The 10-room, pillared house at the center of the film adaptation of August: Osage County is as much a character in the Tracy Letts-penned drama as every member of the dysfunctional Weston family that populates it. But the house, which began life as a Sears, Roebuck & Company kit in 1918 and was lovingly “deconstructed, unremodeled and reimagined from head to toe” inside by production designer David Gropman and his team, is also a piece of real Osage County history and remarkably, located in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, the same town scripted in Letts’ play. “As a designer, it is always such a great joy to be able to control a world so completely,” said Gropman, “and in this case, go to Osage County itself and find a house that all of us felt architecturally, with its columns and porches, so perfectly represented that family and their story. It is the ideal setting for Letts’ Greek tragedy to unfold.”
A former theater designer who worked on Broadway and for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, Gropman’s film credits span comedies like Date Night and Taking Woodstock to Ang Lee‘s Oscar-winning Life of Pi and a string of Lasse Hallström films. He’s also designed a number of films adapted from celebrated stage plays including Doubt, Hairspray and Marvin’s Room. “I’m always very aware of the history of the piece when designing an adaptation,” he said. “Probably the biggest trap is to create a set or design that feels too theatrical or claustrophobic. But the beautiful part of John’s direction here was to let that house be more fluid than a stage set could ever be. Many more scenes are brought out onto those screened porches and the front and back yards. It’s true to the form of the screenplay but doesn’t feel stagey at all.”
Found by director John Wells during an early scouting trip, the house was purchased by the production and left virtually as is outside. “We even kept the original paint job, though we did build a screened gazebo and move a 40-foot tall oak tree from the backyard to the front yard,” said Gropman, a monumental feat in itself. Inside Gropman and his team rendered the film’s late 1990s setting by layering wallpaper and window treatments, undoing recent kitchen and bath remodels, ripping out walls and carpeting in a finished attic to uncover a more improvised, skeletal space for new caretaker Johnna to inhabit, and pulling only a few walls to give both the actors and the camera room to breathe, interact and ultimately tussle. “Other than that, we were never pulling walls for the camera, which I think really adds to the reality of a very heightened family gathering,” he said.
Gropman’s other striking locations, from the bale fields to open highways, tell us we are in the heart of farm country on the Plains. But this is no ordinary Midwestern farmhouse and Meryl Streep‘s Violet Weston and Sam Shepard‘s Beverly Weston are clearly not the farming types. “Beverly was a successful poet and university professor and to me,” said Gropman, “that meant that Violet put on some airs.” He chose the dramatically scaled mural wallpaper in the dining room and the ornate bird wallpaper in Violet’s bedroom with that character detail in mind. “It was important to me to let the walls breathe a bit and give them some depth and air, particularly in the pivotal scene in the dining room when the action reaches a boiling point.”
Textured depth is on display in Gropman’s favorite room in the house, the cozy, book-lined study of patriarch Beverly Weston that is bathed in natural light. “The light through the windows is courtesy of cinematographer Adriano Goldman, who did such a gorgeous job,” he said. Set decorator Nancy Haigh, “an absolute detective when it comes to discovering character,” provided the detail. “She raided the library of a literature professor at a University in Tulsa to fill that set with the most wonderful books.” Shepard found the room so inspiring he added a few ideas of his own, like the saddle blanket and feathers in a jar on his desk.
Gropman never saw the original run of August: Osage County on Broadway, which he said was no doubt written for some wonderful, bravura performances. “I’m kind of glad, because there’s no way that traces of what you’ve previously seen don’t get stuck in your brain,” he said. Other bits of theater did work their way in. Letts has said he is inspired by the novels of William Faulkner and the plays of Tennessee Williams, but Eugene O’Neill oozes up from the pill-and-humiliation-soaked floorboards of Gropman’s design. “There are definitely bits and pieces of some great American drama in there, and don’t think that I didn’t have that staircase from Long Day’s Journey into Night in mind when Violet first makes her entrance,” he said. “One of our biggest challenges was trying to figure out how to make that staircase,” moved by former owners from its original center hall location, “powerful and strong enough to work in that Mary Tyrone way” while shooting through Beverly’s study. “In that case, we had to pull a wall to get the shot but it still feels organic to that house.”