Director John Wells comes home to talk Meryl Streep and August: Osage County


Robert Denerstein: You could have gone to long shots and exteriors and put everyone everyone in a studio. Instead you went to Oklahoma. Why was that important to you?

John Wells: I felt very strongly that the place itself was a huge part of what the piece is, and that the group of actors coming primarily from New York and Los Angeles and, in a couple of cases, London, were going to have an impression of what that place was without really understanding what it was. So we went there … We didn’t build any sets. We purchased this house that was in Osage County, which had been a $600 Sears & Roebuck kit house in 1921. We re-did it for what our needs were. And we just sort of lived there. We rehearsed in the house, fully dressed, for a week in advance. That allowed for the accents we were going to try for to be authentic. We brought in a lot of people from the area who were the proper ages of the characters to talk to us, and the actors really got to know the people. There is a very specific sort of thing to a plains individualism, and a hearty kind of pioneer spirit that they got. And because of all the blue state/red state ideas, I wanted them to really understand the difference between a social or religious conservatism, and the kind of rugged individualism where you just want to be left alone.

And then Meryl had the idea that the actors should all live together, which turned out to be a wonderful experience for everybody. We were in Bartlesville (Oklahoma), and there wasn’t really a hotel big enough that could accommodate us all, so we found some recently completed townhouses that were right there behind the Chile’s. We rented all nine of them, and the cast took over these townhouses. Meryl was next to Julia who was next to Margo (Martindale). Meryl and Margo cooked most nights. Meryl is a very good cook, and she likes having people over. So we would rehearse there. They also studied each other during that whole period of time. They tried to learn each other’s gestures, like how Meryl was going to laugh, and how she was going to tilt her head, and how she was going to move her hands. We knew our actors didn’t really look like a family. They just don’t look all that similar. But we thought that by doing those kinds of exercises, they would certainly really seem like a family.

Robert Denerstein: The post-funeral dinner scene takes about 20 minutes. How long did it take to film it, and what was your approach to that, since you have just about everything you can think of in it: Comedy, tragedy, death, anger?

John Wells: Well, that was the thing that we were almost frightened of. We were going to be around a table looking at the same chicken for a significant period of time. It’s about 20 pages of the script, so we were planning to shoot it over a week. I had broken the scene into three blocks of six pages or so to shoot. But at the end of what were going to be the first six pages, Meryl kind of gave me a wink from the end of the table, and she just kept going. She was off-book for the whole thing. The other actors were not as prepared, and so they had their scripts kind of in their laps under the table going like this (turning pages). But that put everybody on notice that we were going to actually perform. It was going to be a real thing. I spent most of my time talking to the individuals about what their connections were from the past; who was going to look at whom; what this meant, and who had done what before. And then we tried to capture that — and not overdo it. Because in those kinds of scenes when you have that many people, and you are trying to get individual shots of each one, if you do 10 or 15 takes of each person, by the time you come around to the last couple of people, you have already done it 150 times, and you lose the spontaneity. So most of those shots were the first or second take for each one of them.

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