August: Osage County
Julianne Nicholson, Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in the somber "August: Osage County." The Weinstein Company

At the recent New York press junket for “August: Osage County,” a slickly and uncomfortably dark awards-season drama disguised as a run-of-the-mill family comedy, eleven members from the cast and crew of the film assembled to discuss making a widescreen, mass-distributed reality out of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer-winning play. Perhaps because of the darkness of the story, the panel of players seemed devoted to maintaining a sense of light frivolity throughout the question-and-answer session that morning. But in spite of their efforts to keep the mood positive while talking about the bleak portrayal of American family life in “August," there was an underlying sense of disappointment about the proceedings.

It’s not surprising: the early reviews of the film’s festival release ran the gamut of mediocrity from lukewarm to tepid. Individual achievements were appreciated by that first round of critics on a case-by-case basis, but it seemed that none of them enjoyed the gestalt of so many bright, isolated dazzles. Those reviews established the primacy and potency of the Broadway production of August as the true version, with the film living in the shadow of the play’s hype and acclaim.

As such, it appeared as though all the artists involved with August-The-Film were extra prudent in their responses to the press’ questions. None used the opportunity to relish the chance to talk, really talk, about craft -- especially given that the existence of a theatrical text often serves to validate the artistic endeavors of the Hollywood actor. The legendary Meryl Streep, who helped facilitate the panel’s conversation as welcome mix of quarterback and umpire, came the closest when she spoke of her approach to embodying the venom of Violet Weston’s cruel matriarchy.

“[Director John Wells] and I emailed before in preparation,” began Streep, “and one of the big things that interested me was where Violet was at any given point in the cycle of pain and pain relief. [Because the movie wasn’t shot chronologically], where she was in her pain in any given scene was important to me, and what level of attention or inattention I would give to it. As an actor, you’re supposed to want to do pain, but it’s no fun. And because of that, I resisted this initially. On so many levels -- physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally -- it’s exhausting.”

But not every actor was psychically daunted by her preparation for the film. Perennial favorite Julia Roberts, (in a role that hopefully, finally allows her to shed her good-girl typecasting via a dirtying of the nails and soul), appreciated the intimacy provided by the company’s sequestration in joint townhouses surrounded by the rolling plains of Oklahoma. “We spent a lot of time getting to know each other, and we didn’t know each other at all [in pre-production], but by the time we began filming, I felt everyone was very familiar [with one another].” Margo Martindale, an incredible and often overlooked actor whose impressive work here and on “The Americans” could make her a household name by the end of 2014, echoed and deepened Ms. Roberts’ sentiment: “We became a family together, lived together, cooked together, watched TV together, and worried about Hurricane Sandy together.”

But now that the film enjoys a wide release and all the pantheon’s finest critics’ reactions to it are in circulation, the big question concerning the process of adaptation seemed the most relevant to journalistic purposes at the junket. Speaking to that, the moderator asked, “How did you adapt the play—how did you choose which scenes to keep, which pieces of dialogue to keep, and overall what were the conversations you were having about what stays and what goes?” Given the recent, more critical reviews of the film version of “August,” which all wonder with the a uniform bewilderment how a film could stray so far from its source material in terms of its quality, it’s a more apt question than ever.

Director John Welles responded “We try to get a general conversation about how we tell the story, where we’ll take the story, without losing the things that made August: Osage County, well, August: Osage County to begin with. So we try to find a visual language, a visual flow, a dynamism, and then eventually you get to where you’re doing some painful cutting, losing material that I was loathe to lose.”

One wonders if the gardening-shears method of adaptation, an approach that underestimates the attention span of the movie-going audience that playwrights are often want to do when writing for cinema, was the correct mode of operations. It would’ve been wonderful to see Welles’ efficient, economic direction paired with a bloated screenplay. But as it happens, the filmed melodrama we’ve been presented with is a fine skeleton, even if the theatrical body is much finer.

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