Written By February | March 2013 : Page 28
Written by Louise Farr S he ' S G one C ountry Callie Khouri joins the Grand Ole Opry to make Nashville . portraits by JiLLy WendeLL I n August 2011, Callie Khouri waited in the grand marbled lobby of the CAA building in Century City, having arrived for a meeting about which she had been told nothing. R.J. Cutler, the producer and director perhaps best known for The September Issue and The War Room, was waiting too. He intro-duced himself, and the pair struck up a friendly conversation. Only when an assistant arrived to usher her upstairs did Khouri realize they were heading for the same office. In what sounds like a parody of Hollywood deal-making, Cutler had been informed about Khouri’s “excitement” over his pending project with Steve Buchanan, the president of the Grand Ole Opry Group: It was to be a drama about the country music industry set in its hub of Nashville. The project, says Khouri, was complete news to her. “When [CAA] told me they’d signed the Grand Ole Opry, I just kept saying, ‘Well, congratulations. I don’t know what that means, and I certainly don’t know what that means to me,’” Khouri remembers. “‘No one I know would be interested in making a feature film about the Grand Ole Opry. So there.’” Still, Khouri—a screenwriting icon since she took home an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a Writers Guild Award in 1992 for Thelma & Louise —joined the project within days of that first meeting and went on to create ABC’s Nashville. “We were kind of put into this shotgun marriage,” says Cutler, adding that it turned into the most creative and pro-ductive collaboration of his career. At CAA that first day, Khouri told stories about living in Nashville in her 20s and about the vibrancy of the city, where she still has family. She mentioned Nashville’s old-money crowd, and its serious social and music scenes; the busboy who clears your plate away one night, then the next night breaks your heart some-where singing his own lyrics. Khouri, married to music pro-ducer and songwriter T Bone Burnett, had been working on her own music-related projects; she and Cutler started discussing the role music could play in a television drama. 28 • WG a W Written By FEBRU AR Y | MARCH 20 13 Music that, as Cutler puts it, would be to musicians “more the air they breathe than a soundtrack or something where people would burst into song. Where we would make every-thing as authentic and emotionally real as possible.” A few days before Christmas, in the midst of shooting Sea-son 1, Khouri is talking via cell phone from a stairwell in an old building that serves as Nashville ’s soundstage. This is where the production team built an arena for an upcom-ing concert tour featuring the series’ protagonists, fading country star Rayna James (Connie Britton) and her young singing nemesis, Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere). Rayna refers to Barnes snappily as “Miss Sparkly Pants” and describes the auto-tuned crossover pop star as “a little ingenue who couldn’t make it as one of my backup singers.” For her part, Juliette smiles with mock sweetness and a hard look in her eyes when introduced in the pilot to the legend-ary Rayna: “My mom was one of your greatest fans,” Juliette purrs. “She’d listen to you when I was still in her belly.” But Nashville is less about rivalry between women of dif-ferent generations—one on the way up and the other whose concert ticket sales are sinking—than it is about women at different stages in their careers doing battle with troubled histories that affect their current circumstances. Not the least of their problems are shortsighted executives. “The young artist is finding herself marginalized because she only is expected to do this one thing, and nobody thinks she can do much beyond that, nor do they want her to,” explains Khouri. “And the other character is frustrated be-cause they only want her to continue the success that she had, and they don’t see the value in her having evolved as an artist. Those are the things that are fun for me to examine and try to do in a way that isn’t, ‘What do you mean, I’m too old?’” Far From Hollywood
She’s Gone Country
Callie Khouri joins the Grand Ole Opry to make Nashville.
In August 2011, Callie Khouri waited in the grand marbled lobby of the CAA building in Century City, having arrived for a meeting about which she had been told nothing. R.J. Cutler, the producer and director perhaps best known for The September Issue and The War Room, was waiting too. He introduced himself, and the pair struck up a friendly conversation.
Only when an assistant arrived to usher her upstairs did Khouri realize they were heading for the same office.In what sounds like a parody of Hollywood deal-making, Cutler had been informed about Khouri’s “excitement” over his pending project with Steve Buchanan, the president of the Grand Ole Opry Group: It was to be a drama about the country music industry set in its hub of Nashville. The project, says Khouri, was complete news to her.
“When [CAA] told me they’d signed the Grand Ole Opry, I just kept saying, ‘Well, congratulations. I don’t know what that means, and I certainly don’t know what that means to me,’” Khouri remembers. “‘No one I know would be interested in making a feature film about the Grand Ole Opry. So there.’”
Still, Khouri—a screenwriting icon since she took home an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a Writers Guild Award in 1992 for Thelma & Louise—joined the project within days of that first meeting and went on to create ABC’s Nashville.
“We were kind of put into this shotgun marriage,” says Cutler, adding that it turned into the most creative and productive collaboration of his career. At CAA that first day, Khouri told stories about living in Nashville in her 20s and about the vibrancy of the city, where she still has family.She mentioned Nashville’s old-money crowd, and its serious social and music scenes; the busboy who clears your plate away one night, then the next night breaks your heart somewhere singing his own lyrics. Khouri, married to music producer and songwriter T Bone Burnett, had been working on her own music-related projects; she and Cutler started discussing the role music could play in a television drama.
Music that, as Cutler puts it, would be to musicians “more the air they breathe than a soundtrack or something where people would burst into song. Where we would make everything as authentic and emotionally real as possible.”
Far From Hollywood
A few days before Christmas, in the midst of shooting Season 1, Khouri is talking via cell phone from a stairwell in an old building that serves as Nashville’s soundstage. This is where the production team built an arena for an upcoming concert tour featuring the series’ protagonists, fading country star Rayna James (Connie Britton) and her young singing nemesis, Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere).
Rayna refers to Barnes snappily as “Miss Sparkly Pants” and describes the auto-tuned crossover pop star as “a little ingenue who couldn’t make it as one of my backup singers.” For her part, Juliette smiles with mock sweetness and a hard look in her eyes when introduced in the pilot to the legendary Rayna: “My mom was one of your greatest fans,” Juliette purrs. “She’d listen to you when I was still in her belly.”
But Nashville is less about rivalry between women of different generations—one on the way up and the other whose concert ticket sales are sinking—than it is about women at different stages in their careers doing battle with troubled histories that affect their current circumstances. Not the least of their problems are shortsighted executives.
“The young artist is finding herself marginalized because she only is expected to do this one thing, and nobody thinks she can do much beyond that, nor do they want her to,” explains Khouri. “And the other character is frustrated because they only want her to continue the success that she had, and they don’t see the value in her having evolved as an artist. Those are the things that are fun for me to examine and try to do in a way that isn’t, ‘What do you mean, I’m too old?’”
With Rayna’s career at a crossroads, her husband, Teddy (Eric Close), is going bust financially and wanting his reluctant wife to borrow from her controlling businessman dad, Lamar (Powers Boothe). Drama piles on drama, along with bed-hopping, insights into family life, the music business, and the creative urge that leads to music getting made. Parallel stories involve the reluctant songwriter and rising star Scarlett (Clare Bowen), and the jealousy between her composer boyfriend Avery (Jonathan Jackson) and her singing partner, Gunnar (Sam Palladio).
“The reality of an artist’s career is as dramatic as anything anybody could make up. The human experience of it is certainly a rollercoaster,” says executive producer Buchanan, whose signing with CAA had coincided conveniently with an idea of Cutler’s to get a city-based music series into development.
At the beginning of her discussions with Cutler, and continuing with the series’ development with Lionsgate, Khouri admittedly felt “roped in. With each step, I’d go, Okay, completely skeptical that anything would come of it. Oh, yeah, ABC is going to be dying to make a show about Nashville and country music.” Her tone reflects that previous cynicism. “i’ve been in Hollywood too long,” she acknowledges. “The fact that I have a shred of hope is miraculous. I don’t get my hopes up about anything. I just take it one step at a time, prepared emotionally for it to go nowhere.
That was about the enthusiasm level.”
Sighing, she mentions a friend’s frequent comment: You have to show up for the muse. “I’m sure a million other writers have said it.” And as “sluggish” as she admits to having been at first, she did show up and with Cutler discussed characters and storyline. The muse cooperated. Imagining Connie Britton as Rayna, long before she was cast, enabled Khouri to write the show. “Up until I had that thought—it was very vague,” she reveals.
Cutler followed the narrative progression, supportive of Khouri: “It’s as if the characters are living in her imagination a full life, and when she writes about them she’s writing moments from the full lives that they’re living.” Cutler says. “In many ways, they sprang from her imagination before my very eyes in a way that was incredibly exciting.”
Hearing what Cutler said, Khouri thinks for a few moments before agreeing: “When it’s working, in the best of times, it does feel like that. So real in your mind that you forget that they’re not a real person. It’s always interesting to me that whatever character I’m writing about at the moment, I’m relating to wholly.” The experience, she jokes, is “borderline psychotic.”
Learning Their abcs
The night before their appointment with ABC, Khouri huddled with Cutler and Chris Selak, Lionsgate EVP of television development, readying their network pitch in the studio’s conference room. CAA agent Ann Blanchard called in occasionally to check on their progress. Cutler remembers the long night: “It was 11 o’clock… midnight… one in the morning… We were refining the pitch, and refining the pitch, and refining the pitch.”
Finally, the network gave a greenlight to the pilot, and Khouri remembers her first thought being, Okay, at least now i’ll get paid for this: “Up until that time you don’t get paid anything. You’re going to pitch meetings, and you’re working really hard. By the time you get to write the pilot, you’ve already written so many documents and an outline that writing the pilot is the easiest part of the whole thing.”
She wrote, and Cutler, who describes The collaboration as “deeply symbiotic,” combed through the drafts. “He would always make suggestions or adjustments.It was just like working with any other producers,” says Khouri. In the past, of course, she hasn’t made that process sound particularly pleasant. “It wasn’t,” she says of her many prior working relationships. “But this was much better.”
Now the characters and story feel so real that it’s hard for Khouri to dredge up the thousands of hours of conversation she and Cutler had about the world of Nashville and what they wanted that world to say. “My first thought about the show, about how to get into the [country] world: You’d see a woman with her hair in curlers, and her kids kind of running around, and she’s telling them to get in the bath and that she’s got to go to work. Just the chaos of a normal house. And then you’d smash cut to her on stage in front of a huge audience with a full band. That’s her going to work. That would be the surprise.”
This was a deft way to get into the multistranded story, and it remained the essence of the pilot’s cold open. “That’s the other thing about television. Every line has got to be a setup. You think about economy of storytelling in ways that you can’t even believe.With features, you’ve got a beginning, middle, and end. With this, you have to think about it as if, Okay, i’ve just started a novel and I have no idea where it’s going to end up, because you have no idea how many years you’re going to be doing it, or whether or not you’re going to be doing it for one Season, or five, or even a whole season.”
When the pilot was picked up, Khouri felt “overjoyed” but scared. “I had no idea what I was getting into. I had been warned.” Since Thelma & Louise, she had written the features Something to Talk About and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, but there had been a couple of pilots that didn’t make it. On one, she worked with Steven Bochco, who told her that if the show happened, she should prepare to work harder in television than she had ever worked in her life.
At that time, Khouri believed she was inherently lazy anyway and thought, This doesn’t sound enticing at all. “It turns out I’m not lazy by nature, but I’m hard to motivate at the beginning,” she discovered. “I can work as hard as the next guy, and now it’s all I do. I’m more acclimated to just being at work—for the four hours that I’m not asleep.”
A Safe Place for Breaking Hearts
Setting up the writers’ room—at first situated in a glamorous Lionsgate building in Santa Monica, then moved to the Lantana Center—she and executive producer Cutler simply met with writers the agents suggested. Soon Khouri realized, “Everybody else in town is trying to get those same writers, and you have to make decisions quickly or people aren’t available.But [we went with] people who responded to the pilot and loved the world that we were writing about,” Khouri says.“Everybody had a different strong suit, and it’s like casting anything else.”
As in most rooms, everybody shows up and they write on the white board. An early showrunner change complicated matters.“We are always perilously close to not even having a script in time to shoot it,” Khouri says. “A lot of times everyone will write the script. We’ll divide it up, and we’ll all write it, and we’ll all synthesize it a little bit.”
Co-executive producer Liz Tigelaar graphically describes the process: “It’s that awful phrase gang banging.It’s normal to people: Oh, we’ve got a gang-bang this weekend.We did a lot of that. By Episode 10 we started putting fewer people on it, so now we’re paring it down again. Up until then it was all hands on deck, just to get us out of the hole.”
Current showrunner Dee Johnson joined when Nashville was already in progress. “In one-hour broadcasts, if you’re in any kind of situation where you’re a little behind, or a lot behind, it’s not like you catch up and get ahead of the game. You just have to put One foot in front of the other and you make it to the end of the season.It’s challenging, for sure.”
Johnson, who worked on ER, Southland, and The Good Wife, came directly from Boss: “Pay cable couldn’t be more different than coming into the broadcast arena again,” she says. For one thing, there’s less story time: Boss went anywhere from 52 to 58 minutes, while Nashville is 42 minutes, including songs. “But in essence, all shows must have an organization in place to feed the beast, so to that extent they’re the same.”
Music isn’t simply a backdrop but integral to the storytelling, adding to—or perhaps even creating— the time crunch.Khouri chooses songs, and the actors, who actually perform them (“We don’t fake anything,” says Khouri), need singing lessons, rehearsals, and recording time. That investment means that lastminute changes must come within the script rather than the music.
“We have to find songs that the character would have written and the reason that character would have written the song,” Khouri explains.“At all the different levels that we’re making music on this show—from the unknowns, to the small rooms on music row trying to come up with something an artist will cut, to the biggest songwriters and artists in the world who have been doing it for years—we’ve got a pretty broad scope of experience in the music business that we’re trying to tell stories about.”
As Nashville’s executive music producer, T Bone Burnett— winner of 12 Grammys, an Oscar, and a Golden Globe for Crazy Heart and a Globe nominee again this year for his Hunger Games original song—created musical backstories for the characters, including music that would have Inspired them. Then he put ipods of his selections together for the cast. “He talks to the actors about it, and I give him full license,” Khouri says. “He did a lot of that for Connie when they were first starting to work together.”
Attention to detail has paid off. The Music of Nashville album jumped immediately onto the top spot of Amazon’s soundtrack list and Nashville singles made the itunes and country charts. “No One Will Ever Love You,” sung with aching romance by Britton and Charles Esten, as Rayna’s guitarplaying ex-lover, Deacon, does almost as much to highlight their lingering connection as does a scene in the third episode, on which Tigelaar worked with Khouri.
“I’m holding all these hearts in my hands and I’m trying real hard not to break them. But my heart’s in pieces,” Rayna says to Deacon.
“It was such a Callie scene. That’s what was so much fun about writing that episode,” Tigelaar says. “I thought, It doesn’t matter what I write because this scene is going to have Callie all over it by the end of the day.”
Britton’s weary beauty, combined with her ability to sing as well as emote, proved as perfect for the leading role as Khouri and Cutler expected. “There were meetings at the studio,” Khouri recalls. “They would say, ‘Okay, who are you seeing for Rayna?’ And we’d say Connie Britton. And they’d say, ‘Okay, who else?’ We had a stack of papers: signs to each other when we’d be on the phone trying to move the ball forward to getting Connie Britton. ‘Don’t let her get off the phone.’ ‘Get Connie Britton.’ ‘Don’t let her say no.’”
Khouri is equally admiring of the young actress, Hayden Panettiere, who plays Juliette (both actresses were nominated for Golden Globes this year). “She’s been on sets since she was 11 months old,” Khouri says of Panettiere. “I thought she could be that character. I had no idea how great she is. I had no idea we were getting, like, a Ferrari. I idolize Connie.I also idolize Hayden.”
As much as Khouri identifies with all her characters, surely she must identify the most with Rayna. “In terms of getting older? I would definitely say so,” she agrees. “It’s not like you suddenly go, ‘Oh, I’m old.’ You know what I mean? That’s not how it is. Rayna, from an artistic point of view is like, Hey, I’m just getting going. I’ve finally got my full set here. There’s nothing I can’t do here. I’ve got tons of experience. I’ve got things to say. I’ve got better problem-solving skills than i’ve ever had at any point in my life, so I should stop doing it? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Just as it wouldn’t make any sense for Khouri. “There is no doubt at all that ageism exists in this business. It’s absolutely statistically proven,” she says. “And like any other field where you’ve taken your most experienced people and stopped using them, the wisdom of that has to be questioned. So I feel extremely grateful that I’m working in a place where all of my experience comes to bear in the work.”
Once in a Lifetime
Becoming a screenwriter seemed to come so easily in the beginning for Khouri. She had studied acting, then worked as an assistant on music videos before she summoned the courage to write Thelma & Louise—her first screenplay and an international sensation. Then came all that attention and all the awards. “We were being birthed together or something,” she says, about her script. “I can’t even describe it very well.Unfortunately, perhaps—we’ll see—it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to have something like that. It changed my life completely.Everything I’d ever been and done suddenly made sense and added up. It put me on a path I stayed on all these years.”
Hollywood is a tougher place now than it was in 1991, when Thelma & Louise was released, she’s learned: “They’re doing something very specific, and not a lot of character movies.They like toys and action, so [Nashville] allows me to have the kind of freedom to tell the kind of stories I want to tell without having to worry about an opening weekend.”
CALLIE KHOURI’S TV education
I was grousing about it the whole time. There’s just all these steps of paper that you have to generate.i’m, Oh, this is a lot of work for something that’s probably not going to happen at all.
R. J. Cutler [below left] and I worked together, talking it through, and talking it through. But I wrote the script. Honestly, had it not been for him, I don’t think this would have ever happened because he just kept driving it forward. He kept pushing, and pushing, and pushing, and pushing me. Just going, Come on, what’s more typing? It’s not a big deal. He’s been in documentaries and a different side of the business. He didn’t have the same jaded feeling and skepticism that I had. So his enthusiasm level was the engine for the whole thing because at any point I could have stopped.But each step we would get through the next hurdle until Finally we got to pilot and I had to write a script.
I mean, I thought features were hard. Features are hard, but television is harder, at least in the initial stages. I had to write a lot faster and with a lot less complaining because there’s just no time.“They want it when? I have how many weeks? What?”
I think sometimes you find yourself going, “Oh, God, this is just way less subtle than it should be.” There’s so little time that you have to remember to write it well. Go back and go, Is this what I meant? Is this good? Is this what the characters should be engaging in right now? Is this true? Am I saying anything new? Am I saying anything that needs to be said?
Every good writer is constantly asking themselves those questions. But honestly, I’m so new to it that everything comes with the caveat: “And.Of course, I have no idea what I’m talking about.”
In THE room By Dee Johnson, Nashville showrunner
I started mid-August and kablooie!It’s all been such a whirlwind.It was difficult in a sense that the show was already in motion.
Often we have to divide the room up. Sometimes a smaller room can be more productive because there are too many voices in a huge room. Split in half, it can be a lot more lean and mean. Callie and I divvy up the time. We do an awful lot of tag-teaming, but she’s been doing the lion’s share of the Nashville end of it all, and i’ve been trying to anchor the room here and keep things going on the west coast.
Callie’s been really respectful and unbelievably receptive in learning the ins and outs of television.One of the things I love about her is she can just pop into the room and say, “How about this?” And it’s the perfect thing because she’s so in tune to the characters and the world. She’s like my new BFF. We do get along like gangbusters, which is a blessing because i’ve been in this situation before when it’s not the case. It can be heinous.
There have been a lot of feature folks coming. The biggest challenge for most of them is that it’s a brutal grind, which requires organization or you’re going to go off the rails instantly. We’re not talking about a two-hour project. You have to know how to handle it.
I spent a lot of years on ER, and I still believe the John Wells version of organizing a show has been the most beneficial. I’ve used that as a template everywhere. It’s such a big animal that no one person can do everything. John believes in the people that he hires. He delegates.You’ve got to set up the system That can keep putting the coal on the fire and keep the animal going and planning ahead and arcing.
I’m a big believer in having as much written by the writer. One of my least favorite things to do is rewrite. It’s a tricky show because we have our leads, but it’s still very much an ensemble, and there’s a lot of serialization and spinning plates, and the worlds cross. But not all the time, so it’s not like working on ER, say, where there’s one place everybody crosses. That’s probably the biggest challenge, keeping the storylines integrated realistically.
It can be trying on a first-year show when you’re wrangling with the network to figure out what a show is. That can be very demoralizing. But this group, it was just, Let’s hunker down and do this. And they did. It’s one foot in front of the other. Much as you’ll never catch up, we have a system of everybody going in there and working a story and trying not to flog ourselves too much: maybe a 10-to-4 room, so that we have time to do all the other tasks that need to be done.
After my hellish drive [Silver Lake to Santa Monica], I’m in the office by 8:30, and we don’t start the room until 10. I’m in between the room and post. All day long: crazy, crazy, crazy. In the room. Out of the room. In and out of post. I usually don’t leave until 7:30 or so.
We laugh now because so much happened, and here we are, and we’re still plugging away. It’s been difficult but heartening. Not that I lost faith in the system. But it’s been a pleasure to work with these guys and have them just rise from the near ashes and deliver.
Callie Khouri’s swift early success made her want to pay back by working for the Guild, where she was a longtime board member.“In terms of being out there for years and years, slogging away, trying to get people to read my scripts—I did not experience that, so I felt that I had to do service,” she says. “I did as much with the Guild as I could. I figured that would be the right thing to do. And I learned so much about where writers stood in the hierarchy of Hollywood.I’m just really glad that I did that. It was an education, and it kind of forged my solidarity with the Writers Guild.”
Which makes the Writers Guild Award New Series nomination for herself and her writing staff all the more gratifying. “I love my Guild,” she says. “To me that’s the highest honor.There’s a sense of relief that comes whenever you’re getting a pat on your back from fellow writers.”
Deathtrap: THAT third episode By Liz Tigelaar, Nashville co-executive producer
It was a very excited staff. We’d all seen the pilot, and the pilot obviously was hugely ambitious.I know, having done pilots and worked on a lot of first season shows, when you’re doing a pilot, you’re not thinking about the series necessarily.And then you get the series and you’re, “Wait, is he going to run for mayor? Are we doing a political story? Or, wait . . .” You have to reconcile the decisions of the pilot, and that’s the fun part, when you dive in and figure it out. There’s this big ball of yarn that you’re suddenly trying to untangle.
One of the biggest things we debated in the writers’ room was when Rayna and Juliette should go on tour. Some of us had the expectation that it would be episode two or three. And it was a very conscious choice creatively to say, “Wait a minute. Let’s slow it down. We don’t have to push to that so quickly.” Luckily, when we pitched it to the studio and the network, everyone was on the same page. There was also a production reality.We realized, We’ve built all these sets. We’re going to build all these sets, then go out to these arenas?
Three is an episode, to me, on a new show that nobody wants to write. The creator of the show writes the pilot, and the creator of the show usually writes the second episode, so you call three the, like, deathtrap. Oh, no, you’re going to be the first one to write an episode that is not the creator, and they’re going to have to accept a different voice as much as you’re trying to match theirs. We went through a lot of turmoil with three. A lot of versions. Ultimately, there was a lot of me and Callie collaborating. The moment I hear the words come out of her mouth, I’m like, Yes, that’s totally it. We’re very different writers, but we enjoyed the collaboration. In the beginning I was much more comfortable writing Juliette, and I was following Callie’s lead on Rayna.It was nice as the season progressed to get comfortable with Rayna too.
You sit in this room with eight or nine people, and all day you speak about these characters as if they’re real people, when you’re trying hard to figure out what makes them tick. I dream about them. That’s what’s so weird about being on a TV show, on staff. I dream about them.
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