New book chronicles how ‘Thelma & Louise’ bucked the system and made the leap to screen immortality

First Published      Last Updated Jul 20 2017 09:34 pm

‘Off the Cliff’ » Becky Aikman’s book traces how the movie defied Hollywood at every turn.

Who could forget the ending to "Thelma & Louise"?

You know the scene, where Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer are driving toward the Grand Canyon, a phalanx of police cars on their tail — and just as the Thunderbird gets to the edge, Pfeiffer's Louise makes a sharp turn, and the two female outlaws get away in the dust and confusion.

That's the ending the Hollywood suits might have delivered, according to a new book about the making of the landmark 1991 movie. Instead, the world saw Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon as the female fugitives, who drove into a go-for-broke finale that still sparks conversation a quarter-century later.

"I still encounter people who say they hate [that ending]. They say it sends a bad message about feminism, that the only thing women can do is to kill themselves," said Becky Aikman, author of "Off the Cliff: How the Making of 'Thelma & Louise' Drove Hollywood to the Edge" (Penguin Press; hardcover, 305 pages).

Aikman said the film's screenwriter, Callie Khouri, and director Ridley Scott "never saw it that way. They thought it was choosing freedom in a metaphorical way and not to be taken so literally."

The Utah Film Center and The King's English bookstore are collaborating to bring Aikman to Utah — where much of Thelma and Louise's fugitive run was filmed — for a screening of the film, followed by a Q&A with Aikman and Utah Film Commission director Virginia Pearce. The free event, which includes a book signing, is set for Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the City Library auditorium, 210 E. 400 South, Salt Lake City.

The story of "Thelma & Louise" starts with Khouri, a 30-year-old Kentucky native working on the fringes of show business as a production manager for music videos. After a late shoot and years of dealing with music-business sexism, she envisioned a movie she wanted to see: Two female friends on a weekend road trip who, after a violent encounter with a rapist, go on a cross-country crime spree and find the freedom they could never have in their regular lives.

Khouri penned her first screenplay, basing the level-headed Louise on herself and the flighty Thelma on her best friend, country singer Pam Tillis. Khouri and producer Amanda Temple started shopping it around Hollywood, but always got the same responses.

"People recognized that this was a very well-written script, but they wanted to water it down," Aikman said. "They said the characters weren't likable, they said they shouldn't commit violence because the audience doesn't like that, they said that men should rescue them, and of course nobody liked the ending. … [Khouri] could have said, 'You know, I've never written a screenplay before, I could cash in and become famous and do what I want the next time around.' "

Eventually Khouri's script landed with producer Mimi Polk, who ran the production company of Scott, then known for big science-fiction movies like "Alien" and "Blade Runner." Polk and Scott liked the script, though Scott didn't think he was the one to direct it. At one point, he had suggested his brother, Tony, famed for such macho movies as "Top Gun" and "Days of Thunder."

"I could just imagine a completely different movie," Aikman said.

Having Ridley Scott, also known as a man's man of directors, take the helm on Khouri's story brought a particular dynamic, a grandeur, to the film.

"One of the things that makes this movie really click is that, for Ridley Scott, it really wasn't within his comfort zone," Aikman said. "There's a creative tension there, as he's trying to cope with this material that he himself says he wasn't completely comfortable with. Sometimes people rise to do their best work when they're challenged in that way."

Even with Scott attached, most Hollywood executives rejected "Thelma & Louise." The one who didn't was Alan Ladd Jr., who ran the small studio Pathé.

"He was the rare Hollywood executive who gave filmmakers the freedom to do what they wanted," Aikman said. "He did object to casting Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon — he wanted bigger stars — but he bowed to Ridley Scott's wishes there. And he held tight on that ending, when most studios would not have done it."

Aikman details the many small steps in the movie's development. The early casting had two of the biggest female stars of the 1990s, Foster and Pfeiffer, in the lead roles, until production delays forced them to drop out. After that, Pathé suggested Cher for one of the roles, and at one point Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn pitched themselves for the movie.

The fierce competition for those roles, the book makes clear, was a symptom of how few good choices women in Hollywood had then. Of the top 50 movies made each year in the early '90s, maybe five would have women as the lead characters — and only two or three would be written by female screenwriters working without a male partner.

Those numbers, and the fact that they haven't improved much for women in Hollywood since, are what drove Aikman to write "Off the Cliff."

» Next page... Single page



‘Thelma & Louise’

A screening of the 1991 classic “Thelma & Louise,” partly filmed around Moab.

Where » City Library auditorium, 210 E. 400 South, Salt Lake City

When » Tuesday, July 18, 7 p.m.

Q&A » After the movie, Becky Aikman, author of the new book “Off the Cliff: How ‘Thelma & Louise’ Drove Hollywood to the Edge,” and Virginia Pearce, director of the Utah Film Commission, will have an onstage conversation about the movie. After the Q&A, Aikman will sign copies of her book.

Admission » Free

Presented by » The Utah Film Center and The King’s English bookstore