The film adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play August Osage County received a standing ovation on Monday night at the Toronto Film Festival. Like the play, director John Wells’ film centers on a complicated, dysfunctional Oklahoma family ruled by matriarch Violet Weston (Meryl Streep). In this Oscar-friendly role, Streep is a chain-smoking pill-popper who lashes out at her daughters Barb (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), each of whom continue to struggle with the fallout of their mother’s cruelty in their own ways. Chris Cooper plays Violet’s brother-in-law and Benedict Cumberbatch (in his third film at this year’s TIFF) is her bumbling nephew.
Rolling Stone caught up with the playwright and screenwriter Letts, who reflected on the process of taking his renowned play from stage to screen.
What was satisfying about being able to do a film?
I grew up in a small town, in a small community, and I would not have had access to great plays when I was a kid were it not for the films of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I never would have been able to see those things. But as a kid, I was able to see them because there were movies made of them. That is why I always liked the idea of a movie made of August, just the idea that its reach has longer arms in communities that wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to see this film.
What was it like seeing your play on the screen?
It is a very different experience. Movies are just different: the way people watch them, the way people take them in. You don’t work as hard to watch a movie. You work harder to watch a play, so what the audience puts into it is interesting.
Because the language is denser for the most part. There’s less visual information. You actually have to listen. There are a lot of people in a room and everyone is a living person as opposed to an image that’s already been shot. Meryl Streep is not in the house tonight, just her picture’s up there, so it’s a different experience. It’s going to be different. I enter the room tonight with a lot of trepidation, because I know this going into it.
Do you think you’ll go back and do it all again?
Yeah, I love movies, I’m intrigued by them; it’s kind of a cool medium. And I’m not very cool. So maybe that’s the thing that intrigues me about it.
How are you not cool?
I’m hot-blooded. I like stuff that has heat and fire and passion to it. And I think immediately [that] film tends to be a more cool and technical medium that theater.
What was the biggest challenge in writing the script?
The biggest difficulties were condensing the material because the play was three-and-a-half hours long with an intermission. And then those places where you are asking yourself, “How can I tell the story visually? How can I tell the story with a picture? When will a picture suffice, instead of words?”
How involved were you on set?
Not at all. That’s the way it’s worked on all three of my screenplays that I’ve adapted. I’ve done them, I’ve worked closely with the director, and then when shooting has started, I’ve been busy and I haven’t been able to be there. Ultimately, the director on the film is the final arbiter. In theater, the playwright is the final arbiter and he or she will be the one making the final decision. On a movie set, it’s a director, and the screenwriter is not number two or even number five.
Is that an uncomfortable position to take?
I think for most playwrights, that’s an uncomfortable position to take, to suddenly say, “Oh, I guess I’m not in charge anymore.”
Any interest in writing for television?
No. John [Wells], who writes for television, he’s got to go home and write 10 pages tonight for the first episode of this season’s Shameless, the show he does. I couldn’t do that. I could not write with that kind of pressure, those kind of time restraints. I was like, “How do you do it?” He was like, “Sometimes, it’s not that good.”