SCRIPT GODS MUST DIE: ‘August: Osage County’

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New York Yankee fans will confirm this objective truth: Money doesn’t always buy championships.

As ESPN noted: “During the past 25 years, they (Yankees) have led the league in payroll 17 times; before this season, they’d won the World Series exactly four times during that stretch. They’ve led the league in payroll each season since 1999 and won the World Series three times.”

Ultimate victory with the best team money can buy is a hit and miss affair in baseball.

It’s hit and miss for movies, too.

August-Osage-County-PosterAugust, Osage County. Full disclaimer: I never saw the 2007 Steppenwolf production on Broadway. This production had the original Chicago cast and went on to 648 performances, garnering seven Tony nominations, and winning five of them. Tracy Letts won a Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play.

Oh, and lest I forget, he also picked up that little prize known as a Pulitzer. I understand he hasn’t met the Pope yet, so his victory can’t quite be considered complete.

One of the core differences between writing plays and screenplays, something that dogs works of art even at the highest levels of achievement, is this: How does one, on film, recreate the intimacy of the theatrical experience, while expanding out the cinematic experience expected by a movie audience? It’s a Catch-22, a jumbo shrimp of the arty kind.

Talking of actor “chemistry” is nebulous, but you can bet the rent that even before Broadway performance ONE, the Steppenwolf crew were nailing this play in Chicago. As the New Yorker wrote: “Actors love Letts’ plays because he writes for them. Part of what made the theatrical experience of “August” so potent was the feeling that the Steppenwolf actors, under the direction of Anna D. Shapiro, had developed a sixth sense for each other, the kind that usually exists only among relatives. The individual performances—Deanna Dunagan’s vampiric Violet, Amy Morton’s bone-weary Barbara, and Rondi Reed’s bullying Mattie Fae—had a nearly genetic symbiosis. The production was more than the sum of its star turns.”

august: osage countyThus, my point about the Yankees. Bringing in the A-team — Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Sam Shepard – might sound like a can’t miss, but it doesn’t always work that way. The play opened on June 28, 2007 in Chicago and closed the same date two years later in New York. Two years! I’m guessing by the end, the theater actors were living in the skin of those characters.

Now compare that to the movie stars… Principal photography was from October 16 and December 8, 2012, a grand total of seven weeks. And you managed to get Streep, Robert, Cooper and the others into rehearsal for how long? The two experiences hardly even compare.

august-osage-countyThe actor factor is just one element to the transition of August, Osage Country—from Pulitzer Prize winning play to a—just being honest here—a mixed-bag movie. Yeah, the two Oscar nominations for Best Actress (Streep) and Best Supporting Actress (Roberts) were absolutely earned. So how do you account for the 64% Rotten Tomatoes rating? Or the New York Times pan. Or the solid but unspectacular 37 Mil box office gross (as of March 21, 2014) vs. the 25 Mil production budget?

Again, the New Yorker article might have hit a nerve: “The bigger challenge in bringing “August” to film is its scale. Countless works that thrive from compression onstage become claustrophobic onscreen (compare “Doubt” and “God of Carnage”), even when directors try to aerate them with exterior scenes. Wells (and Letts, who wrote the screenplay) inserted a few—notably, Roberts chasing Streep through an open field—but the film never weds the action to the Oklahoma landscape.”

It’s not enough just to “expand out,” to write in characters running through an Oklahoma field.  What’s the playwright got to do to make the thing cinematic? Sure, putting Meryl Streep in the lead role helps. She’s always a lock for the Oscar nomination, but you might lose the essence of what made the play great—the not knowing what will happen on the stage, live, every night.

Great theater actors are part acrobat – part Anarchist. They can be savants and saviors and shaman one night – fabulous disasters another. That’s the beauty of theater – you never know what will happen. Theater actors aren’t digital or celluloid images flickering on a 30 foot screen. They’re laughing and sweating and crying about twenty feet from you, in the here and now present moment. There’s audience connectivity like no 3D glasses could ever achieve. Leave Chicago’s Second City improvisational tradition out of it (where the crowd is part of the show itself), actors flat-out know within ten minutes if a crowd is into it or not. Are they getting the gags? Are they locked into the drama? The playwright can sit and watch it happen new every night, never sure what he’s about to see. Actors off, audience off? Actors on, audience off? Actors and audience on? There’s very little you can do as playwright after the writing of it, other than turn the play over to people you would trust with your life to interpret the thing.

Screen-Shot-2013-11-14-at-15.32.55-502x330Back to August, Osage County and Pulitzer-winning Tracy Letts. How is something lost in translation to screen? Sometimes it can be simple misinterpretation of tone. As a screenwriter, you’re aware before starting a script what genre you’re writing—drama, comedy, action, thriller, etc. Even the sub-genre should be clear: Is it black or broad comedy? The Hangover or Grand Budapest Hotel? Recall the scene in Hangover 2 with the monkey jerking off the Coke bottle. Character responds: “Monkey jerking off Coke bottle—funny in all languages.” Yeah, you know it. And I know Bad Teacher and Horrible Bosses are one movie, while the Coen Brothers, Wes Anderson, and David Lynch are making something else. Those directors bring the black comedy. And it was elements of black comedy that August, Osage Country, the film, was supposed to have.

Again—just personal opinion here – the movie was a root canal. Famous actor upon famous actor one-upping each other, raising the decibel and insanity levels non-stop. A playwright should be in touch with the concept of tension and release.  When one scene after another features actors coming into the room screaming—where the hell you gonna go from there? Shit, even The Terminator got that after a ten-minute action sequence with killer futuristic machines causing millions of dollars of wreckage… Your characters gotta gotta gotta crawl off into some quiet space.  For five or ten minutes, to recoup their energy, to let the audience catch its breath. With August, Osage it’s suicide, drug addiction, incest, one atop another. Two hours of it? I asked why the hell I was putting myself through this.

Interesting though, the take on it from SFGATE “August: Osage County” was a three-hour play that felt like two hours. It has been made into a two-hour movie that feels like a month.”

The review points to the obvious weeks of previews the Broadway actors had vs. the limited rehearsal of the film actors. More importantly, he points out that it might just be the director’s interpretation that was lacking. “The problem was that director John Wells did not understand the play, or at the very least, he did not make his actors understand the play, even at its most basic level. Here’s one little example: The actors onscreen are under the impression that they’re in a straight drama, and they’re not. They’re in a very dark comedy.”

Should your play have the same legs as August, Osage County, you’ll probably have a better than average shot at writing the screenplay. Understand though, that while stagecraft is collaborative, it doesn’t hold a candle to film. The power dynamic moves to the producer and the director. There are so many choices you will never have little to no say over. This goes back to you taking care of business after the damn thing is written in terms of picking your collaborators well. It’s something I’ve written about concerning my own play, A Fire Was Burning Over The Dumpling House One Chinese New Year, which also got turned into the movie, Jane Doe.

Study stage-to-screen adaptations and the process of making them. It’s an education no film school can provide.

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