SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Callie Khouri’s office is laden with secrets.
An emerald-green silk chaise, a Craftsman-style lamp and scattered family heirlooms lend Southern-belle intrigue to the “Nashville” creator’s Santa Monica work space. On a shelf rests a silver urn with the cryptic label “Relax Pills.” Beside it is a 1920s Underwood typewriter that once belonged to Khouri’s grandfather, though what he tapped out on it is a mystery, even to her.
Also under wraps is the plot of the May 22 season finale of ABC’s country-music drama, something Khouri guards vehemently — almost as closely as the ingredients in the frothy bourbon smoothies we’re sampling this afternoon.
“They’re good, aren’t they?” Khouri says, sipping hers through a straw. “I really have no idea what’s in them.” The cagey spark in her eye suggests she may know more than she’s letting on.
One thing she’ll happily talk about is the unusual amount of female power behind “Nashville.” Women aren’t just in the writers room at “Nashville,” they have the majority say. Seven of the show’s 10 current writers are women, including Khouri and show runner Dee Johnson, as are many of its directors.
It’s the same story up and down the chain of command, from the show’s top executives — Lionsgate’s Chris Selak, ABC Studio’s Stephanie Leifer and ABC’s Channing Dungey — to each of its current editors and all but one of its interns.
At the moment, a dozen or so “Nashville” staffers, including the show’s lone male intern (he made the bourbon smoothies from his grandmother’s recipe), are gathered on folding chairs around an overstuffed leather ottoman strewn with snacks — carrot sticks, almonds, a wedge of Brie — in Khouri’s office.
“The interesting thing is, we never thought, ‘Let’s hire women.’ It was just: ‘Who’s the best person for the job?’” Khouri says. “It absolutely came about organically.”
“It’s so rare, honestly, at least in my experience,” adds Johnson, who was formerly a show runner on “The Good Wife” and other shows.
“It’s much better than it used to be,” Khouri says, “but when you look at the overall numbers for women in the Writers Guild, it’s inexplicable, inexcusable.”
A WGA report released this spring on diversity found a “far from level” playing field for TV writers in the 2011-2012 season (which didn’t include “Nashville”), with an average of 2.73 women writers per show.
With just a 5 percent increase in the share of TV writing jobs for women over the last decade, the report declared, “it would be another 42 years before women reach proportionate representation.”
A Directors Guild study of episodic TV directors for the same season found Caucasian males directed 73 percent of the work across broadcast and cable; Caucasian females, 11 percent; and minority females, 4 percent.
The landscape of “Nashville” “is obviously way above average,” says Kimberly Myers, director of diversity for WGA West. “It has the potential to change things. The more you get women gaining experience and joining the pool of people regularly considered for jobs changes paradigms — work begets work. It absolutely opens doors.”
“Nashville” isn’t a total anomaly — at ABC alone, longtime show creator Shonda Rhimes staffs plenty of women at “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” and she did the same on “Private Practice.” AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and HBO’s “Girls” feature a particularly high number of women directors. But these are not the norm.
“I’ve been in some ugly (writers) rooms. It can get combative,” says Johnson, who is Filipino American. “This is a pretty loud room, but pretty egalitarian. It’s very sort of gracious.”
“I’ve been in many rooms where I’m the only black person, and many rooms where I’m the only woman,” adds writer Wendy Calhoun. “Sometimes writers get pigeonholed into only being able to pitch toward certain characters — they give you the black person to write. In this room, everyone’s pitching on everybody. It’s so refreshing.”
There’s an in-the-trenches camaraderie between Khouri and Johnson, both of whom simultaneously exude femininity and tough-as-nails confidence. Neither graduated college — and neither is ashamed of that fact. They’ve both depended on raw talent and hard work to rise to positions of prominence. And both clearly command the attention, respect and affection of this crew, who often finish one another’s sentences and are prone to bouts of spontaneous laughter.
The gender neutrality extends to men. “I’m one of the few men on this staff,” says David Gould. “But I don’t feel an imbalance. I was a musician and this reminds me of being in a band. Everyone’s in it together.”
It’s that sort of collaboration that Khouri is known for, both in the feature film world and on the set of “Nashville,” where not long after the cocktail gathering in her office she’s traveled to Tennessee to direct the show’s season finale.
It’s a damp, chilly morning in East Nashville. Inside a modest, red brick home, Khouri is directing a pivotal scene between Connie Britton, who costars as long-reigning country music queen Rayna Jaymes, and her onscreen 13-year-old daughter, played by Lennon Stella.
With some 20 crew members on the living room set, Khouri, in fur-lined rain boots and a black trench coat, sits on a fireplace ledge. She leans forward intently, a script in her lap and Starbucks cup in hand.
“Just do it organically — tell the story,” Khouri says to Britton with both assertiveness and motherly assurance. She and Britton exchange more notes and then Khouri passes briskly through the crowded set to watch the scene on a monitor. Britton begins her lines, but then breaks character mid-sentence. “Hey, Callie, can we take it back a bit?” she asks. “I wanna try something.”
“Sure thing,” Khouri says. “You just keep doing what you gotta do, it’s OK. We can keep going back.”
Khouri directed the movie “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” and a Steven Bochco pilot in 2006 that never made it on-air, but this is her first time directing “Nashville.” It’s not only the episode that will end the season, but the one that will bring viewers back in the fall if all goes well.
“This is huge,” Khouri says during a break from shooting on set. “I listen to the people who have more experience than I do. But I do also feel myself being heard.”
Six women and nine men have directed “Nashville” episodes — a ratio Britton calls “astounding.”
“Across the board, every show I have ever worked on has had, like, one woman director per season. Maybe two,” Britton says. “This was so stunning to me — female director after female director. It was really an extraordinary experience.”
Britton says Khouri’s female-led vision has made a difference in the storytelling, too. “We all feel the collaborative sense,” she says. “It was really important to me and Hayden, right out of the gate, to make sure the characters were nuanced and we weren’t playing any of those stereotypes we could have so easily fallen into.
“None of us are interested in telling the story of a rivalry between two women that’s ‘older versus younger, prettier versus blah-blah-blah,’” Khouri says. “It’s not a reality I’m interested in fostering. We’re exploring the core differences between people generationally and at these different stages in their careers. Rather than: ‘We need to see her elbow her in the ribs.’”
Certainly “Nashville” isn’t without its share of testosterone. The show came about as a collaboration between the Grand Ole Opry’s Steve Buchanan, producer-director R.J. Cutler and Khouri, all of whom were brought together by CAA.
But it was Khouri’s relatable female characters — particularly Britton’s Rayna, battling to hold onto her fan base while Hayden Panettiere’s up-and-coming pop princess, Juliette Barnes, nips at her rhinestone-studded heels — that drew so many women to the project.
Dungey, ABC’s senior vice president of drama development, says Khouri’s “richly layered” female characters struck her from the very first pitch meeting: “I recognized these women she was describing. I saw myself and my friends and family in them, and I wanted to be a part of helping bring their stories to life.”
Khouri, now grabbing bites of corn chowder between scene setups, says she’s hopeful for a Season 2 pickup, “but you never know.”
The bigger mystery for fans of the show is whether the online rumors are true that two characters get killed off in the finale she’s shooting. All Khouri will say is, “You’ll have to tune in to find out.”
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