SCREENPLAY 101: THELMA & LOUISE

THELMA AND LOUISE is widely regarded as the quintessential ‘chick flick.’ Personally, I hate that term, any other similar qualifier. A good story is a good story, and can be enjoyed by anyone with a desire to be entertained. And because it’s a good story, its script has landed at number 72 on the WGA’s list of top 101 scripts of all time.

Prior to writing this, I had never seen or read THELMA AND LOUISE, and honestly didn’t really know much about it. That is, besides the endless pop-culture references to its iconic ending, including the SIMPSONS episode “Marge on the Lam,” where Homer kisses the garbage.

So when given the choice to pick a script to showcase for this series, I chose THELMA AND LOUISE, written by Callie Khouri. I was curious to see why it was so highly regarded not only in the industry, but also in popular culture. As I began reading, I found myself quickly engrossed in an engaging tale about two ordinary women looking for an escape. An escape from what, you ask? Their craptacular lives.

This is especially true in the case of Thelma. When the story opens, we find her a bored, lonely and ignored housewife that is itching to break free of the mundane monotony of matrimony. The only problem is that her immature, two-timing husband, Darryl, has created a well-constructed prison for Thelma with her self-esteem the guard, and her own mind as the warden. Screenwriter Callie Khouri paints a great picture of her cell here, in the final production draft, dated June 5, 1990:

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While on the road, Thelma gets the adventure and excitement she wanted, but not in the way she expected. Soon, she and Louise find themselves on the run from the law after Louise dishes out some Old Testament style vengeance with a Dirty Harry-sized handgun.

Now panicked, the lawless ladies are holed up at a truck stop as they try to determine their next move. It’s at this moment that Thelma sneaks away to make a phone call under the guise of going to the restroom; that move showcases this script’s first stroke of brilliance. The payphone scene is a small one, but accomplishes a lot, and should be studied by every aspiring screenwriter as an example of how to do a lot with a little.

In this scene, we know that little ol’ Thelma realizes she’s in over her head. So by placing this phone call to Darryl back home, we can tell that she now yearns for the days of daytime TV and coupon cutting. In the hours since she left, she has discovered the world is a big, dangerous, and scary place. Now, all she wants is to return back to her ‘normal life.’ In this payphone booth, our hero is challenged to either go back home, or continue on into unfamiliar territory (a moment that would make Joseph Campbell grin). As the phone rings we get this series of shots:

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We, the audience, though these images, get a sense of what is going on in Thelma’s mind as the phone rings. She knows that as much as she may want to go back to her old life, there really wasn’t a life to go back to, anyway. When Thelma hangs up, we get the sense that she understands that there is no going back now, and as much as she may not like it, the only way to go, is forward with Louise. This then kicks us into Act II and drives the story to its dramatic conclusion.

Speaking of the final moments of the film, when doing some research, I found that the ending has been a point of contention between audiences and screenwriter, Callie Khouri. Many people think that because the ladies drive off the cliff, it means that the duo committed suicide, and thus, took the easy way out. While Khouri on the other hand, contends that our heroines aren’t dead, and got exactly what they wanted. She has also stated that the ending wasn’t meant to be literal, but rather symbolic of our heroes flying to freedom. I believe the confusion is due to the transition of the material from script and screen (after reading the script, I promptly watched the film).

Sadly, a lot of what I highlighted earlier was absent from the film. You really can’t blame the film’s director, Ridley Scott, for not focusing on the intricacies of the characters too much. This show marked the first time Scott stepped outside of his typical action genre where story (and ‘splosions) sells tickets. He was probably anxious to get to the adventure portion of the script and in doing so, left out many critical character elements of both Thelma and Louise that perhaps would’ve given the audience a better grasp of what our road warrior women wanted and needed as their T-Bird touches air.

If THELMA AND LOUISE is one of your favorite films, then I highly suggest you come on down to the free, quiet, free, temperature controlled, free, Writers Guild Foundation Library and request to read the screenplay from the friendly and beautiful staff.

After you read it, I guarantee that you’ll not only get more enjoyment from the movie as a whole, but you may also find the ending a bit more satisfying and root for the ferocious freedom-seekers as their frozen frame fades to black.

While you’re at the library, go on and cruise on down the hallway and stop in front of the big ‘ol photo of Callie Khouri and take a selfie. This will give you your own freeze frame moment that you can cherish like these wild women who were ahead of their time:

Sammy Sarzoza is the Director of Video Production for the LA Derby Dolls. His work can also be found at GeekyPheebs.com.

Here’s the deal: Throughout 2014, we’re posting pages from every script on the WGA’s list of the 101 Greatest Screenplays, as chosen by Guild membership, because we have every one in our library. Sure, we have other scripts that didn’t make it onto the list, either because they didn’t make the cut or because they were produced after the list was generated (presumably SHARKNADO, which we totally have a copy of, is only in the latter category).