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John Wells, August: Osage County

The August: Osage County ensemble is winning multiple nominations during this awards season. Director John Wells talks about cast concerns ahead of the shoot and why he insisted they all live together.

August: Osage County was shot entirely on location in rural Oklahoma, in a remote, sprawling house on 50 acres that the production team bought for the film. During rehearsals some of the cast, including Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor and Sam Shepard, stayed overnight in their characters’ bedrooms and lived in the house.

During principal photography they stayed in the small town of Bartlesville, a 40-minute drive away. But as they approached the house each morning, the actors found themselves becoming increasingly anxious: this was the place where Meryl Streep was going to spend the day yelling at them.

“The experience of driving out to the house became one of driving home,” says director John Wells, chuckling about his cast’s mounting feelings of unease and dread.

Streep plays Violet, the emotionally violent, drug-addled, deeply depressed matriarch of the Weston family. August: Osage County - which picked up Oscar nominations for best actress for Streep and supporting actress for Roberts, as well as Golden Globe nominations for the pair, and a Bafta nomination for Roberts - follows their unhappy reunion after the mysterious disappearance of their father, played by Shepard.

The centrepiece of the film is a formal meal, a 19-page set-piece that sees the extended family, including Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper, Misty Upham, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch and Dermot Mulroney, gather for a lavish lunch that rapidly descends into a nightmarish, darkly hilarious scene of revelations and recriminations, thanks to Violet.

The pitch-black comedy is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by acclaimed writer and actor Tracy Letts, whose writing credits include Killer Joe, and whose own acting roles include a Tony-award winning performance in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway. Letts also plays the smug senator, Andrew Lockhart, in TV series Homeland.

Wells and Letts spent two years working together on the screenplay for August: Osage County. Wells is a US TV veteran whose writing, directing and producing work includes the seminal series ER, The West Wing and the US version of Shameless while feature credits include The Company Men (as producer, director and writer) and White Oleander (as producer).

Originally from a theatre background, Wells jumped at the chance to direct August: Osage County when producer Harvey Weinstein, who owned the film rights, offered him the role out of the blue over a lunch. The two had worked previously together on The Company Men and Weinstein had financed the stage version of August: Osage County when it premiered in Chicago, produced by Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

Respect the writing

“I wanted to do a classic old movie that could have been William Wyler or Billy Wilder. Let the actors act and let the words come through,” says Weinstein of his decision to take it to the screen. “The reason I chose John Wells after talking to Tracy and [producer George] Clooney is that he respects the writing. He’s one of the best television writers, and he brought Shameless to America. That always makes me laugh. It’s so dark and twisted.”

Once Streep and Roberts had committed to the project as Violet and her eldest daughter Barbara, the film came together with ease. George Clooney and Grant Heslov’s Smokehouse Pictures produced the film with Jean Doumanian of Jean Doumanian Productions and Steve Traxler of Jam Theatricals, who had produced the play during its Broadway run in 2007.

But Streep and Roberts did have questions for their director. “Meryl’s concern was that it was going to be a difficult part to play, simply having to be in that character,” says Wells. “Meryl’s a lovely person and Violet, the character she plays, is not. She had to come to the set every day and attack people she’s actually rather fond of.”

A further complexity was the accurate portrayal of Violet’s drug addiction. “There was a constant concern about where Violet was in the cycle of the drug at that moment,” Wells explains. “How much effect is the drug having on her then? Is she coming down? Is she coming up? It was a very difficult thing to do.”

Roberts plays Barbara, the eldest of Violet’s three daughters and an embittered woman whose husband (McGregor) is on the verge of leaving her.

“[Barbara] is 46, a beautiful 46 but still 46, and she’s not at that moment where you decide you’re going to get yourself together. She’s at the depressed and feeling sorry for yourself moment,” says Wells. “Julia wasn’t wearing any make-up, we weren’t going to do anything with her hair, and she’s not wearing flattering clothing. Julia had concerns about how hard that would be.

“I told [Streep and Roberts] that it would be difficult but I would be there to try and help them through it. And that the material was good and this kind of opportunity to play these parts doesn’t come along often. It’s beautifully written, the roles are wonderful roles for women and you should embrace it.”
A company man

Working with such a formidable ensemble cast was one of the elements that attracted Wells to the project.

“I love working with companies of actors,” he explains, pointing to his background in theatre and television. “You have to be conscious of giving enough time to each actor, and particularly conscious of having done all your prep work technically. You can then focus all your attentions on the actors. What you’re trying to accomplish is ensuring all the actors feel all the attention is on them.”

Thanks to the quality of the written material, neither Wells nor the cast felt the need to improvise. It is how Wells prefers to work, making time for his actors before principal photography.

“I like to try and do a lot of the work with the actors before we actually get to the set,” the director explains. “I like to have read-throughs and just sit and talk about the material. The rehearsal period isn’t so much about blocking it all out, in fact I don’t like blocking at all. It’s about talking about the scenes and the back story and what the scene is about and what the context is so you’re not doing it with 100 people standing around and watching you.”

So prepared was the cast, many of whom are trained in the theatre, that Wells was able to shoot the dinner scene in just three days rather than the five he had planned.

The atmosphere of the rugged oil and cattle country that makes up this part of northern Oklahoma - and is also recognised as the Native American Osage Nation - seeps into the dynamics of the isolated and fragmented Weston family.

To be able to shoot in Osage County itself was an unexpected delight for Wells. “I thought it was very important for the actors to experience the place,” he says. “The language reflects the specific rhythms of the life. The accents are not Southern. They’re a kind of an interesting, middle-of-the-country, quiet drawl. When we were there, they got why we were shooting there.”

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