“August: Osage County” began life as stories heard and scenes seen by a ten-year-old Tracy Letts in Oklahoma, then took shape as a Steppenwolf ensemble production in 2007 before moving on to Broadway, before taking the Pulitzer in 2008. Now, in time for the holidays, Letts has adapted his three-hour family meltdown barnburner for the movies, providing rare verbal-physical performance challenges for film actors like Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin and Dermot Mulroney.
The plainspoken forty-eight-year-old Letts recently won a Tony in the role as George in the Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf,” and dared the early December Chicago cold to talk about the craft behind the adaptation of his sweltering familial meltdown. An early grace note at the top of the movie is a whiff of the great Sam Shepard, puttering around the house as a lost-to-fog alcoholic poet. “Nice, huh?” Letts says with a pleased smile. “He’s pretty good, that Sam. He’s pretty good. If he had never been a playwright, I think he might have been a good movie star anyway.” Letts has quoted the great American playwright as answering the question, “Why family as a subject?” with “What else is there?”
Letts laughs. “I don’t know if that story is true or not, but…” But you said it was. “Yeah. No, it’s a quote I love to take and credit to Sam. Did you like the movie?”
Yeah, but before going in, I was apprehensive about how you could achieve the onstage intensity of the play on film, with people bustling and bristling and bursting out in accusations, all thundercracks and outbursts. In movies, you usually have to bring it down a little. “That’s right,” Letts agrees. “And the midway point of the play too is all that cacophony of the three-sided dialogue [during the dinner table scene] with all of the scenes going on at the same time everywhere in the house. You can’t do that, you know. The beautiful thing about doing that on stage and on a big scale is that the eye can choose to go where it chooses to go. Well, you can’t do that in a movie. You have to direct the eye, you are directing the eye at all times. It wasn’t the first decision I made, but it was an early decision that for the film I needed to focus more on the protagonist. In the play, [matriarch Violet] doesn’t come until perhaps thirty minutes in. That’s unorthodox.”
But the other characters have announced her, talked about her like any great villain. “Yes, so we have a lot of information about her before she walks on, but in the movie I thought it was important that we see her sooner. And similarly, in the screenplay, it was my idea to conclude the movie with [in a way that is different from the stage production]. The written version of that is darker on the page than it is in the film, but I did end it that way. Because, similarly, with [William Friedkin’s adaptation of] “Bug,” it starts to get, the language becomes quite heightened and it becomes hallucinatory and theatrical, and we had to strip a lot of that away when we were making “Bug” too. Some of that stuff that plays in the distance that we have in the theater is not going to play on film.”
It’s just recognizing that they’re two distinct forms of media, of drama. You don’t miss the hour or whatever that’s been cut. “I miss it! I miss it because I wrote the play. Perhaps other people who know and love the play are going to miss it as well. People who don’t know the material aren’t going to miss it and would be thrown if it was there. I don’t know. I dunno. There is an alternate-world version of this film that’s two-hours-and-forty-minutes long. It probably doesn’t have famous people in it anywhere and that might be a good movie too. There is no guarantee of that, but it might be. And certainly in my head, I play that alternate version of that movie sometimes. But you go to war with the ones that you’ve aligned yourself with, and I’ve gone to war with these people.”
Letts has had so many incarnations of this story in his head. Family experience, working with the ensemble, the prize-winning productions, and now here’s the movie. Is there a Platonic ideal of this organism in your head? “I don’t know,” Letts says after a moment. “I think I lose perspective myself because of my relationship to it. I never get distance from it. Sometimes I hear about these guys who say, ‘Well, I watched the movie I made twenty years ago and it was like somebody else made it.’ I can’t watch the film without weeping! I can’t watch the play without weeping. The subject matter affects me in that way, it is still very personal to me. So I just don’t have a lot of objectivity when it comes to that. I know that I believe that the play continues to live in its own way. And the movie doesn’t necessarily affect that. You can, in fact, do ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and you should do ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’ In spite of the fact that Marlon Brando gave a legendary performance, the play still should be done, and is still done and new things are found in it when people do it. ‘Virginia Woolf’ is also a great example. It still should be done.”
Would the play have been different if Letts weren’t a Steppenwolf ensemble member? That situation is yet another way everything about “August: Osage County” comes back to family. “Yeah and also, frankly, it gave me an opportunity to exploit the Steppenwolf ensemble. The old relationships as well as the old wounds, we could bring all of that stuff out onto the stage. And I very consciously did that. So, yeah, it was important. People have this idea that I wrote Barbara for Amy Morton or wrote this role for that person. I didn’t write any roles with a person in mind. But when you write for the ensemble, especially at that time, and know it’s not that long ago, but I was writing the thing in 2005, so eight years ago? You are also writing for old white people. Right? And the ensemble continues to change and diversify, as it should. But that’s what the Steppenwolf ensemble had by and large grown into in 2005. And so, in some way, it’s sort of purpose-built. But, you know, I think that if I had never been made a member of the Steppenwolf company I would have made the same play.”
“August: Osage County” opens Friday, January 4, 2014.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor of Filmmaker magazine. He is also a photographer: his history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images is forthcoming; previews on Twitter (twitter.com/chighostsigns) as well as daily photography on Instagram: instagram.com/raypride. Twitter: twitter.com/rayPride. (Photo: Jorge Colombo.)