PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Tony Winner Tracy Letts, Who Brings Osage County to the Big Screen
By Michael Gioia
December 16, 2013
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. Playbill.com 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," Playbill.com 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.
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.
The Weinstein Company
There were great cinematic elements. I love that moviegoers are taken into this Southern world and will have a much different experience than they would seeing it in the theatre.
TL: That's another big point… The [piece] is called August: Osage County, and in the movie, we get to show Osage County. In the play, we only get to hear it described, and we can sort of imagine it outside the walls of the set. But, here, it's the first image of the film. This is Osage County, and I find that really satisfying and really, really moving. There's a reason I set it there, and [the fact] that we are able to show it is great.
Talk to me about casting. Meryl Streep was fantastic, but she wasn't the first actress I thought of to play Violet because she is so glamorous. Although Violet is very smart, she is completely broken down. Were you thinking "Meryl Streep" from the beginning?
TL: No! I didn't. I mean… I don't know. I don't tend to think of these things. I'm not sitting there thinking of the people you would cast to make the movie go. Once I heard Meryl Streep, I thought, "Well, that's great. She's a great actress, and if she wants to tackle that… Violet is not a fun person to be inside, but if she wants to tackle that, that's good for all of us." And, the rest of the casting… It's not as if I cast the film, but John and I were always very collaborative — not only in the writing of the screenplay, but in all of the preproduction phases: The design decisions, the location decisions as well as casting decisions. I never, for instance, sat in on a single audition — John did all of the auditions — but we were always talking about who was appropriate.
Tell me more about your collaboration with John Wells.
TL: He's a real gentleman and a lovely fellow. We had a great time together, and his approach was very thoughtful. You know, when he first showed up at my house — which is where we first met — he came to the house to start work, and I don't think he even took his play out of his bag at that first meeting. He was just choosing to use the time to get to know me. And, we got to know each other — our backgrounds, our histories. He wanted to know where the play came from and my own experiences… He had a lot of questions about how we put the play together originally — the discussions we were having in the rehearsal room, the design decisions we made. It was a very patient process over several meetings before we started to get into the nitty-gritty of the script.
When was the moment that it was decided to turn August: Osage County into a film?
TL: Almost immediately. The way these things work on Broadway is that one of the reasons you produce a Broadway show — because you're almost assuredly going to lose money on it — is that you share in the subsidiary rights, so there was talk of the movie as we were in previews, before we even opened the show. The Weinstein Company were investors on the play, so they had a stake in it from the very beginning. So, the talk was immediate after we got to New York.
Were you able to envision it as film from the beginning?
TL: I guess I wasn't thinking about it until it was time to work. When we were working on the play, we were working on the play. There came a point later on when I had to start thinking of it as a film.
Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep
The Weinstein Company
How close were you in working with the cast and creative team of the movie during filming?
TL: Not at all! I was there for the very first day, which was the meet and greet and the table read, which is a nervous day — it always is, regardless of the circumstances. People are showing up, and they don't know each other, and they're going to have to make a family, and they're going to have to kiss or slap each other… [Laughs.] They're going to have to get into it! [The cast was] also meeting me for the first time, and I have this long history with the play. Everybody wants to please everybody else and set everybody else at ease. Nobody wants to humiliate themselves… Not to mention [that] there were a lot of really, Goddamn famous people walking through the door! You couldn't help but notice that there's Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and [producer] George Clooney. I was able to sort of remind myself that it was "the first day of rehearsal," and this is what it's always like. I was a little intimidated by Sam Shepard because he's [also] a playwright. We read [through the script], and I spent a day answering their questions and getting to know them a little bit. They tried to get to know me… It was a lovely day, but then once shooting started — I mean, John was in consultation with me a little bit during the shooting — he would call me on occasion or email me a question, but for the most part, I was rehearsing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, so I couldn't be there while they were filming.
During the dinner-table scene, when the character of Barbara says, "I'm running things now!" it is such an iconic moment in August: Osage County. Were you afraid something like that wouldn't translate to the screen?
TL: You know, some things are going to translate better than others, and everybody is trying to make it work. I mean, there were certain things — for instance, in the play around the midway point, when there's the three columns of dialogue, and everybody is talking in the house at the same time… There was no way to make that work in the film. I mean, on stage, we have this picture — this canvas — that you're looking at as an audience member, and you can choose where your eyes go. In the film, of course, we're directing the eye at every moment to show you what it is you're looking at, which was one of the great things, too, about the dinner scene. The dinner scene we had always staged around that table, as opposed to try to open everybody up so the audience could see everybody. The audience was seeing backs, which was great. It was a great way to stage the [scene] and made the audience feel as though they were trying to look in and get a sense of what was going on at the table. Of course, in the film, we can put the camera right in the center of the table and spin it around and look at everybody's face, which is great. [The line] "I'm running things now," in particular, has a potency on the stage because it's the end of that act of theatre and hence worth [an] explosive end followed by that blackout. It's a little different in the film, but Julia still delivers it with the appropriate ferocity. Sometimes you sit there and [think], "This is going to work a certain way on stage, [but] it's going to work a little differently on film… C'est la vie!"
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.
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)