How A Pulitzer Prize Winner Cut Down His Masterpiece And Kept His Soul Intact
Tracy Letts had to make some massive changes to adapt his Tony-winning August: Osage County into a film, starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. And it wasn't easy.
Tracy Letts indulged himself a bit when he began writing the first draft of what became the Pulitzer Prize-winning black comedy August: Osage County, ignoring the typical dramatist's inclination to "get in, say what the scene is about, and get the hell out." He wanted to see what three generations of quick-witted, hot-headed, and miserably profound characters reuniting under tragic circumstances might say to each other if granted the platform to narrate their own crises.
The result was 200 pages of heartland psychodrama, three hours of incredible ensemble tragicomedy, and the inevitable challenge of having to cut out a third of his own masterpiece for the subsequent film adaptation. It was a thankless task that was guaranteed to upset August purists who would take ledger of every single little change to the original work. As Letts' posture — and the deep sigh that preceded his discussion with BuzzFeed — suggested, talking about the script overhaul, and justifying his authorial decisions, might actually be even more of a pain.
"Fuck yes, I'm tired!" he bellowed at the outset of the conversation, before laughing about the exhausting gauntlet of professional discussion that is the dark side of being involved with a movie that's a so-called "awards contender."
The wryly bitter — and very honest — exclamation could have come right out of August, which centers on a fractured family that reunites in Oklahoma upon the suicide of its patriarch. It won Letts — a veteran actor and playwright who also wrote the movie adaptations of his plays Killer Joe and Bug — the Pulitzer in 2008. Once it transferred from Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theater to Broadway that same year, it won five Tony Awards, including Best Play. In New York, August was produced in part by The Weinstein Company, which meant, Letts joked, "They kind of had their hooks in it from the beginning" when it came to movie adaptation rights.
As his first task, Letts worked closely with August director John Wells (of TV's E.R. and Shameless) to simplify the script. They began by cutting expository speech in places where the camera, trained on stars like Meryl Streep (as Violet, the pill-inhaling matriarch) and Julia Roberts (Barbara, the eldest of Violet's three distraught daughters), could relay information more naturally.
Letts tried to maintain a positive approach to the entire enterprise. "From the outset, we didn't talk about it in terms of the material we were going to lose," he said. "John and I were working together to try and figure out a visual language ... There are moments in the play where people are telling things that have happened, and we could simply show them in the film."
Playwrights are quite conscious about minimizing, whenever possible, the number of settings in which their stories unfold; one of Letts' many accomplishments with the original stage script was confining the action to a single set of Violet's dusty house while maintaining the energy of the characters' crackling dialogue. Somehow, he was able to convincingly stage multiple meltdowns — over a father's death, a mother's drug addiction, an impending divorce, and several foundation-rocking secrets — all under one roof.
That triumph would seem more claustrophobic on screen, so some scenes were shifted slightly to other parts the house. Letts and Wells also decided to expand to several other locations. In some cases, they had no choice.
"Some were practical considerations. They shot in a real house, and they didn't have room in the kitchen to do some of the fight stuff and get all of the characters in the kitchen that they needed to," he said, referring to the fallout of a late-night reefer session between Steve (Dermot Mulroney) and his fiancée's teenage niece, Jean (Abigail Breslin).
The spliff break devolves into fisticuffs with the housekeeper Johnna (Misty Upham), and the ruckus draws in Steve's bride-to-be Karen (Juliette Lewis), as well as Jean's parents, Barbara and Bill (Ewan McGregor). As a result, Wells shifted the confrontation to the outdoor porch; Letts was fine with the decision, which he learned about via phone while in New York performing in the Broadway revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
"There were other things though that I chose to set outside," Letts added. "For instance, [Violet's] trip to the doctor's office. That had originally been part of the play and I cut it myself. And then, [I added] the drive back from the doctor's office, a scene where Violet and Barbara are outside. That was a scene that I was really pleased with because it was a cinematic way of elucidating some of the same themes from the play."
Dipping back into his story also allowed Letts to address several regrets and the sort of deficiencies that only a work's original creator could spot. But not all of the edits he made were logistical or positive invention; there were "painful decisions" along the way, darlings killed and battles lost. Long conversations were trimmed, monologues halted, and confrontations erased.
Of the scenes from the play that were particularly hard to part with for the movie, Letts singled out a conversation between Jean and Johnna. "It's a great scene, and we shot it, but it was not used in the film because of some pacing issues," he said. "But I hated to lose it. I think it said a lot about both of those characters."
That said — outside of a short observation by Barbara midway through the play that brought the story's political undertones (the family, like America, is crumbling) briefly to the fore — the excisions made for the film were ultimately surgical, hardly altering the original piece's distinct characters or fiery repartee. But, a single scene added for the movie that followed the original ending of the play, has caused much conversation since the film debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
The new scene clarifies any potentially lingering doubts about just who is the most central character of August, and leaves the audience feeling slightly more hopeful.
Speculation that Letts was forced to add the new final scene in order to leave a better taste in the viewers' — and especially Oscar voters' — mouths is entirely off base, he promised. And any rumors out of Toronto that he was going to remove the new final scene was misguided; there were a few tweaks to the scene's timing and music following the TIFF premiere, he said, but this ending was never in danger of removal.
"The story ends with the daughters leaving and the mother alone in the house with the housekeeper," Letts asserted. "That's how the play ends. That's how the movie ends. I made a decision as a screenwriter, and this is before John even came on, that I was going to focus more on Barbara as the protagonist. I had to make some decisions about things to come into the foreground.
"For instance, in the play, Barbara doesn't make her first appearance until about 30–35 minutes in, which is late for a protagonist to enter the piece," he continued. "And I thought, in the film, I simply couldn't do that. I had to get her into the proceedings earlier and track her a little more closely throughout, including right up through the ending."
Letts will likely provide this explanation quite frequently over the next few months as awards season heats up; he will soon embark for the first time on the process of glad-handing and plastic smiles that is required of someone campaigning for an Oscar. While he plans on someday writing an original story directly for the screen, if nominated for August, Letts will be in the running for Best Adapted Screenplay, even if he wrote the original work on which his movie script was based.
"I've been through the Tony Awards a couple of times; I've gone through some of this. But the Academy Awards, people get so worked up about it. They just get feverish about the Academy Awards," Letts remarked before using The Fifth Estate as an example of the problem with awards season.
"It's an interesting subject matter, and it didn't do anything about the box office," he reflected on the film. "The reaction at Toronto [where The Fifth Estate also debuted] was almost kind of like, This isn't gonna do anything at awards season, so forget about it.
"Maybe they'd be better off releasing more thoughtful adult films over the course of the year instead of trying to cram them all into the end of the year and see what makes it into the horse race."
Of course, he added with a wry smile, "I hope we win every goddamn award there is. I hope we win everything that's out there."