‘AOC’ production designer enjoying time in Bartlesville

An article by Examiner-enterprise for “August: Osage County”:

Several months before the public announcement that another Hollywood movie was being shot in the Bartlesville and Pawhuska areas, David Gropman was hard at work determining the visual feel of “August: Osage County

As production designer of the high-profile film, Gropman met with director John Wells back in May, discussing where to create the world in which the movie’s characters would inhabit. Filming sites were considered throughout the country, including locations in New York, Georgia and Louisiana.

But ultimately, as Gropman pointed out, it was the screenplay’s title that led the production team to the ideal location, tucked in northeastern Oklahoma. Here, a three-story Osage County country house known as the Boulanger home located north of Pawhuska, best matched the look and setting of the screenplay’s environment.

“A lot of houses were looked at it, including in Tulsa and Washington County, but John Wells fell in love with the Boulanger home,” said Gropman. “It’s hard to imagine a more perfect place. It would have been impossible to think of shooting elsewhere.”

Gropman, an Oscar-nominated production designer, is one of the key members of the film production’s creative circle. He has the important role of pulling together all the visual elements necessary to support the film’s tumultuous family story.

He familiarized himself with the script and the dozen characters to create a convincing environment that supports the story of the dysfunctional Weston family who both affirm and attack one another after their alcoholic patriarch disappears.

He believes that the large, 10-room house — which was originally a Sears, Roebuck and Company kit home — is “perfect” for the story, not only because it fits the filming needs but closely resembles the home used in Tracy Letts’ play upon which the movie is based.

Filming for “August: Osage County” began in late September and is expected to wrap up around Thanksgiving.

“We’re very, very lucky to be here,” said Gropman. “The house was in good shape and perfect for the story,” he said. “It really reflects and enhances the play’s characters. It has all the right elements.”

Because the majority of the story takes place at the turn-of-the-century house, Gropman and his crew, with help from local contractors and laborers, made quite a few alterations. Changes included pulling a wall in order to open up the home more, ripping out carpets, replacing wallpaper and other various repairs and touch-ups on the home.

“We discovered that an oak tree was missing in front of the Weston family home, so a major project was transplanting this huge, 40-foot tree from the back yard to the front yard. It took two cranes and several days to do it,” he said.

According to Gropman, the design crew had to keep in mind that the story takes place in 1998, so attributes like the characters’ clothing and hairstyles come into play. Great care also was taken to ensure that settings and props were appropriate to the home, the family and time period.

He explained that although the three Weston daughters are adults and have moved out, their bedrooms appear the same way they did while living in the home.

Eldest daughter Barbara Fordham’s room is sprinkled with high school swimming trophies and ribbons and signs that she was once a prom queen. Julia Roberts plays the 46-year-old college professor, who works to save her marriage, all while having the need to control everything around her.

The bedroom walls of the mousy Ivy Weston, the middle child played by Julianne Nicholson, reflect her involvement with the 4-H Club, while youngest daughter Karen Weston grew up as a “wild child” according to Gropman, and her room depicts a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Juliette Lewis plays Karen Weston, who lives in Florida and is engaged to her sleazy fiance.

Gropman explained that finding the appropriate props involved tapping into antique stores, flea markets and even art galleries both nearby and throughout the state. He estimated that the film’s set decorator, Nancy Haigh, had hit “just about every town in Oklahoma” to outfit the sets.

Being a production designer means that Gropman works with a team consisting of set designers, set constructors and members of the film’s art department. His wife, Karen Gropman, serves as the “August: Osage County” art director. Together, the crew is currently working about 12 hours a day.

“I’ve never been to Oklahoma before and didn’t really know what to expect. One of the great things about being here is people’s openness and friendliness,” said Gropman. “Everybody’s been so great and have helped us out from day one.”

Gropman was born in Los Angeles, Calif., but now lives with his wife in the town of Millrift in northeastern Pennsylvania. In the meantime, they’ve settled into life in the City of Legends, making themselves at home at the Inn at Price Tower.

“We love staying there. We just thought living in a Frank Lloyd Wright building was too good of an opportunity to pass up,” he said. “We’re really enjoying our time here.”

The Gropman couple said they’re big fans of Weeze’s Cafe and have also enjoyed other local restaurants, such as Frank and Lola’s, Dink’s Barbeque and Murphy’s Steak House. They’ve also been to several nearby museums and attractions, such as Woolaroc and the Frank Phillips Home. Gropman said he’s hoping to see more of the state, too, like the Great Salt Plains State Park in western Oklahoma.

“Just driving to the film site in Osage County from Bartlesville is very refreshing,” said Gropman. “It’s nice to take in the natural scenery and think about the film or just reflect.”

Talented and unassuming, Gropman graduated from the Yale School of Drama, where Meryl Streep earned her master of fine arts degree. In “August: Osage County” Streep plays the manipulative, pill-popping matriarch Violet Weston.

Gropman said he began his career designing theater sets and then began working as production designer for film, with his earliest work being “Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” in 1982. Since then, he has built up an impressive resume and filled the slot as production designer for “The Cider House Rules,” “Chcolat,” “Doubt” and most recently, “Date Night”.

“It’s difficult to pick a film that’s been my favorite, because I see each one as a new opportunity to do something I love doing,” said Gropman.



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