An astounding discovery at the Toronto Festival's press conference for August : Osage County was not only that the Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Tracy Letts is a man—given the woman-oriented material he's adapted into the film's screenplay--but that he also plays the nasty CIA boss out to get Mandy Patinkin on Homeland. Now that's quite a leap. No mention of the Emmy Award-winning series here though; it's all about a row of heavyweight stars singing his praises and being thankful for this increasingly rare opportunity to chew up the scenery in a movie.
choking [Meryl Streep] was not how I pictured it going in my mind all these years.
The greatest scenery chewer though, Meryl Streep, wasn't there. Yet her presence loomed large as her domineering drug-addled, matriarch does in the film. The last in a long line of Hollywood dysfunctional family movies where family members rip each other to shreds over the course of their home visit, August: Osage County hones in on the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until the suicide of the family patriarch, Beverly (Sam Shepard) brings them back to the isolated Midwest house where they were raised.
The greatest conflict is between Streep's Violet and her eldest daughter Barbara, played by Julia Roberts. (Julianne Nicholson from Masters of Sex plays the middle sister, Ivy, and Juliette Lewis is the youngest, Karen). Both Streep and Roberts are now receiving a huge push in the awards season by the film's producers, George Clooney, Grant Heslov and the Oscar-loving Harvey Weinstein, the film's US distributor who had also participated in producing Letts' play on Broadway.
The film marks the first time the two superstar actresses and devoted mothers have co-starred in a movie.
“To work with Meryl Streep is a dream come true for anyone, to know her is an honour,” gushes Roberts, who then thankfully displays her sense of humour. “It was intimidating certainly to be in these scenes with her, and choking her was not how I pictured it going in my mind all these years. I thought we'd be having tea and speaking in fabulous accents and dressed up and looking very chic, but I was sweating and wearing a big butt pad! However it was amazing at the end of every day coming out of the truth of the Weston family and into our own truths of who we are. There was always a hug and a kiss and 'I love you' and that was really the elixir I needed to come in the next day and climb over the next table to choke her in the next way.
“It can honestly be scary to do that kind of stuff and you have to feel really safe with that person. Meryl's not only sublime and superior in her work, she's such a beautiful person who sees not only what I need as an actor but what I need as a girl in the world and she provided that all the time.”
The production was set up so that the cast became like a family, explains the film's director John Wells, who in the past has orchestrated some hefty casts as a producer on television dramas including The West Wing.
“Being in this lovely small town and shooting completely in one house that wasn't on a set that we purchased out in the middle of Osage County meant that everyone grew to know each other and care about each other,” he says. “We actually rebuilt the house to suit our needs, which meant that we were there for the whole time. Everyone worked very hard.”
Chris Cooper, whose best supporting actor Oscar win had been for his portrayal as Streep's lover in Spike Jonze's Adaptation, knows the actress well. In August: Osage County he plays Violet's hen-pecked though ultimately placating brother-in-law, who provides a kind of emotional core in the ever-evolving drama.
“We filmed in unusual circumstances,” notes the Dallas-born actor who came to cinema from the theatre at the age of 35. “We were out in middle of nowhere, where hotel accommodation is hard to come by and they found these newly finished condos where everybody was right next door to each other and running into each other every day. We'd have pot-luck dinners and everybody would bring something, primarily over to Meryl's. She was such a sweetheart. It was about this time last year so everyone was watching Presidential debates and Hurricane Sandy hit some of the actors' homes in New York and we were watching it on TV. It sure helped to give a feel of family off set.”
Letts and Wells worked intensely on the screenplay. “You spend a lot of time and as a playwright trying to figure out why all these people are in one location and are not leaving it and then when you write a screenplay suddenly they're free to go,” Letts notes quizzically. “That compression as a playwright is actually very helpful, because when you release it, suddenly the characters have that freedom to leave and you have to find other ways to apply that pressure. You try to find visual metaphors and you rely on things like close-ups, which you don't have in theatre, to help tell the story.”
Wells: “On the surface the story seems simple, but there are lots of things going on with the relationships. It's a very complex piece of writing and is not for the faint of heart. When we first looked at the 20-odd-page dinner scene, which was performed around a table we wondered how it would go. But I'd cast actors who had the facility to deal with the language and by the end we felt comfortable that we could have taken it straight and put it on stage and performed it, because we'd created that sense of family.”
Roberts: “We worked our arses off because there was no other way to do it. I've never worked so hard in my life and I've given birth to three children! It was llke having a mountain to climb every single day. And the only way to climb it we discovered was holding hands--whether we liked it or not. We would work all day and go home and shower and all run to Meryl's house and start practising for the next day because you had to have that momentum going 19 or 20 hours of the day or else it would just leave you. It was the best acting experience of my life. I don't know how they did it eight times a week on stage without some kind of rehab afterwards.