We sat down with the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (and Tony winning actor) to discuss how he adapted his masterwork “August: Osage County” for the screen.
You’ve said before that theater is a playwright’s medium and film is a director’s medium. Can you talk about what that meant for you on “August?”
Well, it’s absolutely the case. You’re aware when you’re making the film that you’re going to be giving up a certain amount of not only control, but also decision making. In a way that’s very freeing, too. At the same time, I view “Bug” and “Killer Joe” as William Friedkin films, and I view “August: Osage County” as a John Wells film. Now within that, I’m going to fight like hell for the things I believe will make it a better piece.And I did—and I lost some of those fights, and I won some of those fights. That’s the nature of the beast.
You’re a member of the Steppenwolf ensemble and were close to much of the original cast. Was it hard for you to see different actors step into the roles onscreen?
Not especially. I guess I’m somewhat accustomed to it. Some people do stage and film. Some people are film actors, and some people are stage actors. I’m quite sure that any of the actors who did the original production of “August” could have done the film of “August.” I don’t think any of them were particularly surprised when they didn’t wind up doing the film. I had also by that point seen any number of different actors play it on stage—replacements on Broadway, the national tour. So I had seen a lot of different actors in the roles. And one of the things you hope you’ve done as a playwright is create roles that can sustain different interpretations. And I saw that they could.
How involved were you in the casting of the film?
I was involved somewhat. Meryl and Julia were hired without any consultation, and I understood why they were and I was pleased with their casting. But then to fill out the rest of the roles, we kind of had our pick of the litter at that point. John and I started talking about the rest of the casting. We collaborated a lot on every phase of not only the script but pre-production as well. We talked a lot about locations and design and casting. So it was very carefully chosen piece by piece.
You were only on set for the very first day of rehearsal. What was important to you to tell the actors on that day?
I don’t know that there was any one thing. I wanted to be available to them to answer any questions that they would have, and the questions they had were the traditional questions an actor might have going into the first day. I wanted to share with them some of my own history, some of my biography. I wanted them to know where some of it came from, how it came from me, so they could get a sense of the personal nature and some of the real relationships that the play was based on, that the screenplay was based on. And even some of the decisions we had made about material we were losing because they all came in with their copies of the play and their things from the play that they loved. Some of them had seen the play. So they were curious about some of the decisions to lose some of the material. I wanted to be there to just respond to them more than anything. Reassure them. That’s always a nervous thing the first day.
Was it hard for you not to be on set?
Yeah, I wish I had been there more. Being on movie sets is real boring, and I don’t know how helpful I would have been ultimately. It might have been nice for John had I been there for a kind of sounding board for him, for some of his ideas, some of the things he was thinking about.
The entire play takes place in one house. Can you talk about how you collaborated with John to find other locations for the film?
We arrived at a lot of that by compromise. A director’s always responsible for staging so I didn’t have any problem with those places he found opportunities to take things out of the house that I had originally set in the house in the screenplay. That was fine with me. We weren’t necessarily talking about material we could lose. Or, what does our page count need to be? Sometimes producers would bring that up, page count, and I never wanted to have that discussion. I got mad when that came up. There are bigger questions to be dealt with than the number of pages. And John and I rarely talked about it in terms of a page length; we talked about it in terms of where are the places where we can tell the story visually as opposed to through the spoken word? What are the places in script where somebody in the play is describing something that we can simply see? The truth is the thing is called “August: Osage County,” and here we could show Osage County. You can’t do that in a play.
You’re an accomplished actor and you just won a Tony Award for “Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Did your acting experience help you with adapting the material for screen?
I don’t know that it helps me with adapting it for screen because I haven’t done that much work on camera. I think my experience as an actor helps me to write anything. It certainly helped me to write “August Osage County.” It helps me to write any play that I’m working on because I think one of the things I do well is write good roles for actors. And I wrote some nice meaty things for actors to do. I try to write fun—though difficult and challenging—things for actors to do because I know if they’re having fun, they’re going to give it everything they got.