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Interview: Callie Khouri on Female Likability and Nashville's Upcoming Guest Stars

Women and Hollywood By Melissa Silverstein | Women and Hollywood January 14, 2014 at 1:33PM

The "Nashville" creator speaks with Melissa Silverstein about what to expect in the second half of her show's sophomore year, the demand for female likability, and the one women-directed film that's been shut out of Oscar season this year.
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Callie Khouri
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images North America

Nashville creator Callie Khouri first came into prominence as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Thelma and LouiseShe is also the director of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Mad MoneyBelow, she speaks with Melissa Silverstein about what to expect in the second half of Nashville's sophomore year, the demand for female likability, and the one women-directed film that's been shut out of Oscar season this year.

What should we look forward to in the second half of the second season?

Musically, we have a lot of combinations of people singing that are a little more unexpected. We have a cast that is so unbelievably talented, and we have them all singing together in different combinations a lot more in the second half of the season. It's really, really great.

And I see you have all these guest stars?

Yeah. I say this with all humility: people want to be on the show. It's not like we have to go out and dig. It's been really great. It's kind of like, "Well, why would we say no?" I mean, yes, obviously there are reasons you could say no, but at the same time, they want to do it. When we started this show, I had some trepidation about whether or not we wanted to cross into the real world, but we are such a part of Nashville in reality. You can go to The Grand Ole Opry on the weekend and you're going to see Jonathan Jackson [Avery Barkley] or Chip Esten [Deacon Claybourne] or Claire Bowen [Scarlett O'Connor] or Sam [Palladio, Gunnar Scott] -- they're going to be there performing. I felt like the fact that they're actually integrated into the Nashville world made me feel better about the Nashville world become more integrated into the show.

Kelly Clarkson, though -- that's big news.

Yeah, that's big for me. She is so wonderful, so game.

Well, she's just a great role model for the show. She actually epitomizes what I think the show is about.

Exactly. She's very natural and it was really fun having her.

You directed the episode coming up this week. This will be your second of the season -- is that correct?

Yes.

And you're directing another one this season?

Yes, I am.

Amazing. So you're doing the directing, and you're doing the writing -- you have the whole thing going on.

It's so much fun. I'm really having a blast. The first season was the steepest learning curve I think I've ever been on in my life, with the exception of Thelma and Louise. [Before Thelma and Louise] I'd never written a script. That was sort of like getting shot out of a cannon. To walk into a world where 21 scripts have got to be out the door was so overwhelming. This season has just been so much more fun because I'm used to the pace, and I'm getting to direct more. For me, the show feels like it has hit its stride. The cast has settled in. They all know their characters. It's fun.

Let's talk a little bit about Hayden's character, Juliette. There's an ongoing conversation in the culture about women and unlikeability and likeability, and what we "want" to see or let women be. I think what you've created in that young woman is a young woman who doesn't need people to like her.

I think she wants people to like her, but ultimately she doesn't know how to get people to like her because she cannot not be herself. That's the price of being yourself sometimes. It's like, yeah, the difference between "she's a strong leader and knows what she's doing" and "she's a bitch." I don't think of her as a bitch. First of all, she's playing a young girl who's had to fend for herself for most of her life with a horrible parental situation. She is somewhat made of steel. And then she's young, and she makes really bad decisions sometime too. Someone sent me this sign: "Everything happens for a reason and sometimes that reason is that you're stupid and you make bad decisions." What I'm mainly interested in is not having women characters that have to be perfect, obviously. That's something I feel strongly about and have that in every single thing I've ever done. None of these women are obligated to be saintly.

Do you think that this conversation has progressed at all? Is the fact that we're having this conversation about it good or is it just ridiculous that we still have expectations of women that we don't have of men?

I just think that we don't have these kinds of conversations about male characters. The fact that we have to discuss that there are female characters doing something that female characters don't get to do is a little bit galling. It's 2014. There's still so far to go.

I'll come back to that. I want to touch on the redemption of Avery as part of the arc that I felt was a really big part of the first part of the season. I think he was pretty hated last year; he was pretty much a dick. He's one of my favorite characters now. Talk a little bit about how you were able to redeem him.

Well, this is one of the great things to me about television. If you were trying to do a character like that in a movie it would be totally unbelievable that he would change as much as we've had this character do so. You just wouldn't have time. The decision to do this with him came from, in no small part, because Jonathan Jackson the human being is such an incredibly wonderful person. He's a very, very good actor. He was really great at being a dick, but he's so not a dick, that it was actually painful for me to have people disliking him. So we decided, well, we'll put him through hell. 

We always saw him as a character that, whatever his ego was, and whatever else was going on with him, he was an artist. He was actually a real artist. There would be a time where he would go "Ok, I'm done compromising." With that came wisdom and the humility of having his ass kicked. Therefore you're able to show a guy who has got a lot of different colours and a lot of different layers that you didn't really see at the beginning -- because he was smug and he thought it was going to happen for him. [But] then he realizes after a number of years in Nashville, "Boy. It might not [happen for me]. Now what?" And also, because he was a guy Scarlett was in love with. [But] who was the guy that she was in love with? Part of it was you couldn't understand why was she with him. Well, this is why she was with him. She was with him because he was a real artist and a good person and it wasn't until he got desperate that he started to change [for the worse].

I was just reading that you were a part of helping decide the nominees for the Scripter this year. I noticed that there is one woman as a co-writer and all the rest are male writers. As a woman who has won an Academy Award for writing, where do we have to go to get more scripts from women in this top tier?

You tell me.

It's about the stories too. It's so interesting because Saving Mr. Banks --  

I haven't seen it but in fact I was just talking about it this morning with my agent. He was like, "It is a master class by Emma Thompson." I'm hopefully going to watch it this weekend.

The reason why I think Saving Mr. Banks is so impressive for Emma is because it's written by two women. The statistics are clear that when women are involved behind the scenes, you have more women onscreen and when women are involved behind the scenes, you have more women behind the scenes. It's not rocket science. One of these things is we see that all of the big Oscar awards this year are all about men. These cycles happen each year. I don't see any women. There are amazing parts for women this year -- like Emma and Cate Blanchett -- but they're all directed by men and they're mostly written by men too.

I was disappointed that Enough Said wasn't recognized. I love [Nicole Holocener]. I feel like there's a clear case. I mean, maybe people didn't think the movie was "flashy" enough or "important" enough or whatever, I don't know.

I totally agree with you.

You know, it's tough for a little movie like that to go up against big movies.

Spike Jonze's Her isn't a big movie and people can't stop talking about that.

True.

I know there's no answers to these questions, but I have you and figured you might have some insights to share with folks. You're obviously busy with television, but do you feel there's a world for you in film? Or is TV the place where you feel your voice is better suited now?

Well, at the moment I'm enjoying the kind of storytelling we get to do. The character of Avery is the perfect example. The character of Julia is the perfect example. It's like you're watching these movies and it all seems so sped up. Like, Downton Abbey is really my natural speed: that's the pace of storytelling I like. Right now, for me, it's just more fun to be able to tell these long stories. I just hope I get to keep doing this for a long time. I have to say, friends of mine who have been in TV for years have all told really me that it's so satisfying to get to do that and I was like, "Yeah, but it's still just TV," but now that TV is really like --

TV's the new film. That's what people are saying.

Yeah, it is. It is. I'm not missing features. I'm certainly not missing working for a year and a half or two years, then having something be out and be over. 

This article is related to: Television, Nashville, Callie Khouri, Female Likability, Nicole Holofcener, Enough Said, Academy Awards, Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks, Women Directors