Tense holiday gathering got you ready to choke a relative with a ham bone? Before you catch that case, get out of the house and go see August: Osage County, the film adaptation of Tracy Letts's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, to reassure yourself that it could be much, much worse.
Director John Wells, who was familiar with family dramedy from showrunning the Showtime series Shameless, masterfully and mercifully balances the dark comedy and heavy drama of the dysfunctional Weston family, which gathers around bitter, mouth cancer-afflicted and pill-addicted matriarch Violet (Meryl Streep) when alcoholic poet patriarch Beverly (Sam Shepard) disappears and is found to have committed suicide. As the family grieves, and eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) literally wrestles for power with her mom, hilariously ice-cold insults fly and disturbing secrets come to light. No matter how awful your family is, the Westons will make your screwy lot feel like the Brady Bunch.
Complex spoke to Wells about working with his star-studded ensemble cast (which also included Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin, Margo Martindale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney, and Julianne Nicholson), family dinners that have ended in fist fights, and the curious inclusion of New York Knicks owner James Dolan's band on a soundtrack that includes Eric Clapton, Bon Iver, and Kings of Leon.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)
Whose idea was it to to have the cast live together?
Meryl was hopeful that they could all live together when we were looking for someplace that would work. It’s always best for everyone to be in a central location, for everything, just the dynamics of it. We were able to find these brand new townhouses that had just been built. Some of 'em still had drywall and didn’t have carpet yet when we first saw them. It started to make a lot of sense to do it that way, so we rented all nine of them, right next to each other behind a Chili’s and right across from a Toyota dealership. [Laughs.]
And did the cast spend a lot of time together outside of filming?
All the time. We were in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, which is a lovely town, but we were all a long way from our families at home. And these were townhouses, so they had shared walls. Meryl would cook and Margo would help and bring things over and everybody would bring a salad or something over and they would watch TV and work on lines and relax together. When you’re that far away from home it really is helpful to have a community.
How did that affect the dynamics of the family?
It helped with the dynamics of the family because inevitably [the characters] the actors were playing became a little bit of who they were in that dynamic. Meryl and Margo were maternal figures in the group. Chris would come over and be quiet. [Laughs.] Julia would come and be the big sister. Because you’re doing that all day on the set it’s hard to not have that become the dynamic. That was very helpful in ultimately creating the family and letting them really feel like a family.
With such a titanic cast of actors was it intimidating for you as a director? How much direction did people want?
It’s a wonderful group of very talented actors. Many of them have been in a lot of films and done a lot of stage work. My experience has been that actors always want to be directed. They’re masters of what they’re doing with their own instruments, but you’re making certain that it's a cohesive whole and that the performance makes sense, because it’s spread out over so many weeks, or months actually. They're looking for someone who’s keeping track of what’s been done and what not done and where they should be in that arc and you can talk about it. But you’re not going over and giving Meryl Streep or Julia Roberts or Chris Cooper or Ewan McGregor line readings. We spent a lot of time in advance talking about scenes, the dynamics, the history of the characters, and then when we got on set that allowed me to say, "Oh, remember we don’t wanna lose track if she’s upset about this," or "He’s concerned about that," or "This is what’s making him laugh." That’s really what you’re doing with this sort of group of actors. It’s not like working with children or very inexperienced younger actors where you’re really trying to help them act. [Laughs.] You’re helping modulate the performance and making sure that it’s cohesive.
You’re you’re making certain that it's a cohesive whole and that the performance makes sense, but you're not going over and giving Meryl Streep or Julia Roberts or Chris Cooper or Ewan McGregor line readings.
Were any of the cast members unnerved or intimidated by the idea of working with Meryl Streep, the most Oscar nominated person ever?
[Laughs.] I don’t think people were intimidated so much as they were excited about the opportunity to work with this group of actors and to have the experiences while working together. You don’t get that opportunity often and it’s a wonderfully written piece by Tracy Letts. His work is really powerful and wonderfully constructed and so we were all concerned that we would do a really good job. We were all focused on "How do we do this well? What do we do to make certain that we do justice to his words and to each other?" One of the things that happens with ensembles like this is that it really pulls together and everybody’s working towards the same goal.
In both August: Osage County and your ensemble Showtime series Shameless, you've had to balance the humor and heartache of dysfunctional families. How do you strike that balance?
It’s really always what I’ve been interested in. ER and West Wing and the other television shows I've done have all been ensemble works. I’m interested in working with groups of actors to tell complicated stories about what’s happening to people, and that's because I came out of the theatre, where I worked in ensembles and I really loved that. You have to keep track of the needs of everybody. As people, we’re generally optimistic, no matter how disabled our lives are, and we find the humor in the darkest situations. We’re always looking to strike that right balance [in production] so it feels real. Stories that are overwhelmingly dark and pessimistic don’t feel realistic to me actually. So we’re always trying to just find that right balance and the way in which people continually try to pick themselves up and dust themselves off and laugh, make fun of themselves and make fun of situations and each other to get through the more difficult things in our lives.
Do you have any personal experiences with your own family that inform your work on these sorts of family ensemble dramas?
Oh, sure! I come from a family that had many of the same manners and familial relationships that are in August, so things like Uncle Charlie sitting down and giving a 10-minute grace felt painfully familiar to my entire life. [Laughs.]. And finding out things as you become an adult where you feel you know your parents, you feel you know everything from your family, and then you become older and you start to hear things and discover things about your family. People say things off-handedly and you go, "Really?! When did that happen?! How did that happen?!" I felt very comfortable in this world, in the way siblings interrelate and how as your parents grow old together you start taking more responsibility for them or not, and you have to make that decision about doing it. All of those things to me felt very, very familiar.
Have you ever experienced a traumatic family dinner like the one in August?
[Laughs.] Sure. At least in our film that doesn’t end up in a fist fight, which happened one time at our dinner table. Unfortunately I participated in it with my brother, whom I love very much. As an adult, you think of yourself as being someone else when you’re away from your family, but when you come back to your family you suddenly find yourself back in the exact same role that you always had in your family as a child and as a teenager. That part of it feels very familiar and it’s what I drew from. A lot of the people who have seen the film say, "Oh, that’s just like my aunt!" Or "That’s just like my uncle!" Or "As a little boy, I had that conversation with my brother." What Tracy did was key into these archetypal issues that we’re dealing with as adults.
What caused the fist fight between you and your brother?
As is so often the case, who remembers? [Laughs.] You remember the emotion of it, and the emotion of your family is mixed up with all different kinds of history, so oftentimes the individual event isn’t very important, it’s just an accumulation of a lifetime of certain grievances, many of them inflated or exaggerated by your own sense of persecution in your family. [Laughs.]
As a Knicks fan, I have to ask, how did "Violet's Song," by team owner James Dolan's band J.D. and the Straight Shot wind up in your film?
Dana Sano, who’s our music supervisor, sent it to me when we were looking for something to put on the radio and it had just the right feel for it for us to use it, so we used it.
Was there pressure applied for it to be in there?
Not that I recall. It does kind of a light country music thing that was very appropriate to the scene and it worked.
What do you want audiences to get out of the film?
I’m hoping that they’ve at least been entertained, but having laughed and also been moved and reminded of some of their own family dynamics. When I first saw the play I left thinking I should say hello to family members that I hadn’t talked to. It holds up a little bit of a mirror to the way in which we all view each other. It’s an exaggerated mirror because of the circumstances and the subject matter, but maybe it'll make you wanna go out and feel a little bit better about your own family, maybe make some connections that are hard to keep up in this modern age when they’re all spread out all over the world.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)