Interview: John Wells Brings the Award-Winning August: Osage County to the Screen
December 23, 2013
It took nearly 20 years before screenwriter John Wells stepped out from behind the producer's role that had garnered huge success and fame on television with shows like NBC's long-running hit medical drama "E.R.", Aaron Sorkin's "The West Wing," "Third Watch" and more recently, "Shameless " and "Southland." He was nominated for an unprecedented 21 Emmy nominations, for which he won six.
Wells directed a few episodes of "E.R." and even won a DGA award, but when he showed up at the Sundance Film Festival with his timely ensemble drama The Company Men, starring Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper, people realized that Wells was more than just a writer/producer who could evoke equally strong emotions on the movie screen as he was able to do on television.
His second film is even more ambitious as he tackles Tracy Letts' Pulitzer-prize winning play August: Osage County, an ensemble comedy-slash-drama about a dysfunctional family reunion in Oklahoma after the death of the patriarch, while three sisters have to contend with their horribly outspoken cancer-ridden mother, played by Meryl Streep. With that simple idea, three generations come together and try to get along while going through their mourning with Wells working with one of the most impressive casts of the year, including Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, Margo Martindale, Juliette Lewis, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch and Abigail Breslin. Needless to say, with that sort of cast, emotions are high and fireworks will fly, and it's fun to watch the movie and think, "Boy, I live in a family of saints!"
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Wells from the New York junket for the movie and besides talking about some of the more interesting moments in the film, we also briefly discussed the changes the movie has undergone since it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and his next movie Chef, starring Bradley Cooper and Omar Sy, which starts shooting next year.
ComingSoon.net: I remember when we spoke for "The Company Men" a couple years ago and you had a copy of Tracy Letts' play on your coffee table, so I know you've been developing this for a while. What was the biggest challenge of adapting it and trying to bring it to the screen?
John Wells: Tracy and I spent about 18 months working on it. It's three and a half hours in the theater--about 25 minutes of that is intermission--so you know, three hours is a little bit in the theater. But the biggest challenge was trying to figure out what we were going to see that didn't require a stage. The theater is about words and description, so there were a lot of people describing what the world around was like that we were actually going to see. Then, beyond that, kind of trying to figure out what we were going to understand as an audience in close-ups, and actually being close to the characters and seeing what was going on in their faces. So a lot of it was just trying to get what was originally a 205-page screenplay down to a more suitable length for a film. We got it down to about 130 pages or something over that period of time, and during that whole period of time, we were also casting and beginning to put all the pieces together. It would've gone a little bit earlier, but trying to get Meryl and Julia's schedules to line up took about eight or nine months, too.
CS: Well, it's a great cast, and you had to get a lot of schedules to line up in order to get them all in the room for the big dinner sequence, so that must've been pretty tough right there.
Wells: I really wanted everyone to be there the entire time because I thought it was important that we get to work as a family and also that we get to basically shoot in continuity, which we did. So there was a bit of sort of finagling to try and get everybody to do the same eight or nine-week period--the week of rehearsals and the eight weeks of the shoot. I think we waited about six months until we could kind of get that all lined up.
CS: There's a fairly rich history of plays being made into movies, and you kind of nailed the balance where in a play, there's lots of dialogue and character interactions, but you need to try to make it cinematic and make it an interesting movie. You actually worked with Tracy, who wrote the play himself. How did you guys work that out as far as knowing what to keep, what to get rid of? I mean, you talked a little bit about that.
Wells: Well, we argued about it forever--and in a good way--where we talked about what do we get from the scene? What do I think I'm going to see otherwise? What do we need to get? What don't we need to get? There were some things—and when we started rehearsal, all of the actors came in with a copy of the play under their arm with the lines that they liked that had been cut so it grew again by about 10 pages as we were shooting. Then during the editorial process, which was very helpful, just kind of watching the audience and the festivals were useful for that, kind of watching and seeing how the audience was responding. Did the humor work, because it was essential that the humor worked. So literally, were the laughs lining up? Did we really understand that? Was there anything that they were confused about? That was, like I say, about an 18-month process of going back and forth on drafts. There's no right or wrong answer to it. You're just kind of trying to figure it out, but Tracy and I ended up being very pleased with where we ended up. We gave the piece to a number of people who had seen the play or had been involved in the play and asked them to tell us what they thought was missing. People couldn't tell us.
CS: I imagined a lot of your cast would already know the play and had seen it or read it, so did that make it easier to cast, especially some of the other roles around Meryl and Julia? Once they were on board, I imagine everyone wanted to be in it.
Wells: (Laughs) Yes, yes, you're correct. You know, Meryl and Julia had both seen the play, and thought, "Oh, maybe I will do that. That might be interesting. I'd love to see the screenplay, if there is one, when the time comes." So they became involved very early on. Then, Chris Cooper and I have worked together before, so I just called Chris and said, "You have to come." He said, "What is it?" I told him and I told him it was Meryl and Julia and he said, "Okay, just let me know when." (Laughs) I gave him the date, but everyone else auditioned, and many had seen the play. I was surprised how many people hadn't, but everyone knew of the play, and a lot of people had read the play, but not seen it, so yeah I've never been quite so popular in my life than during the casting process.
CS: There were a couple of non-American actors with Ewan McGregor and Benedict. Did they come in and have an accent they could use?
Wells: (Laughs) Embarrassingly enough, I didn't know who Benedict was, and I got a phone call from the casting director who said, "There's a wonderful British actor, who had sent something that he had taped or video'd of himself doing the role, and you should look at it." As far as I could tell, I think it was a selfie on an iPhone. It seemed like his arm was being held out while he did it. He had memorized the scenes and did it, and there was no question about the accent or anything else. It was just wonderful and I showed it to some others. Then, I mentioned his name in front of my then 14-year-old daughter and a couple of her friends, and they went crazy, and then, quite often as I do now at this point in my life, I felt very much out of the cultural mainstream. He had just finished the "Star Trek" film when we shot, and then he had not yet done "The Fifth Estate." So, to me, he was an unknown British actor that I was putting in the piece. Ewan and I worked together on "E.R." years ago. I liked him very much, and he became available very, very close to when we were actually shooting, and the Weinstein Company suggested him, and George and Grant obviously had worked with Ewan, and I had, and we were all enthusiastic about that idea.
CS: I've known Benedict's work for a long time. He's kind of always played the kind of neurotic and uptight person in all these British costume dramas over the years.
Wells: (Laughs) Those, I didn't know, but when they told me, "Oh, he's the guy in ‘Tinker Tailor'"--I had loved the film and was enthusiastic about that, yeah.
CS: I was really happy to see Julianne Nicholson, too. I've been a fan of hers for a long time, and I really thought she was amazing in this movie. I hope people pay attention to that, because I think she is a very underrated actress.
Wells: I couldn't agree more. She and I have worked together a couple of times over the years, and I love her. She came in and auditioned and was just wonderful. From that moment forward, we were just trying to put the family together, and she was always in the mix to play Ivy.
CS: You talked a little bit before about the humor and making sure the laughs worked, which is interesting because I feel like the movie is sort of being sold as a comedy, but it's obviously a very dark comedy, and it's also quite dramatic and heavy at times. I was curious about your thoughts on that. Can you tell us whether it's supposed to be a comedy, or is it one of those things you can't really label?
Wells: It's more difficult to categorize, but I would say it's a pitch black comedy-drama, that's how I describe it to people. In my family, at least--and I think it's true in a lot of families--that the more tension that rises in the family, the more people are trying to break that tension with humor. A lot of times, that humor has a little bit of a mean edge to it. It's all about what a friend of mine calls, "kidding on the square," where it's funny, but it's not all that funny because it's actually, it's vaguely attacking somebody else in the family. I think these films are always the hardest to categorize. It is flat-out funny and people laugh a great deal, and I think that that allows you to spend the time with these people in these difficult circumstances. The humor, I think, takes you through the dramatic elements and what's happening to the family, and in some ways, it allows it to be something that you actually want to be there for.
CS: I was kind of bummed that it wasn't released in time for Thanksgiving, because I felt like people could go see it after dinner and say, "Hey, our family isn't so bad after all."
Wells: (Laughs) Yeah, exactly. You know, Christmas Day is when we're being released, so George Clooney had an idea that we should play the clips against "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," which we were all laughing about it. For just that reason, I think it is difficult. I think you go home and there are wonderful things about being home for the holidays, and it's also any time you get a family together when you have adult children, it is complicated. I think that's many people's experiences, their Thanksgiving and Christmas and holiday dinners, and these kind of events, where something happens in the family, whether it be a wedding or a funeral or something that gathers everyone together. A lot of these old animosities and frustrations come out.
CS: I didn't mention this earlier, but I'm currently living with my 80-year-old mother in Columbus for the first time in about 26 years.
Wells: (Laughs) How's that going?
CS: It's sort of what you said earlier.
Wells: I kind of want to speak to your mother (chuckles)… but you know, you love them and then you want to hit them with a car in the driveway at the same time.
CS: Yeah, I don't drive either, so that probably won't happen. I know you really wanted to film in Oklahoma. Did you end up having to find a big enough house where you could shoot everything or did you end up doing some stuff on a stage?
Wells: No, we purchased a house. We bought the house. It's an early 1920's Sears kit house that was purchased for $600 at the time and then we put the porches on it. We purchased it and David Gropman, who is our wonderful production designer, went in and did a lot of work in the house. We tore out the more modern kitchen and opened up some of the walls to make the areas a little bit larger, but it is there. It is this house, and we shot it entirely in and around the house and in and around Pawhuska, which is in Osage County.
CS: You were able to shoot in order, like you said, which is a great and very unusual thing.
Wells: We really did. We had about two weeks at the beginning, where we shot some exteriors that we had to shoot based on the weather concerns and other technical reasons for it. But once we finished that, we basically shot in order through the end of the picture. It was very useful for me and for the actors, because it allowed them to (experience) the progression of the play. It's kind of coming back in with people that you know, becoming reacquainted and slowly, the scenes escalate into the conflicts that end up defining the rest of the piece. Being able to do that in order was very helpful.
CS: With the dinner scene, were you able to do that with multiple cameras?
Wells: That was the only place we used multiple cameras. We were in a real house, and so, there was limited space in that dining room. We weren't pulling any walls or anything like that on the set, so we had two cameras for the dinner scene, but everything else was a single camera.
CS: Oh wow. That's really impressive when you watch the editing between them.
Wells: Yeah, we had wonderful editors, Stephen Mirrione, who's really talented. I dumped a whole bunch of footage into his lap for the dinner scene. (Laughs)
CS: When did you actually film "August?"
Wells: We filmed last year. We had wrapped a year ago, and because of the piece, I think that Harvey really felt it was important to have it in the fall. We didn't finish shooting it in time to be in the fall last year, so we worked on it in the early kind of wintertime, and then I went off and did some other things, and we all sort of took a break, and then we came back to it in the summer and finished it up before Toronto.
CS: Has it changed at all since the movie played at Toronto?
Wells: Yeah, there's been minor changes, no major changes, but you know, one of the advantages of doing the festivals is you get to listen to the audience reaction, particularly for the humor and the way people are affected by it. I found that to be very useful. So, we locked the picture about two weeks ago. I think if you saw it in Toronto, you will probably be hard-pressed to see what's different, but they were all small or minor changes that I think were very helpful in making the picture work a little bit better.
CS: What was your approach to the music with Gustavo Santaolalla? I think as far as things where you have a bit more dialogue, you didn't want the music to overpower it, but I think the music really adds a lot to some of the scenes.
Wells: Yeah, the conversation was about not wanting to try and underscore emotional moments. There are many spots where the language and the actors' performances are what's taking you through that, and then, we find ways that's kind of functional. So it was about making sure that we weren't trying to push our way in musically into reinforcing moments exactly, but to have something that until we get into the end of the piece, everything is far more neutral and hopefully evocative, rather than sort of pounding you over the head with "this is what you're supposed to feel."
CS: It definitely worked. Going back to the dinner sequence, I thought the poster focusing on the climax of that was a really interesting decision. Where did that idea come from?
Wells: The danger of the piece all along is that people will sort of assume what it's going to be, that it's a softish family dramedy. This was one of the ideas that the marketing people put forward that immediately caught all of our eyes because it's surprising. It's not what you expect it to be, and particularly, with this kind of an all-star cast, you sort of expect to see some version of "The Murder on the Orient Express" or a "Towering Inferno" poster, where you simply have a lot of floating heads above a house or something. So it caught my attention. I think it's intriguing and makes you think that the film may be different than what you think it's going to be, which is what we're hoping that we can achieve in all the marketing materials.
CS: Absolutely. It's interesting seeing this in the same year as "Nebraska" and I think it could make a good double feature.
Wells: I haven't seen it yet, and I'm a huge Alexander Payne fan, so I'm very anxious to see it.
CS: It's similar in that it's a comedy, but it's not really, because it's very poignant as well. You have to check it out. So any idea what's next for you? I know you were attached to do this "Chef" movie with Bradley Cooper. Is that something still on the horizon?
Wells: Yeah, it's still something that's coming together, the Steven Knight script, a wonderful writer, and it looks like we're going to shoot next summer in London with a lot of the same production staff. We're just starting to cast, so we're trying to really get serious about it after the first of the year. So, I'm excited about that; I'm really looking forward to it.
CS: Is this the project that David Fincher was also developing for a while and it changed?
Wells: Yeah, it was a Stacey Sher and Michael Shamberg (production), yeah.
CS: Has it changed a lot and is very different from what Fincher was developing?
Wells: It's similar so far, but Steven Knight and I have started to work on the script. I think it's going to remain similar, but there are things that I would like to do it, and with it, that we are going to approach, but yeah, it's that same piece.
CS: Are you still producing television or you just focusing filmmaking?
Wells: I'm still doing both. Fortunately, I get to work with a lot of wonderful people that I've worked with for a long time, so we're in the midst of doing our fourth season of "Shameless" for Showtime in the States. We're doing some other developments, but I've been focused on doing "August" these last six or seven months, and then, more recently, been writing and directing some of the "Shameless" and then I'll go into doing the Bradley Cooper picture after the first of the year.
August: Osage County opens in select cities on Friday, December 27, and then expands nationwide on January 10, 2014.