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On screen and off, female power drives ‘Nashville’

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Posted: Friday, May 17, 2013 4:30 am

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 Wednesday’s 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 said, 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 said. “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 said, “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.”

The landscape of “Nashville” “is obviously way above average,” said 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.”

On set

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.

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.”

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.

Britton said Khouri’s female-led vision has made a difference in the storytelling, too. “We all feel the collaborative sense,” she said. “It was really important to me and Hayden (Panettiere), 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.”

© 2017 Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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