By Jane Barbara
When I heard Callie Khouri was going to present a Master Class at the Athena Film Festival at Barnard College in NYC, I was determined to make it there even if I had to hitch up my two Goldendoodles to a sled and dangle hot dogs in front of them.
Since I took on the responsibility of creating WIFV’s annual filmmakers weekend, I have been trying to get Khouri, the Oscar winning screenwriter of Thelma and Louise, writer/director of Divine Secrets of the Ya –Ya Sisterhood and, writer/creator of Nashville, as a featured presenter for ScriptDC. If there is a Callie “groupie” – I am that gal. To be able to meet this once aspiring actress, now an inspiration for so many female filmmakers, has been an item on my personal bucket list – like – forever. To be able to cross it off my list, I must thank Women and Hollywood blogger Melissa Silverstein. Thank Barnard College for presenting the festival – and my big sister, Ann, who took me to see this film back in 1991.
Ann and I were brought up in a traditional blue-collar Italian American household. Even though our Dad was the Man of the House, seated at the head of the table waiting for dinner to be served, he respected and valued the four very opinionated women in his life. And when the women’s movement took root in our house, Dad learned how to make us dinner. There were a few differences of opinion, especially with the sexual revolution, but for the most part Dad believed women were equal because he saw how tirelessly his immigrant mother worked to make a better life for him.
Ann dragged baby sister everywhere. Even paid for my bus ticket to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the ERA amendment because she wanted me to see history being made. We marched. Lobbied. Celebrated. Believed it was just a matter of time before the words “equal” and “women” would be in the same sentence and added to our Constitution. Unfortunately, for the female population, there were states not as evolved as our Dad.
When Thelma and Louise came out, Ann insisted we see the critically acclaimed film. I was now 38 and had endured my share of male chauvinism. When trying to break into set design, a male set designer told me I would never find work. Not because I was not talented enough – because I was a woman. While working as a commercial artist at Madison Avenue firms I got groped and phone stalked. As a publication designer at Exxon Corporation my Boss believed it was perfectly OK to declare how great my breasts looked that day. Every so often, a male co-worker would remind me I was taking jobs away from men who had mouths to feed. Apparently, having to feed my own mouth did not count. The Manager who hired me, actually said, “You better not get pregnant”. I doubt he warned the guys he hired about getting their wives knocked-up.
I am sharing these personal stories for those gals who were not even a glint in their mother’s eyes when Thelma and Louise came out and don’t understand how it was. We are not talking the dark ages here. This was how women were treated in the 1980s. Forget about fighting to get a job that was defined as “male”. There was a time that jobs were listed (in newspapers) as “Male” and “Female”.
Tired of putting up with this, Ann and I created our own graphic design firm to forge our own destiny and, like the advertising slogan declared, Just Do It! With, Thelma and Louise, there was finally a film that illustrated how we felt and experienced our lives. Imagine that. A film told from the women’s POV.
What struck me about Khouri’s experience was how it is so similar to many of our WIFV members. Khouri grew up in the South. One of her jobs was as a waitress in Nashville. Like many of the women in the entertainment industry, Khouri tried acting. Not wanting to have to pay for heat, she ended up out in Hollywood to study acting. Problem was Khouri realized she did not really like being looked at. Needing a job, she found employment as a receptionist at a production house that produced commercials and videos and worked her way up. When she took the job, Khouri did not even know what a screenwriter or director did.
Timidly, she tried her hand at writing but never finished anything. She had this idea of writing a screenplay about two women who go on a crime spree. That is all. Khouri did not set out to write The Definitive Feminist Film of our time. She was just happy to have finally finished something. And, yeah, she was in the right place at the right time. Knew people in “the business”, had friends who were able to get her script into the hands of Ridley Scott. She considers herself lucky to find a partner in Scott Who Did Not Want to Change Anything. Scott respected Khouri and her story.
Most critics praised the film. It won all kinds of awards. Some, however, thought it was male bashing and vengeful. Well – guess what? Sometimes men need to be bashed and slapped upside the head because they are clueless. Speaking as a Sicilian, sometimes revenge IS a dish best served cold. Khouri tapped into her own experience – which was similar to my experience, my sister’s, my Mom’s and Grandmother’s. It allowed women to declare – loud and proud – enough. We demand to be treated fairly and with respect. Not as a man or a woman – as human beings. Something even my traditional Sicilian father understood.
At the time, we all believed this film would change things. Not. After winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, Khouri should have been offered just about everything coming down the pike – including directing. Guys with less experience were offered all sorts of projects. Yet it was 10 years before Khouri was offered a directing job – to adapt and direct Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Ten years?
The world has turned many times since then. Hollywood’s business model is now more about tent pole blockbusters and bringing robots to life then producing mid-range films. And it seems they care less about character driven stories where women are the central characters. A respected Hollywood woman screenwriter told me about a pitch meeting she took where the studio executive, said, “We already have our “woman” movie for this year.” This screenwriter then said to me, “Do they tell men they have their “men” movie for that year?” It is not difficult to agree with what Cate Blanchett said as part of her Best Actress acceptance speech, “….those in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films, with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them. In fact, they earn money. The world is round, people.”
This is how round the world is. To date: Blue Jasmine’s total grosses are $94,915,738. I believe the budget was $18 million. Philomena made $88,872,944. Boxofficemojo says the budget was $12 million. Zero Dark Thirty’s budget was $40 million. It made $132,820,716. Does “the industry” know how to do the math?
Gravity’s budget was $100 million. It made $707,500,947. The Hunger Games: $691,247,768. The Hunger Games-Catching Fire: $863,818,896. Frozen has made — $1,000,595,081. What is this? Chicken feed?
Getting funding for indie films is anyone’s guess. For women (and men) producers who wish to tell women’s stories is a true struggle. I guess we have to be thankful for producers like Megan Ellison who has the funding to take risks and produce films like Zero Dark Thirty, The Master, Her, and American Hustle. So how are the unconnected to a hedge fund or billionaire buddy going to get funding? Crowd funding? Everyone has a campaign and we are all supporting something or someone’s vision.
The sad truth, it is possible Thelma and Louise would not be able to find funding in today’s world. Khouri told us, “Television is more benevolent (to the writer)”. There the writer/creator, male or female, is respected. And, A-Listers literally see the “writing” on the wall and are lining up to star in the next big television series. As the creator of Nashville, Khouri has gone full circle. Returning to her Southern roots to explore a world she knows best. And, where, she said, “The story does not end after 120 pages”.
Khouri left us with this advice: “Make your own luck”. And, I took it. When the class was over I raced up to my idol and gave my best elevator pitch to Khouri to consider being a part our 35th anniversary celebration. Khouri, however, did not say No, leaving me very hopeful because another secret she shared about “the business” — “A ‘no’ is not always a No.” What I can promise WIFV is I will continue to work at crossing off another item on that bucket list. That Ms. Khouri will say “Yes” and present a Master Class here in DC.
Lobster fra Diavolo – The Movie