Tracy Letts has been known to get excited when honing and honing and honing his work “to make what I’m working on the very piece.” When things didn’t necessarily please him, there are rumors that he screamed, called people names, and wrote exhaustively long e-mails. In writing the screenplay for his Pulitzer Prize, Joseph Jefferson-, Tony-, and Drama Desk Award winning August: Osage County,which played Broadway in December 2007 for 18 months after premiering in his Chicago hometown’s Steppenwolf, he was probably just as vocal, but to himself.

Now, Letts has added a bit of a calming experience into his life. He recently married his Steppenwolf colleague Tony-nominated Carrie Coon (Honey in Steppenwolf’s recent revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.) Letts had been shooting the recurring role of Senator Andrew Lockhart for TV’s “Homeland,” neglecting his health and a marriage date. He was rushed to the ER and had gall bladder surgery. Coon saw an opportunity to keep him in one place long enough; they were married in the hospital.

Letts previously adapted his Bug and Killer Joe for the screen, but he struggled and faced challenges in cutting cut the three-hour play [that’s minus the two intermissions] to a two-hour-and-10-minute film. “When books and plays are made into movies,” he notes, “they frequently want to cut out the valleys and just show the peaks. I knew it would be complicated because I wanted to keep the valleys. They’re important because they make the peaks stand out.
“It was a tricky balance,” he continues. “Unfortunately, in a film, you tend to concentrate on the central conflict so you concentrate on the lead characters. Some that are away from the center lose a little. You also lose some depth, which I’m loathe to do.”

However, being pragmatic about his craft, he knew, first and foremost, he had to create something cinematic— to tell his deeply personal story visually. It’s deeply personal because it’s actually about his family. “Especially in a piece like August: Osage County, which I worked on for over three years before the first production and continued to hone and rewrite right up until the Broadway opening, I had to tear up the floorboards and go after it.”

He created a startling opening that telegraphs to moviegoers what’s to follow, condensed and trimmed dialogue, and deleted some elements from Acts One and Three that weren’t urgently connected to the central story. “It was important to preserve the things about the play that audiences embraced. It came down to focus. I only lost a little.”

He explains he told director John Wells, known as producer of major TV series such as “ER” and “The West Wing,” episodes of which he directed, that his job was to help him make the best movie he could make. “In theater, the playwright’s the boss, period. The decisions go through him or her. In movies, the writer is pretty far down on the list.”

Letts doesn’t feel writers are useful on a movie set. “It’s a mixed bag. I would have loved to have been there for the camaraderie, and for John to have someone to bounce ideas off. But there wasn’t a lot I could’ve done. I didn’t stick around because I might have worried about stuff that didn’t need worrying over. I might have intimidated some on the set. And, anyway, I had to head to New York to begin rehearsals for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

”The nature of the beast,” he goes on, “is that film’s a director’s medium. It’s not a Tracy Letts play, it’s a John Wells film. August: Osage County, as a play, is done. Written. On the shelf. It’ll be performed in its entirety for years.” Wells, directing only his second feature, told Letts, “If I screw this up, I’m the one they’ll be pointing fingers at.”

Letts said he’d signed off, and wasn’t worried. He’s happy with the final product. “It’s very recognizable. I’m proud of it. John’s approach is invisible. He’s not showy. You’re not aware of what’s been moved from inside to outside. John chose a terrific bunch. There’s not a false note among them. Sometimes, part of being a good director is not only knowing what to say, but knowing what not to say and just staying out of the way of the actors. Let them do their work.”

Letts is pleased the cast is up for a couple of ensemble nominations. “I live in Chicago. One of the reasons is that I love Steppenwolf’s ensemble tradition. An ensemble award is rewarding to everybody. There’ll be individuals in the film who won’t get the recognition they deserve from the Academy or Golden Globes.”

Early on, Letts told Wells not to lose the play’s underlying humor. “The material’s so dark and deals with such serious themes, that if the humor was lost, we’d lose people 15 minutes into the movie. The story is so raw, the humor’s a relief. Sometimes we just have to stop and laugh at life.” Letts states he sees the humor as “kind of the secret of the success of August: Osage County. If we’re laughing, we’re listening. I’ve see that over hundreds of performances. It’s the key to keeping audiences inside the piece.”

Letts’ screenplay opens the play to exterior scenes. “The thing’s called “August: Osage County,” so to be able to show those landscapes, something you can’t do in theater, was evocative and even helps tell the story.”

“You don’t want the camera to sit in one room for the whole movie,” he adds, “but by the same token, I don’t believe moviegoers don’t have patience. Screenwriters are told a scene can’t be longer than three minutes, that you have to cut to the chase. Not true! I like it when actors get an opportunity to chew into something. They love scenes with beginnings, middles, and ends – scenes that give an arc to their characters and allow audiences to get to know these people.”

Letts, especially with August: Osage County, was getting comparisons to Edward Albee, something he doesn’t mind. “Who isn’t an Edward Albee fan? Everybody’s influenced by Mr. Albee, not just playwrights. He’s a part of our cultural history. So much of our sense of humor, our sense of irony, comes from him. He’s had a profound effect in so many ways."

Letts, who will return to Broadway in early 2014 in Will Eno’s dark comedy, The Realistic Joneses, explains that his role of George in the Virginia Woolf revival “was a seminal experience in my life. I can’t imagine I’ll do work that’s harder or more important to me. I was thrilled to be a part of it. It was deeply moving. And I was completely shocked getting a Tony. I was up against some stout company. That was another thrilling moment in my life.”

Key Subjects: 
Tracy Letts, August: Osage County, John Wells
Ellis Nassour
December 2013
Secondary Subjects: 
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Edward Albee.