In her new book, Off the Cliff: How the Making of Thelma & Louise Drove Hollywood to the Edge (out Tuesday through Penguin Press), Becky Aikman gives a behind-the-scenes look at the production of a film about two female outlaws that Hollywood almost wasn't ready for (producers who rejected the screenplay suggested changes to the now-iconic ending, for instance that the women be saved by a man or jump a ditch instead of drive into the Grand Canyon). The following excerpt, the book's prologue, details the day agent Diane Cairns sent Callie Khouri's groundbreaking (and, later, Oscar-winning) script out to studios — and got rejection after rejection.
The lights along the side of Diane Cairns’ phone lit up, every last one of them, and it wasn’t even 9 o’clock on Monday morning. This was how any Hollywood story had to begin. For the characters to be made flesh, the flesh made celluloid, for the audience ultimately to embrace or detest them, a fast-rising young agent like Cairns, lunging in the first hour of the day to get her hands on the oversize console phone on her desk, had to see those lights.
Lights. Action. It was all on her to make the deal.
The screenplay she had hustled out to studios on Friday was so audacious, such a departure from anything else in the movies at the time — or at any time, for that matter — that it was anybody’s guess what could happen when the studio executives plucked it from their stacks of weekend reading. Most likely? The script would blow past the couple dozen rejections it had racked up from studios, producers and other agents before Diane took it on.
After all, this was Hollywood in the 1980s. On its merits, Diane knew, the screenplay should have triggered one of those bidding wars that fueled the industry scuttlebutt over lunches at Le Dome. The writing was sharp, whipsawing from humor to deep-seated longing. The characters were complicated, vulnerable and flawed, careening through the sorts of hairpin emotional turns that could win awards for the players who snagged the roles. The plot hurtled along from one brazen surprise to the next, yet it was simple, too: Two outlaws lam it in a hot convertible after shooting a would-be rapist. The story fit safely within the cinema template of broken taboos, anti-heroes and screw-the-system attitudes that Hollywood had championed since the breakup of the old-time studios.
But there was a catch, as they say in the movies, and it was a sticky one. The outlaws behind the wheel of that convertible were named Thelma and Louise, both of them women, recognizably ordinary as the story began. Yet along the way they drove fast, drank hard, picked up a one-night stand and shed their conformist skins to embrace intoxicating freedom against the landscape of the American West. With the law closing in, they realized they couldn’t go back — "Something’s crossed over in me," one said — and rather than submit to convention, they chose a shocking fate, certain to polarize the audience ... But that’s getting ahead of the story.
Thelma and Louise — the characters — didn’t seem to realize at first what trouble they’d stumbled into, and maybe the filmmakers who hoped to bring them to life didn’t fully grasp it, either. The woman who wrote the screenplay, Callie Khouri, had tapped out this first and only effort late at night after her soul-crushing, behind-the-scenes job making music videos. She was so green that she surely had no idea that out of the top 50 movies at the box office the year before, only two had been written by women without male partners; that in the previous five years, only 13 had been; and that no such woman had won an Oscar for an original screenplay since 1932.
Ridley Scott, an acclaimed director who still had something to prove at the box office, had decided he wouldn’t feel comfortable directing such a women’s story, but he had signed on to produce. Perhaps because he was a Brit, perhaps because he just didn’t care, he seemed oblivious to the conventional wisdom that women protagonists ranked well below talking babies and pockmarked psycho killers in the hierarchy of the industry. Only seven of the top 50 movies the year before showcased a woman as the main character, only five a year, on average, over the previous five years. And how many starred a couple of women together? Get ready for it: less than two a year.
When Diane first devoured the script during her own weekend reading, she had cycled through a menu of emotions. She identified with the characters, regular gals who spoke and behaved the way women really do when they are alone. She got a charge out of the way they reveled in rebellion once they broke the bounds of accepted behavior. As an agent, she wasn’t necessarily supposed to think this way, but the story stirred up her juices, got under her skin, not so much as a viable Hollywood property but — dare she say it? — as a labor of love.
"Holy mackerel," Diane thought as she turned the final page, "it’s one of the best screenplays I’ve ever read."
But then Agent Brain kicked in and spit out a single word: impossible. The whole thing was such a departure from the norm, she didn’t think it could ever get made. The only hope was to lure a couple of major actresses, then package them with this otherwise shaky venture. Luckily, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jodie Foster jumped on board without hesitation. The two exercised as much muscle as any female stars in the brawny era of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Tom Cruise, and with those two attached to the project, Diane knew that the bundles she sent out to studios that Friday would land with a red alert.
Some major studios had already passed — “I don’t get it,” one executive had said to Ridley Scott. “It’s two bitches in a car.” Now the strategy was to blitz the others all at once. This story was going to live or die off whatever happened that Monday.
By all appearances, Diane had the town just where she wanted it when she hit the office, a boxy space that overlooked a nondescript stretch of Beverly Boulevard, in a wing of the industry powerhouse ICM. An assistant, Bonnie Blackburn Hart, greeted Diane with a buzz of expectation. “The phone is ringing off the hook.”
Diane took up her position behind the red industrial desk, snapped a headphone over her full head of blond '80s hair and squared her padded shoulders. Ready. Bonnie prepared to play blocking guard with a second phone on the credenza.
Universal, Fox 2000, Disney, Hollywood Pictures — the row of lights blinked like marquees on the Vegas Strip. This was the kind of breakout moment that made careers, when some crafty, or merely lucky, agent sat on the property of the moment, the one that made everyone want to claim, “I snagged it first.” Bonnie fed the calls to Diane, and she picked them off one by one.
“You have a great movie here.” Ah, the first caller was warm and positive, just as Diane had hoped. She fought to hold her adrenaline in check while Bonnie kept the others circling the landing strip. “I see what you see in it.”
Uh ... huh. Was there something off in the tone? “I knew you would,” Diane said brightly. Perhaps too brightly.
A too-long pause. Then: “Female leads ... Ridley’s not directing the movie ... that ending ... a worthy submission ...” Yes? Yes? Diane knew all this. “But we’re going to pass.”
Pass? Diane was flattened. No choice but to shake it off. Next call, and then the next: “We certainly talked about it at the morning meeting. ... Why won’t Ridley direct? ... female leads ... risky ... too risky ... way too risky ... They do what at the end? It’s just not really for us.”
No. No. No. No. She was horrified, horrified. Diane viewed her job on days like this as catching a tidal wave and finding a way to guide the surfboard to the beach. Now a real monster was cresting over her head and the board was spinning, spinning, losing any connection to gravity or reality in a sickening churn. She foresaw a terrible end to this morning, to this pipe dream — she, helpless under a crushing wave, and Michelle Pfeiffer and Jodie Foster and Ridley Scott and Callie Khouri and ICM and the beautiful script body-slammed into the pilings of a jetty, an unseemly pileup of talent, glamour and misdirected clout. Wipeout.
Diane considered plunging back in, fighting gravity and the tides, but the answers were definitive. If she begged reluctant studios to reconsider, she knew, something would be lost. They would bring in another writer to mangle the script, the dicey ending would give way to sunsets and butterflies, or dudes like Richard Gere or Mel Gibson would get roped in to rescue the ladies. Word was that Warner Bros. was interested but might want to alter the ending, and Diane’s client, beginner that she was, wasn’t willing to compromise. Only later did Diane consider: “If it was the male equivalent, with Richard Gere and Mel Gibson as the leads, would I have gotten all those passes? Every studio would have said yes.”
Her boss, Jeff Berg, was on the line. Not only was he chairman of ICM, he was also Ridley Scott’s personal agent, and he had been tasked with contacting perhaps the best hope, Orion Pictures. Orion was a rare studio, a tasteful studio, up for greenlighting smart adult fare based on nothing more substantial than the fact that the executives liked it, damn the latest fads. The company also had first-look deals with Jodie and Michelle, and where else would they find vehicles that offered them such delectable roles?
“I think you should know that Orion passed,” Berg said.
God, what a disaster. Diane started framing what to say to the lineup of people who were hanging on the outcome.
There was a slim remaining course, she realized, to guide the surfboard to safety. Pathe Entertainment, an outlier, was nobody’s first choice in those days. A sort of disadvantaged step-sibling of MGM, Pathe couldn’t swing the budgets for blockbusters and certainly didn’t have a track record of pulling them off. But the studio had made the submission list on the strength of two people. Alan Ladd Jr., the venerated chairman, was pure old-school Hollywood, son and namesake of a studio-era movie star and unabashed admirer of studio-era movies, including women’s pictures with stars like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. In previous posts at other, bigger studios, Laddie, as everyone called him, had backed some of the only women’s stories in the modern era, critical darlings like Julia and Norma Rae. And he trusted a young, relatively untried lieutenant, Rebecca “Becky” Pollack, the daughter of director Sydney Pollack.
Becky had a Hollywood pedigree, too, but didn’t conform. Soft-spoken, thoughtful, she was that rare executive who preferred reading, really reading, rather than endless rounds of lunches and drinks with what she called “the chop-chop people” in town. ICM’s reasoning was that Becky, backed by Laddie, might recognize a great story when she read it and flout the accepted wisdom that women were box-office cyanide.
Now, in the middle of this slow-motion crash, Diane realized she hadn’t heard yet from Becky, and there wasn’t a moment to waste. In one stroke of a speed dial, word would get out, if it hadn’t already, that no one else had the nerve to take on Thelma & Louise. Diane had to connect with Pathe before the grapevine did. It was perilous for her to pick up the phone instead of waiting for the call, usually a sure sign of panic, but delay could be riskier. Diane deployed her steely-confident voice, something she had mastered like a foreign language, to mask the fear.
“What can I say?” Becky answered the phone in her gentle, low-key way. Say? Diane could only imagine. She sucked in her breath — here it comes.
“Everybody loves it here.”
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Diane exhaled for what seemed like the first time that day. The angels sang. She thought: I have about a nanosecond to get this right. Becky is truly the only person who gets this. She is the only person who is going to make this deal. And only I know this.
To Becky, she said, “I’m really thrilled. I thought you would love it, and here’s what I’m going to tell you: Get your business affairs people on the phone now. I want this to be with somebody like you who loves it. And I want to close this deal now.” Now. As in: before anyone gets wiser. Get the contracts drawn up before Pathe hears the news or, God forbid, comes to its senses.
At that moment, sorry little Pathe was the only studio standing between this movie and oblivion. The people committed to making Thelma & Louise didn’t know it, but they were hanging out there all on their own.
From Off the Cliff: How the Making of Thelma & Louise Drove Hollywood to the Edge by Becky Aikman. Reprinted by arrangement of Penguin Press, part of the Penguin Random House company. Copyright (c) 2017 by Becky Aikman.