Looking Back On 'Thelma & Louise' 20 Years Later Screenwriter Callie Khouri looks back on her first film, which won her an Oscar as it upended conventional gender roles and combined some of Hollywood's favorite genres — the buddy movie, the road comedy, the action film — on its way to becoming a classic.

Looking Back On 'Thelma & Louise' 20 Years Later

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Twenty years ago this month, two women tore across the American West in a green 1966 Thunderbird convertible and straight into movie history. Thelma and Louise weren't just liberated in a man's world, they were fighting mad and unlike anything that had come out of Hollywood before.

The pair entered the cultural lexicon. Women today still roar with laughter when they know they're having a Thelma and Louise moment.

For the uninitiated, the story begins with two friends - played by Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon - as they set out for a weekend, but their journey begins at a roadside bar when Louise shoots and kills a man that's attacking Thelma.


GEENA DAVIS: (as Thelma) Louise, where are we going?

SUSAN SARANDON: (as Louise) I don't know. I don't know. Just shut up, so I can think.

DAVIS: (as Thelma) Shouldn't we go to the cops? I mean, I think we ought to tell the police.

SARANDON: (as Louise) Tell them what, Thelma? Just what do you think we should tell them, huh? What?

DAVIS: (as Thelma) I don't know. Just tell them what happened.

SARANDON: (as Louise) Which part?

DAVIS: (as Thelma) All of it. That he was raping me.

SARANDON: (as Louise) Just about a hundred people saw you dancing cheek to cheek with him all night, who's going to believe that? We don't live in that kind of a world, Thelma.

NORRIS: The imagination behind these now iconic women is Callie Khouri. She won an Oscar for Best Screenplay, and she joins us now from NPR West.

Callie, welcome to the show and happy 20th anniversary.

CALLIE KHOURI: Thank you for having me.

NORRIS: When you first started shopping this around, what was the reception?

KHOURI: Mixed. You know, there were a lot of people who just didn't understand it. And, you know, fortunately, it ended up in the right hands.

NORRIS: Did they understand? Did they get Thelma and Louise?

KHOURI: Well, it depends on who they is. You know, fortunately, for me, the studio and the director and producer totally got it and fought for it.

NORRIS: And you're talking about the director Ridley Scott?

KHOURI: Yes. But there were plenty of other people that didn't at all. I saw some of the studio coverage. You know, when the script goes out, they have people who read the script and write up the notes. And some of the descriptions of it that I saw were just 180 degrees from what the intention of the story was, what - the tone, everything. So there were people who just didn't know what it was about at all.

NORRIS: Did you pull from your own memory bank or your own personal experiences for this?

KHOURI: It wasn't personal experience so much as it was a feeling about the way things were in the world, and looking around and saying, you know, supposedly, women are making all these great strides towards equality, but let's be honest: It's still very much a man's world, and you're still looked at through a very narrow filter. And, you know, if you step out of line, the punishment is severe. And, you know, this movie speaks to that feeling, I think, that women have of not being looked at as 100 percent whole human beings.

NORRIS: Do women who have seen this film still after all these years share stories with you about how this movie touched them or changed their lives?

KHOURI: Sometimes, it's - I'm surprised at how many people still have very visceral stories that they tell me in relationship to their experience of either seeing this movie or something that happened in their lives that made them relate to this movie very strongly. And, you know, I'm grateful that it resonates the way it does or did.

I mean, I've got to tell you, I've heard some horrific tales along the way of things that have happened to people that they've felt, because I wrote this movie, that they could share with me. But at the same time, I think there's a more universal experience that a lot of women have of having that best friend and that one person in the world with whom they are completely themselves, and when they are together, the outside world doesn't ever really get all the way in. It's their world.

NORRIS: Callie, can I ask you about the men in this film? There were a lot of very strong performances all around, and a lot of these men seemed to be different versions of that guy, you know, that guy that tries to step on your neck or tries to tell you what you can't do or tries to steal your joy in one way or another. And other than the sympathetic cop played by Harvey Keitel there, the men are sort of disappointing or, you know, sometimes disgusting in various ways. I want to know a little bit more about you developed the male characters in the film.

KHOURI: Every film, especially a road movie, has to have a villain, so the character of Harlan was certainly that.

NORRIS: He was the person who tried to rape Thelma?

KHOURI: Yes, the attempted rapist. And then, you know, the husband, I mean, I think that's somewhat believable, and I mean that in terms of having to ask permission to go somewhere if you're going on a trip. You know, not really being in control of your money or any of that stuff. The kind of misogyny that I was showing was so commonplace as to not even be recognizable, and I think, in some ways, that that's why men took exception to it because it was finally being shown from a female point of view, and therefore you could see what it was like on the other side of it. And I think some men took great exception to it.

Not all men, by the way. I mean, if I had a nickel for every man who would've told me that - how much he loved the movie, I would have a huge mansion made of nickels.


KHOURI: So there are millions of men who enjoyed it every bit as much as I did writing it, because it was an outlaw movie, and people love outlaw movies.

NORRIS: In the end, Thelma and Louise and I - there may be people who are listening who have not seen this film, so apologies, cover your ears. I don't like to invite people to turn down the radio, but we're going to talk about the ending because it is iconic. The two women don't face justice. They decide to just keep going, and they gun it. And there's that, you know, amazing scene with Harvey Keitel, the cop, chasing after them, and the car just goes soaring off into the canyon. Is that how you imagined it when you - when that scene first came to you?

KHOURI: Yes. I'm happy to say that's exactly how I imagined it. You know, to me, the end of the movie was never meant to be a literal they- drive-off-a-cliff-and-die kind of moment. It was a way of saying this was a world in which they didn't believe there was the possibility of justice for them, that they didn't believe that anyone would ever see their side of it enough to know why they had done what they'd done, and that this was just a way of letting them go and letting them stay who they were, who they had become. So I never saw it as a suicide. And over the years, hearing other people talk about it, I realize it's like a half full, half empty glass of water test. You know, where some people will come up and go: I'm so glad you let them get away. And other people are like: I can't believe you killed them. So, you know, to me, they got away.

NORRIS: Are you doing anything to mark this anniversary?

KHOURI: No. But, you know, now that you bring it up, I think I might need to do some alone time with a bottle of Wild Turkey.

NORRIS: Are you sure you got to be alone?


NORRIS: Because it sounds like fun.

KHOURI: When I say alone, I mean with, you know, 30 of my closest friends.



NORRIS: Sounds wonderful.

Callie Khouri, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure to talk to you one more time. Happy anniversary.

KHOURI: Thank you so much and the pleasure was mine.

NORRIS: Callie Khouri wrote the screenplay for "Thelma & Louise." It hit theaters 20 years ago this month.

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