From Thelma & Louise to Nashville, Callie Khouri’s characters have the depth of the Grand Canyon that made her famous

"I was in East Nashville last night,” Callie Khouri enthuses. “I was there at Lockeland Table; I love their bone marrow so much! And I don’t even like that kind of thing.
     “I feel like an animal when I’m eating it,” continues the platinum-maned Oscar winner, savoring the thought of the previous night’s meal. “I know it’s a delicacy for years and years, but there’s something so primal to it — and all the nutrition.” 
     Khouri is just that kind of woman — wherever she is, she gets the most out of it. Whether it’s an East Nashville restaurant, a job most would find mundane, or — according to many — being a top shelf catalyst for Nashville’s recent “it” city explosion, Khouri finds the best in wherever she is and explodes its meaning for all that it’s worth.
     Khouri, for those who don’t recognize the name, may well be the catalytic convertor on Nashville’s surge. Not a civic planner, a tourism lobbyist, or rainmaker, she is — beyond the 1992 Best Original Screenplay Oscar winner for Thelma & Louise — the creator of Nashville, ABC’s behind the scenes in the music business and Music City primetime blockbuster now finding its home on CMT: Country Music Television.
     Whether you watch the adventures of Rayna James, Juliette Barns, and Deacon Claybourne or not, plenty of people do. And they hang on the epic rises and plummets of the rollercoaster that cuts a lot closer to the bone of the country music business than the stars and the executives like to admit.
     “Someone who’d had a long and illustrious career said to me, ‘You know people. You know what the deal is,’ ” Khouri says softly. “And I’ve had other country artists say they can’t watch, because it’s too real, because they’re afraid they might see something that’s happened to them.
     “People like being behind the curtain, so the more of that experience we can deliver — that’s the difference between a show that’s contrived and one where the drama is real. These are artists trying to deliver something great, and to deliver something that works … and it’s not always the same thing. And then there’s the biggest question: When you do deliver that home run, how do you own it? Or (do you) become a slave to it?”
     Khouri understands the nature of becoming a slave “to it.” Not that this is a story about Nashville, beyond being the latest creative endeavor to bear her mark. There will be no talk of plot twists or cliff hangers, as we explore the woman Mayor Megan Barry deems “one of the smartest and savviest people I’ve ever met” and CMT Chief Brian Phillips, who ultimately picked up the weekly hour-long drama, marvels “is so cool headed, she doesn’t seem to get rattled by anything, even her show being cancelled.”
     Let’s start where it really matters: with the woman whose breakthrough film — an allegory about her best friendship with a not-yet-signed singer as a young unrealized creative person in Nashville, the stakes of integrity, and the constrictive nature of female archetypes — was just entered into the National Film Registry.
     The statuesque blond was born in Texas, raised in Paducah, Ky., and came of age — after leaving the college track at Indiana’s Purdue University — as a waitress yearning to create in Nashville, Tenn. Though she’d go on to study at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, it was her time slinging drinks at the Exit/In that actually forged Khouri’s fierce creative focus.
     As her friend from back then — and later CMA Female Vocalist of the Year — Pam Tillis remembers, “She read books and saw films and had thoughts. I was starved to have someone like that in my life. When we’d finish running around, doing the things kids do at that age, we’d sit up and talk and talk all night. It was amazing.”
     Khouri loved music, loved the rogues and writers who inhabited the cracks around Music Row. But she didn’t sing or play or crave to be onstage like her friend Pam, so the young Syrian-American packed up her creativity and headed — like so many dreamers before her — west.
     Undaunted by how hard it was for women to break into the industry, she made commercials, worked on music videos — and wrote. It was the writing, marked by strong character development, actual life textures and tenor, and, ultimately, a denouement that became a feminist manifesto, that distinguished the good-natured, quick-witted Khouri as a visionary.
     The friendship between Geena Davis’ naive Thelma and Susan Sarandon’s worldly Louise gave feminism a living, breathing humanity. Two women limited by their respective realities broke through expectations and rejected all that was “their role in life.” It also took the well-honed notion of the hero’s journey, with the script spun to give it a double X chromosome twist; so pungent on many levels, it captured the imagination of high-impact British director Ridley Scott, best known for his action and effects films, including Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and Hannibal.
     The little film with the not-so-subtle message about female repression became one of Scott’s three Oscars for Best Directing. It also landed Khouri on the cover of Time
     Seismic moments: It’s what the woman who also directed the femme fiction force The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood specializes in. Be it the square-peg Southern Junior Leaguer flipping out at a meeting of the socialite group — and spilling the beans on all the gossip no one mentions — or Diane Keaton, Katie Holmes, and Queen Latifah’s hilariously real bank robbery in Mad Money.
     If decried by Rush Limbaugh as “a feminazi” in the wake of her film debut, time has more than exonerated the female Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid. But pushing the woobie spot is part of what makes Khouri’s work so empowering — and the female bonding in light of all the tacit bondage is its own kind of thrill.
"I know she gets tagged as a feminist,” Brian Phillips says, “and I don’t know how she feels about it; but she writes great female characters. And who better to write great female characters? She’s got layers and layers of things going on, accomplishments, a personal life — and she’s just so funny.”
     Mayor Barry concurs. “One of the things I love about Callie: She writes roles for strong women, and strong women of a certain age,” Barry says. “It’s not just 25-35, but it’s 45-60. You see these women as powerful and dynamic. Rayna’s in charge, trying to run a label, maintain a career, raise her kids; but she’s in control of her career, making things work in a very real way.”
     Beyond the female empowerment that has been a rich vein in Khouri’s work, there’s the role location — and humanity — have always had. And it is genuinely a role, amplifying the depth of her characters, whether the gorgeous panoramic Grand Canyon final shot of Thelma & Louise or the languished framing of the sprawling Southern house and horse farm in Something To Talk About. Even Brad Pitt’s honey-dripped video vixen shots — the first time America saw the eventual superstar — was as much about objectifying a regular — if gorgeous — guy as social commentary.
     So when the word started to spread Callie Khouri was coming to Nashville, to make a TV show, about the music business, for a major network, one had to wonder. How — or why — would someone of her stature do this? What would it mean for the coastal bias toward country music, when the battle of “country & western” is still being fought at major media outlets, educated cocktail parties, and high dollar charity events that love hay bales and barbecue, or the even more ubiquitous denim & diamonds.
     “Broadcast networks use shorthand to sell concepts,” Phillips admits with a laugh. “It’s crazy pitch language: Think Dynasty, but set in Nashville, or think Dallas, but set in Nashville. It makes us (as locals) a little sensitive. And six years ago, when Nashville hit, we had seen a lot of really terrible reality TV that was unrealistic, poorly made, and seemed to go out of its way to play to the worst stereotypes.” 
     To that end, when Nashville hit, I was writing a weekly wrap-up for The Hollywood Reporter. Being told one of the publishers didn’t like the show — and didn’t see why they needed to cover it, I was not surprised to learn we weren’t going to continue the endeavor after the seventh “Insider” was published.
     Again, Phillips has perspective. “You have to remember we come from a longstanding belief in Nashville — with TV and films — they never get the town right,” he says. “It goes back 41 years to Robert Altman and Nashville, which is a wonderful cinematic achievement, but Altman didn’t particularly care for Nashville.
     “He saw it as an insular business, in a red state and a red town,” he continues. “That’s how he played it. And it stuck. Somebody associated with doing a sequel to Nashville said it wouldn’t happen because ‘latter day Nashville is a capital of narcissism.’
     “So you hear someone — even Callie Khouri — is doing a show with a network that comes with a recipe for drama that’s pretty formulaic, you’re gonna be skeptical. But I tuned in for the first episode, was seduced as I always am by T Bone (Burnett)’s music — and was amazed at all the small details they were getting right. Little things so unusual, it was obvious somebody cared.”
     That somebody was Callie Khouri.
Today, Khouri is running errands. Dropping screeners at Fed Ex, picking up a few things at the grocery store. Connecting to the mundane is part of what gives her characters their authenticity, and she credits the characters and their stories for pulling people in. She also credits the city for being one more character in her mix. 
     “This is a town that’s always been underestimated in some ways,” she allows, moving through traffic. “Look at how many universities and colleges are here. Now the restaurants are really good, and we have a few great hotels, so we got here at a good time just as everything was ready to coalesce.
     “Now when people come here, they’re having all these experiences, and they go home with a good feeling,” she says. “Obviously, there’s the Opry or a particular show, but there’s all this music here beyond that. We’ve been able to do the music that didn’t make it out of Nashville, to show the depth of that scene because there’s really been no way to export it.
     “That’s always been the thing I treasured most about this city, the music.”
     “It’s one of the most important things in her life,” new showrunner Marshall Herskovitz says, calling from California at day’s end. Beyond producing acclaimed films The Last Samurai and Jack Reacher, he was the force behind such iconic humanity-driven television series as Thirty Something and My So Called Life.
     To him, Khouri’s passion for music is the X factor. “It’s that appreciation for music, the people who make it, and the business around it that sets Nashville apart. And Callie’s very committed to getting it right.”
     Americana icon Buddy Miller, who served as the music guy when T Bone Burnett stepped down after the first season, concurs. Having coproduced Dr. Ralph Stanley, Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, and Patty Griffin, as well being a key man in Emmylou Harris’ Spyboy and Lucinda Williams’ and Steve Earle’s second set of breakthrough records, integrity is critical to Miller.
     “The best part of working with Callie — and music director Frankie Pine — is how committed they are to getting the music right,” Miller explains. “So many great songwriters who don’t write for the Row but who write great songs have had their songs placed on the show; they’ve had that validation, and the exposure they wouldn’t get otherwise.
     “And Callie really cares about this part of the creative community.”
“I want it to be real, and as real as it can be, and still be an entertaining show,” Khouri says of the challenges. “We have songs that are hits that would never get played on the radio for real — and I wish that weren’t the case. I wish there was a way to make a difference, because these songs deserve to have an audience.”
     In a life follows art moment, many of the cast now tour under the Nashville banner, playing shows on the weekends. Tour buses, sound checks, the whole deal. If Chuck Easten and Sam Palladino weren’t yearning to be artists when they were cast, they’re living the life now.
     And in art tapping into life, it’s not uncommon to see Nashville set up somewhere in East Nashville shooting a scene. It’s not a matter of being hip, but more plugging into the existential mojo that is driving Music City as a creative force.
     “I like being over there because it feels very — it’s like a weird time in New York before everybody was looking at Brooklyn as the new ‘hip’ place,” Khouri says. “There’s always something interesting going on; I still like the bars and the music and the scene. East Nashville feels alive, too, and creatively, that’s an incredible resource to plug into.
     “Gunnar (the songwriter-type aspiring star) lives in East Nashville,” she continues. “There’s nowhere else he could live. And Avery (the alternative act who flamed out and is now finding success as a producer) is an intentional character: When he lived with Juliette (one of the leads), obviously he lived with her, but he’s an East Nashville guy through and through.”
     For Khouri, that energy is an intangible that can’t be replaced anywhere else. She recognizes the frisson is the result of many forces.
     “There’s a freedom that’s going on there that feels real good,” she marvels. “When I lived here (originally), East Nashville was a good place to get stabbed. Downtown, too. They weren’t abandoned, but it was just a bunch of rundown buildings, and rough characters hanging around with nowhere else to go.
     “It’s beautiful how it’s all reclaimed and re-energized. It’s completely reborn. When you go to a restaurant, the young waiters and waitresses are so knowledgeable about what they’re doing. It permeates everything.”
     Mayor Barry and Phillips recognize those amazing shots of Middle Tennessee that are a true Khouri signature. But beyond the tourist-enticing location porn of the city’s landmarks and countryside, there’s the complicated nature of her characters. For even when Khouri is engaging her inner Dorothy Parker wit, she is seeking to reach the deepest places of 
human engagement.
     If that sounds like an on-ramp to a soap opera — and heaven knows with the plane crashes, crazy assistants, bed swaps, gay country hunks, addicted adults, aspiring kids, and crooked business execs, it’s seemingly basic math — it isn’t. While storylines and conflict or “action rising” are required to keep the show moving, sensation is anathema.
     At ABC, where Shonda Rhimes rules, Nashville had its own set of challenges trying to maintain the twists needed while avoiding the OMG moments that drive so many of the network’s primetime dramas.
     “ABC has a lot of Shonda Rhimes shows — with the twists and turns, a lot of big things happening,” Khouri says. “It’s a whole other kind of way to do this, and I have always wanted to stay more on the emotional side … allowing the characters to drive, and their lives determining what’s going to happen.”
     Beyond having Rhiannon Giddens joining the cast — “as a regular person, not someone aspiring to be in the music business” — plans call for the show’s first transgendered character. But where some might tease that story line out and tart it up, Khouri’s notion is even more radical.
     “We have a trans person playing a trans character, but it’s in no way issue-related,” she cautions. “It’s just someone who has a job, and they’re in the show. Because, you know, transgender people have jobs.”
     Pausing, Khouri almost smiles at the reality around the way she sees the world. Then she confesses half-rueful, half-annoyed, “It’s so nuts that people have a hard time accepting reality. [Being transgender] is a fact, like people have brown hair. Why are we so concerned with it?”
     Herskovitz validates Khouri’s appearance, saying of his new collaborator, “I see someone who fully owns her humanity, right down to all the conflicting impulses that make up each and every one of us.
     “Human beings are complicated. Human beings are contradictory. And if you look at Callie through this lens, she’s a student — and (people in her eyes are) a study in ambivalence. She sees they feel one way about something, and another way, too. She sees it and owns the fullness and complicated nature of people, which is what makes her characters so interesting.
     “When you look at the characters she creates and the way they interact, there’s a real intimacy between people, not just fake conflict.”
     Khouri takes her characters’ truth with a seriousness we’d all hope to find in our own worlds. She recognizes the fiery nature of genuine, creative people — and the conflicting motives of the people around them.
     “I think working from reality makes it easier,” she says with a sigh, deconstructing her show’s dynamics and cliffhangers. “I don’t just come up with crazy shit that people would never do; I come up with crazy shit that actually happened.
     “It’s reality storytelling. It’s crazy, but it’s true: These things are based on someone’s emotional history. It’s like, to me, history and backstory are everything! John and June went through all kinds of crazy stuff, crazy times. People here, driving off the road, people getting in nine kinds of trouble. You wouldn’t be doing the due diligence if you acted like all these larger than life situations didn’t happen.”
     Beyond the “it-happened-one-time” ethos that bubbles under her surface, Khouri — along with the people from Opryland Entertainment who were a driving force getting Nashville launched — is seeking to show a bit more dimension to the country music business and the humanity around musicians in general.
     Deacon Claybourne, the tortured can’t-get-out-of-his-own-way elder hunk, is a classic example. Well past 40, battling not just the bottle, but a stubborn streak of pride that keeps him from accepting grace when it’s offered, he is an archetype: that Everyguy most women at one time in their lives has tried to save.
     As the true — and often denied for a variety of circumstances — love of Rayna James’ life, he could easily be a caricature. Kind, wise, human, the reluctant sex symbol embodies the way Khouri tries to build and develop her characters.
     “Deacon is based on a real person,” she explains. “So I’m always really mindful of what we do with him, because people in those straits are in it for their whole lives, whether they want to be or not. Staying constantly on guard, constantly being afraid and aware of backsliding, you can’t play that for sensation.
     “And you also have to accept how many times it doesn’t have a happy ending, what a struggle it is from day-to-day. It’s something I really enjoy watching and writing, because it is what people are experiencing every day in the real world, so I want it to feel real.”
     Khouri pauses for a moment, letting the notion settle. Never one to overplay the drama, she recognizes what she’s been saying — and the exploitative nature of her current medium. Once the fraught has dissipated, she picks up her thread, defining perhaps the biggest driver behind the show.
     “I want to teach people how to empathize with people going through those struggles — or any struggle,” she continues. “You go through it in a way to maybe make it real, you know? You feel the frustration of having someone in your life like that, someone who just can’t quite get it together. And rather than just writing them off, you root for them, you recognize the different ways to deal with the issues, and maybe you come to understand, too, how hard life is no matter what you’re doing.”
     Citing an amazing cast and characters, the journey they’ve all been on, a new writers room comprised largely of people who’ve never been to Nashville and a new “show running team” with Herskovitz and producing partner Ed Zwick, the woman who once toted drinks at the Exit/In is still finding new challenges and thrills in an already exemplary career.
     Always curious, always willing, Khouri has recently sold her Santa Monica home and purchased one in Nashville. (Her husband, T Bone Burnett, maintains a house in LA, for the record) Stunned by the Hail Mary play that has kept her show in production, she manifests the desire that drives her own writing and directing into far larger returns.
     “Getting cancelled and picked up?” she says of the white knuckle journey from ABC to CMT. “That’s impossible, but it happened. Like a lot of things on this show, the unthinkable was real.”
     Phillips laughs thinking about the scramble to save Nashville.
     “This is a deal with a lot of partners, and we were almost immediately pegged as where the show was going to land,” he now marvels. “But it wasn’t that simple. Even as I was getting all these congratulations messages — when the deal wasn’t done —and we were still trying to figure it out.
     “We all had collective high blood pressure for three days, but what gave us the confidence to really pound through was the fans. They had made their roar heard through social media; we’d see the comments, the Save Nashville Facebook pages, #SaveNashville hashtags on Twitter, old-fashioned letters and emails. It was profound, all the ways the fans of this show told us. ... We were at the CMT Video Music Awards after-party with lawyers and executives working on deal points, hammering through the details, so we could resolve this in a way that worked for everyone. Cut to us onstage at CMA Music Fest on the River Stage announcing to all those fans that Nashville was going to live! But that’s what Callie inspires in people.”