You know you’re dealing with an assertive artist when he’s the one who starts the interview. Before I even sit down to speak with Tracy Letts, the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning actor-playwright known for conceiving and adapting works like Bug and Killer Joe, he’s already grilling me about Slant’s not-so-ecstatic recaps of Homeland, a series on which Letts starred this season as the shady Senator Andrew Lockhart. Apparently, Letts doesn’t miss a bit of press that’s linked to his work, nor does he blindly speak to outlets without doing a little digging. Though always perfectly respectful, Letts is direct, and forthcoming, which should really be no surprise given the uninhibited stories he’s put his name to.
Having penned the screenplays for Bug and Killer Joe, two indelible bits of mind-fuckery that teamed the author with William Friedkin, Letts is now unleashing his adaptation of his most personal piece, August: Osage County, the film version of which marks a partnership with director John Wells—not to mention a monumental cast. Though a far cry from the Friedkin collaborations, August: Osage County is similarly no-holds-barred, dropping the viewer amid a venom-spitting brood inspired by Letts’s own family.
A sensation when it stormed Broadway in 2007, the story of August: Osage County takes place in Letts’s home state of Oklahoma, and it’s infused not just with the drama of dysfunction, but a Midwestern history with which he’s all too familiar. The man behind the narrative that’s now led to heavy awards buzz (particularly for leading ladies Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts), Letts discussed the story’s Native American themes, his opinion that his own mother, Billie Letts, is “a goddamned liar,” and, more than anything, the limits of control. That is, of course, after addressing those recaps.
Don’t we continually get bad reviews on Slant from the guy who writes the episode recaps for Homeland?
You might! One of our writers does recap the show on our blog. But, to be perfectly honest, I haven’t read those pieces, because I’m behind on this season of Homeland and I’m avoiding spoilers.
Yeah, well, I’ve read them. I read it all. I’m shameless. I read everything.
Oh yeah? Well, I do know that we at the site are fans of movies based on your work, like Bug and Killer Joe. Slant really digs Killer Joe.
Great. Glad to hear it.
Speaking of which, since Bug, Killer Joe, and August: Osage County are so different, I’ve been trying to think of how they connect thematically, and what I’ve come up with is this element of control—people trying to control their worlds via their bodies, shady deals, self-medication, even family. Is the issue of control something you consciously try to explore?
Oh man, that’s such a good question, and I haven’t had that question before, because I haven’t really had anyone pay that much attention to the works in total. I don’t know. Perhaps I just think it’s the stuff of drama, but perhaps it’s something from my own life as well. I mean, I’ve been sober for over 20 years, and I’m a subscriber of AA and its philosophies. So there probably is something in there about my belief that a certain giving up of control is good for the soul. I certainly think that, in August: Osage County, that moment in the play when Barbara insists she’s “running things now” was always a choice moment for the audience, and it’s in the film as well. And I think it taps into something that people feel, particularly in regard to their families: “Oh my god, if you would just do what I want you to do we’d be so much better off. If you’d just behave the way I feel you should behave.” As opposed to allowing people to make their own choices, for good or ill.
In what ways do you think you try, perhaps, to exert too much control in your own life?
I don’t know. I hope I don’t. Or I hope I’m somewhat vigilant about not trying to do that. When I was a young man, I used to get really angry. There’s a lot of anger in young men, or there was in me, certainly. And it was probably about that very thing: If you feel like you’re in control of everything, and then things aren’t going well, you feel like you’re failing. But I guess I don’t struggle with that so much anymore, because I don’t get angry nearly as often. But I probably still am guilty of it, and there are probably still some things I have to stay vigilant about. What those things are…I don’t know.
The issue of control brings directors to mind. Why not direct any of the film adaptations of your work yourself? Have you ever considered doing that?
No. First of all, I can’t remember what Bug cost—maybe $7 million? And Killer Joe was $10 million?—but I don’t think anyone would have given me $7 million or $10 million to make those movies. Or $30 million, in the case of August: Osage County. And I don’t really consider myself a filmmaker. I’ve just written these adaptations of my own work. You know, I met with Warren Beatty right after August opened on Broadway. We had a lovely meeting and he sort of suggested that I be the producer of August: Osage County, because the only way I’d see it done the way I really wanted it done was if I exerted control over the production. And I said to him, “Mr. Beatty, I’m not a filmmaker.” If I spent 10 years dragging that ship over the mountain, and trying to get August made exactly the way I want it made, it might end up being the film I would want to see. But my focus is primarily on the theater. I don’t want to spend 10 years of my life and career dragging that ship. That’s not the hill I choose to die on.
Well, what are some of the biggest concerns when seeing your work translated to the screen? Because I read that, at various points, you weren’t thrilled with some of the things that were happening with the August: Osage County production.
Well, I always liked the idea that movies can get to places that plays can’t. Growing up in a small town myself, I didn’t have access to great theater. A lot of my access to those things came through the movies. And I think that’s true for a lot of people. So I always wanted to see a film made, but I’m aware that a film is different than a play, and that a film isn’t going to be the filmed record of the play. It’s its own separate entity, and I’ve come to peace with that. During the process of making it, I’ll fight like hell for the things I think are going to make the movie better. But while Killer Joe and Bug and August: Osage County are all Tracy Letts plays, they’re also William Friedkin films and a John Wells film. And I felt my job was to help John Wells make the best John Wells film he could make. And he knew that. He said when he first met me, “If this thing’s fucked up, I’m the one they’re going to look at. I’m the one they’re going to blame. You’ve already written the play and won the awards.” And I said, “Well, then let me help you make the best movie you can make.” Me fighting for certain things didn’t have anything to do with preserving my play; it had everything to do with thinking, “This material is important for the thematic integrity of the piece.” I lost some of those fights and I won some. There were moments along the way when I wasn’t happy, but that’s the process of collaboration. We come back to that issue of control, right? I’m not going to insist that everyone try to do things my way. It’s about all of us pitching in our ideas.