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An august assemblage of film talent

Ruthe Stei, Houston Chronicle
Updated 6:43 pm, Monday, January 6, 2014
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  • John Wells directs Meryl Streep in a scene from the Tracy Letts drama.
  • A dysfunctional family - played by, from left, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette...
  • MERYL STREEP and ABIGAIL BRESLIN star in AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

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By the time John Wells graduated from the prestigious drama department at Carnegie Mellon, all he could think about was running a repertory company. He was besotted with the classics and imagined mounting Shakespeare or Brecht as a way of life.

It was his particular desire to work at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, where fellow Carnegie alum Bill Ball was doing exactly what Wells dreamed of and becoming nationally known for it.

"If I had gotten a job at ACT, I never would have ended up doing anything else," Wells says.

This is a remarkable statement considering the résumé he has built over the years. For starters, Wells was the producing brains behind "ER" (where he made the call to cast George Clooney), "Third Watch" and "The West Wing." He often wrote and directed episodes of his shows and is especially identified with "China Beach" and "Southland."

So it's not surprising that, when Wells turned to making movies, he would draw top actors, many of whom he met on their way up. "The Company Men," the first feature film he directed, stars Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones.

Now Wells is back with a starry cast - including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sam Shepard, Juliette Lewis and Cooper - for Tracy Letts' screen adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play "August: Osage County." Oklahoma native Letts, who based the play on his family, is an actor as well as a writer, with a recurring role on "Homeland" as the smarmy senator set to take over the CIA.

Wells, 56, says he worked on the script with Letts for a year and a half. "I spent a lot of time with him. We talked. It was extremely useful to me to get a sense of the genesis of the project."

If the family in the movie really is like Letts', he deserves credit for turning out so well. The family matriarch, played by Streep, defines dysfunction with her mood swings and addictions to prescription drugs. A family tragedy brings her three daughters home. They are hardly paragons of mental health. To illustrate the point, one is having a romance with her first cousin.

Wells made the movie in the same part of Oklahoma where Letts lived. It turned out to be cheaper to buy a house than build a set, so most of the movie takes place in a home sitting on 50 acres to make palpable the isolation hinted at in Letts' script.

"We took over a section of a cow pasture," Wells says. "We had to put up a new fence; on the other side the cows were mooing and staring at us."

What became of the house? "I think Harvey still owns it," Wells says, referring to distributor Harvey Weinstein.

Wells had multiple conversations with Letts about how to turn his storied play into a convincing movie. There were, for instance, the times the play only described for playgoers something that movie audiences will actually see. The "other huge difference" between the movie and play, Wells says, is "we are going to have close-ups."

"The best example is the dinner scene. In the film, it plays very different than it did onstage, not because the dialogue is different but because it was staged for you being quite a bit away from it. Whereas we are literally inside the table watching the way things play out," he says.

Everybody on set could relate to some aspect of the story. One of the drivers hired for the movie told them about his grandmother, who had a drug problem. For Wells, it was "the sense of competition between siblings, and what your parents are leaving you with."

"There is something that Tracy tapped into, this notion of the Great American Family, the Great American Dream, the Greatest Generation. The idea of who we are as a nation and who we are as individuals in a family, I think, is very resonant," Wells says.

His illustrious cast was assembled through contacts. Wells shares an agent with Streep, and Roberts is an old friend of his pal Clooney. In a bit of serendipity, "Dermot Mulroney lives across the street from me," Wells says.

"I got together with Julia and talked about the part (as one of Streep's daughters) and how difficult it was going to be and different from the parts she had normally played." Roberts not only signed on, but also agreed to put on weight for the role (somewhere between 10 and 15 pounds, it seems) and go without makeup.

"It is a very brave performance," Wells says.

Streep is known for setting an example of professionalism on a movie set, and she did not disappoint.

"She works harder than anybody I have ever worked with," Wells says. "You've got to be on your game for Meryl."

"August" even has a starry producer: Clooney. He and his producer partner, Grant Heslov, had tried to purchase the rights to the movie but lost out to Weinstein. When Wells was just starting work on "August," Weinstein suggested he ask Clooney to come aboard.

Clooney was a hands-on producer who would often fly into rural Oklahoma and try to solve day-to-day problems.

"You know, like transportation problems, or we had water problems," Wells says.

Good to know in case you ever need a handyman.

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