EXCLUSIVE: After this week’s L.A. premiere of August: Osage County, Harvey Weinstein is prepared to make two proclamations as the film launches into a crowded Oscar season. “When it comes to Oscars, I’ll take bets on this movie, it’s going to be a surprise and a sleeper, but it’s gonna be there,” he said. His second proclamation: “I’m never again going to rush to play a movie festival anymore, until the movie is locked,” Weinstein said. “We rushed to get a version of August: Osage County because we wanted the heat of Toronto. It wasn’t finished and it has created a disconnect.”
Weinstein, George Clooney (a producer with Smokehouse Pictures partner Grant Heslov) and Tracy Letts (who adapted his Pulitzer Prize-winning play into the John Wells-directed film) called me to dispel a misperception they hope will not become a problem: that because of slight changes between the Toronto version and the final cut, this was a problem picture. In this case, the early version of the Meryl Streep/Julia Roberts-starrer had a slightly different ending than it does now. The finished film is a bit longer and more polished and contains over its closing credits “Last Mile Home”, a moving acoustic song that Kings Of Leon wrote for the film. “Our worst review has been three stars, but forevermore in the age of the Internet you read that reaction was mixed in Toronto and it colors people,” Weinstein said. “There’s something in the air and the way to take it out of the air is for the three of us to combat it.” I won’t give away the ending here, but it involves how things are left between a dysfunctional family matriarch (Streep) and the daughter (Roberts) in danger of following in her bitter footsteps. Besides Toronto, there were test screenings and the usual back and forth that resulted in what the three said is the best version of the film, the one they showed this week.
“The first test we had [earlier this fall] was crazy off the charts, so we didn’t do testing thinking, whatever the audience tells us we’re going to lean on John to make changes,” Clooney said. “We were after the leanest version of a play that had to be condensed down, retaining the best parts but not becoming the play’s greatest hits. I felt by Toronto we were getting to a good place, but it wasn’t a finished film yet and that caused some of the reaction. [Our taking the initiative to speak] isn’t just about where this takes the film coming into Oscar season. It’s about lasting longer than an opening weekend on a film we are very proud of and which is the next natural extension for Tracy’s play. We want to make sure this doesn’t get lost. We’re coming out in the middle of the most crowded time I think I’ve ever seen,” added Clooney, whose film Monuments Men moved from December 18 to February 7 to avoid the holiday onslaught. August: Osage County also moved from a December 25 wide opening to an Oscar-qualifying platform that day and a wide release January 10.
On that date change, Weinstein said: “There are like 13 wide releases this Christmas, it’s the biggest probably ever and there are movies for everybody. This might be a crazy comparison, but our research showed with Gran Torino, also a dark comedy, and The Bucket List, they did fabulously well when they opened on that January date. This is an artistic movie, but it’s a real crowd-pleaser and we just wanted to get out of the way of the 13 movies that will be killing each other this Christmas.” The move also puts the film front and center during the awards voting process. “We feel it has strong Academy potential — it’s a movie written by a Tony-winning actor, it’s a tribute to actors and a seamless directing job. The Oscars are March 2, and this move could portend a long run for this film.”
Weinstein said the locked version is comparable to the running time of the Toronto version, but Wells took the extra time to add and subtract with the input of Letts. As for Letts, even though his play won the Pulitzer and is performed all over the country, he wasn’t rigid about changes in adapting it for the screen. “The story has always ended the same way, and the ending is the ending,” Letts told me. “I made a decision when I first wrote the script to focus more on the protagonist, Julia, to bring her into the proceedings earlier than she came into the play. It was unorthodox during the play for the protagonist to arrive 30 minutes in, but I thought that in the film we couldn’t afford to wait that long. We chose to stay with her throughout, and that includes following her to the end. Believe me, we’ve had our debates, but we never debated changing the ending of the film. We’ve fiddled with style and done so effectively, I think, and I feel strongly we came to the right conclusion.”
As to the playwright subjecting his esteemed words to the test screening process, Letts said it wasn’t strange to him at all. He’s a working actor himself, most recently playing the senator-turned new CIA chief in Showtime’s Homeland. “We do the same thing in the theater with the preview process,” he said. “In the same way, we listen to what the audience is telling us. I’ve never tried to confuse or bamboozle an audience in my work and through previews we work out that story and watch it through the audience’s eyes. Here we got to track the movie the way the audience is tracking it. The trial and error is part of the collaborative process. Turn the music up here, let’s find the best way to end it there. John is the director, and the final arbiter of those decisions and this is John’s film.”
Weinstein said the best validation they’d made the right moves came from Streep, who surprised them by showing up for the L.A. premiere, the first time she watched with an audience. She enjoyed it so much, Weinstein said, that she hung around several extra days to promote it. “I just finished my seventh movie with her and I’ve seen this reaction twice out of the six and I’ve done some pretty good ones with her.” That could be the best awards-season development for the film because when Streep shows up for a film that has her in Oscar contention, she usually wins.