After she won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for Thelma & Louise in 1992, Callie Khouri leisurely built a résumé of films focused on the concerns of women whose twenties are behind them (including Something to Talk About, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and Mad Money). Her first TV series, ABC’s musical drama Nashville, stars Connie Britton as a veteran country singer whose popularity is challenged by a young crossover star and the new economics of the record industry. Khouri’s husband, prolific Grammy-winning producer T-Bone Burnett (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), is overseeing the music, which has so far included songs by the Civil Wars and Elvis Costello. Vulture sat down with Khouri, 54, in her Santa Monica office for a wide-ranging chat about writing complicated women, working with her husband, soap operas, shoplifting, and crossover music.
What’s been most challenging about transitioning from film to TV? Any surprises?
If anything, I don’t worry, Oh God, I have to steel myself for an opening weekend that’s going to kill my spirit. With female-oriented movies, unless it’s something like Bridesmaids or a romantic comedy, you’ve got to really worry about your opening weekend. And I’m always telling stories about women, not younger women, and it’s just a much tougher audience to get to the movie theater. [On TV], they’re all parked right where they’re supposed to be, and I can talk to them all night long. I don’t have to apologize for it or worry about it or anything. I just have to write good stories, and that’s the end of it. Just the whole way that the film business is set up for a first weekend does not lend itself to being able to tell stories about adult women.
You’ve long described yourself as a feminist. Do you remember when you began doing that?
When I started reading Ms. Magazine when I was 16 years old, I knew, Oh, there’s a name for this. I didn’t know before that, but I knew I had some pretty serious discussions with people about women’s place in the world and had some serious brushing up against authority issues. There’s a lot of head-shaking and forehead-slapping when you start to realize just how deep-seated misogyny can be, how systemic and entrenched certain modes of thinking are that are still very much alive.
I’m putting out a character right now [with Juliette] who needs a serious talking to about the way she deals with people and the way she so happily exploits herself, all of that. But I’m also showing that she’s more than that. She’s a product of what she thinks she’s supposed to be, of what will sell, of all these things, but I want people to understand the human being that’s there, too. That’s really important to me. Obviously, I want to be careful.
Juliette’s not perfect: fantastic.
You’d hope! People always ask me about Girls with this kind of hesitation. What do I think of it? I love it. It’s awesome. I get a lot of “Where do you come down on this?” I come down on the side of “Yay, Lena Dunham. Congratulations. I’m jealous.” She’s doing something so fantastic. Maybe it’s not for everybody, but it certainly is for me. It’s got some of the most horrifying, shame-inducing things I’ve ever seen on television, and I can’t believe she’s doing it. It’s just so honest and so funny and so real and so great.
The overwhelming majority of critics said Nashville was their favorite pilot this fall and that it did for country what Smash should have done for Broadway. What do you think works about it?
We had an opportunity to make a very realistic show about the entertainment business and a family. We get to deal with politics, music, horrible family relationships, and it’s all kind of woven together pretty seamlessly. It just felt like everything fell into place for me personally, because telling a story with music about making music is something that I really, really love. Cameron Crowe’s documentary about the making of The Union [also produced by Burnett], watching Elton John and Leon Russell write an album together? Oh my God. That’s crazy magic happening, so to get to try to re-create that for people who don’t have the front-row seat that I do to country, it just seemed like it would be really great.
Was there any hesitation to do a show that involved so much music?
I almost felt like I had to do it defensively so somebody else didn’t do it and screw it up. I’ve seen so many stories about Nashville that just made me go, Wow, that is so not it. That’s so not how it works there. And, actually, I felt like I was perfectly matched to do it. I certainly have the best adviser in the world, and I have so many friends in the music business. It’s been part of the fabric of my life since I lived there in the late seventies.
Was your husband T-Bone always onboard?
No. He’s really busy, for one thing, and network television isn’t necessarily something that he’s aspired to. He is a consummate artist in the way he approaches his music production, and the speed at which we have to accomplish things doesn’t lend itself perfectly to his process. And since we’re married, collaborating means you really don’t ever leave work behind. It’s a challenge. We literally have to say, “Okay, for the next hour, we cannot talk about the show,” or else that’s all we do. It’s really easy to let your life kind of fall away and have the whole thing become about work, and that’s not what we want.
But on the other hand, he’s the best there is. I have more fun working with him than anybody else. So there’s a huge upside, too, but more for me than for him. Eventually, he had the same feeling about it as I did. “If I don’t do it, it’s going to be really bad.” Sometimes, when we’re like, "Oh shit, we need a song for such and such quick,” I’m sure that frustrates him like it does all of us.
What was your inspiration for the character of Rayna?
When I lived in Nashville, Tanya Tucker and people like that were coming up, and I’m sure that Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette were going, “What’s that noise? That’s not country.” It’s always been this battle where whoever comes up behind the reigning stars isn’t country enough. There really is a lot more crossover now.
Rayna doesn’t seem too happy about that. Where do you fall?
Well, if you listen to a Carrie Underwood song, for example, you could hear that anywhere. It doesn’t dawn on you immediately that that’s a country song. I don’t know why they bother to call it country. Why don’t they just call it a song and leave it at that? I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong. I don’t listen to a tremendous amount of pop music.
There’s something that’s real high and kind of razor-y about it. I don’t know how to say it other than that, but the vocal quality really bugs me. I don’t know whether they Auto-Tune it, but whatever they do to process it, I don’t like the sound of it. From Madonna on, it’s not for me. I like great singers. I’d listen to one k.d. lang song for the rest of my life and be perfectly happy. I just tend to prefer people that have that bent, I guess, of a real storyteller in their voice.
T-Bone told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that he would be creating “an alternate universe of country music” in Nashville. Songs by artists who now exist on the edges of country radio [like Gillian Welch, Sarah Burton and, he says these days, Vince Gill] will be spotlighted.
His taste is very eclectic. He loves Lucinda Williams and the Punch Brothers and people that are really progressive in their music. And you can kind of see what he does with it, like what he did in O Brother, Where Are Thou? He took all those old songs and did them the way they would be done if they had been written today.
But Nashville also features the country-pop of someone like Juliette. You have her single, “Telescope,” which I like —
What makes “Telescope” a good pop song for you?
Well, let me put it this way: That’s the pop song that I like because I got to pick it.
Connie Britton told us she was very nervous about having to sing.
I’d be happy if I could sing like Connie. The amount that she’s traveled in the amount of time that she’s been working on it has just been unbelievable. From the first day she sang, we were already going, “Yeah, we’re going to be in good shape. We can make that sound good.” Now we don’t have to make it sound good. It just is good.
You’ve said that it was all or nothing when it came to casting her after you saw her work in Friday Night Lights.
Yes. Because I could see the way she looked at life, at her marriage. She really sized things up. She was always paying attention. She held a worldview, and I thought it was really important for Rayna to have a similar self-awareness, the kind you’d have after so many years in the music business. When we pick up with Rayna, she’s really unprepared for change. She wants to stay relevant, not just as an artist in the marketplace, but to herself. How does she make herself keep caring? How does she keep doing work that satisfies her when it’s been her whole life? I think it’s interesting to have somebody work their way through that, and I don’t know that we see women doing that very much.
Nashville’s been praised as a “grounded soap.” In your mind, what does that exclude?
Caricature, melodrama. I mean, there’s certainly no end of challenges that real life will present you with for drama. But every so often, somebody in the writers room will go, “What if so-and-so killed somebody?” and I’ll go, “No.” One of the things I loved about Friday Night Lights was that they dealt so beautifully in the micro, and doing a show like this, you’ve got to really find a balance, because the network wants macro, and we all want micro. Human beings want micro, too, whether they realize it or not.
That said, was there any hesitation to have Juliette steal that bottle of nail polish in last week’s episode? The first thing I thought of was Lindsay Lohan.
There was no hesitation on my part because I just felt here she is, her mother has reared her ugly head, and she’s going to regress right back to what she did when she was a kid. That’s the danger of having her mother around for her. It’s not just that it’s a person to take care of and a person who scares her and a person who makes her feel bad about herself. It’s a person who causes her to regress. Like most people, when push comes to shove, you don’t really know what you’ll do. You think, I’m not the kind of person who would ever flip somebody off in traffic or scream at a person because they’re not walking too slow, but you might!
I understood perfectly why Juliette would do that. I shoplifted when I was a kid. I think it’s some kind of weird rite of passage, and when you don’t have money of your own and you’re just thinking, You know what? I want it … I would leave church to go to the Liberty Market next door and steal candy. I would think, God, I’m so bad. God, why are you letting me think of this? Why are you making me think of candy right now? I mean, it was an Episcopal church. It wasn’t the heavy Jesus thing, but I knew surely this is wrong.
You replaced your first showrunner Jim Parriott (Ugly Betty, Grey’s Anatomy) early on. Dee Johnson (The Good Wife) has since taken over. What happened there?
Our storytelling modes were different. We’re a much longer arc kind of show in my mind, and Jim was much more a contained episode guy. I mean, I love Jim. It was not a personality issue at all, but I felt like we were just having a hard time deciding how this thing should be structured.
I know these characters very well, and you either click into that or you don’t. I think it wasn’t a world that he knew well enough to be able to just click in. It’s really easy to come up with stereotypes about Nashville, but really getting into what a music person is, it’s something that not everybody can do.
Do you worry about ratings, which have been just okay so far?
Well, with TV, you have a chance to build an audience, which is huge. And it’s not like it was thirteen years ago. With 500 channels, you don’t have to get 20 million people watching it to be a hit. All the audiences are niche markets now, with the exception of sports. We’re going for a very particular audience, and so far, we’ve been lucky,
What’s the feedback from ABC been?
They’ve been so behind the show and so proud of the show. They’ve been really, really great. I want to just keep my head down and keep doing what I’m doing. I don’t want to overanalyze it.
Do you have any plans to introduce original music or songs written especially for the show?
No, because it’s just too hard to say, “Write a song that does and says this. And we need it in a week. And make sure it’s not too on the nose. And make sure it’s set at exactly this tempo.” It’s easier to find them and write to them. Every so often, I’ll get an outline, and the writer will have put in a note that says, “It’d be really great if there could be a song here about such and such,” and I’m like, “Why put yourself through that, man?” It’s such a crap shoot. The songs are part of the narrative. Seeing the songs that come out of the characters is really interesting, but they’re not singing dialogue.
So how does it work? You find all the music first and let it help dictate where the story’s going?
We’re constantly looking for songs that we love, and then we write towards them. We go, “Here’s where we’re starting, story-wise,” and then as we go along, we get a bunch of songs that we know we want to record, and we record a block of them. Then we just start folding them into story at various points. Every now and then a story point comes up for which we need a song and don’t have anything that works, and that’s when we scramble to find something quickly and get the actors into the recording studio. It’s amazing how fast it can happen, though.
I think I’ve always used music to kind of inspire stories for me, so it feels really natural to do it that way. To hear a song and then create the perfect setting for it. I used to make music videos, and they’re so random, the imagery, all of it is so random. One of the things that works so much about the music in this show is that it’s constructed into the architecture of the show. It’s in fact the first material we purchase.
“If I Didn’t Know Better,” the slinky duet Gunnar and Scarlett sing at the end of the pilot, is already at No. 7 on Billboard’s Country Digital Songs chart (and No. 27 on the Country Songs chart). How did you secure that one?
That was completely magic. We were about a week away from starting production on the pilot, and we still didn’t have the song. Then we went to the Bluebird one night, executive producers Steve Buchanan, R.J. Cutler, and myself, and when I was there, I got an e-mail from [The Civil Wars’] Joy Williams, and it said, “T-Bone asked me to send you a bunch of songs, so here are some. Hope they help.” We listened, and it was like, What the fuck is happening here? Did somebody rub a magic lamp? We’d had dinner with Joy and [her husband] Nate during the Grammys and been kind of talking about the show, and they’re friends. It does help. It is who you know, ultimately. It was the perfect song to tell the beginning of that relationship.