John Wells is one of the towering figures in modern American television. His seemingly innumerable credits have reaped six Primetime Emmys for his work as writer and producer on “ER,” and “The West Wing.” Wells’ other series include “Third Watch,” “Shameless” and “Southland.” In addition to his TV work, Wells has produced a number of feature films and served multiple terms as President of the Writers Guild of America, West.
After achieving remarkable success as a writer and producer of television series, Wells wrote and directed his first feature film, 2010’s The Company Men. While an honest and heartbreaking look at how the economic collapse impacted laid-off Americans was a tough sell for audiences, Wells facilitated career-best performances from Ben Affleck, Kevin Costner, and Tommy Lee Jones, and proved himself an assured storyteller in the feature medium.
Wells’ follow-up is August: Osage County, the film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts. The film opens in limited release on Christmas Day, and audiences will be able to see what master storyteller Wells has done with a brilliant piece of material and a standout cast including Oscar-winners Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and Chris Cooper.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Wells in anticipation of the film’s release. Here’s what Wells shared with me about making a play feel cinematic, the twenty-minute scene that anchors the film, and crafting August: Osage County.
Jackson Truax: Your first film, The Company Men, was a really excellent film and outstanding first feature. What were the challenges of diving into the feature medium, and what were the most important lessons you learned while making it?
John Wells: It was a personal story… It’s not autobiographical, obviously… It was fictionalized. It was something that happened to someone in my family that I was very touched by. So the real challenge was taking this personal story, and expanding it in a way that appealed to a lot of actors who would want to be in it. And then once we got into it, trying to make certain that it didn’t come off as too earnest. It’s one of the things that happens in August: Osage County. There’s a lot of drama. But there’s a tremendous amount of humor. We were in the middle of the economic downturn. Everybody wanted to express how upset they were about what was going on… But we also had to humanize the characters… We got a great cast together… I had produced films. I was concerned about having to deal with a lot of that expected movie star silliness. I had absolutely none of it. Everybody was simply focused on wanting to do the material and do it well. And that was the same experience that I had on August: Osage County. All these wonderful actors whom I’ve admired, some of whom I’ve worked with before. Everybody came in with the same thing. Just wanting to do their best work.
JT: You did a great job in crafting August: Osage County, in making sure it felt very cinematic and not just like it was a play that had been filmed. What were the challenges in that, and what were some of the steps you took in various phases of production to make that happen?
Wells: The first thing we did was to spend a lot of time on the script. In the theater, the piece was three-and-a-half hours long with a couple of intermissions… It was set on a stage. So Oklahoma, and the world around them, had to be discussed, talked about, and put into words. Because you couldn’t see it. We knew we were going to see it right away… We spent the first amount of time trying to make sure that we could open it up… And the sense of it being, “Were you really going to see the world around?” I grew up on the plains outside of Colorado. So I was also very conscious of what that world looked like. And the fact the claustrophobia that you felt on-stage being trapped in the house is also a claustrophobia that you feel when you’re miles, and miles, and miles away from anything under these huge skies. There’s nowhere to go… We were trying to get that sense of the place… We purchased a house. We just shot around it. People came in and out of the house. Moved into the house and out of the house. All of that, I think, gave you a sense of the world that they lived in… [We] just wanted to show where they really lived. What the place looked like and felt like.
JT: Tracy Letts adapted the screenplay from his own play. Because of your extensive experience as a writer, how involved were you in the screenplay throughout pre-production and production?
Wells: Very involved. But as involved as a director working with a wonderfully talented screenwriter is involved. We argued over scenes. We talked about what to cut and not to cut. We talked about what other things we could do to open the piece up. And take it more out into the landscape. But Tracy wrote it. He and I counted it up at one point. [There are] ten lines that weren’t in the play… So it is his work.
JT: This is the second film you’ve directed, and one thing they have in common is excellent performances from Chris Cooper. What is it that attracted you to working with him, and did the collaboration evolve before or during the second film?
Wells: I’ve always admired his work… Chris as an actor has tremendous honesty and integrity. And he feels like the men that I grew up around in the Midwest and in the west. He’s honest and straightforward and compassionate… You sense that American quality of individualism. And yet great compassion and concern for others. I think that there’s something about that that the best American work embodies. That is the best of us as American males. So I love to work with him. And then he’s just a remarkably talented actor. From the first [film] to the second one, I think it’s just a matter of trust. He’d seen how I had used his performance in the first film. That made him comfortable with what I was going to be asking him to do in the second one. These relationships between an actor and a director are really based on that trust that gets built up over time.
JT: One of the scenes at the heart of the film involves the entire cast sitting around the table for I believe eighteen pages. What were the biggest challenges in filming that scene?
Wells: It’s the scene that we were all terrified of. It sat there on the schedule… “Oh my God. Here it comes. There are going to be ten of us sitting around a table.” All the coverage, all the camera angles that we could get in there were going to be necessary… It was going to take forever. So we decided to just be really prepared. We had worked on it during the rehearsal period a bit… We worked on the scene. Worked on the lines first to get the rhythm of it. Then we started working on the nuance of it. So when we got to the set and started shooting it, we ended up shooting it in about three-and-a-half days. Because the actors were completely prepared and we knew what we were doing. We didn’t worry about the continuity. Because I said, “Look, I’m going to have coverage on ten different people; And a couple of wider angles. I’ll get over those problems. I don’t want you thinking about when the glass gets lifted. And when the fork goes. And how much salad you’ve had or not had.” And they were all very professional… And it went very quickly.
JT: Did you break the scene down? Or were you filming in entire, long takes?
Wells: I wish I could have filmed it in entire, long takes. We were shooting on film. You can’t put that much film into the camera. We broke it into three pieces. But we rehearsed it as a complete piece.
JT: You said that you shot a lot of coverage. How many cameras were you able to have running on any given take?
Wells: In there, we had two. And that was the only time we used multiple cameras. I’m not a big fan of multiple cameras. And we were in a practical location. Which meant it would have been difficult to hide another camera and also be able to light it the way we wanted to light individual scenes.
JT: For the physical altercation at the end of the scene, did you do any of what would amount to basically fight or stunt choreography?
Wells: I thought I should probably be prepared. So we had a stunt person in there and people to stand-in. But Meryl and Julia would have no part of it. They wanted to do it. So that’s Julia attacking Meryl and tossing her on the floor… Meryl’s done seventy movies and Julia’s done fifty or something. So they were very familiar with it. Meryl got a little beat up on the fight, from a bracelet that she had on her hand. But she never stopped. She’s a real trooper.
JT: The film was scored by two-time Oscar winner Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain). How did you decide you wanted him to do the music for the film, and what was the process of working with him?
Wells: Gustavo doesn’t do a lot of films… Stephen Mirrione (Babel), who edited the picture, had worked with Gustavo before. He picked up the phone. We called [Gustavo] and asked him. He came in and looked at the film. And agreed to do it. I was surprised, because he doesn’t do that much. It was a wonderful process. I got to go over to his studio in Echo Park in Los Angeles and hang around and watch him play. He’s just an extraordinary musician, not only a composer. I had this wonderful experience of watching him create. It was beautiful.
JT: There are five credited producers on the film, in addition to a co-producer and two executive producers. I interviewed Tracy Letts the other day and he said there were a lot of smart people on set and a lot of opinions. How did you know at any moment, which note to take or opinion to listen to?
Wells: Between having ten actors on the set the whole time and a number of producers around…and prop men and [directors of photography]… You’re getting lots of input from lots of people. Oftentimes, the ideas are very useful and very good. And you use them. And other times, you don’t think it’s useful for what you’re trying to achieve… And then other times, you just simply don’t have time to listen because the sun’s going down or something else is happening… But I want a lot of input. Because I think people have good ideas. You want to hear those things. And everything gets better when there are more ideas from smart people around.
JT: It’s not often that an entire cast is on set for the duration of a shoot. Why was that important to you? What do you think it added to the shoot and to the film?
Wells: That’s why we went and shot in Osage County in Oklahoma. Because this was a family. And it’s a family that ends up being trapped together in this house based on this event that’s happened… I thought it was important that everyone be there to sense what the place was like. To not build sets somewhere in New York or Los Angeles… The walls around everyone, the actual place gave a tremendous amount of texture to the place. And it was far away. It’s not an easy place to get to and from. So people weren’t leaving all the time. They were eating together a lot. Living together a lot. And that whole experience of them all being together is, what I hope, makes people think that they are a family.
JT: August: Osage County has now played at multiple film festivals, including Toronto and AFI, and has been screening a lot. What piece of acclaim or audience reaction have you heard that made you the most proud?
Wells: The thing that we were really frightened of when we were doing this, was the play is very funny on-stage. And we weren’t certain that we would be able to translate that comedy into the piece. Because when you go into a naturalistic setting, it can take a while for people to understand that they even have the permission to laugh… Early on, we were really pleased to hear people laughing. And laughing a lot. It’s very funny. And that humor is what actually allows the more dramatic elements to work. Because otherwise you’d run screaming from this family. And that’s been the most gratifying thing. That we were actually able to translate the humor of the piece from the stage to the film.