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

By Michael Gioia
16 Dec 2013

Meryl Streep and Juliette Lewis
The Weinstein Company

What was your first reaction after seeing the finished product?
TL: Well, my first reaction is the reaction of a guy who works in the theatre, which is "Let's get to work!" When I write a play, and we read it for the first time, the great fear is that everybody is going to say, "You're a bum and you can't write. This stinks" and throw the script in the garbage. The great hope is that they're all going to lift me up on their shoulders and carry me to the streets, singing, "He's a genius, he's a genius!" And, the truth is, we always go back to page one and say, "Okay, let's get to work," and everybody rolls up their sleeves and goes to work on the piece, trying to make it as good as they can. That was my reaction after seeing the movie for the first time. When I first saw it, it was in a rough-cut form in a screening room in Los Angeles… All I could see were the things I wanted to fix, so it was about, "Let's get to work and see if we can fix some of these things and get some of my concerns out there." When I eventually saw it on screen in Toronto, once the music had been mixed and we were seeing it with an audience — which is how it is intended to be seen — that's a different response. I'm used to getting excited about going to see plays and opening nights — I get all buzzy about that [and] excited about the opening-night performance. And, I had the same sort of feeling in Toronto because it was a big premiere, and [I was] walking the red carpet…. And then, [when] we got in the theatre, and the movie started, I kind of sunk in my chair and [thought], "Oh, it's a movie. It's not going to change. It's done; it's finished." But then I heard the audience begin to react to it, and so much of the reaction was familiar to me from the play, and I was delighted to hear that.

One of the things that we were chiefly concerned about was that we didn't want to lose the humor. The humor, as far as I'm concerned, is sort of the secret of the success of August: Osage County, and I thought, "If we lose the laughs, we're dead." I might have said that to John in a very early meeting. And, they are often lost when you take something from stage to film. They're lost even when the film is done well, as in the case of Virginia Woolf? or Glengarry Glen Ross, both plays I've done, which are outrageously funny on the stage and less funny on film — [they] turned into more serious, gloomy exercises on film. I told John, "We just can't let that happen with August. This material, and given the subject matter — it could become serious and gloomy very easily, and we just can't let that happen. It's got to stay funny. We can't lose the laughs." So, when I heard that in the theatre in Toronto — when I was hearing some of the group response — I thought, "Well, we're going to be all right."

What excited you about being able to get the story out to a wider platform? It's a slice of family life, and it's a story that you might not see in a film.
TL: I grew up in a small town in Southeastern Oklahoma in a rural community — a small college town. I didn't have access to great theatre. I wouldn't have had access to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or A Streetcar Named Desire or any of that stuff — Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams or any art like that. I would have had access to reading the plays, of course, but not access to seeing them performed. My access came from movies — a chance to see the films — and that's how I saw those things performed. I'm very conscious of that. I was conscious of that with Bug and Killer Joe. I have some playwriting friends — Bruce Norris, Martin McDonagh — who just don't believe in it. They just don't believe that plays should be turned into movies and that it's a mistake. They're purists about it, and while I admire their viewpoint, I don't feel like that. I think about myself as the little kid. I think about some other nerdy, little kid like I was, who is going to get a chance to see August: Osage County, who wouldn't [normally] get a chance to see August. Something about [the work] may speak to them in their experience — it may inspire them.

( staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)

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