Since the premiere of his play “Killer Joe” in Chicago in 1993, actor and playwright Tracy Letts has become a major figure in American theater, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his play “August: Osage County” and this year’s Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Letts has also earned acclaim as a screenwriter, adapting his plays “Bug” and “Killer Joe” into polarizing yet well-regarded films, both directed by Oscar-winner William Friedkin (The French Connection).
Letts recently added to his screenwriting credits by adapting “August: Osage County.” John Wells (TV’s “ER”) directed the film, opening in limited release on Christmas Day. August: Osage County chronicles the hilarious and heartbreaking encounters of the Weston family, the members of which have returned to Osage County, Oklahoma following a family tragedy. The ensemble cast features Oscar-winners Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and Chris Cooper, Oscar-nominees Abigail Breslin, Juliette Lewis, and Sam Shepard, and Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Margo Martindale.
In anticipation of the film’s release, I recently enjoyed an insightful conversation with the brilliant Letts about his latest film adaptation. Here’s what Letts shared with me about removing an hour of material from the play, walking the fine line between comedy and drama, and crafting August: Osage County.
Jackson Truax: What impact did becoming a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright for August: Osage County have on your life or career?
Tracy Letts: It’s hard to say. On the one hand, none… I still have to do all the same things I did before. Or I still choose to, anyway. I’m still acting in plays. And I’m still writing plays… So in some sense, none. But, I think it changes other people’s perception of me. You get introduced as “Pulitzer Prize Winner.” I think Bruce Norris won a Pulitzer a couple of years ago. He said one of the great things about it that he will never have to wonder now what it’s like to win a Pulitzer Prize. Because you’ve actually won the damn thing… It’s great. I’m very honored by it. But it hasn’t really changed the way I conduct myself, I don’t think.
JT: How did that lead, if at all, to the play being adapted into the film?
Letts: I don’t think the Pulitzer did, necessarily. The truth is, that as soon as the play went up on Broadway, there was discussion of turning it into a film. I think a lot of people saw cinematic possibilities for the play. Certainly the impact it was having on an audience on a nightly basis. It was a big, vocal impact we were hearing on a nightly basis. I think everybody saw that and thought, “This has tapped into something in the public consciousness that should be explored for the cinema as well.”
JT: The material in August: Osage County could easily lend itself to feeling very maudlin or schmaltzy, but it never does. Does that come naturally to you? Or do you have to remain conscious of that throughout the writing process, and make sure the material never feels mawkish?
Letts: I suppose it’s a bit of both. I suppose some of it does come naturally to me. Which is probably why I am a playwright… But, the truth is, it doesn’t just come…. It’s purpose-built. It’s created, in a way, to I hope, to avoid mawkishness or sentimentality. Humor certainly goes a long way to making otherwise unpalatable material palatable. The humor is perhaps, the secret to the success of August: Osage County… As despicable as some of the characters may act, the truth is I think that they’re acting in a recognizably human way. And they’re acting in a way that we can laugh with or at.
JT: Are these elements that appeared in your first drafts of the play or screenplay? Or do you have to cultivate them through multiple revisions of your work?
Letts: I think a lot of it is in the first draft. I think a lot of it is innate in the creation of the thing. But then…August: Osage County went through workshops, multiple productions, hundreds of performances. With a lot of good, smart actors, a dramaturge, a director, an artistic director. A lot of people had their eyes on it and were helping to work on it… Film is a collaborative medium. But so is the theater. And I had a lot of people helping me to shape that material. And continue to do what it was I set out to do.
JT: You adapted two of your plays into screenplays that were directed by William Friedkin. What did you learn about the process of adaptation from those projects? Was there anything that prepared you for adapting August: Osage County?
Letts: They’re very different. “Killer Joe” and “Bug” are very different from “August: Osage County.” Not just because of the size, the budget. But also because of the subject matter, certainly. “Killer Joe” and “Bug” as plays were more down-and-dirty enterprises. Single sets, small sets, limited number of characters. Two-act plays, get in and get out in two hours time. Both of them dealing in kind-of genre subjects. Or taking off from genre subjects. The noir thriller in the case of “Killer Joe” or the paranoid thriller in the case of “Bug.” “August: Osage County” didn’t really deal with a lot of that stuff. So the process was very different. For instance, it was important to William and I when we were making Killer Joe and Bug that we preserve a lot of the claustrophobia. Those plays are typically done in small theaters. “Killer Joe” was originally done in a 40-seat theater… There’s a real intimacy and claustrophobia about them. And William wanted to preserve a lot of that in the films of Killer Joe and Bug. And so we did that… Whereas, “August: Osage County,” it’s a bigger, more sprawling story. There are a lot more characters. There’s a lot more time. We felt that the claustrophobia in “August: Osage County” did not come from the house itself. But that in fact, you can be, coming from Oklahoma, I know this… You can still feel very claustrophobic even when you’re eye can see fifty-sixty miles to the horizon. That the claustrophobia, in some sense, comes from within. Not from where you are.
JT: Obviously, a big part of the adaptation was paring down the play. What were the biggest challenges in deciding what to remove?
Letts: You’re talking about losing an hour’s worth of material. Or about a third of the piece. Yeah, it’s very, very challenging. The thing has been very carefully written… In spite of the fact that it’s that length, there’s not a lot of fat on it. Though it’s a replete piece, it’s still pretty lean. And so to go in and start taking the supports out from under it would be very difficult. For instance, the prologue in the play is fifteen minutes long. We could not begin the film with a fifteen minute scene between two characters seated in an office, who are not our lead players in the film. It simply would not be possible to do that. So you’re going to have a way…a language that communicates a lot between characters that doesn’t necessarily involve all that talking. That’s a challenge. That’s the gig. That’s the job that I had in front of me. And the job Wells had. How do we preserve “August: Osage County” and do it in less time?
JT: It’s been said that the film veers more in the direction of comedy than the play. Was that something you were striving for as you were adapting the play?
Letts: I was always adamant about preserving the laughs… I think it’s still very recognizably “August: Osage County.” I think it still has a lot of darkness in it. And a lot of drama in it. So I don’t consider it a comedy. And I don’t consider it a change of tone. I’ve always felt…the humor is an essential part of the piece. I fought to preserve as much of the humor as we did. So I’ve got no problems with that.
JT: You recently won the Tony for Best Actor in a Play for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” How does your experience as an actor help or influence your writing? And in turn, did your work as a playwright help or inform your performance?
Letts: One helps the other. When I write a play, I try and write good things for actors to do… Things that are fun for an actor to do. Because if you write something that’s fun for an actor to do, then they will give it their all… They’ll do everything they can for the role… And then when I’m acting, I guess I try to cut out the bullshit. As an actor, there’s a period of time where you kind of wander off into the woods before you come back to the truth of the thing… I guess I try to limit my time out in the woods. Because I know as a writer, sitting there watching actors, I’m sitting there [thinking], “Why are you walking off into the woods? Why do you need to go off into the woods? Let’s do the thing you did at the table read…” I learn from my own bad habits in the other profession. Places where I’ve over-written something. When I’m up there and I’m acting something somebody else has overwritten, it’s a good reminder, “When you’re writing your next thing, don’t overwrite this.” There’s no reason to overwrite this. I can do all of this as an actor without you writing all of this.
JT: One of the challenges of adapting any work, but especially a play, is making sure it feels very cinematic and not just a filmed play. John Wells did an excellent job, but was that something you were thinking about in the screenplay phase?
Letts: It was absolutely part of the thinking. We knew that the piece had some scope and some movement. We knew we didn’t want to preserve the whole thing in the house… We weren’t afraid of it seeming stage-y. We wanted a different kind of flow. There were so many characters to get your hands on. When you’re on-stage, and you’ve got that big canvas up there of the whole house, your eye can sort of pick and choose who you’re going to look at when you’re going to follow the movement. But camera’s different. Camera’s going to focus on one person for a little bit. And follow them for a little bit of their journey. So we wanted more overall, physical flow… There was a lot of talk in the writing stage. We didn’t talk about opening it up. We talked about where might this scene happen that gives it a kind of visual action, a kind of visual flow.
JT: There are a number of credited producers on the film, including Oscar-winning producing partners George Clooney and Grant Heslov (Argo). What was there involvement throughout filming?
Letts: They were there on-set for much of the filming. Those guys contributed a great deal. There were a lot of producers on this movie. There were a lot of interests to be served. Or rather, just a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Everybody’s bringing some taste and some intelligence to the game… Grant and George are smart guys… They bring a lot to the table… And they’re listened to.
JT: There are so many great films out right now, of all sizes and scopes. Why is it important that audiences make a point of seeking out August: Osage County in the coming weeks?
Letts: August: Osage County, it’s always tapped into something in the public consciousness about the way we deal with our families. Everybody’s got one. It’s a universal subject…as the holidays roll around, in particular. Family is always worth exploring. Someone asked Sam Shepard once, “Why do you write so much about family?” And his response was, “What else is there?” It’s just so key to all of our lives. So I hope there’s something there that speaks to people… There’s something about seeing women of an age on screen, which I find very moving. I don’t know why we don’t see more of it… To see these women in this movie, get to play some roles of some richness, and some depth, and some humor. It’s great. It’s really great to see. And I’m proud of that.