August: Osage County - John Wells interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
JOHN Wells talks about directing Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and a top-drawer ensemble in August: Osage County and why Roberts eventually couldn’t wait to strangle Streep on set.
He also discusses his relationship with producer George Clooney, which dates back to their days on ER together, as well as the difficulties and challenges facing filmmakers nowadays.
Q. Q. How did the project come about?
John Wells: I’d seen the play on Broadway a couple of times, before I had any idea I’d be involved, and I really liked it. I was having lunch with Harvey Weinstein about something else we were working on. In the middle of it, he asked me about an actor I’d recently worked with. I said: “Oh, I enjoyed him.” I’m not going to tell you who it is, because he didn’t end up in the film. He said: “He’d be great in August: Osage County, and you should direct it.” I said: “Okay great…” Because Harvey says stuff like that all the time! I got back to my office and my agent called, and said: “So, you’re directing August: Osage County? Is there a script?” They sent me the script.
My agent is also Meryl [Streep] and Julia [Roberts]’ agent. He said: “If you’re doing this, they both saw it on Broadway, and they’re both interested in the screenplay when it’s done.” So, I started meeting with Tracy Letts, a wonderful playwright, and actor. We worked on it for a bit, then I showed it to Meryl, and she said ‘yes’. I showed it to Julia, and she said ‘yes’. Once that happened, we were sort of making the movie! I called Chris Cooper, who’s a friend, and said: “You’re going to come and do it, just be there!” And he said: “All right, what is it?” And then everyone else auditioned for it, with the exception of Ewan [McGregor], who only became available about two weeks before we started. He wasn’t supposed to be available. At the very end I got a phone call that said Ewan could actually do it. It was sort of a dream. These things are usually really hard. This one just kept – every time it was supposed to be moving forward and getting made, it kept moving forward and getting made.
Q. How much did you have to pinch yourself when you were directing a table full of such talent?
John Wells: The shock for me was the read through. I had rented a loft in Bartlesville above an old drugstore, which was this beautiful big brick loft that I’d never be able to afford anywhere other than Bartlesville, Oklahoma. We set up some tables in there, and did the read through, and I looked down the table. And there’s everyone you’d ever want to work with. And at the end was my friend George Clooney, who was producing it. I was like: “This is never going to happen again in my life.” Really from that moment forward, everybody was focused on the same thing. We all had really admired the play, and we all just wanted to make sure we weren’t screwing it up. It was a communal effort of asking each other how we were doing the whole time. We got over it kind of quickly, because we were just all working together.
Q. You have a theatre background, and you mentioned you’d seen the play already. As a director, how do you attempt to stage these scenes for the camera. Do you try to forget about the play, or do you think about that, in terms of directing?
John Wells: In my case, I completely forgot about it. Partly because it’s a proscenium, and you very much don’t want to be stuck in that same proscenium. There were a couple of times when I tried to make some visual reference to it, early in the picture. there’s a shot of Sam Shepard as Beverly in the study, and Meryl coming down the stairs, which I intentionally set back as a proscenium piece. Which was kind of, in my head, where it was going to move from being a play into being – but that may be an over-intellectualisation on my part. There was symbolism, and things about the way that the play worked. Like the house itself, the importance of the house, that I wanted to try and capture cinematically. We bought this house, which was kind of fun. We had thought maybe we’d build sets, then found that you could buy a house in Osage County, Oklahoma, with fifty acres, for $250,000. We bought this beautiful old house. The big challenge was finding the house, which visually would represent what I felt it represented on the stage – someplace very claustrophobic and yet set in this immense… you can feel very alone in the midst of a tremendous amount of horizon and sky.
The driving to it, and the being there, became a big part of the experience. Hopefully of the film, but also for the actors. It was about a 45 minute drive out to the set. So, you felt like you were having to come to your family home, and after you’ve been berated by Meryl a couple of times, they started to tell me they would actually be driving up to the place to shoot, and already be tense.
Q. Did you find that with Oklahoma itself, and those open plains, the cast changed through rehearsal to when you’re filming?
John Wells: Yes, very much. It was why I insisted on shooting in Oklahoma. Fortunately, the Oklahoma Film Commission was very helpful, and we had some tax rebates out there that allowed us to do it. But being in the place was very important, it’s a very specific place. In the United States, particularly when you’re living in Los Angeles or New York, you have an impression of that part of the country which is very specific. It’s thought of as being highly conservative, and very closed-minded. That’s not really what it is. The place isn’t like that, the language isn’t like that, the accents aren’t like that. So, I wanted everybody to be there, and to get a real experience of the place. There was a certain amount of grumbling about going to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, for three months. But as soon as everyone got there, they went: “Okay, I understand why you insisted we come out here.” It’s a beautiful, rugged, and lonely place.
Q. Given there was so much love for the play, were the actors encouraged to stick to the script, and did they want to stick to the script? Or was there room for playing around with it?
John Wells: I’m sort of a Nazi about sticking to scripts. I have a friend who has a wonderful saying, ‘The script is innocent until proven guilty’, and in this case it won a Pulitzer Prize, and a Tony. So, I took the position that the script was already fairly well-established. There’s no improvisation whatsoever in the entire film. That said, the real thing that happened, because we were transitioning the play, which is three hours and 10 minutes when you pull out the intermissions, to the film, there was a lot that was described in the play. There was a lot of people talking about the vast spaces, and talking about the heat. And you were going to see all of that, so you didn’t need to have people talking about it. Tracy and I had worked for 18 months, and we’d cut the script down quite a bit.
But at the first read-through, every single actor had the Samuel French version of the play. They highlighted every line that they liked, that had been cut from the screenplay. So, during the rehearsal week – we weren’t blocking the piece during the rehearsal week, we were doing script analysis. Talking about the scenes, talking about the characters’ backgrounds, talking about how they worked together and interacted with each other. and I would see those scripts come out, ‘Well, can I still say…’ – so we picked up about ten pages in a week, that we ended up shooting. About forty percent of that ended up in the film, and about 60% of it was cut, but was essential for the actor… to get from one spot to another. It was all a valuable experience. And we weren’t certain we’d cut the right things, either. We were just trying to constantly ask ourselves, and that process continued all the way through editing. We locked the film about a month ago, and that was always what it was. Do we know this already? Do we need to be told this again? Are we just involved with the line because we like the way it sounds, because Tracy’s a wonderful writer? Or is it actually telling us something we need to know?
Q. Was Tracy involved with that process then?
John Wells: Oh, the whole way.
Q. He was always on the set?
John Wells: No, he wasn’t on the set, he came for the rehearsals. He’s also a wonderful actor. He won the Tony award last year for best actor, for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, he played George. They went into rehearsals for it the same time we were shooting the film, and it opened while we were shooting the film. By the time we got the set, we’d worked about two years on the script, and he was there for the read throughs. In this great electronic age, we were communicating constantly over emails during that process. He came in and saw the cuts of the film, and argued with me about things I should cut, which is what’s kind of exciting about the whole process.
Q. Towards the end of the play, Juliette Lewis’ character becomes a bit of a heavy drinker. That isn’t in the film; is there a reason for that?
John Wells: We shot a series of those scenes. I had a concern from the beginning, and this is one of the things Tracy and I talked about a lot. We were in literal time for 90% of the play. At the end of the play, he goes through a series of monologues. There are three scenes in a row that jump two weeks. I kept saying, ‘I can’t really pull pages off the calendar, we’re going to be in literal time in the film’. We didn’t give up on it early. We talked about a lot of different cinematic ways to try and do it. There were a couple of scenes that I shot, that I loved. One is a long monologue by Barbara about what she knew, when she talked to Johnna, the Native American woman, about her father. It’s a bit of a soliloquy on the Bush years, because the play was written during the whole Iraq invasion, which we all have a lot of strong feelings about. It’s out of the context of what the play actually is, when we see it as a film. So, that’s why. I also felt that emotionally the character was already going through so much with all the reveals that we’d end up in the same place with her. But that was one of our longest conversations.
Q. How has your relationship with George Clooney evolved over the years?
John Wells: Well, I used to be his boss and how he was mine [laughs]. We were both kind of like: “Oh right, how does this work?” You say boss in that sense that you have authority over someone but they’re really a collaborator. It’s a wonderful thing. I came out of the theatre and we were only kids at the time… but so many of those actors and directors have gone on to other places in their career, so Cherry Jones, who is a wonderful actress, was in school with me, so you watch that progression of everyone’s careers around you and it’s just astonishing to watch and fun. George is, and always was because I knew him before we did ER, very intelligent and very good on script. He really understands script analysis, scene analysis, has a tremendous feel for emotion in scenes – where is it necessary? How much is too much? Where is it melodramatic? So, when we got into this he was shooting Monuments Men in Berlin during the editorial process, so I took the film over to Berlin and showed it to him and that was really it… we were just talking about it emotionally. Where is something over-wrought? This kind of theatrical piece exists on stage in a bit more of a heightened theatrical reality in its performance, so we were trying to ask: “With the camera here, how theatrical is that? How much can we do? Where does it go over the line?” And all of that was extremely helpful.
And those were exactly the conversations we used to have on ER on-set when I was directing and he was acting because there was so much melodrama in ER, because you’re in these life and death situations all of the time, with children and victims. So, you’re constantly talking about things like “how do I professionally, as a doctor, keep this from seeming as if I’m overly involved emotionally, yet I don’t want to seem callous”? Where’s that line? So, it’s almost exactly the same conversations, just him talking to me in a way as the actor and him being where I used to be. It was very cool.
Q. Is it at all confusing having a Juliette, a Julia and a Julianne on-screen at the same time?
John Wells: [Laughs] What a mistake that was! It actually occurred to me… I like to keep in my office, I put up the pictures as we cast people so that I can see everyone, particularly as were going to form a family and weren’t sure how that was going to work. I was looking at it and looking at it and went: “Oh shit! I’ve got a Julia, a Juliette and a Julianne!” And then I asked everyone if they had nicknames. Julia is Jules and has been Jules for a long time. The other two had these nicknames that didn’t really work and they didn’t really respond to them. I tried to use them and they would never look at me, so I ended up calling them a lot by their character names. And it just got easier. Meryl, without being Daniel Day-Lewis crazy about staying in the part all the time and having to be referred to as Mr Lincoln the whole time, she is in the part a lot. She’s not crazy about it. But she kind of has to stay in that place because it’s a difficult role to do. So, I just ended up calling a lot of people by their character name and it helped, because I got confused. So, it was all of the character names for pretty much everybody.
Q. Julia Roberts has admitted to being a bit daunted when it came to her fight scene with Meryl. How was that to direct?
John Wells: Well, it was very interesting because at first she kept saying to me, from the first time we had breakfast to talk about the piece, “I get to strangle Meryl Streep! I don’t know whether I can strangle Meryl Streep!!” She was very worried about it. But then the day we got to it she was like: “I get to strangle Meryl Streep!” Meryl had been yelling at her for weeks as the character and the character is very rough on her. And so she was excited by the time we got to it. I had a stunt co-ordinator there to help them and stand-ins but neither of them wanted to use the stand-ins. They both wanted to do it. And man, when it came, they did it! So, I had two cameras that day – it was one of the few times I had two cameras. And we only did it twice because she [Julia] jumped across the table and they went down on that floor hard! And we had a little pad underneath the carpet but it was like somebody had dropped a 50lb bag of cement! It was hard! Meryl got a little bruised up. She had a big bangley bracelet and it got caught and it kind of did this [illustrates] but she was like: “Let’s do it again! Let’s go!” She’s tough. She wanted to do the fall in the field herself too. I had someone else there to do it. That scene seems like it would be pretty easy but it was so dry, there was a draught, so all of that little cut hay was like knives and her hand got all cut up. But she wanted to keep doing it and we had the medic out there cleaning her up. She’s a tough broad!
Q. You have a long history as a producer on TV and film. So, what prompted your move into directing? And what do you think is the biggest challenge for directors at the moment?
John Wells: Well, the first part of the question is I was trained as a director in the theatre and ended up writing for television because they paid me for it, which was lovely. It’s been a wonderful experience. So, once I’d established that I started directing a lot again on television. But it was mostly about my family. I had some young children. And I have a lot of friends who are directors and I saw the strains on them and sort of focused on the other thing. But now my children are old enough I literally… it all sounds new agey but I sort of sat them down and said: “If I do this I’ll have to…” And my daughter, who is a teenager, was like: “Sure dad, whatever…” She didn’t even notice I’m alive [laughs]. And my son, who is younger, said: “I’ll come and visit a lot.” And he’s done that. So, it was really a family consideration.
The biggest challenge – and there are lots of challenges for directors – but one is there isn’t nearly enough of this type of material that’s getting made. And to get it made, because I’ve also done a lot of producing of smaller, character-driven pieces, is a challenge. It takes a very long time to get things made. There is work to be had in other genres, which I really enjoy – comedies and sci-fi pieces and bigger action movies. But there’s not nearly as much work as there used to be and so the demands and the pressures are very great. So, screenwriting and film directing, the whole world has contracted a lot during the time I’ve been involved with it. It’s wonderful… this year it seems like there’s a lot of really good movies whereas three or four years ago there weren’t. I mean there was a noticeable… not dearth exactly but when they announced they were going to do 10 best pictures, you were like: “Really?! How are you going to get to that?” [Laughs]
But now the actors are demanding and I think the audiences are demanding… I think there’s enough support for… the Weinstein’s were essential to kind of bridging that gap. They were making the movies that nobody else would make for a couple of years when the major studios got completely out of it. Now they’re kind of moving back in. When films can do significant business again, and it is a business, so when something like Gravity comes along, which was a huge bet for Warners… it now seems like a big popular success but it sure didn’t look like that at the time. It was like two people floating around in space. But those things go a long way to making the major studios get back into it at least a little bit. But it’s tough to get character-driven films made.
Q. How do you deal with the awards talk?
John Wells: You know, you want to get people to recognise good work. So, I loved working with this cast and seeing Meryl and Julia being nominated is extraordinary. The awards…. you don’t want to worry about it too much. I don’t want my life to be based around what happens on a Tuesday morning in LA at 5am. You get up and have people texting you and whatever. But if you’re proud of your work, any kind of awards recognition and nominations or being mentioned in a conversation about it… there’s so many options that people have about what they’re going to see and what they’re going to choose to go and watch that any kind of noise around it means that people go and see it. In America, we have these good housekeeping, seal of approval on products like toothpaste and things, and it starts to be a bit like that, like there’s so many things you can do with your time, that if you’re serious about film there are a number of films you can go and see in a year and you want your film to be part of that. You just want people to see the work.
Q. Do you have a favourite scene in the film?
John Wells: I do actually. I have several because they’re so wonderful. For me, and it sort of tied up when we shot it, it’s the scene where Julia chases Meryl through the field because it was a beautiful day. It was early in the shoot and it was one of the few scenes we shot out of continuity just because of the time of year we were shooting. We got out there and they fell to the ground and we were setting up the next shot and I went to go and sit beside them while we waited for the next camera angle to be set, and the sun was at a certain spot, there were clouds, and we looked at each other and said: “We get to do this. This is the great privilege of being in this beautiful place and working on this material.” You want to kind of remember those moments. But there were a lot of those. Watching Meryl do the scene where she tells the story about the boots was the first… I asked her and she wanted to start on the close-ups because it was a difficult scene and she wasn’t sure how many times she could do it. So, I started on her most extreme close-up for the scene that’s in the picture and that’s the first take of a three minute monologue. So, you sit by the monitor when that happens and go: “OK, this is going to be a fun night!” [Laughs]
August: Osage County is released in UK cinemas on Friday, January 24, 40214