Julianne Nicholson, Meryl Streep and Margo Martindale stare in August: Osage County. Photos courtesy Weinstein Company.
Scene: August in northeast Oklahoma. Lights come up on the Boulanger House, a historical landmark just north of Pawhuska. Enter Benedict Cumberbatch, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis and many more stars.
Welcome to the film set of August: Osage County, which was shot in the northeast part of the state during summer and fall of 2012. The movie is based on the acerbic-yet-emotive play of the same name and chronicles the bittersweet lives of the Weston family. Oklahoma playwright Tracy
Letts garnered the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for his script, and together with director John Wells, helped bring the film version to life, as well.
Jill Simpson, director of the Oklahoma Music and Film Office, was one of the most passionate advocates for August: Osage County to be filmed on the author’s home turf.
“When I heard that the Weinstein Company had optioned the movie rights to the play back in 2009, I made it my goal to connect with the playwright, Tracy Letts, to make the case for filming in Oklahoma,” Simpson says.
Over the next couple of years as the project developed, Simpson stayed in continuous touch with her contact at the Weinstein Company, keeping tabs on the status of the production. She then flew to Burbank, Calif., to pitch to Wells and his team that they should film in Oklahoma.
“All the while, Harvey Weinstein was interested in filming in Georgia due to their strong incentives program, large crew base and well-developed infrastructure for the film industry,” Simpson says. “Georgia had even submitted a house that he was very high on. We had our work cut out for us.”
But Simpson and her Oklahoma cohorts also had found a stunning house to use as the central focus of the film’s action: the landmark Boulanger House near Pawhuska. When Wells and his crew at last came to scout Oklahoma locations in April 2012, Simpson says, “They fell in love with many of the locations we presented in the Bartlesville and Pawhuska areas along with the Boulanger House, which happened to be on the market.”
Simpson says they made the pitch to the Weinstein Company to purchase the historic home rather than build a set. “Having the filmmakers on our side and being able to offer a good incentives package really helped seal the deal with the Weinstein Company,” she says.
The cast and crew made their home base in the nearby town of Bartlesville, where the citizens were no strangers to a large film production. Shortly before Wells and his crew came to shoot August: Osage County, filmmaker Terrence Malick had come to film To The Wonder, starring Ben Affleck and Javier Bardem.
“It helped that we had already been through it recently,” says Maria Gus, executive director of the Bartlesville Convention and Visitors Bureau. “At least the idea wasn’t completely foreign to them. I think the community felt as if we had another opportunity to show our hospitality, and we must have done something right the last time. Of course there were those that had a hard time controlling their excitement, but overall everyone was great. Our community was professional, friendly and definitely knew when to help the cast and crew let their hair down.”
Gus says that during the filming, which began setting up in July 2012 and lasted until November of that year, the film brought a definite boom to the local economy.
“There was a significant impact on local business,” she says. “Not only did the cast and crew need expected goods and services, but also anything else a large group would need while away on a business trip. Obviously, hotel rooms were a necessity, but also local catering for parties, medical care, entertainment and grocery shopping … In addition, the locals were out and about a lot more often. Some may have been hoping for a celebrity sighting, and many others were just eager to get out in the community and talk about the excitement. Overall, I think it was a very positive experience for the businesses in Bartlesville. The electricity was contagious for the community.”
Talmadge Powell, founder of Talmadge Powell Creative, was the force behind the film’s official wrap party in downtown Bartlesville. Powell says that utilizing local goods and businesses was important to achieve the Oklahoma feel of the party.
“We capitalized on local flavor and food,” Powell says. “They really wanted us to take advantage of all the Oklahoma kinds of things. We had stations with Oklahoma comfort food and live entertainment. We transformed the place into an Oklahoma autumn feel, bringing in trees and shrubs and dark woods. Chef Justin Thompson was the caterer for the party. We went to local stores and purchased Oklahoma props and things that would relate to the actual time period of the movie and also who we are as Oklahomans.”
“Make no mistake: Having a large production in your community is work,” Gus says of the entire experience. “The cast and crew work long days and are focused on getting a lot of work done in a short amount of time. But at the same time, if the community and the production have a good way to communicate and a team of people working together to make sure needs are met and the public is informed, the whole experience can be a fantastic success.”
“The August: Osage County production team was top notch,” Simpson says. “Not only were they talented, they were lovely to work with. Most importantly, they were mindful of our locals and our culture, and took great care of our Oklahoma crew. They left our filming locations in as good, if not better, shape as when they arrived. That is a testament to their professionalism. I would welcome any of this team back to Oklahoma any time.”
Chris Freihofer, owner of Freihofer Casting in Norman and local casting director for August: Osage County, says that while this was one of the largest productions he’d worked on in terms of star power, it also was one of the least stressful. Freihofer, who also served as the local casting director for Malick’s To The Wonder, says his team only had to cast a few principle roles and 200-300 extras – small by comparison to some projects, he says. This film, however, had its own unique challenges.
“One of the things that made working on this film a bit more challenging than others was the fact that John Wells had this very careful hand in the selection of the extras as well,” Freihofer says. “He hand-selected every single extra – that never happens. He wanted the film to have a very specific look. We held big, open casting calls across the state and took thousands of pictures. He then met with me and the producers and selected every extra, including the scene they’d appear in and the role they’d play. Even if there wasn’t a backstory for the character in the scene, he created one for each and every extra. That’s very, very rare.”
Freihofer agrees that the production was an enormous benefit for the Oklahoma economy. “I know our office and crew and many, many vendors in northeast Oklahoma benefitted from August: Osage County being there,” he says, “including hotels, restaurants and antique stores for props. The support businesses benefitted greatly from the film.”
However, both Freihofer and Simpson note that while the production of August: Osage County was a huge success for the state of Oklahoma, we aren’t likely to see another of its kind any time soon. The Oklahoma Film Enhancement Rebate Program is set to expire in mid-2014, and if not extended by the Oklahoma State Legislature, its end could spell the death of the Oklahoma film industry just as it was getting started. While a bill to extend the program was passed by the Senate last spring, it was defeated in the House.
“It was a devastating blow,” Simpson says. “We will be back again in the spring to make the push again. Without the incentives program, our fledgling Oklahoma film industry will likely dry up, with the crew we have worked so hard to grow in recent years packing up and moving to greener pastures.”
“We have the ball rolling as a filming destination for producers, but now we have lost our incentives,” Freihofer says. “Hopefully now we can get them back and continue to have the films here we’ve had in the past. Boots on the ground are directly affected by not having rebates. I’m currently working on two films, one of which is the last to qualify for the rebates. Nothing will come in from out of state…Over the past three to four years, we were hired to cast an average of five to six films per year. Now there’s nothing on the horizon. We keep in business with commercials, but films shoot for a long time, spend a lot of money and employ a lot of people.”
Simpson says that despite setbacks, she and colleagues aren’t ready to give up on Oklahoma filmmaking just yet.
“If the program can be extended and the funding increased, my goal is to grow the program so that we are not always in a position of turning down projects,” Simpson says. “With a cap of $5 million per year, we can only accommodate about five projects per year, not nearly enough to keep our hard-working crew employed full-time or truly grow our infrastructure in the state. We have a very small program compared to most of the 46 other states that offer incentives. We do, however, have a well-run, fiscally conservative program that has earned respect in the film industry. With some growth and fine-tuning, we could eventually be on par with Georgia or Louisiana, currently two of the biggest filming states in the country.”
Meanwhile, August: Osage County, one of the last films funded with the Oklahoma Film Enhancement Rebate Program, is already having a positive impact on the state.
“The Oklahoma Film and Music Office has been tracking the media hits as the film has been playing at festivals around the country this fall,” Simpson says. “The coverage has been amazing. The filmmakers have positively referenced their time in Oklahoma – specifically Tulsa, Bartlesville and Pawhuska – in many of these articles and press conferences. That kind of positive PR certainly helps me market our rebate program…The timing [of the film incentive shutdown] is ironic considering August: Osage County is likely to be an Oscar contender in multiple categories. It would be a shame for our program to go away just as it is really begins to take off.”