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Directors on Their Teams: John Wells on ‘August: Osage County’

John Wells said that filming “August: Osage County” was a wonderful experience, which is not to say it was easy. “This kind of material requires a lot of focus and hard work from the actors every day. One of the jobs of the director is to make certain it’s an atmosphere where they can do their best, where it’s not chaotic, so they can focus because everybody around them is focused. I take that responsibility seriously.” Here, he talks about his work with writer Tracy Letts and the below-the-line team.

Cinematography: Adriano Goldman

I had admired Adriano’s work, particularly “Jane Eyre” and “Sin Nombre.” He insisted we shoot on film and widescreen, and he gave it this big sense of the house and the people lost against this immense horizon. The quality of the light is very intense (in that part of Oklahoma) and we were trying to convey the intensity of the light, where it’s hot and overwhelming, while inside it’s dark and cavernous, and where those characters played by Meryl Streep and Sam Shepherd have been hidden all these years. The extraordinary difference between inside and outside, and the actors would be sometimes shooting interiors weeks after the exterior, which would create all kinds of challenges for the cinematographer but he did a wonderful job of balancing that.

Production Design: David Gropman

The house is one of the characters in the piece and that’s the work of David and his team. He and his art director Karen (Gropman) and his set decorator Nancy Haigh, we spent a lot of time looking for the right house. We found this house that was built in the late teens; it was a $600 Sears & Roebuck house — and we just bought it. That was easier to buy it and the 50 acres around it than to try to arrange a rental. David and his team redid the interiors, the bathroom and kitchen which had been modernized, and they took out some walls, then they added wallpaper, molding and all these other wonderful things they found in swap meets and antique stores in central Oklahoma. In old photos there were trees in the front yard but those were gone because of disease. So David picked out a beautiful tree in the back part of the property and we hired a company from Texas and they came in with a 200-ton crane and moved it into the front. I believe the house is now available if anyone wants to purchase it (laughs).

Editing: Stephen Mirrione

He was central to the success of the film, bringing out the humor of the piece and giving the film its scope and scale. He was able to take 22 pages of a dinner scene and pull it all together in the extraordinary rhythm. It’s 19 minutes on screen. That was the biggest challenge, no question, but also very rewarding. When something is difficult and you can’t get it right, it’s frustrating. But when it all comes together, you’re delighted that all the effort is worthwhile. And that was one of those sequences.

Script: Tracy Letts

We worked on it over a period of 18 months. It was fun but tough. We talked, argued and discussed every line in the script: What do you need in the film that is different from your needs onstage. That was pre-production and then during production, all the actors had copies of the play in Samuel French and they highlighted their favorite lines that they wanted back in. And then during the editing process, again, it was ‘What do we need, what have we already established?’ Tracy defends his work, but he really listens to what others have to say and he really cares about other people’s opinions.

Producers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Jean Doumanian, Steve Traxler, Harvey Weinstein

Jean and Steve were there the entire time, George and Grant were there at least 80% of the time. They rented a house in Bartlesville — there was a Bartlesville blog with regular George sightings. And Harvey’s process is very involved in preproduction like cast and script, and post-production.

Music: Gustavo Santaolalla

He understood the material from the beginning. There’s not much music; it’s spare, like the environment in which it’s set. But the music that’s there is beautiful, evocative and emotional, and that’s a testament to his work.

Directors on Their Teams runs Monday through Friday. On Thursday: “Captain Phillips” director Paul Greengrass.

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