Thomas Harris chats with John Wells about his latest film August: Osage County, which features an all-star cast including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney, Julianna Nicholson and Sam Shepard…
Thomas Harris: How did the project come about?
John Wells: I had seen the play on Broadway a couple of times before I had any idea of being involved in it and I really liked it and I was having lunch with Harvey Weinstein about something else we were working on and we were talking about an actor we had previously worked with and Harvey said, “wouldn’t he be brilliant in August: Osage County and you should direct it”, so I said great, ‘cos Harvey says stuff like that all the time. And I got back into my office and my agent said “so you’re directing August: Osage County?”, so I said, “Well is there a script? My agent is also Meryl (Streep) and Julia (Roberts’) agent and they’re both interested in the screenplay when it’s done.” So I started meeting with Tracy Letts and we worked on it for a bit and I met Meryl and she said yes. I also called Chris Cooper and told him to be there and he was.
TH: Were the parts written with actors in particular?
JW: Other than Meryl, Julia and Chris, everyone else auditioned. Except for Ewan (McGregor) who was first unavailable but I later got a phone call saying he was free.
TH: How much did you pinch yourself when you realised you were directing a table of such talent?
JW: The shot for me was the read through. I had rented a loft above a drug store and we had set up some tables in there and we were doing the read through and I looked down and there’s everyone you ever want to work with and at the end of the table was my friend George Clooney, and I thought this was never going to happen again in my life. From that moment forward everyone was focused on the same thing and we all didn’t want to screw it up so it was sort of communal effort.
TH: How do you stage the theatre for the camera?
JW: I complete forgot about it. You don’t want to be stuck in that proscenium. There were a couple of times where we tried to make a visual reference to it. There’s a shot of Sam Shepherd in the study and Meryl coming down the stairs which I deliberately set as a proscenium piece which in my head was the entry from the move from a play to a film. There were things and symbolism in the play that worked that I wanted to catch cinematically so I bought this house and being there became a big experience, the driving there. The actors had to drive out 45 minutes and being belated by Meryl for 45 minutes, they told me they were already pretty tense.
TH: Did the cast change as a result of Oklahoma?
JW: Yes very much. And it was why I insisted on filming it in Oklahoma. As soon as everyone got there they went “oh okay, I understand why you got us out here.” It’s beautiful, rugged and lonely.
TH: Were the actors encouraged to stick to the script because of the love of the play?
JW: I’m sort of Nazi with sticking to scripts and I have a friend who has a saying, a script is innocent until proven guilty, and in this case it won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony and so I took the position that the script was fairly well established so there is no improvisation at all through the film. That said, the real thing that happened was because we were transitioning the play which was three hours 10 minutes, there was a lot that was described in the play that you were going to see on screen. So we had cut the script down a bit and at the read through, every actor had the original play and they had highlighted every line they liked. So during the rehearsal week, we were doing a script analysis throughout and I would see those scripts come out and they would say “well can I say this?”, so we picked up 10 pages in a week. And I didn’t really count it but I’d say about 40% of that ended in the film and about 60% was cut but was essential for the actor.
TH: Was Tracy involved in that process?
JW: Oh yeah the whole way. He wasn’t on the set. He was at all the rehearsals but he’s also a wonderful actor and he won the Tony award last year and they were rehearsing while we were shooting the film so he and I worked for two years on the screenplay. He was there for the read through and we were communicating constantly and he came in and saw the cuts of the film and argued with me about things I cut and things I should cut.
TH: How has your relationship with George Clooney evolved over the years?
JW: Well I used to be his boss and now he’s mine. You say boss in the sense that you have authority over someone but they’re really a collaborator. It’s a wonderful thing, I came out of the theatre, we were kids at the time and there are so many of those actors who have gone on to other places in their career, so you watch that progression of everyone’s career around you and it’s just astonishing to watch. And George, because I knew him before we did ER, and he is, and always was very intelligent, good with scripts. He understands script analysis and has a tremendous feel for emotions, how much is too much.
TH: Was it tricky having a Julia, a Julianne and a Juliette on set?
JW: I put up in my office as we cast pictures of the actors and I was looking at it and I was looking at it and I went, “oh shit, we have a Julia, a Juliette and a Julianne”, so I asked everyone if they had nicknames. Julia is Jules and has been for a very long time and the other two had nicknames that didn’t really work so I just called them a lot by their character names. I just ended calling them a lot by their character names and it helped cos I got confused.
TH: Julia Roberts said it was a bit daunting when preparing for the fight scene. How was that to direct?
JW: It was very interesting because at first, she kept on saying to me, from the first time we had breakfast to discuss the piece, she said, “I get to strangle Meryl Streep, I don’t think I can strangle Meryl Streep.” She was very worried about it and the day we got to do it she was enthusiastic cos Meryl had been yelling at her for weeks so she was excited by it. We had a stunt coordinator there but neither wanted stand ins so when we got to it, it was one of the few days in which I had 2 cameras. We only did it twice because they went down hard.
Many thanks to John Wells for taking the time for this interview. August: Osage County is set for a UK release on Friday, January 24th.