“Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County is what [Eugene] O’Neil would be writing in 2007.”
New York magazine
“Killer Joe has a strong moral code, bent as it is.”
Screenwriter/Playwright Tracy Letts (on a character he created)
A couple of years ago I drove to Chicago just to see a play Tracy Letts had written. It’s a five-hour drive from Cedar Falls, Iowa to downtown Chicago, but that’s how bad I wanted to see the play August: Osage County. It wasn’t as if I had discovered a hidden jewel, by that time the Letts had already won the Pulitzer Prize and August:Osage County had won the Tony Award for best play.
Though Letts isn’t the most widely known writers outside of theatrical circles, I think that will change this year when they begin to shoot the film version August: Osage Country starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. And also the release this year of the film Killer Joe starring Matthew McConaughey. (The film was actually completed last year but has wrestled with an NC-17 rating. It now has a release date of July 27, 2012)
Letts’s journey is an interesting one and fits in well with what this blog is all about. He was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1964 and raised in Durant, Oklahoma where he graduated from high school. After a short stint in Dallas doing the actor/waiter thing he moved to Chicago where he got plugged into the Steppenwolf Theatre Company for more than a decade.
Chicago is where his plays August: Osage County and Killer Joe premiered. The first work of Letts’s to be produced as a movie was the 2006 film Bug, for which Letts wrote the screenplay based on his 1996 play. There is definitely a regional flavor to Letts’s work. Both August: Osage County and Bug are set in Oklahoma and his play The Man from Nebraska is about, well, a man from Lincoln, Nebraska.
There is also a flavor of the classic playwrights Eugene O’Neil and Tennessee Williams in his work. Houses full of dysfunctional people fighting moral, spiritual and personal battles—as well as a few drugs and alcohol issues. Here’s how Letts unpacks some origins of the gritty movie that’s advertised on the Killer Joe website as, “A totally twisted deep-fried Texas redneck trailer park murder story.”
“I lived in Dallas for a couple of years in the mid ’80s, Dallas cops were in the news round then, busting heads. I had a tough time in Dallas, that hard-scrabble existence, it can be a really hard city for the have-nots. I lived in a trailer myself when I was a kid, for a while, and I was familiar with certain aspects of the lifestyle. The original story this was based on was about a Florida family, but I found it transposed to Dallas quite easily. I’m a big fan of Jim Thompson, the great alcoholic crime writer from Oklahoma, he wrote ‘The Grifters’ and ‘The Killer Inside Me,’ he was some of the inspiration of this. It seemed to fit with Dallas well, they behaved in a way that I thought people from Dallas could recognize. I think it helps that Matthew’s from Texas, and brings a real authenticity to this.”
Indiewire interview with Oliver Lyttelton
P.S. Just found this link to a Steppenwolf article where Letts writes about his inspiration for writing August: Osage County. Which happens to involve “reviewing the biographies of the actors who comprise Steppenwolf, I was struck by the nearly common denominator: place of birth. From Lincoln, Illinois to Council Bluff, Iowa, from Mankato, Minnesota to my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the majority of ensemble members are small-town Midwestern people.”