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Crossing over to the light side

Callie Khouri trades feminism for fun making 'Mad Money.'

January 20, 2008|Lisa Rosen | Special to The Times

"Thelma & Louise," Callie Khouri's screenplay for the 1991 film about two friends on the road who embark on a journey of unlikely self-discovery, wound up winning the Hollywood newcomer the Oscar, the Golden Globe and Writers Guild awards for original screenplay. But the film turned out to be something much larger as well. The moving tale of female empowerment didn't just tap into the zeitgeist; it hit a gusher, instantly becoming a cultural touchstone and a landmark in feminist cinema.

These days find Khouri, 50, directing "Mad Money" and seeking much simpler goals. "It is absolutely unabashed entertainment," she says of her new female-centric heist flick, "and it aspires to nothing more lofty than that."

The movie, starring the perhaps unlikely trio of Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah and Katie Holmes, is a romp of a crime caper about three women who decide to rob the Federal Reserve Bank. "I jokingly say to my friends, it's the least demanding movie you'll see all year," Khouri says over a late breakfast at a West Hollywood cafe.

If that sounds like an odd comment for Khouri to make, perhaps it's that she's found more inner peace with age. Or maybe it's that it's easier to enjoy the success you find in life after sparer years spent overcoming any number of professional obstacles.

In the wake of "Thelma's" success, work was plentiful for Khouri, who spent time rewriting other people's scripts and penning the 1995 Julia Roberts-starrer "Something to Talk About." But, she says plainly, "it took me 10 years to get somebody to let me direct a movie."

When asked what the holdup was, she demurs, "I wouldn't want to say," but adds that -- at least in more recent years -- she wouldn't attribute any barriers to her gender. "It's not easy for anybody. Guys who've directed 20 pictures have a hard time getting a picture. The marketplace is going through incredible shifts right now, it's really tough out there."

Khouri initially moved to Los Angeles from Nashville in 1982 to pursue acting. She quickly figured out it was not going to be her calling, "but I loved the making of scenes," she says. "I didn't know about writing, I didn't know about directing, I chose acting because that was the result. But once I was here and I realized, 'Hey, they're not making that up,' I drifted to my stronger suits."

She landed a job as a receptionist at a production company, where she later began producing music videos and low-budget commercials. While there, she wrote "Thelma & Louise," her first script, with the intention to direct it. "It was a story that I saw so clearly," she notes. "That being said, when Ridley Scott wants to direct your movie, that's the right choice."

In addition to Khouri's awards, the film garnered five other Oscar nominations, including one each for Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis. (It also introduced moviegoers to a young actor named Brad Pitt.) But "Thelma & Louise" has enjoyed a resonance in the pop culture consciousness afforded to few films -- it's been referenced in countless other movies and television series and even served as the basis for two recently published books: "Thelma & Louise and Women in Hollywood" by Gina Fournier and "Thelma & Louise Live! The Cultural Afterlife of an American Film," a compilation of six essays by noted scholars, edited by Bernie Cook, about the legacy of the film.

Still, it was almost a decade before Khouri got the opportunity to direct her first feature, 2002's "The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," which she adapted with Mark Andrus from Rebecca Wells' novels. The cast featured plenty of A-list actresses -- Sandra Bullock, Ellen Burstyn, Fionnula Flanagan and Ashley Judd -- and though it was met with mostly tepid reviews, it performed well at the box office.

As with "Mad Money," the film centered on strong female characters; when asked if that was her focus, Khouri replies, "It's what I'm predominantly offered."

Not that such films are easy to get produced, with the international market traditionally favoring action over dialogue. "Mad Money" was first set up at MGM five years ago but was put on hold after Sony bought a controlling interest in the studio. Producer Jay Cohen then got the rights to the script back, and the project ultimately was made with independent financing and bought by Overture Films.

Truly in her element

Despite the hurdles, Khouri says she relishes every aspect of directing. "I like all the people, I like all the choices, I like getting to pick every single aspect of how something's going to look, I like working with the [director of photography], I like dubbing, I like the music . . . I am so happy when I'm directing, it's ridiculous.

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