Writer-producer-director John Wells once called the shots on the set of “ER.” That long-running NBC hospital drama, with its constant tension, carnage and emotional wreckage, was a warmup for “August: Osage County.”
Wells, 56, directed “August,” which stars America’s foremost thespian, Meryl Streep, as the most dramatic woman in northeast Oklahoma.
A prescription-pill addict with a sharp wit and a faulty filter, Streep’s character, Violet Weston, alternately adores and excoriates her eldest daughter (Julia Roberts) and makes life a prolonged eggshell walk for the rest of her family.
The movie’s mother-daughter face-offs – and by extension, acting showdowns between two of Hollywood’s biggest stars – form the crux of “August,” adapted by Oklahoma-born playwright Tracy Letts from his Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play.
Yet the film does not play as a pure Streep-Roberts vehicle. Its large cast includes Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Juliette Lewis and Benedict Cumberbatch as other family members. Sam Shepard plays retired professor and family patriarch Beverly Weston, whose disappearance early in the film sets the stage for the rest of it.
Ensembles are old hat for Wells, also showrunner for “The West Wing” and the current Showtime series “Shameless.” But “August,” shot on location in Oklahoma, marks only his second big-screen directing effort. The first was the accomplished but little-seen “The Company Men,” a recession-themed drama starring Cooper and Ben Affleck.
Reached by phone during a recent Bay Area visit, Wells is good-humored in discussing his “August” experience and approach to directing.
You have directed a lot of television but just one film before this. Did you worry about that going in to the shoot, knowing you would be directing two huge movie stars?
Yeah. But I will be really honest with you: My fear at the beginning of everything I do is that I am going to really suck. That fear never goes away. My wife makes fun of me.
But it is that thing of not wanting to let the talented artists you are working with down. I get asked the question a lot – “What was it like to direct Meryl Streep?” Well, directing Meryl Streep or Julia Roberts or any other really talented actor in a piece isn’t like telling them what to do, or how to perform it. I sort of refer to it more as conducting a good-sized chamber orchestra of really talented musicians. They know a lot more about their specific instrument than you do. You are trying to get a unified performance out of all these extraordinary musicians that blends together properly … but they can only play their own instrument.
These might be the least sympathetic roles Streep or Roberts has played ...
They had both seen the play on Broadway. These are monumental roles. These are brave performers. The characters are written as very real, and not necessarily sympathetic. And so the conversations that we had before we agreed to do this all together had a lot to do with that, talking about, “Are we going to play these characters as written? Are we going to try to soften them to make it more palatable, to make it easier viewing for the audience?” And the decision was, no, we are not going to. What is unique about the piece is that way in which you are laughing at the same time you kind of want to hide under your chair.
Why was it important to shoot the movie in Oklahoma?
I am from Colorado outside of Denver, on the Plains. And I found in talking to a lot of people on both coasts about the Plains (that) there was what I considered to be a misconception about that part of the country – who it is that lives there, how complex the universe is out there. I thought if we could shoot there, they would actually be immersed in it and understand it a lot better.
The cast lived in the same condo complex in Bartlesville, Okla. That sounds cozy.
The actors all lived next to each other and traveled to and from the set (a 1920s house bought by the production), which is about 40 minutes, together. And they were together in the evenings.
They studied each other for all the gestures. You know, mother and daughter, so they were moving the same way. Those very subtle things that make us realize someone looks like someone else, even if they don’t look at all like them. They actually smile the same way, move their head the same way, laugh the same way.
Were these studies part of formal rehearsals or the result of the actors spending a lot of off time together?
Spending time together. Really, there was nothing else to do. Bartlesville is perfectly lovely, but if you are Meryl Streep, you are not going bowling in Bartlesville. So we spent all of our time cooking. Meryl’s a wonderful cook, Margo’s a wonderful cook, and they would cook for everybody. Big casseroles.
George Clooney and his business partner Grant Heslov produced “August.” And they also spent time in Oklahoma?
George (who starred on “ER”) and I obviously go way back. …
Yeah, he and Grant were there, and they were quite the toast of Bartlesville, Okla. … The poor guy. I took (Clooney) to our favorite restaurant there, which is small, lovely place called Frank & Lola’s, and he barely got out of there alive. (Laughs). It was like being with the Beatles at Candlestick Park.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.