Letts on the pains of adapting 'Osage County'

2013-09-13T00:00:00Z Letts on the pains of adapting 'Osage County'The Associated Press The Associated Press
September 13, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The build-up to the world premiere of "August: Osage County" was familiar to Tracy Letts, the playwright who penned the Pulitzer Prize-winning play and wrote the screenplay for its big-screen adaptation. Formal wear, a limo, a ride to the theater. But such a night would usually culminate for him in the debut of a play and, he says, "the thrum of live performance."

"Some part of me — because I'm a theater animal — I go into that cinema last night and I get into my seat and I go, 'Oh, it's a movie. It's already done,'" Letts said in an interview the day after "August: Osage County" premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The film, with an ensemble cast led by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, is one of the most-anticipated of the fall movie season. It's also a closely watched test of Hollywood's ability to transfer theater into a film — rarely its strong suit. "August: Osage County" isn't just your regular stage production: It's roundly regarded as perhaps the finest American play in decades.

After premiering at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in 2007, it played for several years on Broadway and went on to a national tour. Inspired by Letts' own family history, it's about a sharp-tongued, pill-popping Oklahoma matriarch (played by Streep in the film) whose family arrives following the suicide of her husband (Sam Shepard).

"It seemed to me that the right container for the story was The Big American Play — a certain sprawl to the play, a kind of familial sprawl with multiple generations, multiple acts, multiple floors to the house," says Letts.

So why on Earth would Letts want to subject himself to the anguish of cutting his greatest creation — a play defined by its largeness — by some 45 minutes?

"Then who knows what havoc would be wrecked over my piece!" responds Letts.

Unlike playwright friends of Letts — he cites Martin McDonaugh ("The Pillowman") and Bruce Norris ("Clybourne Park") — who refuse to harm their plays through adaptation, Letts believes in the movie adaptation process — even if it's always, as he says, "an uneasy transition."

Letts, who recently won a Tony for his performance in a revival of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?" (an experience that left him "bone tired," he says), has written the screenplays of the other two movie adaptions of his work: 2006's "Bug" and 2012's "Killer Joe."

"I still think of that little kid in a small town who's going to get a chance to watch 'August: Osage County' on video or on TV and say, 'That's my family. I recognize them,'" says Letts, who, growing up in Oklahoma, was first introduced to Shakespeare and "A Streetcar Named Desire" as movies. "So I think there's value in doing it."

"That push and pull of what goes, what stays — it's a fight," he adds. "It's a fight I'm willing to fight. It's a fight, on some level, I have to be willing to lose."

That's because it ultimately wasn't in his hands. It's in the care of director John Wells ("ER") and producer Harvey Weinstein, who'll release the movie Dec. 25. Wells was a great fan of the play and made the film in collaboration with Letts.

"I was always just constantly trying to have that same experience in the film," says Wells. "That's the challenge."

Speaking together in Toronto, Letts and Wells appear friendly with one another, even if Letts is still stinging from battles over the script.

"I guess ultimately you hope that somebody with some taste and intelligence is making some good, final decisions about this," says Letts. "In the case of John, I think they are — which is not to say we don't have fights about this. We do. I was calling him a (expletive) just yesterday. But he's a generous collaborator and he's always been willing to listen."

Letts pauses for effect and smiles. "Even when he's flat wrong."

As a movie, "August: Osage County" didn't open to the same kind of reviews as the play. Though it's still expected to be an Oscar heavyweight, many critics found it too crowded by the play's dramatic peaks with too little breathing room in between. The film also changes the final moment of the story, a decision that the Los Angeles Times has reported has been much debated between the Weinstein Co. and the filmmakers, and could still be changed.

But the rhythms of a 3 ½ hour play (with intermission) were always going to be hard to time in a 2 hour film. For Letts, even the running time was up for debate.

"There has always been a theoretical disagreement about the running time you need to get to," says Letts. "I'm always sitting there going: 'Lawrence of Arabia!' There are long movies in the world!"

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