Writer/Director Callie Khouri on Creating "Nashville," and the Role Music Plays in the Show
Oscar-winner Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise) this year made the jump from feature films to series, creating Nashville for ABC. Not surprisingly, music is at the heart of the show, but it’s about much more, operating at the crossroads of art, business, technology, and politics, in a world where many of the old rules no longer seem to apply. There are a lot of players in this game, but the two at the core are singers at opposite ends of their careers: Connie Britton as Rayna James, the established star working to remain relevant, and Hayden Panettiere as Juliette Barnes, the hot newcomer reaching for respect — and grabbing hold of Rayna’s guitarist and former lover, Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten).
Khouri took some time out from production to talk about the story, the setting, and the biggest differences between working in feature films vs. series. “It’s kind of like riding a horse,” she says. “You get on, they shoot a dart into its ass and you’re just heading out into the great unknown and it’s running as fast as it can. You’re learning to ride, and the whole thing is ‘just don’t fall off.’”
What made you want to tell this particular story about these particular people?
It kills a lot of birds for me. Starting with the obvious, it talks about a time in our business where all the models are changing, the business has just gone through this drastic shift, and I think everybody is struggling to find their place and figure it out. It feels like there’s a changing of the guard in a way, and the old business models, to quote myself, “are no longer relevant.” That was a line I wrote in the pilot. It’s just a challenging time for people in all kinds of businesses obviously, but certainly this one, where the way it’s been working for however many years has suddenly become extinct almost. People aren’t making a living the way they used to.
There’s a few cities where stories about business changes could be told ... why Nashville?
Well, one, Nashville is a place that I love and adore, so anytime I can find a reason to be here, I do it. But two, it’s a town that is so full of incredibly talented people, just amazing music everywhere you go — almost too much not to have a lot of pain and heartbreak attached to it. Not just the music, and the songs can be about that, but with so much talent here, and such a narrow conduit to get it out in the world, there’s a lot of people here who probably should have made it and didn’t and great, great songs that you’ll never hear. … It’s a town that really loves and respects its traditions and history, for good and bad, so it’s just a really fertile ground for me for storytelling. And I have family here, and I just have a deep attachment to the place.
How does the music affect the storytelling process?
The first thing is that I’m constantly looking for the song that I feel is the right song for the character, whether it’s something they’ve written … how does the song fit into the narrative of the story? Unlike a lot of the other shows [featuring musical performances], we get to show the inception of a song, and the birth of a song, and the trajectory of a song … because here we’re at ground zero, where the song is being written or the event happens in somebody’s life that gives them the idea to write the song that they go on to write. … To me, that’s just a great device for revealing character.
I’m now in a world that’s so different from what I’ve been doing most of my life, which is feature films, where you’re telling a story with a beginning, middle and end. This is an ongoing thing, I hope — I hope it’s ongoing for a long time. And it’s a new way of storytelling for me. It’s kind of like you’re writing a novel and you just have to let everybody read it as you go along. There’s a lot of risk involved in that. And because it’s not just a singular endeavor. There are 11 writers, and we’re doing it at at breakneak speed. And it’s an incredibly demanding show.
Basically, if you were just doing a show that had five songs, and that was the show, nothing but five songs, nothing in between, it would still be kinda hard. And we’re doing both of those things. And it’s moving way more quickly than anything I’ve ever done. There’s very little time for reflection. … It’s a whole new way of thinking for me. And it’s really exciting, and really fun, and really embarrassing and really terrifying. Everything that making art is supposed to be, I guess.
Read more interviews and exclusives on the Amazon Studios Hollywonk blog.