News Column

'August: Osage County' director talks about making filming in Oklahoma a priority

December 6, 2013


Dec. 06--Tracy Letts was born in Tulsa. His prize-winning play, "August: Osage County," is about Oklahomans. But in turning that stage work into a motion picture, the fact is that it didn't have to be filmed in Oklahoma.

We now know that the movie was shot in Osage County, and a dozen stars including Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts came to Oklahoma for two months, and that is thanks to director John Wells, who made a decision: "August: Osage County" must be shot in Oklahoma.

"I'm not often put in a position to do this, but in this case it was my choice," said Wells, the creator of TV show staples "ER" and "The West Wing." He connected with Letts' stage play on such a deep level that he was convinced he needed to make a movie about the dysfunctional Weston family of Osage County.

"I thought it was important that we be there in Oklahoma. I'm from Colorado myself, and I was very conscious about the misconception of what the middle of the country is like for people who live on both of the coasts, and I thought it was important for both the cast and crew to see it, and to feel it, because Oklahoma doesn't look like anything else and the people there come from a place that's had to endure and come through some things."

Filming in rural Osage County, Pawhuska, Bartlesville and Barnsdall guaranteed that "when we put it on screen, it didn't look like another state. It didn't look like Atlanta (Georgia was a shooting option for the film). I thought that the landscape and the language were so intrinsically important."

Wells was able to make the call to shoot in Oklahoma, but only after another decision had already been made. The bottom-line is that "August: Osage County" did not have to be filmed in Letts' home state, and Hollywood is a "bottom-line" business.

"The film wouldn't have been made here without the (Oklahoma Film Enhancement Rebate) and the film office and Jill Simpson and her people," Wells said of the rebate -- which offers up to 37 percent on Oklahoma expenditures to companies filming in the state -- and of the determination of Simpson, the director of the state's Film & Music Office.

When making an independent film -- even one as star-studded as this one, shot on a $30 million-plus budget with Oscar winners and nominees including producer George Clooney, Chris Cooper and Abigail Breslin -- the production team is always looking for incentives.

A film incentive was a mandate for the studio producing the film, Wells said.

"Without the incentives, we don't come here," he said. "That was the Weinstein Company edict: We shoot somewhere that we'll receive an incentive of some kind. Despite the major cast, this was not a major-budget movie, so that was important to the studio.

"It's about like a state trying to attract a Ford parts factory, and there are other states competing for those jobs. In this case, we balanced the incentives with my desire to come here. But without the incentives, we don't come here."

Wells repeated a common refrain he heard from people in Hollywood: "You'll never shoot in Oklahoma."

"I can tell you that Jill Simpson and the people of Oklahoma basically wouldn't let me leave the state. They got a helicopter to fly around to locations, and that really helped. Then we found the house (a large, 100-year-old home in north Osage County where most of filming took place), and I had really wanted to find a house and have the people feel it, and to not build sets, but really feel it from a historical sense.

"That kind of detail was important to this film, and to the people in the film and to the people watching the film. Things like that made it helpful for the actors. I thought it was important to not walk off a set into Burbank, Calif., but into a prairie."

When Wells had the opportunity last month to return to Oklahoma for a premiere screening not only for Oklahomans who worked on the film, but also for legislators who have an opportunity to renew the Oklahoma Film Enhancement Rebate in the upcoming session, the director jumped at the chance.

"When they told me, my first thought was 'Great!' because I look forward to seeing people who made it possible to make our film, and to come back and thank them for making a difference. We loved it here. We had a great time making a movie in Oklahoma."

Michael Smith 918-581-8479

Wide release on Dec. 25

"August: Osage County" will open in theaters on Christmas Day, and apparently nationwide, a representative for The Weinstein Company confirmed this week.

The film has previously been listed as opening on Dec. 25, but not in a wide-release fashion. Many pundits saw the film opening that day in a limited release before expanding, which could have seen Oklahoma theaters receiving the picture for release a couple of weeks after New York and Los Angeles audiences had seen the movie.

Now the Oklahoma-shot film will be a Christmas gift for state audiences.

"August: Osage County" will open against another drama also pegged for awards-season buzz in Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street." Other films opening on Christmas Day -- but from very different genres -- include martial-arts action movie "47 Ronin," the Ben Stiller comedy "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," the Justin Bieber documentary "Believe" and the sports comedy "Grudge Match."


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