College of Art in London. After working as a set designer and director in British television, he began in 1967 to direct commercials, eventually numbering more than 2,000, for his own company. His attention to visual stylization in his commercials, including distinctive atmospheric lighting effects, continued into the feature films that he began directing in 1977. His first was “The Duellists,” set in Napoleonic France, which won the best first-feature award at the Cannes film festival. His next three films were fantasies: “Alien” (1979), a science-fiction–horror story; “Blade Runner” (1982; recut 1992), a dystopian fable (based on a Philip K. Dick novel) notable for Scott’s vision of a grim, dark, polluted future; and “Legend” (1985), an allegorical fairy tale. Both “Alien” and “Blade Runner” were widely regarded as classics.
Scott’s next several films were set in contemporary times, including the thrillers “Someone to Watch Over Me” (1987) and “Black Rain” (1989); again, these were admired for their visual styling…in Thelma & Louise (1991)…the film’s lead characters (played by Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon) and feminist theme were the focus of critical attention, and he received an Academy Award nomination for his work…he directed “Gladiator” (2000), which starred Russell Crowe in the title role; Crowe subsequently appeared in a number of Scott’s films. “Gladiator,” a critical and commercial success, won the Academy Award for best picture and earned Scott his second Oscar nomination for best director. His next film, “Hannibal “(2001), was a box-office hit…and his military drama “Black Hawk Down” (2001) was nominated for four Academy Awards, including best director.
Scott’s subsequent films—which were generally well received and often contained examples of his trademark visual flair—included “Matchstick Men” (2003), “Kingdom of Heaven” (2005), “American Gangster” (2007), and “Body of Lies” (2008). He later helmed the action adventure “Robin Hood” (2010), which starred Crowe and Cate Blanchett; “Prometheus” (2012), a sci-fi thriller that revisited the eerie world of “Alien;” and “The Counselor” (2013), a crime drama scripted by Cormac McCarthy. Scott brought his spectacular sensibilities to…”Exodus: Gods and Kings” (2014) before returning to space with…“The Martian” (2015)…The latter film received seven Oscar nominations, including for best picture. Scott’s films from 2017 included “Alien: Covenant” and “All the Money in the World,” about the 1973 kidnapping of oil baron and philanthropist J. Paul Getty’s grandson…Scott served as a producer for a number of films and television programs, including the series “Numb3rs” (2005–10) and “The Good Wife” (2009–16).” (britannica.com)