The Mill Valley Film Festival welcomed director John Wells to the Rafael Film Center last Tuesday night for the U.S. premiere of his latest film, “August: Osage County.”
As he explained just before the lights went down, “There are not many people who have actually seen this film; it’s not actually officially finished. It’s close. We think.”
The movie was shot in Osage, a north-central county in Oklahoma, with a formidable cast including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper and Benedict Cumberbatch, among others.
Playwright Tracy Letts’ screenplay is based on his stage play, his third to be made into a film after “Bug” (2006) and “Killer Joe" (2012). Wells said only six lines were added to the original piece: “I think we all felt a responsibility to the material that won the Pulitzer Prize.”
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After the U.S. premiere screening, the director conducted an ad hoc focus group discussion. “When we were (making the film, we wondered) would anyone know it’s supposed to be funny. On stage, it was billed as a comedy, and so people showed up knowing they were coming to a comedy. In the film, we’re going to see things that make it more difficult to get to that moment. So there was a lot of worry up front.
“So did you think it was funny?”
Audience response from those who had seen the play were unanimously positive, but as MVFF Director of Programming Zoë Elton pointed out, transposing comedy from stage to screen can be tricky: “When you have live theater, there’s that psychic connection between actor and audience, that the actor on stage can allow the laugh line in a way you can’t do on film.”
Audiences are like people; they don’t all respond the same way. Live performances can breath in ways film cannot.
How does it end?
“August: Osage County” presented other challenges. On stage, the film ends with Violet (Meryl Streep) alone on the stairs calling for her housekeeper, Johnna (Misty Upham). Letts would have preferred a different ending: “He felt Barbara (Julia Roberts) was the protagonist of the piece. He wanted to see her leaving, and in the early drafts (for the stage), you see her go off and they tried different theatrical techniques to show her driving, and they all looked sort of silly, so they cut it.”
Wells said he still isn’t exactly sure how the film will end: “I’ve had versions of it that we’ve shown to people, that end on the stairs, and then a lot of people ask what happens to Barbara. Then we put (in the scene with Barbara driving away), and people say, ‘Boy I would have preferred it to be on Voilet.”
After Tuesday’s screening, the director said he would be meeting with film editor Stephen Mirrone and producers George Clooney, as well as Grant Heslov and Jean Dourmanian, who produced the stage version. He doesn’t have much time left to make a decision: “I actually have to lock the film Monday or Tuesday (today) of next week, which is why I’m asking questions.”
Prepping for the shoot
Wells said the actresses closely related to each other and spent hours prepping for each scene: “They studied the decisions that each other were making about facial expressions, the way their hands moved, the way they walked.”
“Meryl and Margo spent a lot of time together figuring out how they were going to have grown up laughing as sisters. We did that with how people eat and how they moved their hair and how they smiled. It’s very subtle and they’re not all alike. They actually feel like more of a family even though they don’t physically look tremendously alike.”
As far as the ending goes, we'll have to wait and see. In the tradition of Christmas Day releases that aren’t exactly appropriate for the whole family (remember Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” last year and “Godfather III" in 1990?), “August: Osage County" opens Dec. 25.
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