The Heroine’s Journey

By Elizabeth Quinn

Today’s featured panel is a discussion with Jenji Kohan (Weeds, Orange is the New Black) and Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise, Nashville). While the panel was titled “The Heroine’s Journey,” both Jenji and Callie were quick to state that they don’t necessarily write heroines or anti-heroines, or set out with that as the intention for their characters and stories. As Jenji proclaimed, We don’t do heroine!”

They simply write three-dimensional characters that have both light and dark sides to them – like every human being on the planet. “I didn’t know I was writing heroines or heroic characters,” said Callie, “that was not where I was coming form. The heroism is in the action.”

After clarifying their stand on heroines, the discussion then delved into their respective projects and the process of creating film and television.

On Nashville, Callie tries to keep the central relationship of Rayna James (played by Connie Britton) and Juliette Barnes (played by Hayden Panettiere) from falling into the classic female rivalry and instead, makes it more psychological – it’s an ingénue/mentor relationship where they just don’t see eye to eye. When writing for any of her characters, she finds letting them get to an extreme place is helpful, and likes to push them just past the place where they’re feeling rational.

“The plot is the skeleton; it’s just where your characters play,” said Jenji. Jenji said she was immediately drawn to the womens’ stories in Piper Kerman’s memoir, Orange is the New Black and the setting of the prison because it forces the characters to mix with people they don’t normally interact with. She has always been drawn to stories that reflect the crossroads in life where people are forced to act. She didn’t want to follow Piper Kerman’s life specifically and after episode one, they were free to go in their own direction and still have Piper involved as a technical consultant. The flashback device came out of the desire to just get out of the prison at times and as a writer it’s helpful to see different worlds. The characters are multi-faceted so it uncovers the mask they wear in prison.

In the world of Nashville, the specificity of the city helps. Nashville as a city has its own personality and a great world to play with. There are all levels of success in the Nashville music scene (from struggling artists to legends) and there are so many layers to explore.

Callie told the audience that Connie Britton was basically the only person she saw as portraying Rayna James. She was a huge fan of her work in Friday Night Lights and always brought her name up when the network and studio asked for casting input. She didn’t even know if Connie could sing, but figured “She’s not crazy. I mean, she won’t agree to the role if she can’t do it.” It speaks to the impact of Connie Britton’s work in Friday Night Lights that Callie, when directing, will sometimes tell Connie, “Just give me a little Tami Taylor,” and Connie knows exactly what she means.

On the Writing Process

Callie said that writing is always hard to write and then the deadlines kick in, which was reassuring to hear that even seasoned professionals still feel the pressure of writing and coming up with great, compelling work.

Jenji talked about how the humor in Orange is the New Black comes of the character and the situation. “I don’t understand dramas that don’t use humor,” she elaborated, “because that doesn’t reflect real life.”

On the Writer’s Room and Women

Jenji, who has had a long career in television starting out in traditional multi-cam comedies , said that she was often the only woman in a writer’s room and that as a woman, “You just have to be able to hold your own, be tenacious, have a thick skin.” However, at the end of the day, that holds true for both men and women and when she’s casting a writer’s room she just wants the best writer, period. “It would be just as offensive if I insisted on an all-female writing staff.”

The conversation drifted back to heroes and both Callie and Jenji said they don’t see a difference between a hero and a heroine. They focus on deeply flawed characters. “Heroes are made not born and we’re watching the journey,” said Callie. Jenji added, “Piper does really stupid, unlikeable things and that’s OK. She may be likeable in the next moment.” The likeable critique seems to come up more for women than men and it can make you cringe. “What is acceptable behavior for women is so much more limited for women as opposed to men,” said Callie. “Bridesmaids is a great example of unlikeable women that we still like to watch.”

Of course a discussion with Callie Khouri is naturally going to bring up her film, Thelma & Louise. When asked about the ending of the film, Callie said she knew the “feeling” of the ending before she even wrote it. It was so strong that she left meetings with executives if they didn’t get it or wanted her to change it and she is so thankful that Ridley Scott came along and respected her script when directing the film.

Callie and Jenji were asked by a male audience member what some of their pet peeves are about poorly written women characters:

When women don’t have names or their own identity. “The lines you write for your character should not be able to be put in another character’s mouth,” said Jenji.

Not knowing anything about what motivates the female character. “Just write a human being – women written as stand-ins are irritating,” added Callie.

Jenji is always looking for great writers who can get along and are not assholes. “No matter how good you are, you’re not coming in the room if you’re a dick.”

“When I’m looking at writing samples,” she continued, “if I respond to the material and I’m still thinking about it days later, I call the writer in and if the chemistry is there, that’s great. I love it when a writer can bring personal experience to the script but t the end of the day it’s about being a good writer.”

Callie compared it to a romantic relationship: “It’s like you create the best blind date and then you marry them. They have to want to make it great as much as you do.”

On Series vs. Feature

Jenji has toyed with the idea of writing movies but it’s hard to work in that arena after working in television where the writer is king. Callie sees the advantage of both. A feature is great in that you have the luxury to work on the story for a long time and edit it and perfect it until you get it the way you want it. In TV, you just simply don’t have the time to do that with a tight schedule. Having said that, she stressed that she is really loving writing for television. The long-form storytelling is fantastic and the time that you’re given to build something, engage an audience and course-correct is great. While Jenji is very at home in a writer’s room, it was a new experience for Callie. She loves the writer’s room and being in television has helped her learn the value of getting feedback from other people.

Words of Wisdom for the Tough Times

Jenji: When you’re dead in the water you just write something new; you’ve got to keep going.

Callie: Even a failure can propel you to the next thing. Failure is part of success. It sucks but that’s the deal. Sometimes it’s best not to think about the odds.

Tomorrow I’ll post Day Four of the festival, followed by my wrap-up posts on the festival overall and interviews and additional panels that I was not able to include at this point.

Thanks for reading. Keep Austin Weird! As they say.