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AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

Q & A With Director John Wells
Tell us a bit about how you got involved in the project.

I was very fortunate to see the play on Broadway. I saw it a couple of times actually, and really admired it. I never really imagined I would be involved in it at all though. One day I was having lunch with Harvey Weinstein, with whom I'd done a previous picture called THE COMPANY MEN, and we ended up talking about casting and the actors we liked. I mentioned an actor I liked who had ended up not being in the film, and Harvey said, "He'd be great in August: Osage County. We have rights to that and you should do it." And it was that-it was really that straight forward. We had some meetings, and then I started meeting with Tracy Letts, the wonderful Pulitzer Prize winning playwright who wrote the play and the screenplay. As those progressed, I then met with Meryl and Julia, and we all decided to do it together.

What does the story in this film - and the play that preceded it - mean to you?

The play itself is, in addition to winning so many awards, a wonderful continuation of a number of American literary traditions both in theater and in film that I was very attracted to. I come out of the theater originally, so I was fascinated by all the various kinds of wonderful antecedents that Tracy had worked on. Most importantly, though, is that it's about family. It's the ways in which we laugh together through tragedy, and also the ways in which we hurt each other and support each other. It's very humanistic and beautiful, and very funny at times. I was attracted to the ways in which it reminded me (though not specifically of my own family) of the way in which families interact. I saw that when I saw the play on Broadway. I noticed afterwards that everybody around me was talking about how it reminded them of their family-a character reminded them of their brother, or that character reminded them of their mother. They don't mean it literally, but there's something very true in what Tracy has written about, and I think it's what attracted all of us the material.

Can you talk a little about casting the film and working with the actors you chose?

We were obviously very fortunate to have this wonderful cast that came together to make the film. Part of that is that a number of people who had seen the play and were attracted to the parts-they're wonderfully written. Tracy is an actor as well as a writer, and that helped him to write these wonderful parts. It was one of the simplest casting processes-not a quick one, but the simplest one in the sense that people really wanted to be in it, and so all these wonderful actors kind of came through the door. When I met with Meryl a of couple times she had seen the play, and was very interested in it. We talked about the part: how it should work, what her concerns were, and all the pitfalls of doing it. I talked with Julia about the same things. Then we went through the process of starting to meet a lot of other actors. I'd worked with Chris Cooper before and was really was anxious for him to play Charlie, and delighted when he agreed to it. I knew Margo and Ewan's work of course, and Dermot, who used to live across the street from me. I've worked with Julianne Nicholson who before, and Juliette Lewis worked with my brother who for many years was a line producer. My mother was actually also her studio teacher when she was fifteen years-old. Abigail Breslin is wonderful. As someone as I thought of as a ten year-old, but when she walked through the door as a fifteen year-old to audition for the part, she was just perfect. I didn't really know Benedict's work other than I had seen him a on the BBC show that he did. He did his audition on an iPhone, as far as I could tell. But it was The second we saw it, it was beautiful, very moving and funny. So we cast him without meeting, just literally off his little iPhone audition that he sent us. It was wonderful working with Sam Shepard. His part is integral, but is not the largest part. I produced a lot of plays when I was in college, so the opportunity to meet and work with him as an actor was kind of a dream come true. Misty Upham, who is a Black Foot, represents the whole world around Osage County, which is actually the Osage Nation tribal lands. She's been wonderful. I had really admired her work in Frozen River a few years ago. She was such an integral part of everything we did. We got all of these wonderful actors who were interested in the material, and we just couldn't believe our good fortune. As every new person became involved in the piece I kind of kept pinching myself.

There's a scene in the film that everyone is talking about where almost all of the cast members, aside from Sam Shepard, are seating at a dining room table together. Tell us about that.

Yes, one of the centerpieces of the screenplay is a nineteen page dinner scene which takes place around one table with all the family members around. I think we were all very apprehensive about doing it just because we were going to be there for a long time looking at the same chicken. Because it was very well-rehearsed though, it became really sort of a play as we were doing it. Since we're in a practical location, and there's not that sense of a stage around you, people actually began to sort of sit and just have dinner. It got a familial rhythm of people who had known each other and had lots of history - of things that they were angry about, of things we were happy about, of shared memories and reminiscences. Then all of this stuff comes up. For all of us doing it, there was this sense of 'I have been at this dinner before. It's not this exact dinner, but I've been at this dinner that sort of attempts to celebrate someone's life after they've passed that turns into kind of something completely different than what you thought it was going to be when it began.'

Did the house in the film become a character, in a way?

I never really thought that we would be shooting in Oklahoma or in Osage County specifically, simply because it's a bit remote from a lot of the film industry and I wasn't familiar with the area. I'd driven through Oklahoma since I'm from Colorado, so I was kind of familiar with the plains, and the idea of the plains. I went there first to see what it was like so that when we went to other states to scout locations, I would know exactly what I was looking for. Then we came up here to look, and it was very beautiful and rugged in its own right. I suddenly realized by being there that there was something so specific about the people who were here - the way that they spoke, the way the country actually looked - that it would be extremely difficult to duplicate. So we started to seriously think about going there and doing it. The locations people found this wonderful house which is about forty minutes outside of Bartlesville. When we came to visit it I thought, 'That's exactly what I imagined.' We went inside and even the interior of the house was laid out exactly the way that we needed it to be with these beautiful big porches and the land around it. We actually purchased the house from the owners who had it on the market and had been in there. It was a great experience for everybody because you feel very much that the house has become part of the family. People really have lived in it. One of the things we did during the rehearsal process was have the actors stay in their childhood rooms. The adults went into their spaces, and lived in those spaces. People ate in the dining room. It gave everyone a sense of what the surroundings were, and I think it made a huge difference in the way that people interacted with their surroundings in the film.

What was it like adapting this particular stage production for the screen?

The difficulty always with adapting a play, making it more visual and turning it into a film is that, for any stage piece, you have to have a relatively confined area in which you're doing it. This play's screenplay lends itself very much to opening things up and taking them around the property and the community. Another one of the reasons to go to Osage County was because we were able to shoot a number of scenes, such as driving scenes and places where the characters went, that gave you a sense of the scale of the country. The plains created people who stayed there and were survivors. The play and the film in many ways are about the way in which we survive no matter how difficult our circumstances. By opening it up and putting it in this harsh but beautiful country you got that sense of the original people who came to this place, and how they tried to survive. There were a lot of conscious decisions made while sitting down with Tracy and talking about, 'this scene could be here, and this can be there, and could that be outside, and where could that be.' It was a lot of fun to do and I think it actually helped the dramaturgy of the piece.

The actors have said that they got a much greater understanding of what their characters and the family went through by shooting the film on location.

One of the great advantages to shooting on location, particularly if people are playing a family, is that they become a family because they eat together, and they spend a lot of time together. They find things to do together, so there's something that's built through being on location, just like any time that you're away. Then to be within the community - to meet the people in Osage County, to spend time around them, to eat at the restaurants - you start to come to understand who the people are. The country has been sort of simplified into this notion of red and blue, and different kind of political viewpoints. There's an assumption about what people are like. Yet once you actually come to a place and spend time with the people you realize how little actually separates us and that others have had our same experiences. Even though they may be from a very different place, experiences can be universal. The movie is really a universal story about family and the way families get together. It's great for it not to be about the actors impressions of what a place is, but actually what it is because they've been there.

Can you speak about some of the filmmaking team around you?

We were very fortunate to get Adriano Goldman to be the cinematographer for the film. He's done some wonderful work over the last few years, and I've gotten familiar with his work. I called him to ask him what he was doing, and he was available and sparked to the material. I loved this film he'd done a few years ago called SIN NOMBRE and then, and JANE EYRE that he did about two years ago which was just gorgeous. We wanted to get that sense this was really a beautiful place. It's beautiful country, it's easy and it's interesting. I talked to people as we finished filming , and while everyone was ready to get home, we all felt we'd miss the beauty of the place where we had been and the people we'd met. We were going to miss the scope of the place: how big it was, how the horizon was so far, how you could stop at the side of the road and find things to look at for hours. That's what Adriano brought to all of the cinematography-not only just the beauty of the interior space and the way in which it was lit, but also the sense of the world around it that we saw. I'm very impressed with his work, and delighted to have worked with him. I hope I get a chance to do it again. David Gropman, who I'd wanted to work with for years, was our production designer. He and his crew took this house and brought in all of the things that belonged here: the wallpaper, the paint, the rugs, every single piece of cutlery that's in every drawer, every piece of the specific spice bottles that are in the cabinets…every single detail. A number of people who visited said that it looked exactly like their grandmother's house, or their uncle's house, or the house they grew up in. Cindy Evans, who is the costume designer, has done a fabulous job with the same thing. You have some history with George Clooney, one of the film's producers.

Yes, George and I go way back. We go back to the beginning of ER which, hard to believe, is twenty years ago now. Obviously since we did ER together he has gone on to have a very successful career as an actor, but also as a wonderful director, producer, and writer. When The Weinstein Company got the rights to the film. Then I became involved and we started to talk about who should produce it. Harvey and I both said that George and Grant had been interested, so we should give them the script and see if they'd be consider being involved. They were kind enough to come on and bring all their expertise. Jean Doumanian and Steve Traxler, who had produced the play on Broadway and been involved all along in the development of the script, also came on board.

What was your favorite part of shooting this film?

For me it's always everybody that you get to work with. In this particular case, you have a wonderful group of designers, the cinematographer, and that whole group. Adjacent to that are all the actors we got to work with. To be able to work on a scene and look around the table and it's Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale and Ewan McGregor…it's fair to say it was an embarrassment of riches. There's a kind of delight in watching a scene come to life, especially here with scenes that I knew were beautifully written and would do well being translated into film. To watch these actors then take these parts and breathe life into them, was a great joy.

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