PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Tony Winner Tracy Letts, Who Brings Osage County to the Big Screen

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16 Dec 2013

Tracy Letts
Tracy Letts
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

August: Osage County, which was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play, will hit the big screen Christmas Day. catches up with its writer, Tracy Letts, who adapted the family drama for film.


Although Tracy Letts was last recognized with a 2013 Tony Award for his acting work in the award-winning revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, his latest project, which will arrive in movie theatres around the country Dec. 25, marks his third full-length screenplay. Previously, Letts — also the author of Broadway's Superior Donuts — adapted his plays Bug and Killer Joe, which were turned into films in 2006 and 2011, respectively. For "August: Osage County" — which provides audiences with a slice of family life when the Weston clan gather in Osage County, OK, when the family's patriarch, Beverly, goes missing — Letts and director John Wells lined up an all-star cast that includes Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper, among others. As Letts awaited his starry cast to join him at the New York City press junket for "August: Osage County," caught up with the actor-writer, who talks about transferring the massive three-act play — which opened on Broadway six years ago in December 2007 — to the screen.

August: Osage County is such a massive piece of theatrical literature. Where did you begin to truncate the material for the film adaptation?
Tracy Letts: The play is about a little over three hours of material — about three-and-a-half hours with the intermissions — and the movie is a little over two hours of material. You know, we didn't talk about it at first, in terms of things that we needed to lose or page count or [run] time or timing — at least [director] John [Wells] and I weren't. John and I were trying to take a slightly, I don't know, gentler approach, perhaps — I think a more thoughtful approach — in that we were trying to figure out a different way to tell the story [and find] places where we could use images to tell the story…

The way we tell our stories on stage is that we use spoken word to convey action, and in movies, we use visual images to convey action. Though spoken word in August conveys a lot of action, [there comes] a point where the rubber hits the road, and you kind of have to figure out, "Okay, we do have to lose stuff now." For instance, the prologue in the play is 15 minutes, but you can't begin a film with a 15-minute scene between two characters who aren't the leads in the film, so I made a conscious decision early on to focus more on the protagonist — or focus more on Barbara [Fordham, played by Julia Roberts], even more so than in the play. In the play, she doesn't enter until maybe a half hour into it, which is odd for a protagonist to [enter] that late in the game. [But] there was no specific place where we said, "Well, now have to start hacking at this scene." It wasn't like that.

Julia Roberts
photo by The Weinstein Company

Did you know, when August was being planned for the big screen, that you would write the screenplay as well? Were you protective of the material?
TL: I'd done it a couple of times before with Bug and with Killer Joe, and I guess there is some part of me that is trying to preserve some of the things that I will have more of an eye to preserve — some thematic concerns. My fear is that the next guy they bring in won't be so sensitive and is, in fact, hacking away to get the page count down. So, yeah, that's definitely part of the [reason]. And, I like the movies, and I like the reach movies have — that they get to places that plays can't, in terms of the audience, so I wanted to be a part of it. I was absolutely supportive of the idea of the movie being made.

When watching the film, I thought that August works so well on screen. When writing, did you ever see it as a possible film?
TL: I never saw it as a film when we were working on it as a play. I don't write plays for them to be turned into movies. But then, once I was able to turn my mind to the film and start thinking about it, I was aware there were a lot of things I was able to do right on film that the parameters of theatre simply wouldn't allow for. For instance, much has been made of the very ending of the [film]. The truth is, in my script, the last images are of Barbara driving away. On stage, of course, we can't follow her off of the set. I can't follow her into the car and driving away. I mean, the ending of August: Osage County, either on stage or on film, is that the daughters leave… That's the ending any way you slice it — the movie ends that way, and the play ends that way — but it allowed me to think about it more cinematically. One scene, in particular — the scene with the doctor, [which was] in the film, was the scene I had originally tried to include in the play, but I couldn't find a good excuse to get the doctor to the house, so we wound up scrapping the scene… But, here, I was able to show it. I was able to take [the sisters] there and show it. One thing I'm particularly proud of is the scene with Barbara and Violet outside, where Barbara is chasing Violet through the field. That is something written purely for the screen — the very cinematic elucidation of the same themes [in the play] I was trying to get at.


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