August: Osage County: A Warm and Fuzzy Holiday Gift From Tracy Letts
The actor/writer/Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner talks us through adapting his three-act play for the big screen.
To celebrate the soon-to-be-released film adaptation of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning drama August: Osage County, TheaterMania is spotlighting members of the cast and creative team in an ongoing series. First we interviewed Julia Roberts, who plays Barbara Fordham, then we spoke to Margo Martindale, who plays Mattie Fae Aiken. We also interviewed more cast and creatives on-camera in this video. Now we are highlighting the screenwriter and playwright himself, Tracy Letts.
Tracy Letts has been known to get excited when honing and honing his work. When things didn't necessarily please him, there are rumors that he screamed, called people names, and wrote exhaustively long e-mails.
But now the Pulitzer Prize, Tony, and Drama Desk Award-winning playwright of August: Osage County has added a bit of a calming experience to his life. Letts recently married his Steppenwolf colleague Carrie Coon, who played Honey in Steppenwolf's recent Broadway transfer of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which Letts also starred as George. When the show's run ended, Letts began shooting a recurring role as Senator Andrew Lockhart for TV's Homeland. Between Broadway and his TV gig, Letts neglected his health and failed to set a marriage date with Coon. It was only when he was rushed to the ER and had gall bladder surgery that Coon was able to keep him in one place long enough…and they married in the hospital.
All the while, however, Letts was at work adapting August: Osage County for the big screen. He had previously done film adaptations of his plays Bug and Killer Joe for the screen, but he struggled to cut the three-hour-plus August to a two-hour-and-ten-minute run time. "When books and plays are made into movies," Letts notes, "they frequently want to cut out the valleys and just show the peaks. I knew it would be complicated because I wanted to keep the valleys. They're important because they make the peaks stand out."
"It was a tricky balance," he continues. "Unfortunately, in a film, you tend to concentrate on the central conflict, so you concentrate on the lead characters. Some [characters who] are away from the center lose a little. You also lose some depth, which I'm loath to do. Especially in a piece like August: Osage County, which I worked on for over three years before the first production and continued to hone and rewrite right up until the Broadway opening, for the film I had to tear up the floorboards and go after it."
However, being pragmatic about his craft, he knew, first and foremost, he had to create something cinematic in order to tell his deeply personal story visually. Letts' screenplay opens the play to exterior scenes. "The thing's called August: Osage County, so to be able to show those landscapes, something you can't do in theater, was evocative and even helps tell the story." Through this more visual opening, Letts was able to telegraph to moviegoers what is to follow. He also condensed and trimmed dialogue, and deleted some elements from acts one and three of the play that weren't urgently connected to the central story. "It was important to preserve the things about the play that audiences embraced. It came down to focus."
He expands on this feeling: "I don't believe moviegoers don't have patience. Screenwriters are told a scene can't be longer than three minutes, that you have to cut to the chase. Not true! I like it when actors get an opportunity to chew into something. They love scenes with beginnings, middles, and ends — scenes that give an arc to their characters and allow audiences to get to know these people." He explains that he told director John Wells, known as a producer-director of major TV series such as ER and The West Wing, that Letts' job was to help Wells make the best movie he could. "In theater, the playwright's the boss, period. The decisions go through him or her. In movies, the writer is pretty far down on the list."
"The nature of the beast," he goes on, "is that film is a director's medium. It's not a Tracy Letts play, it's a John Wells film. August: Osage County, as a play, is done. Written. On the shelf. It'll be performed in its entirety for years." Wells, directing only his second feature, told Letts, "If I screw this up, I'm the one they'll be pointing fingers at."
Letts doesn't feel writers are useful on a movie set. "It's a mixed bag. I would have loved to have been there for the camaraderie, and for John to have someone to bounce ideas off. But there wasn't a lot I could've done. I didn't stick around because I might have worried about stuff that didn't need worrying over. I might have intimidated someone on the set. And anyway, I had to head to New York to begin rehearsals for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
Letts said he'd signed off on the movie and wasn't worried.
Letts did, however, give Wells a few notes, telling him not to lose the play's underlying humor. "The material's so dark and deals with such serious themes...the humor's a relief. Sometimes we just have to stop and laugh at life." It's that humor which Letts sees as "kind of the secret to the success of August: Osage County. If we're laughing, we're listening. I've seen that over hundreds of performances. It's the key to keeping audiences inside the piece."
It was inevitable that Letts' play would be compared to Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but that's OK with the playwright.
Soon the film August: Osage County will be out before the masses. "The play was a seminal experience in my life. I'm happy with and proud of the final product. It's very recognizable. John's approach is invisible. He's not showy. You're not aware of what's been moved from inside to outside. John chose a terrific bunch. There's not a false note among them. Sometimes, part of being a good director is not only knowing what to say, but knowing what not to say and just staying out of the way of the actors. Let them do their work."