Moving into The Driver's Seat

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Callie Khouri was a bit embarrassed to tell her friends, back in 1988, that she had begun working on a screenplay. After all, in Los Angeles it often seems as though screenplays are being written by everyone who can put a noun and a verb together, and by some who can't. But Khouri felt she was on to something special. She had grown tired of seeing women portrayed in movies as passive partners, terminally ill victims or sex objects. "I wanted to write something that had never been on the screen before," she says. "As a female moviegoer, I just got fed up with the passive role of women. They were never driving the story because they were never driving the car."

After consulting a few how-to books on screenwriting, Khouri, a music-video producer who had made videos for Robert Cray, Alice Cooper and the Commodores, started writing. Nine months later, Thelma & Louise found its way to director Ridley Scott and, through him, to MGM/UA. During the shooting, Scott added much of the phallic imagery -- the huge trucks, the giant cacti and a chemical-spewing plane -- that has riled some of the film's detractors. He also cut scenes that portrayed the close friendship between the two title characters, including one in which each confides what she fears most (for Thelma, growing old with a husband who doesn't love her; for Louise, growing old alone). While Khouri laments the loss of such revealing moments, she is pleased with the picture. "I think they did it really well," she says. "I've been very lucky."

Khouri, 33, originally hoped to make it in the movie business as an actress. The third of four children born to a surgeon and his wife, she grew up in Paducah, Ky., and went to Purdue University, planning to major in theater. But, unhappy with the roles for women in student productions ("I can't tell you how many times I played a prostitute") and eager for more freedom, Khouri dropped out after five semesters. She moved to Nashville, where she worked as an apprentice at a local theater, then supported herself as a waitress -- like Louise -- before migrating to Los Angeles. There a job as a receptionist with a production company introduced her to the world of music videos. "I loved the work, but I was unhappy with what came out of it," Khouri says. "There was the dilemma of having very strong feelings about women and then paying them to writhe to music."

Some of that frustration helped fuel Thelma & Louise. "I wanted to have it so that when you left the theater, you respected the characters," says Khouri. She is annoyed by critics who charge that her film provides poor role models for women. "They don't really want to see women operating outside the boundaries that are prescribed for them, misbehaving and enjoying themselves," she says. Nor does she take kindly to the criticism that the movie bashes men. "I certainly don't hate men," says Khouri, who celebrates her first year of marriage to writer and producer David Warfield this month. "Most guys don't relate to the truck driver or the rapist ((in Thelma & Louise)), and if they do, their problems are bigger than this movie."

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