Why was ‘Thelma & Louise’ such an impactful film? Jennifer Townsend’s documentary explores why

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When Jennifer Townsend first saw “Thelma & Louise” (1991) when it came out in theaters, she was blown away. “It made a huge dent in my life,” she said. “In fact, the very next day after I saw the film, the first thing I did was change my last name.”

Townsend wondered if this film had made such an impact on other viewers too. “I was wondering if other people had reacted as strongly as I had. I just wanted in a way to share my experience.” The internet and social media barely existed yet, so she created a questionnaire and mailed it out to newspapers and magazines across the country. She got 150 responses total, through surveys and phone calls.

But because it took so long for editors to put the blurb in their publications and for snail mail to come in, she put the project on pause. “It haunted me forever. I couldn’t dream of dying in peace without doing something.”

Thankfully, twenty-five years later, Townsend did do something with those surveys. At the age of 78, she directed and produced the documentary “Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise” (2017), her first feature film. “I’m self-taught, [through] learning from the internet, going to some organizations and talking with people, and absorbing as much as I could, wherever I could.”

I recently spoke with Townsend over the phone about how she created this fascinating documentary and how things have changed for women in film since “Thelma & Louise” came out in 1991.

Townsend’s documentary “Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise” will be available on Amazon and VOD on June 28. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

THE IMPACT OF “THELMA & LOUISE”

MARTIN: What were you doing around that time when “Thelma & Louise” (1991) came out?

TOWNSEND: I had moved to Seattle shortly before then, and I had been selling commercial real estate as a commercial real estate broker. I was selling apartment buildings. Right about that time with “Thelma & Louise,” it struck me. It made a huge dent in my life. I do remember at that time I was slacking in my business because it changed me, and interest rates had gone up at that time, and it was harder to put deals together because they were canceling out for investors, so I had a little slack period in there and then I just threw myself into this “Thelma & Louise” project.

MARTIN: When you first saw “Thelma & Louise,” what was it that resonated with you?

TOWNSEND: It was such a psychological thing. I wasn’t analyzing it at all. I wasn’t trying to figure it out. I was just like in a daze. I really was in a bubble. The world was going on outside of this bubble … it was like I was transported to a different dimension for several days at least. It was a real phenomenon in my life. And the research developed from that. It was like wow, what is going on. It was like something happened. But I didn’t sit down and try tussle it out or take away from it, it just was like I was present with it, or just going along with it. In fact, the very next day after I saw the film, the first thing I did was change my last name.

The very next day after I saw the film, the first thing I did was change my last name.

MARTIN: Oh wow!

TOWNSEND: It was just an impulse, like I crossed the threshold or something like that. Like now I’m somebody else than I was from yesterday. And I just wanted a new last name, and I picked it out of the sky.

MARTIN: Oh my goodness. So I’m curious what made you want to change your last name. Did you want to start fresh as a person? Or were you just trying to detach yourself from the name you had before? It’s a big decision, so I’m just curious where that came from.

TOWNSEND: I had thought about changing my last name many times because it was a name I took when I was married. And then I had four children and they had that last name. When they were in school I didn’t want to change it. By that time, they were all out of school and out of university then, so there was no reason to hang on to that name. Off and on I’d think about changing it, but I just didn’t know what I should change it to. For some psychological reason, that particular morning, I just had to do it. I just woke up, and I just did it.

MARTIN: I love it. And so it was the movie that drove you to do that?

TOWNSEND: Yes, absolutely.

MAKING “CATCHING SIGHT OF THELMA & LOUISE”

MARTIN: What drove you to create “Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise” (2017)? Was it because it was the 25th anniversary of “Thelma & Louise”?

TOWNSEND: Yeah, that was on my mind. I was waiting until I wasn’t working any longer. I was retired,  I had traveled, I had done various things. And then I felt now is the time for me in my life, and then I could spend time on this.

So then I flew down all of those materials, still thinking that I would write something. But then I thought it would be much better [creating a documentary] than me paraphrasing people and taking out little bits and pieces here and there. If I could find some of these people and have them talk and share directly to the audience, you could feel them and hear them and appreciate them so much more than if I just rewrote something.

So once I had that idea, I had to pursue it, even though I knew absolutely nothing, zero about making a film at that time. It’s just been an uphill climb ever since; even today I am still learning the different aspects, and now of course I’ve gotten into the distribution. That’s a whole different ball game. You wear so many different hats. It’s been an incredible learning experience. And I just had my 80th birthday this year.

MARTIN: That’s amazing. How did you choose the people you’d interview for the film? And how did you go about getting the editor and two of the actors from “Thelma and Louise” to take part in the documentary?

TOWNSEND: Well first I went through the materials and I pulled out some of the letters that really said something, that really made statements. Because it was easy to answer the questionnaire with two or three words, or one single sentence here and one single sentence there, but that didn’t give me a sense of that person. But the ones that I did feel that really had time to sit and talk about their feelings, those are the ones I thought I’d like to show in the film. And then finding them of course was—

MARTIN: —a bit of a challenge.

TOWNSEND: That’s right, very, very challenging. Occasionally I would Google and somebody would come up directly, but more often than not—I signed up for this service where you get information about people, and I’d put in the name, and there’d literally be like hundreds of names, and of course nobody’s living where they lived twenty-five years ago. And at that time, many of the people that wrote in were in college. So you go away to college, then you go somewhere else to get a job.

Tracking people down, after all of that time, it was very difficult. There were all kinds of things that came out of that. Sometimes I would find the parents of somebody, older parents, maybe they were estranged from the child, and they did not even know how to reach the child. And then maybe I found the child, and the child had helped me find the parent that had written to me. Or then maybe I would find these people, and then they don’t even want to be in front of a camera, which is totally understandable; I didn’t want to be in front of the camera either.

As far as the actors and editor, I didn’t initially plan on having anyone who was in or a part of the film [“Thelma & Louise”], in my film. My film was about the stories of those who wrote their reactions about “Thelma & Louise.” But then in my documentary association they were saying while I was working on the film with them, people would say, “Would so and so be in the film?” So then I thought, well I’ll give it a shot, maybe have a cameo here or there, or something like that. I didn’t want it to be about the film or the personages in the film, I wanted it to be about the audience. So with that constant drumming, I said OK.

I didn’t want it to be about the film or the personages in the film, I wanted it to be about the audience.

So I did send out letters to the agents of the actors in the film, and through that, the two actors [Christopher McDonald and Marco St. John] came in. And also the editor [Thom Noble], I got connected with him directly and he was very open.

THE HEALING POWER OF “THELMA & LOUISE”

It occurred to me that both in “Thelma & Louise” and in my film, there’s a theme of violence against women. That element in particular I feel is a focal point. It’s like the emotional heart of the film. The doom of the violence against women. In that sense, women many times, they react to that in a way that they fully—it was healing for them.

TOWNSEND: It occurred to me that both in “Thelma & Louise” and in my film, there’s a theme of violence against women. That element in particular I feel is a focal point. It’s like the emotional heart of the film. The doom of the violence against women. In that sense, women many times, they react to that in a way that they fully—it was healing for them.

Some of the survey responses about the film “Thelma & Louise”

To see that, to see how these women talked about these experiences. They came away feeling like they were not alone. It was so awesome. We know intellectually, we all know that we are not alone, but it isn’t until you see somebody sharing their truth right in front of your face. You feel like they are on a different, more heartfelt level.

CHANGE IN THE INDUSTRY SINCE “THELMA & LOUISE”

MARTIN: Twenty-five years after “Thelma & Louise” came out, what are your thoughts about how things have changed for women in the industry?

TOWNSEND: I feel like we’re in a very exciting time right now. There’s so many women out there in the industry, that have a presence, and we are getting the acknowledgement that we deserve in terms of fresh and immediate attention. That doesn’t mean of course that we’re anywhere near where we need to be.

When there are so many women out there that are available and that are brilliant and they can be in front of the camera or behind the camera, the question is using that, taking advantage of that. Giving them opportunities, but there are still not enough opportunities. Not by a long shot. But I think we’re in a place that, this problem that we’ve been having with as women in the industry, forever, it’s starting to change. If we keep the momentum going, we will see changes.

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