Family feuds: John Wells referees Meryl Streep-Julia Roberts showdown in ‘August: Osage County’
As Mel Brooks almost said once: It’s good to be Harvey. The co-chairman of The Weinstein Company (and Bob’s bro) wields an enormous amount of power on the contemporary movie scene, but every once in a while he feels compelled to flex a little and make a miracle. The last recorded instance of this occurred over lunch with John Wells, a television quadruple-threat with one feature film to his credit.
Right in the middle of the conversation, Weinstein stopped it in its lightweight tracks with seven little words: “You ought to do August: Osage County.” Gulping but still knowing what’s good for him, Wells somehow got out “Great! I saw it twice on Broadway.” Just like that, a major film director was born, and we’re off to the races.
“Literally, that’s how much we talked about it,” Wells recalls. “We talked about other things. When I got back to the office, my agent called me and asked, ‘You’re doing August: Osage County?’ That’s the wonderful thing about Harvey. He works on hunches. He just said, ‘I like your work. I think you can do it. Let’s go do it.’”
Such a prized and praised property would ordinarily have the high-profile directors scrambling for it. Weinstein cut them off at the pass and anointed his own candidate. Not that the 57-year-old Wells is unqualified, or underqualified, for such a herculean assignment. It’s just he comes from a strange land—TV, but it prepared him well.
“China Beach” was his Hollywood beachhead. As a writer-director-producer-showrunner, he worked his way from that through “The West Wing,” “Third Watch,” “ER,” et al, raking in a half-dozen Emmys. His lone feature, The Company Men, was a tough-to-tell drama about downsizing in today’s marketplace. It didn’t bring ’em into theatres, but it brought respect from The Brothers—and Company—Weinstein.
The happy upshot of Weinstein’s long shot is that it produced a sizzling, succulent, raw-meat saga that sets the bar for family dysfunction. (“It practically gallops,” as Cary Grant said of the insanity that runs in his family in Arsenic and Old Lace.)
Playwright Tracy Letts, knowing the Steppenwolf company of actors he had to work with, started casting them in the not-entirely-fabricated family drama that he was telling. Once onstage, he vigorously shook his family tree for three and a half hours, and out spilled five Tony Awards, including ones for Best Play, Best Actress (Deanna Dunagan) and Best Featured Actress (Rondi Reed)—plus a Pulitzer Prize.
The first person Letts let read his play was his mother, who had pretty much lived through it all with her own mother—a pill-popping, cancer-ridden, mean-spirited old matriarch who is waging an all-out war against her three dutiful daughters, their husbands and offspring. Her verdict? “I thought you were too nice to my mother!”
The event that brings together all these unresolved issues and smoldering relatives is the apparent disappearance of the head of the household (Sam Shepard, who, like Letts, is another Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who acts). Relations come from all directions, and when everybody finally sits down to a family feed, their pent-up emotions explode on cue like Vesuvius all over the dining-room table.
Great care and 18 months were required to cast the film. That painstakingly protracted search paid of with a Hollywood Film Festival Award for Best Ensemble of the Year, and Oscar would second that if only it had the category for it. “We knew who we were going for in many of the parts, but not all,” Wells admits. “Part of that had to do with just wanting to be able to cast the family correctly, make sure everybody was of the appropriate age and looked like they belonged together.”
The die was cast from the outset when Meryl Streep saw the play and expressed an interest in playing Violet, the harridan of the house. Likewise, Julia Roberts let her interest be known about Barbara, the one daughter capable of standing up to Violet. With that star power, it became a matter of matching them up with the right people.
Streep wasted no time physicalizing the role of Violet Weston, developing her look primarily from two lines of dialogue. The first was Shepard’s instruction to the new Indian housemaid to get Violet to “her last chemo session.” Implied in that is the fact that Violet had already lost most of her hair and would be usually wearing a wig—and who’d she want to look like? Enter the second line (Violet’s): “The only person who’s pretty enough not to wear makeup is Elizabeth Taylor—and she wears a ton!”
From those two clues, the actress and her longtime makeup and hair person, J. Roy Helland—both won Oscars for their dotty Margaret Thatcher—gave her head chemo stubble and covered it, for social occasions, with a wig right out of Butterfield 8.
Wells also said Streep did research to determine just how drugged Violet was in certain scenes. “We had a lot of conversations about when she took her last pill and how long does it take to wear off and where would she be in the cycle of being high.”
Switching subjects and stars, Wells contends that people “tend to think of Julia as one of our great movie stars, but not to think of her as one of our great actresses—and she really is an extraordinarily talented actor.” For Barbara, she gladly let go of her Glamour Girl thing. “She’s an embittered, angry woman who was once beautiful but allowed herself to go a little bit to hell. We weren’t going to do anything other than make her a beautiful 45-year-old woman. I didn’t want her to wear any makeup to speak of. I didn’t want her to do anything with her hair. Her wardrobe was the depressing, my-husband-just-left-me kind of wardrobe—and she embraced it.”
Among the precisely cast name-brand players who found plates at the turbulent Weston table are Barbara’s unmarried sisters, the flighty Karen (Juliette Lewis) and the spinsterish-in-spite-of-herself Ivy (Julianne Nicholson); Violet’s sister and husband, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale, in Rondi Reed’s Tony-winning role) and Charles Aiken (Chris Cooper); and Karen’s sleazy beau, Steve (Dermot Mulroney), who zeroes in on Barbara’s jail-bait daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin). Several quite surprising sexual configurations bubble to the top of this fulsome and feisty nest.
It seems this country didn’t produce actors good enough to play Barbara’s estranged husband, Bill Fordham, or Mattie Fae and Charles’ dimwitted offspring, “Little Charles,” so an international casting net brought in Ewan McGregor from Scotland for the former and Benedict Cumberbatch from England for the latter. They pass plausibly as Okies, and their accents would hold up beside some homegrown ones.
Both made a successful last-minute entry into the picture. “Ewan didn’t become available until the very end,” Wells remembers. “We cast him a couple of weeks before we started shooting. And I wasn’t familiar with Benedict’s work at all. My casting director said an agent had sent him an audition of Benedict—something that looked like it had been done on an iPhone, with Benedict holding it at the end of his arm like a ‘selfie.’ It was a beautiful audition, believe it or not. Only after I had cast him did I discover that there are legions and legions of Benedict Cumberbatch fans.”
August: Osage County was filmed “where it actually happened,” as the old movie ads used to promise, in Osage County. The company was based out of Bartlesville, OK, which is north of Tulsa and about 40 minutes from the set in Pawkhuska, OK.
“We actually bought a home with 50 acres there and shot everything in and around the house, which was much cheaper than building a set,” Wells remarks. “I believe it’s still for sale, if you’re interested. It was a kind of wonderful place—a $600 Sears & Roebuck house that had been built in the ’20s. It came out on a boxcar as a kit and was put together. Then they added porches to it. We sort of lived on the set all day long as a family. At night, we’d go back to the condos where we were all staying in Bartlesville, and in the morning we’d drive back out to the set. We could see the family home looming in the distance five minutes before we actually got there.”
Without its two intermissions, the play clocked in at three hours and five minutes. Its film facsimile runs just over two hours—the result of some ruthless, judicious, self-inflicted editing by adapter Letts and a little guidance from director Wells.
“We spent about 18 months just going scene by scene and piece by piece through the play and the screenplay to make sure we didn’t lose any of the humor,” says Wells. “The film is packed with conflict, but you try to space it out appropriately with humor—which, frankly, allows you to do both. If things are too dramatically difficult, we just naturally don’t want to allow them in. We stay at a distance from the material, emotionally—it’s, like, ‘Well, why would I want to do that to myself?’ But if you’re laughing, that undercuts the feeling and makes it easier for an audience to let their guard down and let the more dramatic moments come in as well.
“Onstage, audiences were bound to that home and oblivious to the world outside it. There was a lot of description of that world, telling you what you couldn’t see. This went with our first pass at the script. The next pass was about what we were going to see in close-ups. You don’t notice nuance so much in the theatre because you’re 50 to 100 feet away from the actor. Things have to be larger, more demonstrative in a movie. After we shot it and assembled it, we looked at it editorially for what we already know and didn’t know. That’s how we ended up with a tight two hours.”
As a film, August: Osage County does all it can do to approximate the play’s impact. If it falls short of the mark, that has to do with the difference in the mediums. A film can’t duplicate what it’s like being in the same room (i.e., theatre) with that battered, battling family. Case in point: At the close of the second act, there’s a dynamic shift in power, and the curtain falls on a gasping, deliriously disoriented audience. A movie, because it’s continuous action, must blend that moment into everything else.
“We can’t get that dramatic blackout and have an intermission,” Wells points out, “so we went deliberately to a quiet moment upstairs to give the audience time to breathe. That’s all you can do to try to simulate some of the same emotional impact.”
As directors go, Wells is one who prefers lots of talks over lots of takes. “I like to spend the time in the preproduction and in rehearsal with the actors, not specifically rehearsing the blocking of a scene but talking about what the subtext is, talking about what the history is. Tracy and I created lengthy histories for the characters so the actors would know where they had gone to school and who they dated and what they’d done and what certain lines in the script meant to them—all the things that you’d be able to do in a six to eight-week rehearsal period, which we didn’t have.
“By the time we got to filming, we’d spent so much time talking about the scenes, all I had to do was step in and say something or remind somebody of something about the history that would give us a subtext of what was being said. In families, everything that gets said has other meanings because of all the history.”
There are two scenes in the picture that Wells is proudest, and fondest, of. One, of course, is the dinner scene that erupts into the all-star free-for-all. “It was fabulous to do. I thought it turned out well. It was beautifully written, and you get to see all the cast members in one place. But, visually, my favorite is a new scene Tracy wrote. In it, Violet gets out of the car and runs across a hayfield, and Barbara has to catch up to her. It showed us Oklahoma, and it also encapsulated that wonderful line that he wrote for the end of it, which is: ‘Where are you going? There’s no place to go.’ In the context of that scene, there’s everywhere to go, but there’s nowhere to go."