Poets, pills and performance

Behind the scenes in August: Osage County.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Meryl Streep on John Wells: "John and I e-mailed a little bit in preparation."
Meryl Streep on John Wells: "John and I e-mailed a little bit in preparation."

The preeminent Oklahoma hay rolls in August: Osage County are key visuals and seem to bind the characters to the earth, comparable to the figures in Jean-François Millet's 19th century haystack paintings.

The cast and director John Wells flocked together at Essex House New York on Central Park South. Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale and Abigail Breslin talked about the preparation for their roles with screenwriter playwright Tracy Letts.

Ties to the land and 'Native Americana' are questioned and references sprinkled throughout, such as on a parking lot mural, and mostly through dialogue with and about Johnna played as anchor in a raging storm by Misty Upham, who has one of the most chivalrous and applause deserving scenes.

John Wells: We had a general conversation of how can we tell a story with pictures - where will pictures substitute for words without losing so many of the things that made August: Osage County August: Osage County to begin with, so much of the language and a lot of its humor. So we just tried to find a visual language, a visual flow and dynamism, a cinematic version of the story. We were doing some painful cutting.

Chris Cooper (on acting with Meryl Streep): "We do our best to act along with her."
Chris Cooper (on acting with Meryl Streep): "We do our best to act along with her." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Chris Cooper raves about working with Meryl Streep, who plays Violet, his sister-in-law and opposite in temperament and tells us how he does it. Cooper's Big Charles Aiken personifies all the maternal instinct you will get.

Chris Copper (on acting with Meryl Streep): We do our best to act along with her. The viewer who watches her work really has no idea of the talent that we observe per take because she brings such variety to her character. Of course, her drug addled time… or she'd bring the mean mean underbelly in the confrontation and she'll just mix them up and we never know what's coming at us. She keeps us on our toes. It's a great lesson. It's the second time I've worked with her.

The family's spread of addictions culminates in matriarch Violet Weston's pill abuse. Meryl Streep's performance is in a class of its own - the way she smokes, the way she stumbles, slouches and suddenly strikes like a viper-in-waiting. Mattie Fae, Violet's sister and wife to Cooper's Aiken, is played by Margo Martindale. The two formidable actresses conjure up a shared childhood for us in a dazed glance here and a bold gesture there.

Meryl Streep: John and I emailed a little bit in preparation. What interested me was where she was at any given point in the cycle of pain and pain relief. Where she was on her pain killer cycle in any give scene. Since we were shooting out of order, I had to map that. Just to know what level of attention or inattention I had to bring to my fellow actors. You know, in acting you are supposed to want to go into the house of pain. Really it's not something that's fun and I resisted doing this initially because of that. Because on so many levels, physically and mentally, spiritually, emotionally, Violet is enraged and either in pain or drugged the whole time.

Tracy Letts, Abigail Breslin, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale on August: Osage County.
Tracy Letts, Abigail Breslin, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale on August: Osage County. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Barbara Weston (Julia Roberts), who fled Osage County a long time ago, assesses the Plains as "a state of mind, a spiritual affliction, like the blues," to her husband Steve (Dermot Mulroney) only to be thrown into the physical reality of her family with the first hello, which is an assessment of her own weight and her 14-year-old daughter Jean's (Abigail Breslin) development since the last visit.

Abigail Breslin: I'm 17. I wasn't 14 that long ago, so I kind of know that age is like a really weird age because you're not really a kid but you're not really accepted being an adult. It's really complicated. She does have a lot going on. She is really tough but she's not really at all. I think towards the end she's kind of realising 'oh, my god, I don't want to become like any of these people at all."

Benedict Cumberbatch as "Little Charles Aiken" is fragile and delicate of mind. The way he does his hair with his father's comb and takes Daddy's handkerchief to wipe away his self-perpetuated shame are the gestures of a tortured child.

Chris Cooper: I had to particularly zero in on this idea of unconditional love for your child. When people don't see that child as whole. That was something that was really visceral to life experiences you can bring to your work.

Mattie Fae, called "sexy as a wet cardboard box" by her sister Violet, arrives all family business with groceries in a plastic bag and a pre-packaged cake, sweat dripping down her broad back. "Touch it!" she beckons her husband with an irresistible smile and a cocktail in hand. Martindale plays it as real as it gets - there isn't a single false tone in her marvelous multi-layered performance.

Tracy Letts: "It was very important to us that we try and preserve the humor of the piece."
Tracy Letts: "It was very important to us that we try and preserve the humor of the piece." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Margo Martindale: I felt the part of being so critical and painfully brutal to my son the hardest. Also, I could see a little bit of that in myself and it made me feel ashamed. I think that's the hardest part for me, how incredibly cruel that was.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright for August: Osage County and screenwriter Tracy Letts made the Westons a family of poets. "He hired a cook. We never eat. It makes no sense." The pulse of the language cuts through disarray.

Tracy Letts: It was very important to us that we try and preserve the humor of the piece. I always felt the secret to success is in the humour. Quite often when plays are turned into films the humor is lost. Even when the films are still good, [Mike Nichols' 1966 film based on Edward Albee's play] Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? or [James Foley's 1992 film based on David Mamet's play] Glengarry Glen Ross. I've done all those plays, but the movies become a gloomier affair and they lose a lot of the humor. I said to John if that happens with ours, we're dead. You hear of all the pain these characters are going through. All that stuff is very real and very true - it's what this piece is about. But that's wildly difficult for actors to live in and the truth is it would be impossible for an audience to watch, were it not for the humor. The humor is really what hooks you and as long as you're laughing, you're listening. So John and I were both of us very fastidious about making sure that we did not [cut laughs]. We didn't talk about it in terms of the laughs but we talked about maintaining a certain buoyancy and rhythm that would allow for an audience to laugh. I've seen it a few time with audiences and it seems to be working, so I'm happy about that.

John Wells watched the video version of the 2007 Broadway production of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

Margo Martindale: "I felt the part of being so critical and painfully brutal to my son the hardest."
Margo Martindale: "I felt the part of being so critical and painfully brutal to my son the hardest." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

John Wells: I took a copy of the play and a highlighter and I highlighted every single laugh. In the cutting of the piece we literally only cut two spots that had laughs. We saved every single laugh. Humor is what allows the characters to progress. In my family the tension was always dealt with someone trying to undermine the tension by saying something sort of funny but not necessarily funny.

While filming, the cast lived in a compound together in Oklahoma. The dinner scene in the movie is one of the most repelling family meals on screen whereas the real-life casseroles were anything but broken.

Margo Martindale: I made my chicken spaghetti casserole. I even put one in the refrigerator for John [Wells] before I left.


August: Osage County opens in the US on December 25 and in the UK on January 17, 2014.


Read the companion pieces to this interview:-

Family Feud

The three Julis in August

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