Callie Khouri, a 30-year-old music-video line producer, was driving home to her apartment in Santa Monica on a spring day in Los Angeles in 1988. She didn't realize it at the time, but during this seemingly routine drive back to her home, Callie was about to experience an epiphany. The words came to her and hit her like a bolt from the blue: Two women go on a crime spree.
"That one sentence!" Callie recalled, "I felt the character arcs- I saw the whole movie."
Unlike so many others in Hollywood, Callie had never even tried to write a screenplay before, but thoughts and ideas kept flooding into her mind. "I saw, in a flash, where those two 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," she added.
Furiously inspired, Callie began writing, in longhand, and kept going, adding more whenever she had spare time, for the next six months. Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, more and more of the story came together for her. She would write whenever possible, at odd, free hours, then type out what she had written on her office computer.
The story gradually fleshed out- two women from Arkansas, one older than the other, one a waitress, one a housewife, both in mediocre relationships, one married, one not. The two women want to escape and go off to a borrowed fishing cabin, have some fun, a few laughs, and maybe find a little adventure and excitement to spice up their fairly tedious, drab lives. On the drive to the cabin they decide to stop off at a roadside cafe and have a drink or two.
But things go off the rails at the cafe, one of the women has a few drinks and a guy she had been innocently dancing with tries to rape her. In what would quickly become a nightmare scenario, her friend sees the attempt and fatally shoots the man. The planned fun but innocent weekend escalates into full scale getaway from increasing numbers of various and sundry lovers, strangers, police and G-men.
And the two women realize that they had never really lived, never tasted the romance and adventure life had to offer before, and in a bittersweet way, they have their revelation when there was nowhere left for them to go- and their only valid recourse is death.
Callie Khouri had a good friend named Amanda Temple. Callie and Amanda worked together as producers, working on "horrific" videos with Foreigner and Mötley Crüe.
Amanda was to recall an incident of a director yelling out at Callie during a video shot, "I want more girls with bigger t**s, Callie! And less clothes!"
Amanda: "Callie and I used to say to each other, "You get what you settle for."
Sometimes, Callie would say, "I'll show them one day." Callie and Amanda would dream of selling Callie's screenplay and making a low-budget independent film, with Amanda producing and Callie directing- they envisioned Holly Hunter and Frances McDormand as the two leads. After being turned down by several studios, Callie and Amanda finally got the break every Hollywood hopeful dreams of- they got the screenplay Callie had written into the hands of someone with enough clout to actually make it happen.
Through a friend, acclaimed director Ridley Scott, director of Alien and Blade Runner, had received and read the script and wanted to get involved. Ridley met with and interviewed several directors before he finally realized the truth- he wanted to direct the film himself.
Called Thelma and Louise, the casting of the two leading ladies was the next hill to climb. Word had quickly spread about the hot new script and many female a-listers were already showing interest.
The first pair of candidates were Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer. Both of them were very interested and talks began. But delay after delay kept stacking up and finally both left and went on to other projects (Jodie began work on Silence of the Lambs and Michelle started shooting the Kennedy assassination era drama Love Field.)
Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn, both red-hot at the box office at the time, were very eager to do the film. "They read the script, loved it, thought the parts were great," remembered producer Alan Ladd Jr.
"Can we come on and meet?" they asked.
The film's bittersweet, soon-to-be-iconic ending where the Thelma and Louise decide to drive their car off the Grand Canyon, had already been established by this time, and interestingly, Meryl didn't want to go in that direction. Meryl thought one of the characters, Thelma or Louise, should end the film alive at the film's conclusion, while the other dies.
According to Ladd, "I had a long chat with Meryl," and Goldie told him "I really want to do this movie." But Meryl ended up having a conflict with another film and while Ladd liked Goldie, "I didn't think she was right for the part."
Reputedly, offers were made to Cher, Kelly McGillis, and Kathleen Turner to play either Thelma or Louise and each actress gave the offer a thumbs down. Then, a new female duo came under consideration.
"Geena (Davis) was pursuing me like crazy," Scott recalled. Geena Davis, who had just won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her work in The Accidental Tourist said "I had my agent call Ridley every week for almost a year."
Talks and meetings with Geena went on over an extended period of time, with Geena vacillating on which of the two women she'd prefer to play. Finally, under an unusual agreement, Geena signed a contract to star in the film, and whichever role, Thelma or Louise, was late chosen for her, she'd play. Geena said "Great! I don't care which role. But I was still thinking, "I'll probably be Louise."
Callie Khouri's characterizations of Thelma and Louise had long been set down. Louise Sawyer would be the older of the two women, the more clear-headed of the two, the more "take charge" of the pair, where Thelma Dickinson would be the slightly ditzy one, the more comical, the lighter, less pragmatic one. While Thelma was still young and innocent enough to be taken in and wooed by a lascivious man's smooth sweet talk, Louise was old enough to roll her eyes and tell the pursuer to hit the road and let her finish her drink in peace.
Scott had sent a script to Susan Sarandon, who had recently starred in Atlantic City and had played a cougar before the term was invented in the baseball drama Bull Durham. Susan was living in New York and flew in to meet with director Scott. As soon as he met her, Ridley Scott felt "Susan had the authority, the sensibility. She was Louise."
Upon meeting her soon-to-be cinematic partner in crime, Geena Davis had similar thoughts: "Pretty much the second Susan walked in the room, I was 'Are you kidding that I could play Louise? Susan was so self-possessed, so centered and together.'"
Whereas Geena had a few minor script change requests, Susan desired an in-depth analyzation and dissection of almost every scene. About the film's turning point rape scene, Susan opined "I didn't want to do a Charles Bronson revenge movie." About shooting Thelma's rapist, Susan said "Louise wants to hit him, but she loses it and shoots him."
With the film's two main stars established, the male roles now had to be cast. Pretty much every guy in the film was either a predator, a sleaze or a buffoon, with one exception. The character of Arkansas detective Hal Slocumbe was written to be the movie's male linchpin. While every other guy in the the script was either trying to use, deceive, ridicule, or bed down one or both the title characters, Hal was the only man who realized the truth- that the two female criminals were actually basically decent human beings who'd got caught up in a domino effect of bad luck, bad decisions, and bad consequences.
When Harvey Keitel, often cast as a hood or a thug (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver), met with Ridley Scott, the director coaxed him to take the Hal role. "Come on, you get to play a good guy for a change," Ridley egged him on. Keitel finally agreed come on board, and his Hal character gave the film a much-needed male moral compass.
To play Darryl, Thelma's husband (and by far, the movie's biggest jerk/buffoon) Geena Davis suggested Christopher McDonald, her ex-boyfriend (hmm), who had appeared in the sequel to the iconic Grease, the much maligned box office flop Grease 2. Christopher came in to his audition decked out in a polyester suit and sporting cheap jewelry, he'd even grown a mustache to look more like Darryl. Ridley Scott loved it and Christopher became part of the ensemble.
Michael Madsen also inked a contract to play Jimmy, Louise's boyfriend. Madsen had met with Susan Sarandon at a local restaurant called (coincidentally) Louise's Trattoria. The two hit it off immediately. According to Michael: "We talked and talked- never about the movie, just about everything else. We liked each other. I knew that I could do it, and I knew that she knew we could do it."
Now just one main male role was left to be cast- that of J.D., "almost a male prostitute," said Ridley Scott in describing the smaller, but very important role. George Clooney was to audition five times for the J.D. role before finally losing it to the guy who was to be his future buddy and later frequent co-star. (Twenty years after he had auditioned with her, George Clooney happened to be sitting by Geena Davis on a plane. When he mentioned to her about his auditioning with her for the movie. she had to admit the truth- she had no recollection of ever meeting, let alone auditioning, with him.)
A struggling young actor who had appeared on the TV series Dallas also wanted the J.D. "young hustler" role. Brad Pitt has indelible memories of what was to be his breakout role: "Ridley had been one of my favorites since I sneaked into Alien as an underaged teen," he reminisced. He added that "The script was incredibly well-written, especially when compared to what I had access to at the time."
At his audition, when Geena Davis got an eyeful of the 25-year-old hunk, she became girlishly giddy and weak-knee. Feasting her eyes on the masculine eye candy, Geena kept flubbing her lines and ruining take after take. The recent Oscar winner actually apologized to the completely unknown young stud muffin, who took it all in stride with good humor.
When director Scott and the studio executives were trying to decide which young male should be awarded the J.D. role, they talked about several candidates, but never mentioned Brad Pitt. Frustrated and exasperated, Geena Davis finally burst forth with a forceful "Can I say something?" They replied "Of course," and Geena succinctly (and sarcastically) told them "The blonde one. Duh!"
(As a bizarre irony/coincidence, Brad had actually already lost an audition to play a character named J.D. in the 1988 movie Heathers. He was beaten out for the J.D. role by Christian Slater. Christian Slater had auditioned for the Thelma and Louise J.D. role and Pitt returned the favor).
With cast now intact, Thelma and Louise began production, not actually in Arkansas, but in Bakersfield and the San Fernando Valley of California. Made on a $17 million dollar budget, principle photography began in June of 1990. The 12 weeks of production were actually relatively easy compared to the long and very drawn-out casting process.
An early location scouting trip from Arkansas to Oklahoma had proven unsatisfactory and it was decided by all concerned that California (and briefly, Utah) could serve as the ostensible Arkansas as easily as Oklahoma or Texas.
The needless location scouting trip did, however, render forth one useful ingredient. Ridley Scott happened to catch a glimpse of a female cement-mixer driver with a pack of Marlboros rolled up in her t-shirt sleeve. He bought her trucker hat for Geena Davis to wear in the film, thinking it would represent Thelma's metamorphosis from the frilly Barbie doll she starts out as to what her character "will evolve into."
For Brad Pitt's first time on the set, he recalled: "I dealt with staying focused, knowing I was in a new league." Brad and Keitel were to film their scenes together early on and Keitel, who liked to ad-lib and improvise, assured the fledgling Pitt that it was okay if he did, too.Brad remembered: "By the end of the day, Harvey was beating me over the head with my own hat- unscripted- and I was having as much fun on a set as I've ever had on a set since."
In one of his earliest scenes, Christopher McDonald accidentally tripped and fell in his driveway. Instead of stopping, he improvised, in character as Darryl, yelling angrily at his co-workers, berating them as he clumsily rises to his feet. Director Scott loved the bit and kept it in the movie.
Later, Brad's J.D. and Christopher's Darryl encounter each other. It was Brad's idea to "do that little rumba," taunting and teasing Thelma's husband about bedding down his wife. His baiting was so realistic and so visceral, Christopher actually became furious at Brad and had to be restrained from attacking him. Christopher: "Ridley had to put these two mooses on me to hold me back- but by take four I'd calmed down."
During the filming, Davis and Sarandon developed a close friendship and camaraderie off-screen. Geena: "We were always conspiring about something."
During the scene at the cafe, they asked the prop man, "Do you have any real tequila? Because it's easier to act if we taste alcohol." He said sure and the two women started throwing back shots. They began giggling and laughing between takes- "We're so drunk. This is great." Later, when they were informed how little actual alcohol they had actually consumed, the two, like Laurel and Hardy in a comedy short- became instantly "sober."
For the rape scene, Geena Davis had to feel both repulsed and woozy. As her post-rape reaction, she had to throw up- egg whites were used to simulate vomit.
Some of the men on the set "indulged." Michael Madsen recalled: "I walked out of the hotel in the morning and Brad would be smoking a joint." He added: "We got stoned together a couple of times. Every actor finds his way to make it work- that was his thing."
The sex scene between J.D. (Pitt) and Thelma (Davis) was an important part of the film, but Geena Davis insisted she was too self-conscious and insisted "I can't take my clothes off." Ridley Scott didn't force her, but instead started interviewing Playboy bunnies to be a body double for the apprehensive star. Geena's trailer was right next to Ridley Scott's, and for two hours she watched as a line of curvaceous Playboy bunnies kept entering and exiting his room. Finally, for whatever reason (disgust? anger? guilt?), Geena stepped forward and said "Okay, I'll do it!"
Ridley Scott recalled Geena Davis' sex scene with Brad Pitt as a star making moment. "He (Brad) kept saying "Muss his hair up a bit. Wet it down. Just give it a second- give me some spray." He recalled personally spraying Evian on Brad's abs. Tired of seeing her male counterpart getting all the attention, Geena finally blurted out "Uh, Ridley, Hey! I'm the girl in the scene! Okay?"
Five cars were used during filming- all identical 1966 turquoise Ford Thunderbirds. They were classed as: one "star car," one camera car, one back-up car and two stunt cars. "I got so sick of the car- it took me weeks to stop driving like a maniac," recalled Susan Sarandon of her life after production had wrapped.
For the film's unforgettable, dramatic conclusion, where the women drive off the edge of the Grand Canyon (actually a location in Utah), three empty car shells, each containing a dummy Thelma and a dummy Louise, would be used. A special ramp was built over the faux "Grand Canyon" bluff.
It was the last day of filming and director Scott had exactly 45 minutes at the end of a long day to get this imperative shot just right. By accident, the first car, set up as a test, went over the edge of the canyon at a weird angle. Everyone's heart sank. Luckily, the next car went off and was photographed perfectly for the film's later-to-be iconic final shot. Then Sarandon and Davis were each made up and given their final close-up shot.
"Let's keep going," says Thelma.
"You sure?" asks Louise.
Sarandon then improvised giving a kiss to her new-found soulmate, before Louise accelerates the car and the two fly over the Grand Canyon's edge, with Hal (Keitel) in desperate pursuit, trying to stop them, along with a swarm of police cars and a helicopter flying above. Thelma and Louise had now officially wrapped. "It was very emotional, there were hugs all around," recalled an onlooker.
Thelma and Louise premiered on May 24, 1991. Reviews were pretty much good, right on down the line as far as direction and performances were concerned.
Both Sarandon and Davis were nominated for Best Actress Academy Awards. But as if to thumb her nose and stick out her tongue at the Thelma and Louise people for initially rejecting her, Jodie Foster waked home with the Best Actress trophy for her performance in Silence of the Lambs. Ditto with Johnathan Demme, who beat out Ridley Scott for the Best Director Oscar for his work on Silence of the Lambs. Callie Khouri, who had started the ball rolling, did, however, collect a Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen Oscar for her Thelma and Louise script.
Thelma and Louise was complimented as well as criticized on various fronts. Many liberals liked the strong feminist message, but hated the gun violence which was necessary to "rescue" the female protagonist. Many conservatives like the "gun as protection" message, but found the film strongly anti-male. The film did well at the box office, taking in around $50 million dollars in its initial run, making a nice profit, but hardly setting the movie world on fire.
In 2017, countless women in America finally decided they were tired of being the working world's Rodney Dangerfields and the "Me Too" movement was launched. These women, who had only wanted to have a job, work at it, try to achieve their dreams and give themselves a better life, had instead been groped, grabbed, pinched, molested- and often much worse, by their male superiors, and often male counterparts. Now these women were speaking out and being cause instead of effect. And the liberty-taking men who had humiliated them were now being humiliated themselves- along with losing their jobs (and reputations).
It's hard to pinpoint the exact genesis of the Me Too movement (although we know where the phrase originated). But perhaps its primordial moment occurred not in real life, but on a movie screen.
Its initial trigger was perhaps viewed by millions of moviegoers (although they didn't realize it at the time), when they watched onscreen, as a woman was being raped and her best friend saw it happening and picked up a gun, looked the rapist squarely in the eye, and blew his brains out. Maybe the "me too" movement was unwittingly ushered in almost three decades ago by two movie characters.
Two women named Thelma and Louise.