30 Days of Screenplays — Day 7: “Thelma & Louise”

Why 30 screenplays in 30 days?

Because whether you are a novice just starting to learn the craft of screenwriting or someone who has been writing for many years, you should be reading scripts.

There is a certain type of knowledge and understanding about screenwriting you can only get from reading scripts, giving you an innate sense of pace, feel, tone, style, how to approach writing scenes, how create flow, and so forth.

So each day this month, I will provide background on and access to a notable movie script.

Today is Day 7 and the featured screenplay is for the movie Thelma & Louse (1991). You may a PDF of the script here.

Background: The screenplay was written by Callie Khouri.

Plot summary: An Arkansas waitress and a housewife shoot a rapist and take off in a ’66 Thunderbird.

Tagline: Somebody said get a life… so they did.

Awards: Won an Academy Award and WGA Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Trivia: Callie Khouri first conceived the project in 1979. She was hired by Ridley Scott for a project called “Thelma & Louise” around 1980. Ridley Scott was going to produce, and Khouri was appointed as director. They were turned down by many studios, until MGM purchased the rights in 1981. But Khouri wasn’t ready to direct the film, so Scott was going to direct himself. The movie was originally announced in 1981 for a 1983 release. Originally, Scott and Khouri wanted Natalie Wood for Thelma and Tuesday Weld as Louise. However, Wood drowned in 1981 and Weld quickly dropped out from the project, so this would never come to pass.

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As I re-read the script (for the first time in years), I was struck by two things (apart from the fact that it is a damn fine story). First, I draw a distinction in my screenwriting classes between a story with Co-Protagonists, where two characters are joined together on a single journey, and Dual Protagonists, where two lead characters (a) go through sharply distinctive transformation arcs and (b) they spend a good deal of time apart on their own respective experiences. For example, I would suggest that The Shawshank Redemption is a Dual Protagonist story while Thelma & Louise is a Co-Protagonist story. But T&L demonstrates that you can have a Co-Protagonist story with substantial nuance in it re each P’s transformation arc. Whereas Louise certainly ‘grows’, it is Thelma who goes through a more dramatic metamorphosis.

It’s great to see it is timid little Thelma who drives a far chunk of the action after the mid point. She robs the gas station, saves them from the cop, and is the one to initiate the final decent. A great character transformation, spawning from such a little step. “I think he is. Fooling around.”

The second thing is this: In movies where a Protagonist changes, moving from one emotion-state to a significantly different one by the end of the movie (per my language going from Disunity to Unity), one attribute of that metamorphosis we see over and over is empowerment. And while events and experiences that happen in the External World steer and even drive that change, the P’s sense of power emerges from within. The woman Thelma was at the beginning of T&L is the same woman Thelma was at the end; that is, she’s not two different people, she is one individual. What has happened is that all the defense mechanisms and coping skills Thelma had used to push her through her desultory ordinary life in Act One had in effect choked her off from her authentic self inside. And as those behavioral patterns were broken down (Deconstruction) in the first half of Act Two, she re-connected with her core essence — and that empowered her.

Carl Jung asserted that the great story of each of our lives is simply this: to engage honestly all aspects of our psyche. Only then can we as individuals move toward any semblance of unity and connection with our authentic self. And in doing that, we come alive, we feel powerful. Why? Because being connected to the core of who we are is empowering, in part because the energy we’ve used to repress and suppress our inner self is freed up and because when we tap into our core essence, we unleash its raw kinetic energy.

And that, I would argue, is an apt psychological interpretation of what happens with Thelma’s character. On P. 111, Louise asks Thelma if she’s awake. Here is her reply:

Wide awake. I don’t remember ever feelin’ this awake. Everything looks different…Everything looks new. Do you feel like that? Like you’ve got something to look forward to?

That is an expression of empowerment — how even in the face of dire straits (prison) or worse (death), Thelma can “look forward” to whatever happens.

Takeaway: If you’re writing a story where the Protagonist goes through a significant metamorphosis of character, be attuned to ways that their change can empower them along their journey.

What’s your take on Thelma & Louise? Stop by comments and post your thoughts.

To see all of the posts in the 30 Days of Screenplays series, go here.

This series and use of screenplays is for educational purposes only!

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