You could say Callie Khouri's career has come full circle. But you'd only be kind of right. The native Texan waited tables for a time in Nashville in the '70s and '80s. Then she went on to write the Academy Award-winning screenplay Thelma & Louise, plus a host of other successful features. In 2012, she created her first television show, Nashville, and now she splits her time between L.A. and Music City. The landscape there was familiar. The material, the language, the pace, and the rigor of television was not.
Ben Blacker, No. 83 on our Most Creative People 2013 list and host of the Nerdist Writers Panel (and cocreator of The Thrilling Adventure Hour) spoke with Khouri about what it was like to go from successful feature writing to creating a television show. She let him in on her creative process and some behind-the-scenes insight into how she makes the critically acclaimed Nashville (whose season finale is tonight) feel so cinematic, yet so real.
The full audio version of this interview is available now. Download it for free here.
Ben Blacker: How is running a network show like running a small company?
CALLIE KHOURI: Well, first of all I have a great show runner, Dee Johnson, who has had years of experience doing this and she kind of keeps the writers going and keeps the home front going. And while I'm in Nashville I do a lot of rewriting and prepping with the directors and work on all the production stuff on the ground here.
It's tough having a split production because post-production takes place in L.A. so I usually try to get home every couple of weeks to make at least one of the mixes for one of the episodes. I try to make every other one. And plus we have the musical component on top of it, which I oversee completely. Dee kind of stays out of that ... because it's more my realm. So I have to make sure we have the right songs for the scenes, the right songs for each particular actor and how those are going to get produced, who's going to do it. T Bone Burnett has been the executive music producer so all of those decisions are made with him but I still have to be the one to say that will work for the scene or it won't. And so all of that has to be done in advance of shooting because we shoot to playback.
Was putting together the production crew, the directors, everyone who has been involved a really fast learning curve for you?
Yeah. We met with a lot of writers in the beginning. You go out and you meet everybody and they tell you why they think they are right for your show and, based on the drafts that they submit and the meeting, you just hope for the best and choose the people that you feel had the best connection to the material and you feel like can get your voice ... That's the other part of it: They have to. At some point it's gotta feel like they are writing like me. And they get very good at it, by the way.
So then it's just kinda like the bell rings, the gate opens, and everybody just starts running down the track as fast as they can. There are so many good episodic directors but our show has some pretty specific requirements because of all the performance elements and all the different areas of performance, because we're not just shooting performances in tiny bars. We're also doing huge concerts and everything in between. So we have to have people whose strengths speak to that as well as just the basic hour drama storytelling.
Tell me about learning the language of TV writing. Was that a challenge for you or was it exciting for you?
It's exciting. You have to kind of keep a really open mind when you're going into something about which you know very little. I mean, I know about writing, the form and the storytelling is just a different pace and a different everything than features. So I just kind of kept quiet as much as I possibly could and listened and asked questions and just tried to learn.
I mean I wasn't gonna fool anybody by pretending I knew what I was doing. People know what my strengths are. And hopefully if you're going into something like this one of your strengths is that you have the good sense to know what you don't know. You know?
For a long time, I really just dreaded sitting down and writing. But it's just something that has to get done, so what's the point of bellyaching? You still have to get it done quickly, so shut up and write.
When did that change start to happen for you?
When I started working on this show.
You didn't have a choice, you just got to it?
Yes, that's exactly right. It's not up for discussion. It's really something that just has to happen and fast. So you can sit around and whine about it, it's only gonna hurt you, the longer you complain.
Does writing television press the same buttons for you creatively that feature writing did or that even directing does?
I'm getting ready to direct the finale and so it's starting to feel that way, just prepping and all that. It obviously goes a thousand times faster. But ... yes. I think it's even more in some ways that feature writing just because it's gonna be on the air. Like people are gonna see it. Like, really soon people are gonna see it. [Ed. note: Tonight, in fact.]
And you don't have to wonder if this is ever gonna see the light of day. Once the show is there, people are gonna see it and you can rest assured that good, bad, or indifferent, it's gonna be on television, so just to try to make it as good as you can and quickly, if you can. So it's just a lot of fun.
Can you recall some of the bigger takeaways that you had early on?
I love just the give and take of it. I love people who can argue their side of it passionately enough to bring you around sometimes to something that you didn't see in the beginning. So all of that is a lot of fun too.
There's the whole issue of act-out threads. When you have a show on broadcast, you're going to commercial five times during the course of your show. So you have to have people want to come back, basically. And so you end each act with a little mini cliffhanger so that they'll tune back in after the commercial. Commercials are a perfect opportunity to leave and not come back or watch something else.
So learning to speak that language and to tell a story in six acts as opposed to three and all of that. I mean I just feel like it's not something that I knew that much about going into but obviously have to know now. It's how the whole thing happens. And so you have to start learning to think like that.
Do you find it challenging to write a show like Nashville in the age of Hulu, Netflix, and DVR?
Broadcast television is in a very tough place these days because even I don't watch television at any appointed time. Every single thing I watch, I watch delayed to some degree. Either I don't watch it on the night or if I do, I watch it later that night. But I am not sitting there, showing up at the appointed time and watching. And I think more and more people are watching television that way. It's just really changed.
And so I don't know that networks have really found a way to adapt to that new model. Because for them it's really important that people are sitting there, watching it at the appointed time. The ratings are all based on that.
You know when the ratings add up three days later and seven days later, we do great, but do we have the highest ratings necessarily on the night that the show is on? Not always. But some of those still turn out to be our most popular episodes after all is said and done because you just don't know.
And plus just the schedule in general is a little bit puzzling to an audience because you're on for a week and then you’re off for two weeks and then you're on for another week and then you're off for a month. And people don't know when it's gonna be on so you're constantly having to overcome that as well.
So it makes "appointment television" even more difficult than it is just normally. I got a lot of emails from people when we were off the air going, 'Why? What's going on?' Nothing is going on except basketball.
Does that kind of scheduling affect the kinds of stories that you tell or the way that you tell stories?
Not necessarily the kind of stories but certainly the way, yeah. You have to take into account the fact that you're gonna be off the air and so how much time is going to have passed in the interim and things like that. It would seem weird to me to be gone for a month and come back the next day.
Is there anything you're watching, anything the room is talking about that's getting you or them inspired?
I was disappointed to miss the Mad Men premiere last night because for some reason AMC is not at my hotel, which was very disappointing. And I watch Breaking Bad and things like that. But this last year, other than The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, which I watch pretty much every night cause it's how I wind down, I haven't been able to watch that much stuff. Cause you wanna... You need to kind of shut down.
Music is obviously a huge part of this show. How is that music integrated? At what stage in the story does that come in?
We're always listening for songs that would be right for one of our characters. So we try to write towards them. We tried early on to get as many songs in the bank or that's what we would call it, putting them in the bank, as we could, songs that we just knew were gonna be right for a specific character and likely to be right at a certain time in the season arc.
And then other times we've just had to go out and find a song that will work on the fly, which is not ideal but fortunately imminently doable, but it just means you're often cutting a song only days before you shoot it. And then all the musicians have to learn it because it's not always the same people on camera that have recorded it.
It was a great experience to get to work with T Bone again. We haven't worked together in a long time. I mean obviously I'm with him all the time and so involved in his process, but for us to get to do something that music is this integral a part of, it's been a long time since that happened and that has been incredible.
That thing of being able to call up an old friend and go "I need a song that says something like this, if you have anything, send it right now." And they send something that's absolutely perfect, you know? And I'm just blown away.
When we were doing the pilot, we were coming very, very close to having the shoot, and we did not have all the songs that we felt like were the standout songs that we were gonna need to make this show what we needed it to be, which is the best show about music that's been on so far.
At one point, I called my friend Bob DiPiero, who has written a ton of hit songs and I was like, "Bob, I need a song that sounds like this…" And he sent a song over … one song he sends over, and it's perfect. So it's a song that we've used multiple times throughout the episode. That's so thrilling to be able to have a resource like that.
Or T Bone just called up Elvis Costello [to help write a song] for this kind of half-punk guy. And he sends two songs over, both of which we used multiple times. Or he called Steve Earle the other day and said, "Have anything laying around that you haven't cut here? Thank you, that's perfect."
So that part has been magical and amazing. And that's kind of what I was hoping would happen, and it's really the whole reason to make the show because I love music, and I love having my life in music. So much of the time it's vicarious ... I'm a lot closer to it now that I am just hanging out with T Bone, watching him do brilliant things.
He just texted me that he's with Elton [John] right now, that Elton just wrote an amazing song. That's what he does in his time.
I would imagine you guys are really striving for fidelity to so many different things that you have to pick and choose, right?
Yes, absolutely. Like for instance, the concert scenes. Just making sure that it looks exactly like it looks backstage at a concert, you know? That takes several runs at it before I'm sitting there, satisfied, going yup that's how it is.
If I’m not here sometimes I'm like, "Where are the guys with the flashlights leading them to the stage? Where's the tour manager telling them?" It's all the millions of things that unless you've been there you don't know happened. You certainly don't know those happen as a concertgoer. But that's a really important part of it to me—taking everybody all the way behind the scenes and making it real, giving people the opportunity to see something that they won't get to see any other place.
And then there's the sitting in a room, writing a song and trying to have something happen and sometimes it doesn't. Just how personal those stories can be, how personal those songs can get. Showing people writing isn't necessarily that thrilling but if something really incredible comes out of it then it can be.
Nobody is interested in showing a phony side of things. That's easy to do and it's been done many times. So that's not what we're about.
The town itself, really just the way people are here and the way the music is and the amount of great music there is and the amount of great musicians and incredibly intense, wonderful, funny people that are here making up what we know is the music business—I really wanted to honor that and honor what it is that they are doing. Because you don't really see the people behind the scenes who are telling the stories that are making the songs that people love.
And so that was another really important thing for me, to be able to stay very true to the people that are committing their lives to that and not showing them in other, not very true or not very interesting version of themselves that makes them cringe when they see it too.
There's been so much of that that's come out of Nashville over the years. I've talked to so many people that said I gotta tell ya, I was nervous.
Are there particular triumphs, whether it's scenes or stories or even just moments from this first season that you have?
I think just trying to see Juliet, for instance, that character try to become a more serious writer.
And the relationship with Deacon, for instance. I, of course, have seen on television many, many times where you have an older male character with a younger woman, and I had to find a way. Like, how can I do this without making it a stomach-churner for me? Because oftentimes that doesn't look right or good at all. And it's not something that feels even true because what you're saying about women is that they are kind of props.
So because I wanted to have the Juliet character wanting to write with Deacon and aspiring to have somebody like that in her band, I had to find a way to take that relationship very quickly out of the fantasy part of here's a guy who's gotten extremely lucky into oh guess what, her mom is a drug addict and you're gonna have to take her to rehab, and this girl has several different ways and is gonna lean on you in a whole lot of ways that aren't gonna always be that much fun for you. All of that.
So all of a sudden you're taking the polish off of that kind of relationship and putting it into the realm of reality that makes it something else entirely. So that's something I was happy that we were able to achieve.