'August: Osage County' director John Wells squeezes in dream-team cast

The Fresno BeeJanuary 8, 2014 

Director John Wells and Marilyn Wells at the premiere of "August: Osage County."

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When a film project is as potentially good as the big-screen version of "August: Osage County," director John Wells found out the hard part becomes saying "no."

Wells was able to put together a dream team cast of Meryl Steep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin and Benedict Cumberbatch. But there were not enough roles for all of the actors who wanted to be in the movie.

One casting was a lock.

"My agent also represents Meryl so I knew her socially. We got together and talked a couple of hours. I had actually seen Meryl just after she got out of college in a production of 'The Cherry Orchard," where she played a maid. I remember thinking, 'Who's this woman?' " Wells says. "In the end, there were so many people who wanted to be in the film that it got tough to tell them we couldn't use them."

The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize-wining play written by Tracy Letts, who also wrote the screenplay for the film. In the tradition of "Steel Magnolias," Letts tells the story of the highly dysfunctional Weston family who reunite in the family home following a tragedy. It becomes painfully obvious this reunion has brought together a group of people as emotionally vast and scorched as the Oklahoma landscape they call home.

The first time Wells saw the play as a stage production, he came out of the theater with such an admiration for it that he was convinced it should be made into a film. Although he has a long and impressive career as a producer and writer — with projects from "The West Wing" to "Shameless" — Wells has only directed a handful of projects. During his talks with the Weinstein Company, it was suggested he direct the movie.

His first response was to ask whether the play had been adapted for film. No such work had been done.

"Then began 18 months of some of the most enjoyable work I have ever done. Working with Tracy was great as we talked about how his play could be adapted," Wells says. "Every word and sentence in the play was argued and discussed. It became a matter of what don't we need. I think in the end, there were six lines of dialogue added to the film script that weren't in the stage production."

Wells knows a thing or two about writing, having served as President of the Writers Guild of America from 1999-2001. The seven-time Writers Guild Award nominee earned the WGA's Paddy Chayefsky Television Laurel Award, given to writers who advance the literature of TV and make contributions to the profession of TV writers.

One thing Wells and Letts argued about was the setting. The writer was adamant the setting get across the sense of timelessness of living in such an area. Wells argued that it wouldn't be necessary to describe such a feeling as it would be obvious from the location.

The production was taken from the confines of a stage to an actual house — sitting on 50 acres of land — located in Osage County. Even the weather cooperated as the temperature went as high as 118 degrees during the shooting schedule in September-November.

Shooting in Oklahoma not only helped create the proper setting, it helped Wells keep his actors close together. To make sure there was a family feel to the group, nine new condominiums were rented to house the cast. It wasn't unusual for the actors to end up at Streep's house at night to rehearse for the next day.

"It really felt like a repertory company where everybody had an oar in the water," Wells says.

That bond become invaluable when the scene that Wells calls the hardest to film was shot. It's 19 pages that turned into a 20-minute sequence staged at a dinner table. The upside was that it was a way to have almost the entire all-star cast in one scene. The downside was that he had almost the entire all-star cast in one scene.

It took five 12-hour days to shoot the scene because of the depth of the material. Those days reminded Wells of his first work in the theater when he was the stage manager at his Denver high school. He got so engaged with the production, Wells forgot to call some of the stage cues.

"With 'Osage,' I would be in the kitchen watching what the cast was doing in the dining room. I love those moments where you are pulled in," he says. "It's so exciting for me as a director or writer to see what is going to transpire. You will think a scene is going one way and then an actor is doing something completely different as they have become the character.

"Those are the moments you get transported."

 

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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