The Ms. Q&A: How “Thelma & Louise” Turned Jennifer Townsend into a Filmmaker
8/5/2019 by AVIVA DOVE-VIEBAHN
Twenty-eight years ago, a movie changed Jennifer Townsend’s life.
She went to the theatre not knowing what to expect from Thelma & Louise (1991, dir. Ridley Scott), the critically acclaimed female buddy film about love, friendship and a refusal of gender expectation that been alternately lauded for its feminist politics and critiqued for its seeming praise of “criminal” women. Thelma & Louise continues to inspire and provoke viewers decades later—and remains relevant in conversations about #MeToo, rape culture and feminism on film. Read More
What did Thelma & Louise mean to you?
By Nathan Bell
‘Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise’ examines the legacy of Ridley Scott and Callie Khouri’s 1991 feminist road movie by interviewing a cross-section of viewers who watched the film when it first opened. Several of the interviewees share personal stories about how the film impacted their lives, and ample room is left to ruminate on how far — or how little — we’ve progressed as a culture. READ MORE
Review by Kurt Gardner
Director/producer Jennifer Townsend was not in the film business at all when she first encountered the now-classic road movie Thelma & Louise in 1991. Profoundly moved by what she’d seen, she wondered if others had been similarly affected by the film. Originally setting her sights on writing a magazine article about its cultural impact, she sent out a series of press releases to newspapers across the country in search of volunteers to fill out a questionnaire regarding their feelings about the cinematic landmark.
She intended to compile the data on these surveys to use as the basis for an article about the impact the film had on a cross-section of the general public. But this was before the internet was ubiquitous, so by the time she’d received enough completed questionnaires via mail, many other stories had been written, so she decided to set the project aside.
More than 20 years later, the 75-year-old Townsend realized that if she was going to do something with the information she’d accumulated, now was the time, and Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise began to take shape.
She managed to get in touch with a group of the original respondents, even after such a substantial passage of time, and she flew out to each of their homes to conduct interviews. The director showed them the original questionnaires they’d filled out years before, and many of them were amused by what they’d written. Still, more of them stood firmly by the opinions voiced by their younger selves.
Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise incorporates key scenes from the 1991 MGM release with these insightful and often passionate interviews, and the results are fascinating. Most all of the interviewees felt liberated by the film, responding to the notion of female empowerment, which was something they hadn’t experienced in the cinema before.
MaryAnne Johanson: Oh, I love this movie so much! So much more than I was expecting just hearing what it was about. I love how all the “talking heads” here are just women talking about their own lives. I mean, many of them are authority figures — lawyers, professors, etc — but they speak from personal knowledge and experience, not with academic or professional distance. I love the introspection going on here, from the women (and a few men) reexamining their quarter-century-ago reactions to Thelma & Louise and agreeing with their past selves, or even finding that they are angrier still today.
CATCHING SIGHT OF THELMA & LOUISE (2017): REVIEW BY BRIGID K. PRESECKY
Following the 1991 release of Thelma & Louise, director Jennifer Townsend conducted a questionnaire as a research project: did other people share a similar, visceral reaction to the film? After sorting through handwritten letters and cassette-tape voicemails, Townsend follows up with her responders two decades later. This uniquely touching documentary shows how impactful art can be, how many people it can reach and just how long it can last.
Writer Callie Khouri’s Thelma & Louise has a permanent place in the cultural zeitgeist. Directed by Ridley Scott, the film follows Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon as two best friends on an adventure-turned-escape after Louise shoots Thelma’s attacker. After the film’s release on May 24, 1991, viewers connected with the film’s themes of feminism and, more importantly, freedom, so much so that they answered filmmaker Jennifer Townsend’s mail-in questionnaire.
Twenty-five years later, those individuals make up a majority of Townsend’s Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise. With memorable clips interwoven with talking heads, the well-edited documentary takes you on a journey across the country as “fans” (a seemingly unfit word, given how meaningful the film is to these individuals) share the deep-seated ways the film has affected their lives.
Hearing the women (and men) read their own words, ones they had forgotten they had written, is indescribably moving. Comparing their initial reactions to today is powerful to witness – despite their 25 additional years of living, almost all of their reactions remain the same. It only took a letter from their younger selves to be reminded.
In an interesting juxtaposition from the questionnaire responders, Townsend interviews the film’s editor, along with actors Christopher McDonald (Thelma’s derelict husband, Darryl) and Marco St. John (truck driver). Their interviews not only bring a male perspective, but also provide insight into the making of the movie and the feedback they have received over the years.
Tapping into the deep well of human emotion becomes the heart of this documentary. The interviewees and Townsend, herself, bravely share their stories about friendship, rape, hope and healing. Their raw honesty brings more realism than you would expect from a film about a film.
Rather, Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise is about representation and connection. In a way, it’s both a love letter and a thank you note to Callie Khouri. If you had 87 minutes to thank the person who changed your life, would you? Thankfully, Jennifer Townsend does. And these heartwarming and heartbreaking collection of voices would make Thelma and Louise, themselves, very proud.
When she saw Thelma & Louise in 1991, Jennifer Townsend wanted to do what any kid today can do in seconds: Find out what her fellow moviegoers thought about a film that was inspiring so much controversy in the media. In that pre-internet age, she was curious enough to launch a snail-mail research project, asking people around the country to fill out a questionnaire and mail it back. She got lots of responses, then let the project lapse.
Click here to read more.
Decades after it opened in theaters, “Thelma & Louise” remains a cultural touchstone, but it’s much more than that for 80-year-old first-time filmmaker Jennifer Townsend. When the landmark feminist film was release in 1991, Townsend began a research project that finally comes to fruition with the documentary “Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise.”
Townsend gathered reactions to the film from viewers across the country, but snail mail made it a lengthy process and the effort stalled. With this film, she revisits the answers she received and speaks with those who responded on both their initial reactions to “Thelma & Louise” as well as how their thinking has evolved in the years since they first saw the movie.
In addition to interviews with experts and the women who answered the original questionnaire in the 1990s, Townsend also gets Thom Noble, the editor of “Thelma & Louise,” as well as actors Christopher McDonald, who co-starred as Thelma’s husband, and Marco St. John, who appeared as the trucker. A number of clips from the film illustrate her points well and remind the audience of how revolutionary it was for its time.
Ridley Scott’s classic raised questions we’re discussing today around feminism and the #MeToo movement, making “Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise” so relevant. This documentary offers thoughtful insight throughout, but even faithful fans of the film may find its nearly 90-minute running time overlong.
Opening in Los Angeles. Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise was released on April 5 in New York City and will arrive in Los Angeles theaters on April 19. The April opening was selected to recognize and support Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Review by Henrick Vartanian
‘Thelma & Louse’ is being revisited in a new documentary film. In twenty-five years, as a woman and as an artist, Jennifer Townsend has lived and grown with the undeniably powerful, effective piece of cinema that has imprinted its lasting effects on many Americans, lovers of film, and supporters of social change.
In Catching Sight of Thelma and Louise, fans and members of the original cast and crew share their experiences with the iconic film. Documentarian Jennifer Townsend enlists a group of fans to explore the film’s funniest and most difficult moments, and to appreciate the cultural significance the film retains.
When Jennifer Townsend first saw Thelma and Louise in theaters in 1991, she was compelled to keep engaging with it in some communal way. She sent out questionnaires to a group of academics, educators, writers and psychologists, gathering their impressions of the movie. Townsend received many enthusiastic responses, but she stored them away, knowing she would revisit this idea when it was the right time.
Recently, Townsend invited the questionnaire participants back to make a documentary about the continuing legacy of Thelma and Louise. Although some people didn’t remember having filled it out decades ago, they were so charmed by the idea that they agreed to be part of it. Even some of the original creators of the film joined in, caught up in the energy of this new project.
For her documentary Catching Sight of Thelma and Louise, Townsend pulls together audience interviews, text from the original questionnaires, news clippings, and reviews that illustrate the film’s impact when it was first released. The clips from the original film are particularly compelling in this context. Alongside the protagonists’ most emotional moments, we hear audience members’ stories of the frustrations and traumas that made these particular scenes of revenge and liberation so satisfying.
The interviewees tend to agree that these impressions haven’t changed. They note the heartbreaking reality of scenes of sexual assault and of women demeaned by men. Christopher McDonald, who played Thelma’s insufferable husband Darryl in the original film, observes that he knows people in marriages like that to this day. These viewers’ common frustration is that these scenes and portrayals still resonate, that the catharsis of watching attackers pay for their crimes remains just as strong almost thirty years later.
One interviewee, June Dunn, a continuing education advisor, questions her original feeling of catharsis. She recalls that when she first saw the movie screened in 1991, the whole audience stood up and cheered at Louise’s revenge on the rapist. Thinking about it now, Dunn says, she’s not sure this is the kind of feminism she can be excited about. Why should Louise have to kill someone to feel safe and empowered? Why should anyone?
This documentary is great at raising these kinds of questions, at exploring the variation in their answers. For some people, the original movie provides healing that is highly personal. For others, it is heartwarming, funny, or tragic. To me, Thelma and Louise’s feminist impact is most profound when the movie can just be what it’s meant to be: not a political essay or an educational piece, but a great adventure story.
I haven’t seen Thelma and Louise, but after Catching Sight, I can appreciate that story. I have a strong sense of what it would have been like to see these women holding guns and standing up for each other when the film was first released in 1991. The beauty of the original film’s last moments is transformed in this new documentary context. Here, we see the clips within Townsend’s community of moviegoers, through the lenses of their stories.
Q: Does Catching Sight of Thelma and Louise pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
Definitely! Most of the interviewees are women, talking with the female filmmaker off-camera. Scenes from the original film feature prominently, and Thelma and Louise share conversations about their plans and their futures.
© Amelie E. Lasker (4/2/19) FF2 Media
Review by Brian Passey, at The Spectrum.
This year I was on vacation until the end of the festival so I was limited by available time and only saw one feature-length documentary and five short films. That’s too bad because this international documentary film festival, hosted by Dixie State University, is truly a gem in our community and one of the best events to originate in Southern Utah this past decade.
The quality of the films is often impeccable. Many will make you laugh; some will make you cry; others will make you angry. This is what is supposed to happen. After all, documentary filmmaking is about the human experience and those emotions are part of what we all go through in our day-to-day lives.
Among the films I saw this year was the feature-length “Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise” by director Jennifer Townsend. It did make me laugh. It also made me sad. And, yes, it made me quite angry.
The anger, however, wasn’t directed toward the film itself. Townsend did a marvelous job with the documentary, especially considering it was her first foray into filmmaking. This is especially impressive considering she was 75 when she started the project.
Or at least that’s when she started the film. It actually began as a research project a quarter-of-a-century earlier, shortly after the release of the 1991 film “Thelma & Louise.” Townsend had a powerful reaction to the film and wanted to know what others thought about it. So she sent out a press release to solicit reactions. While she collected a number of reactions through letters and audio recordings, nothing ever came of them until she decided to pursue this film.
For the film, she tracked down some of those who sent her reactions 25 years earlier as well as a few people who were actually involved in the making of the film. The result is an in-depth analysis of the film, often from a feminist standpoint.
While all of that is intriguing, the most impactful elements of Townsend’s film occur when her subjects begin making comparisons between events in the film and incidents in their own lives, including numerous stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault
What struck me most about the film is how it got people talking. During a question-and-answer session with Townsend following the film, one audience member tearfully thanked the director for making the film because it addresses an ongoing problem. The same audience member later said it can be difficult getting people to believe their stories of sexual harassment and assault.
I also spoke with two women I know following the film. While I don’t know them well, I was surprised to learn that both of them are also survivors of sexual assault. It made me wonder just how many are out there. And it made me realize how men like me need to make sure we are listening to their stories and believing them.
It’s especially important for a film like this to be shown on college campuses and in today’s political climate, where sexist and misogynistic remarks have become part of campaigns for even the highest office in the land.
We often hear about the stereotype of the “angry feminist.” Yes, that label might very well apply to some of the subjects of this film but I don’t blame them at all for their anger. They shouldn’t have to accept that sexual harassment is just part of being a woman. They shouldn’t have to accept that sexual assault is commonplace. They should be angry. We should all be angry about this.
To view Brian Passey’s article in The Spectrum, Click Here.
What made my viewing of Townsend’s film more riveting and special was that I saw it with my Thelma. Longtime readers (and those familiar with Silent Sorority, the book) will know that I’ve written about my friend Jane over the years. Like the characters in the film we have challenged and exasperated one another. We have also helped each other out of more than a few jams. We’ve laughed and cried and shared insights and helped each other grow.
If you have a Thelma or a Louise in your life, give them a call, arrange a screening and then, by all means share your thoughts. You’ll be blown away at the cultural pressure on women not to rock the boat. If you’re anything like the viewers who have mailed, taped (or in more recent years) emailed and commented on Townsend’s blog, you’ll join a rich community of voices.
And, if you’re like me, you’ll also find insights and parallels to the pervasive social biases that exist about womanhood more broadly.
Santa Cruz Film Festival Spotlight
By Steve Palopoli
The documentary Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise had its origins back in 1991, when director Jennifer Townsend saw the then-newly-released Thelma & Louise, directed by Ridley Scott and written by Callie Khouri, a complete badass who wrote the script in longhand while working a production assistant job, won an Oscar for it, and reportedly responded to critics of the film’s feminist messages by telling them to “kiss my ass.”
Townsend was deeply affected by the film. “It blew me away,” she told me in a phone interview last week. “The very next morning after I saw Thelma & Louise, I woke up and decided to change my name.”
Up until then, Townsend had been holding on to her married name, Pierce, despite the fact that she had been divorced for many years. Inspired by the film, “I just picked a name out of the air,” she says.
She also started to wonder if other people were being inspired by Thelma & Louise in such a profound way. So she planned a research project, though she had absolutely no background in doing so.
“I wanted to find out ‘Are other people having this kind of reaction?’” remembers Townsend. “So I made up the name of a company and I put out a press release.”
She sent the release to a number of newspapers and film-themed magazines. It explained that she was seeking respondents for a research project about Thelma & Louise, and that interested readers could write her to receive a questionnaire, which contained five simple questions about their reactions to it, like “Who did you identify with in the film?” Some of the publications she sent the press release to did run something about her project, and printed her address.
“I got all these postcards saying, ‘Please send me a questionnaire,’” she says. “Some people just answered the questions, but some people sent me two, three, five page letters.’”
All of this took a while, however, in the pre-internet era, and by the time she had received all of these submissions, Thelma and Louise’s moment in the spotlight had come and gone. She boxed up the responses, with the intent of writing an article about the whole thing one day.
But years later, when she finally took the submissions out of their boxes, she felt like only a film could really convey the feelings so many had expressed.
“I realized, ‘I have to find these people,’” she says. Of course, that was easier said than done, but when she tracked down 20 of the people who had responded back then, and had interesting reflections on how the movie had affected them, she knew she had enough material to make a film that could coincide with Thelma & Louise’s 25th anniversary in 2016. She didn’t realize that she would end up being a central voice in her own movie, as well.
“I had no intention of being in the movie,” she says. “But then I realized it’s my story, it grew out of something I did, I would have to explain where the original letters had come from.”
Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise takes a unique approach to filmmaking about filmmaking, with the subjects in the film reflecting 25 years later on their reactions to the film when it came out. It also features a couple of the male actors from the film talking about the misguided masculinity of the roles they played. Townsend, who will be at the festival screening to talk about her documentary, hopes it answers that question of “why are films worth making?” in a way that captures a cultural moment.
“I think [the audience] will discover why there was such a phenomenal reaction to Thelma & Louise when it came out,” she says. “Why it created such a stir.”
One of the purposes of film festivals in general and the SCFF in particular is to take a closer look at our love of cinema in this way, says the festival’s director Catherine Segurson. These questions about the nature of movies and why we watch them are questions she is always asking herself when she’s considering films for the festival.
“So maybe I’m a little more biased toward those types of films that are exploring that,” she admits. “But I think other people will find it fascinating also, because sometimes we don’t even realize why we’re watching movies or attracted to watching movies. I like the films that are kind of meta in a way, exploring the whole purpose behind creating films—it’s the art, but it’s also what it does to the people watching films. That’s what the Catching Sight film explores, and that’s what Cinema Travellers explore.”
POWERFUL DOCUMENTARY CATCHING SIGHT OF THELMA & LOUISE RE-EXAMINES THE MEANING AND EMOTION BEHIND ITS ICONIC FILM NAMESAKE.
August 25, 2017 – St. George, UT – If you ever wondered what effect the iconic film Thelma and Louise had on society, the documentary Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise screening at the DSU DOCUTAH International Documentary Film Festival answers that question. Directed by Jennifer Townsend, the idea for Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise had its beginnings in 1991, when viewers from around the country shared their visceral reactions to Thelma & Louise, in a national survey conducted by Townsend. After seeing Thelma and Louise (several times) when it was first released, Townsend felt, “that this film had affected me in a profound way. Even now I find that words do not fully capture this sensation. I had never seen a film where women exuded so much power. They had ‘slain the dragon’. They were forces to be reckoned with. Even in the face of death, they refused to surrender.”