Thelma & Louise was released 30 years ago. Now, The 2021 Bentonville Film Festival、 which runs by Geena Davis, who had a wonderful reunion with writer Callie Khouri to look back on their landmark film that left an indelible mark on American culture.
Synopsis : Meek housewife Thelma (Geena Davis) joins her friend Louise (Susan Sarandon), an independent waitress, on a short fishing trip. However, their trip becomes a flight from the law when Louise shoots and kills a man who tries to rape Thelma at a bar. Louise decides to flee to Mexico, and Thelma joins her. On the way, Thelma falls for sexy young thief J.D. (Brad Pitt) and the sympathetic Detective Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) tries to convince the two women to surrender before their fates are sealed.
Q&A with Actress Geena Davis and Writer Callie Khouri
Q: It’s really hard to believe that it’s been thirty years. When you were working on this movie, when you were writing it when you were shooting it, obviously it was unique then and it’s still unique now. Did you know at that point that you were doing something different that might come to mean a lot, both for film history at large and in the history of feminist film? Were you actively thinking about what this might come to mean for women?
CK: Well, there was absolutely no way to anticipate the reaction. I think we were all a little bowled over at the time. I did know that it was different than any movies that I was seeing at the time, certainly, and that was what compelled me to write it. I felt like I didn’t see movies that represented the women that I knew or the way that I wanted to experience films.
I always felt there was a tremendous amount of shame in going to the movies as a woman, because the characters were just women that I wasn’t. I didn’t find them overly relatable. It had really been since the movies in the Forties where you saw those firecracker women who were in control of their own destinies and had full-blown characters. That was the kind of stuff that I loved and I didn’t see that, and I was longing for it.
I also really loved outlaw movies and I loved the West, and I loved the notions of escape movies and things like that. It was a really interesting time in my life, because I had been producing music videos for awhile, and really was not at all enamored with the way women were represented in that genre.
I had never written anything before, I had no reason to expect that the movie would even get made. I just thought well, I’m going to do this and I’m not going to let anyone stop me. Because eventually somewhere there will be somebody with enough money to say “Okay, go ahead and do it.” And I‘m just going to keep searching until I find that person.
It didn’t go exactly that way, because fortunately I was able to get it to Ridley [Scott] and he wanted to do it, which smoothed the path for the making of the film. Otherwise it probably could have taken me another twenty years to get the money. I felt really blessed. But I also felt like it had kindof a life of its own, from the time it first popped into my head as an idea all the way to now. The movie has kindof been something that wanted to be in the world. But I could not have anticipated that, no.
Q: Were you thinking that this would be a special movie in the long haul?
GD: No. No. I thought it was the most special script I’d ever read, because it has two – two! – incredibly extraordinary female characters in it. I was bowled over by it and decided I have to be in this movie. But we had no idea that it was going to strike a nerve the way it did, and it was a big shock. We hoped people would like it, we hoped people would see it, but nothing about it said – to me at least – this is going to explode, or this is going to be a cultural landmark, or anything like that. So it was very surprising, and thrilling when it happened. I mean, to be able to be part of something that lasted this long in people’s consciousness is incredible.
CK: Geena, I just found the cover of Time Magazine recently, going through some archival boxes, with you and Susan on the cover. I remember that day walking through an airport, and looking over and seeing you guys on the cover and thinking “What???”
GD: I know!! That was incredible! It was, like, less than two weeks after it came out that we were on the cover of Time Magazine. It was so amazing.
Q: I was reading that editorial. There was the recap of all the debate that was happening around the movie, and also a separate editorial about, is this really feminism? Is it not really feminism? So I have some notes here. New York Daily News called it “justifying drunk driving and robbery,” etc.
GD: Yes. That was our intention, of course, to justify all that.
Q: Justifying drunk driving and manslaughter, and also “degrading to men”. But then some other people liked that. But also women didn’t agree on the movie either. It looked like some women took offense that “this isn’t really my understanding of feminism” versus others supported it. It’s always exciting when a movie stirs up debates, but I’m wondering how you took it at the time, and how were you fielding those crazy reactions that it ended up on the cover of Time?
GD: That was so stunning to me that they had three articles about it. And two of them were quite negative, like “Oh my God, what has happened to the world?” I was like, “They had two negative – it so struck a nerve that they had two negative reactions to it. It seemed crazy to me. And one of the things people said to me a lot was “this is negative toward men”. I would say, “Well, no, look: there’s like seven male characters, which is far more than two female characters, and they come with a range, from Harvey Keitel as a really good guy on to” whatever. And so it was this long explanation. Then I saw an interview with Callie after that, and they asked her the same question. And she said, “So what?”
CK: This was all so crazy, it just kept proving my point over and over again. What was expected from females and what was considered “acceptable” behavior and all of that was so rigid that anything outside seeing them get shot, raped or otherwise dehumanized seemed to just really upset people. And seeing men – I made this point about ten million times – I certainly could not ever have created in that movie a male character as diabolically evil as anyone in any Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese or name any male filmmaker you want. I mean, they’re free to have the worst villains in the form of males ever. But God forbid a woman talk about something that real women are actually faced with all the time. To this day it proves my point.
I became less and less patient with people. You can go back and find them – there are questions that would come to me like that, and I would just go “Kiss my ass”. Just kiss my ass – I was so over it.
Q: It’s just so funny. As you said, you would see these types of male characters in other movies. But I think the question becomes, once this behavior gets questioned and confronted by women, No – you can’t go there. Maybe that was the discomfort –
CK: I think that it’s still – and it’s certainly true for black filmmakers and a lot of minority filmmakers and women. You’re under this mandate of having to produce something that is going to be a role model. And I was just like, “Wait a minute. Why do they have to be role models?” I didn’t sign up for them to be role models. That wasn’t the purpose, that wasn’t the point. Why am I having to work under that stricture when nobody else is? Again, every single little bit of that kind of criticism just proved why the movie needed to exist even more.
GD: Entertainment Weekly did this really funny thing. I don’t know if you saw this, Callie. But they wanted to make fun of the fact that people kept saying it was so violent, and so they made a little chart. Lethal Weapon had come out right around the same time. And they said “number of bullets fired: Thelma & Louise – 7; Lethal Weapon [a thousand]. Killed: [Thelma & Louise] – 3 including the stars; Lethal Weapon – 160 [or something].” It’s like, come on, what are you talking about?
Q: People are not accepting what this movie was. I was a very young teen at the time, but even then I would have conversations with my friends, or family members who had seen the movie. And I noticed at that point that they were all questioning Thelma’s behavior. Obviously I didn’t have the vocabulary then; now I realize they were getting so dangerously close to victim-blaming and I would find myself defending Thelma, flaws and all. “No, that’s the character, she has a journey.” I’m wondering if you have these conversations with women especially, who were like “Oh, if only Thelma didn’t do this or that”.
GD: So do you mean that she deserved to get raped or something or –
Q: Not quite that, but just saying “Oh if only she hadn’t danced with that guy in the bar” and I’m like “Well, she can dance with a guy in the bar and that doesn’t mean that she had it coming”. They were getting really close to that victim-blaming. I still see that in culture.
CK: Of course, it’s still there. I mean, it’s still there when we see these young college women coming out and saying their experiences of what happened to them, and it’s like “Well, you shouldn’t have been drinking. You shouldn’t have been this, you shouldn’t have been that.”
Really, the truth is that they want us all in the house. And you know, there are the women that go along with that, too – that go, “well, that wouldn’t happen to me.” But they’re just the lucky ones. They’re certainly not any smarter. It’s happened to plenty of women, no matter how smart you are. And look at all the women that went through the Harvey Weinstein thing, or Bill Cosby or any of them. We have these stories in our culture: famous men who have been perpetrating actual heinous rapes.
I mean, there is no justice for women. And that’s what the movie was about. There is no justice. It’s so rare that women find justice around a sexual crime. That, sadly, has not changed. And that, sadly, is why Thelma and Louise somehow manages to remain relevant. Much to my chagrin, because it shouldn’t be. We should have moved past this years ago.
Q: I’m fascinated by both these women, but Thelma especially. Geena, your character has such a complete arc in the movie. You evolve. That’s something I’m craving today onscreen because that is a lot more exciting than seeing a role-model superhero saving the world. I want to see a real woman who may fall down but then gets back up. So I want to ask both of you about crafting this character and embarking on this journey, what it was like and what it meant for you.
GD: Well, it was incredibly thrilling to be able to play a part like that. That’s the most complicated character that I’ve ever played, and probably more than a lot of people have ever played, because of that tremendous arc. You have to make it real and you have to make it believable. She goes from a sortof mousy housewife to a suicidal road warrior in the space of three or four days. So it was incredible, and it was my job to make that real and believable.
For me, the point of the movie is, it doesn’t matter what mistakes you make as long as you’re in charge, you’re the one making the mistakes. The point is [Thelma and Louise] remain in charge of their own destiny no matter what. And that’s the lesson they happily learn and are willing to make their last stand on. They’re going to stay in charge of their lives. I think that’s what’s important.
CK: I wanted to talk for a second about it. Because people think of the movie in terms of “making a statement” – which of course it did. But that wasn’t what we were doing in terms of the characters. The characters weren’t making a statement. The characters were living the experiences that were happening in real time in front of them. The complexity of watching women realize “Oh my God, we’ve just made the biggest mistake of our lives. We are not going to be able to get out of this” unless we do x, y and z.
What you find in yourself, what happens when you dig deep down in there, you don’t really know. Like Louise didn’t know she was going to shoot the guy because he mouthed off at the wrong time. Thelma didn’t know that she was going to end up falling for some hitchhiker because that was out of the realm of her experience prior to being presented with it. And so I wanted a full emotional, complex experience of these two women discovering who they were as they went on this trip and becoming themselves as they go down this road.
Ridley and I used to talk about this. What was flying off of them is the shackles that society has put on them and that they no longer have access to. They’re not going to be able to get back in the box no matter what happens. Not the one that they were in. They’re going to go into another box – with bars on it.
So I wanted the emotional intensity of that journey and this thing of finding yourself in the midst of all this expectation, all this stuff that other people think about you, being the thing that defines you, and finding that none of what you thought about yourself was true. None of what other people thought about you was true. And now, who are you?
That’s really what it was about, and it was purposely meant to be an incredibly emotional experience for the women who were watching it: a recognition of, you are more than what the world expects of you. You are more than somebody’s wife, you are more than a waitress, you are more than a victim. You have your own desires, you will make your own stupid mistakes, you’ll be brave when you didn’t think you could [be], you will do things you previously thought absolutely impossible. And you’re a whole person. That’s all I was trying to do: make a whole person.
Q: That road trip sortof happens on two levels: the literal driving and also the journey that’s happening. I love the script so much because it breaks a lot of rules. But also it doesn’t have what someone would call a conventional happy ending. Can you talk about breaking those rules while writing your script, especially the ending? Was it hard to convince people that the movie had to end this way? And what about having Ridley Scott play a role in that as both a director and as an ally?
CK: Well, he certainly played a huge role because he could have easily done what millions of other directors have done, which is go “Oh, that didn’t test well, let’s change it. Hire somebody else to write a new ending and go shoot it.” But Ridley really, I think, believed strongly in the power of the ending.
It’s been thirty years, so I’ve had a couple of chances to talk about this movie in the meantime. So I have said many times, I don’t think of that suicide as a literal “suicide”. I think of that as a leaving of this world because you are now too big to fit in it. And I thought of it as a taking off, kindof into the mass unconscious where they live today, because I think the characters do remain very much alive. We didn’t show a pile of smoking wreckage, any of that. It was very much meant to be metaphorical. So it kindof was a happy ending, because they didn’t get put back in the box. They didn’t get caught, nobody got to punish them. They got to fly away, and they did it because that was what they wanted. To me, that’s very powerful. It’s sad, because the world isn’t ready for women like that. The world isn’t ready for women to speak their mind and stick up for each other and not be what somebody else wants them to be. So that was the sad part to me. But they left on their own terms.
Q: It’s really significant when Thelma says “Let’s not get caught.” She’s [discovered] freedom, and who would want to give that up at that point?
Another rule this movie breaks is we’re so used to seeing women objectified in the male gaze. But this movie flips it, and [the Brad Pitt character] is objectified. This movie is honoring the female gaze, and celebrating that desire that is born in Thelma, something that she hasn’t really experienced before. Can you talk about your approach to that? That was thrilling, because our sexuality is always boxed and that was really groundbreaking.
GD: Yeah, I thought that was such a groundbreaking, such a great scene. Susan said, “Honey, I’ve got so many sex scenes, you go ahead. You have fun.” Brad was such an incredible, integral part of this movie, he did such a great job. Obviously, we can see now he’s an extraordinary actor.
But yeah, I thought that was wonderful. It only came up rarely, but some people took exception to the fact that I would be almost raped one day and then sleeping with a hitchhiker the next or two days later. But it made total sense to me and for that character. I thought, she’s finding a new self and peeling off layers, and —
CK: And rape is not sex.
CK: So her almost getting raped wasn’t something she connected in her mind to sex because what happened to her was not sex.
Q: I read somewhere that you were instrumental in casting Brad Pitt for that role. He thanked you when he won the Academy Award recently.
GD: Oh, did he? I didn’t notice. That was so sweet. I was touched about it. But I read with five candidates for that part because they wanted to see the chemistry – the head of casting and Ridley. And they were all great. They were all incredible and wonderful. But at the end I was sort of eavesdropping on their conversation as I was packing up and I hadn’t heard them talk about Brad yet, who came last. I said “Should I weigh in at all?” and they were like, “Oh yes, yes. What did you think?” I was like, “The blond one?” and they were like “Oh, yeah, we thought he was great.”
But I’ll tell you a funny story. I was on a plane with George Clooney one time. We were having a very nice conversation and he said, “You know what? I hate Brad Pitt.” I said “No, you don’t. Isn’t he like your best friend or something?” He said, ‘No, I hate him because he got that part in “Thelma and Louise”. I said “Oh, did you want to play that part?” He said, “Well, couldn’t you tell when I auditioned with you?”
And Mark Ruffalo was one of the people too, evidently.
CK: That’s an embarrassment of riches, for sure.
GD: I know. We could have picked anybody, but it was Brad.
CK: Everybody was thrilled that it was Brad to this day. We remain thrilled that it was Brad.
Q: Geena, when you so deservedly won the Jean Herscholt Humanitarian Award, in your speech you said this was the movie that changed everything for you. So what was it in Thelma and Louise that shifted something in your career and the way you started engaging with projects in media?
GD: It was women’s reaction to the movie. Obviously, I loved playing that role and being a part of that experience. But what really struck me profoundly was how women reacted, because I was used to a certain level of a number of people recognizing me in the supermarket or whatever. They’d say “Oh, Beetlejuice” or “Hey, The Fly!”
And then it was completely different when Thelma and Louise came out. People were like “Oh my God, I have to tell you about my experience” and “This is who I saw it with” and “This is how many times I saw it” and “This is how it changed my life”, and “My friend and I acted out your trip.” I’d say “Really? Which parts, exactly?” And it just really brought home for me how few opportunities we give women to feel like that coming out of a movie, as Callie was talking about earlier. To feel like they identify with a character so they’re inspired by them. And we even kill ourselves and women come out of a movie going “[wow]” and so what is that?
It’s like what Callie was talking about earlier, about the impact that it has and the uniqueness of being able to identify with the female characters. Almost every movie that comes out, men get that. They can identify with the lead character. But not so much for women, so it just cemented that in my mind and I thought well, from now on, I am going to make choices, women in the audience in mind. What are they going to think about my character? And not that I wanted to play role models because I’m really against that whole idea that women have to be role models, or some perfect version in fiction.
But I knew that I wanted to play characters that were in charge of their own fate or make their own decisions or lived by their own choices. So I’ve tried to do that ever since
CK: But you’ve done way more than that, Geena. You’ve done way more than live by that just for your own choices. Because you’ve spent every year since pointing out that those roles aren’t out there for women, and how sparse they are and how bleak the landscape is and how completely out of balance it is. And that’s been a huge service to women filmmakers everywhere. Because by highlighting the paucity of films by women for women and about women, you’ve helped pave the way and make the case for the fact that women are a huge part of the moviegoing audience.
Certainly, we’re seeing it a lot more in streaming. I look at a character like the one Kate Winslet just played in Mare of Easttown and stuff like that. I’m like, see, that’s what I’m talking about. That’s a giant step forward. It’s great. And so they do trickle in. But it’s not generally what we’ve seen over the course of lo these many years. There have been these incredible, great parts for women, and your institute has kept that front and center. And that has been a huge, huge thing to me and a lot of other people. So thank you for doing that.
Q: You really have done monumental work through your institute. It’s just one thing to say you have these issues; but once you put numbers around it, it’s something that people can’t argue. Because what’s infuriating is a lot of people think “Oh, that whole feminism issue, that’s ancient history.”
CK: And they say 7% of the films were directed by women. And you’re just going, “That’s statistically impossible that only 7% of women are qualified to direct films. It’s not possible. Why would we put them in charge of children if they were that incompetent?
Q: So would you say that Thelma and Louise in a way was directly or indirectly a catalyst for you in founding the Geena Davis Institute [on Gender in Media]? Because I also read that you just wanted to have girl characters for your children to read as well. They just aren’t as many as boys, right?
GD: Well yeah, absolutely. I think it’s because on Thelma and Louise I had a Spidey sense about how women are portrayed. Because when my daughter was two and I decided to start showing her little kids’ stuff, G-rated movies, and pre-school shows and things, I immediately was floored to see that there were far more male characters than female characters from minute one – that we would be showing kids this incredible imbalance from the beginning. And it was just mind blowing to me that we would be teaching kids to have unconscious gender bias from the beginning. So that’s what made me start the Institute.
Actually, what made me start the Institute was asking all around town, people in my industry, whether they noticed how few female characters there were in TV and movies screened for kids. Every single person – I’m talking dozens and dozens of people that I asked, said “No no no, but that’s not true any more. That’s been fixed.” They were very sure about it and even cared about the issue. They were like, “No, at our company” — or our studio or whatever – “this is a top, top priority for us. And we do everything – we know that we are doing everything we can to do right by girls.”
So I was like, okay, well, now I need the numbers. Because if people can’t see what they’re doing, then nothing’s going to change. And it turned out that as you estimated, that the numbers changed everything. As soon as I had the numbers, then I figured I can meet with the creators privately in person, because I could probably get a meeting with them.
So I don’t have to educate the populace about this problem and they’ll try to demand more female characters. I just can go quietly to the creators and say “Hey, did you realize this?” and share the numbers. And they were appalled, and they have made some great progress since then.
Q: To me at least, Thelma and Louise unfortunately still feels like an outlier where it should have been like a no-brainer that this movie could have been the norm, and it’s been thirty years. Yes, a lot of progress has been made, but still not as fast as I would have liked to see.
Why do you think Thelma and Louise didn’t become the Hollywood norm after the movie made a cultural impact?
GD; What do you think, Callie?
GK: I think time is moving very slowly on correcting issues of both sexism and racism in our society. I was a little kid in the Sixties watching civil rights marches, and you would think that we would be in a time where we wouldn’t have to protest violence by the police against people of color. But we’re apparently nowhere near past that.
You wouldn’t think that we would have to be still talking about women’s autonomy over their own bodies, but it’s getting ready to rev back up in a way more ferocious than we even saw it then. And this is a society that really wants to keep a lid on women and people of color. And it just does, and there’s no way around it. There’s no other explanation. It makes me really sad. I’ve tried to make every possible excuse, but I just feel like we are a white supremacist patriarchy and it ain’t gonna “go gently into that good night”. And we’re just going to have to keep chipping away.
And by the way, I hate all of those words. As much as I hate the words “role model”, “empowerment” – I mean, I hate those words. They drive me insane. I hate that that’s what we’re still dealing with. It wears me out. Tiresome. We should be so much further along by now.
Q: Hopefully it’s not all bad news in terms of representation and female presence onscreen. What are some of the things that you noticed in the last five years, or the last decade, that were positive, that you would like to see more of in the industry? Obviously streaming changed a lot of things. But let’s talk about blockbusters and box office, traditional, the way people used to define “this is what’s going to sell”. Were there any improvements that you took note of?
GD: Well, as far as the data goes, we update our research every year and it goes all the way back to 1990. From when we started until now — it’s just last year, I believe – we found that for the first time, the lead characters in television made for kids and movies made for kids achieved parity. Whether it will stick or not . . . It’s been getting progressively better.
One of my huge goals was to have the world, the fictitious world that the movies are taking place in, be populated by half women and be incredibly diverse. You know, just reflect real life. It shouldn’t be that controversial. But we’re not anywhere near there. Yet. And it’s not true of all movies, the whole industry. But stuff specifically made for kids in the past fifteen years has definitely improved as far as the lead characters.
CK: I think I look to people like Reese Witherspoon, people who are going out and purposely finding projects like Big Little Lies – a lot of the projects that Reese has done and championed and shepherded for the last several years. That’s a woman who has had success and she has used her powers for good for other women. That is so heartening to me. To see her accomplish that: every time she gets to either stand onstage as a producer or something, not just as an actor in it, but as a person who has generated the whole project, I feel like that is a giant step forward.
I think they are out there. There certainly are not as many as we would like to see. And we’ve said for years: every single time there is a huge blockbuster movie that’s filled with women, they go “well, that was a fluke” and that gets frustrating. But they do succeed.
Q: And on the flip side, one thing that personally frustrates me as a film journalist is a female-driven or female-directed project that fails, “Well, we tried. See?” Men are allowed to fail over and over and over again until they hit a high. But you have this one shot and [that’s it], time to move on. Have you noticed that personally in the industry, that there’s only one chance versus someone else who is a guy gets ten chances
GD: Right. Well, it’s appalling though, that phenomenon. I heard Paul Figby introduced when he was making Bridesmaids. Before it came out, all he heard was “If this movie fails, it will be the end of movies starring women” or something apocalyptic would happen. Yeah, no pressure.
But that’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. It’s absolutely, positively ridiculous that that would be even discussed. Because that’s the problem: they’re so rare that they all become one-offs. And that’s what happened with Thelma and Louise. All the press predicted “This is going to change everything” and we’re just going to sit back and let’s see it – doesn’t happen. And then every time a movie comes out that has significant women or a significant woman in it, “this is going to change everything”.
CK: Well, the other thing that I think is equally nefarious is that they’re called “chick flicks” and instantly demoted into some lower form of life. You know what I mean? And it’s like, a war movie is a great work of art when really it’s a movie where men can go to cry about how fricking brave they are or whatever. That can get made all the time. And you know I’m not a big fan of seeing women cry and all through the movie. That’s not my favorite thing. But any time you have a group of women together, it’s immediately relegated to this ash heap of tripe. It just doesn’t deserve that. Women-driven projects don’t deserve to just be denigrated, and they are. And that makes me mad.
But I understand that things are taking a hell of a lot longer to change than we ever thought. I mean, these thirty years did go by in the blink of an eye, I must admit. Thirty years is not a very long time in the overall scheme of things. And we would like for things to change really quickly. But that’s why you can’t ever let up for a second. You have to just be so persistent and not take no for an answer, and just know that there are other doors.
And then, we’re in a time right now where we’re getting stuff made that isn’t fluffy. It’s really hard, especially if it’s a female thing. They want a lot of “Sex in the City” and I don’t mean to denigrate that. But it’s just that it’s a certain type of light entertainment that even when they delve into things that’s not what’s driving people to it. It’s the frothiness of it. And that’s so easy to get made compared to anything that would really deal with real women and real problems.
Q: You both have had such beautiful careers since Thelma and Louise in that thirty years. I can’t help but wonder: since unfortunately this is an industry that’s both ageist and very pro-men, did you ever find yourself in the position where you thought “okay, that opportunity got away from me. If I were a man I would have been treated differently.” Have you experienced that?
GD: Well, for me, it’s just a fact that older female actors work so much less. There are just far, far, far fewer roles. There are far fewer roles even if you’re young, but at least there’s more opportunity potentially to work. But it’s just a fact. It’s not something that you are shocked by or surprised by. It’s just numerically the way it works out.
CK: I think one of the things that’s really difficult for women is you never go into something thinking that you’re less than. And so when the world is constantly trying to prove to you that you are, you’re confused. Do you know what I mean? Because that’s just not how you see yourself.
I wanted to direct Thelma and Louise and of course could have, had I chosen to go a different path with it. Once Ridley wanted to do it, it became one of those decisions like okay, you can either spend the next x number of years (maybe never) trying to get this movie made, or you can let this big famous director who wants to make it make it right now. So that was an easy choice, especially as I got to know him and see how deeply he understood the characters.
I then wrote another movie that I wanted to direct and the studio was like “absolutely not”. And I was just like “What?? Why?” I mean I’m standing there with an Oscar for writing and I know what I’m doing and I came out of production and I know how it all works. I watch other guys who haven’t directed a two-car parade get giant movies.
It took ten years for somebody to trust me to direct a movie after Thelma and Louise came out. And I thought, that would not have happened to another guy. A guy would have been able to go to a studio and make a deal that included him being able to direct. I know as sure as I’m sitting here that it took me longer than it did guys that I’d been working with.
Q: Was there a scene that was specifically hard or challenging to shoot that you still recall to this day?
GD: The scene that stands out most in my memory is the last scene. We shot it last on the last day. There was only a small window of time, where we actually only got – I think we only got one take of us doing that final moment. It was an amazing thing because Susan and I had had such an extraordinary experience making this movie. It meant so much to us and we loved it so much.
We turned to look at each other and it was like, we’re not only acting out our scene where they’re saying goodbye, but we’re saying goodbye to each other. We’re saying goodbye to this movie and this experience and how much it meant to us. So it was so emotional and incredible, and we finish it and the sun goes down behind the mountain and that was it. It was an amazing, amazing experience.
Q: When Thelma and Louise came out, a lot of people surprisingly interpreted it as a “revenge movie”. I never thought of it in terms of revenge. Were you surprised when people thought this was a revenge movie?
CK: Yes. Yes I was. I was just surprised in general at how harsh some of the reactions were. John Leo, who wrote at the time for U.S. News & World Report – I don’t know if it’s still a magazine anymore – he took such exception to it. He called it “neofascist”. And there was this other guy – I’m trying to think of his name – he had like a persona, it was something like “Billy Bob” or something like that. He would do these reviews of B movies. He wrote in Playboy magazine a diatribe that went on for pages and pages, that ended in something like “I’ve seen this many exploitation movies in my life. This one is really dangerous.”
I’m going, “Oh man, you guys wouldn’t make it five seconds as a woman. You wouldn’t last five seconds.” If that’s what it takes to upset yourselves, my God. So yes, I was completely stunned.
And not actually being a man-hater, being called one was incredibly hurtful. Especially since I have been very fortunate in my life to say that I have as many men friends as I do women friends, and very close friendships with men. And very healthy intimate relationships with people that I’ve married in my life, which is two. But it was very disconcerting because it was again a way of punishing you, it’s a way of saying you’re not behaving. Calling you a man-hater is a way of saying you’re not behaving in a sufficiently submissive manner and therefore you’re considered dangerous and outside of the realm. Sometimes people will meet me and they will be like, “oh, whoa. . .” and I’m like “Oh, my god. Grow up.”
Q: There was a drive-in screening of Thelma and Louise in LA and I read some of the coverage.
GD: What I didn’t realize was that people would honk when they liked something.
CK: It was clapping – clapping with your car horn. The clapping was really great. My stepdaughter came with me and she was taking pictures of everybody. There were a lot of drag Thelmas and Louises there. It was really great. It was just a wonderfully fun night and I’m so glad we got to experience it and have a little reunion.
GD: Yes, it was wonderful.
Q; Susan Sarandon said she didn’t think how challenging it would be driving and acting at the same time. Did you find that as well?
[The car was a green 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible that in the film belonged to Louise.]
GD: Well, she drove a lot more than me. I did some, yeah. She had to do some fast driving and complicated things. No, I don’t remember having a problem with that. But the cars were very finicky. There were six of them, I think, and we threw three off them over the cliff. But one drove well, one could drive fast, and one broke down all the time. There was different uses for them all.
Q: Where are the remaining three cars now?
GD: I’m not sure –
CK: One’s in the museum.
GD: One is in the Petersen [Automotive] Museum [in L.A.] and they loaned it to us for the drive-in screening here in L.A. So we had to take pictures of it and everything.
CK: I wondered for years why they didn’t just give them to you, me and Susan.
CK: I’ve been waiting for that T-bird to come rolling in the driveway.
GD: That would be amazing. I’d drive around in it with Susan. It was fun.
CK: It’s been wonderful to talk with you again, Geena.
GD: Yes, you too. Me too. I could talk to you forever. When I was first trying to get cast in the movie, I remember I met with you a bunch to talk about the script and you told me all the backstory of all the characters. But thank you. It’s been really fun talking.
CCK: Really fun. And it meant so much to me that your performance so perfectly embodied every moment that I hoped would come through in that so perfectly. As a writer, you don’t get that very often, especially when you’re not directing. When you’re directing, you at least have a shot at, can I get you there myself. I’m blown away. There were certain scenes where I was just like: that is it, exactly as I hoped. It’s a huge gift. Really, it was one of the most satisfying experiences of my life, and so I am forever in your debt.
GD: And I in yours. Thank you.
Q: It must be great that thirty years later this is still a big phenomenal movie. I want to thank you both for making this movie and also for being here joining this conversation.
Here’s the trailer of the film.