John Wells’ career started with a simple ambition: “I had always wanted to tell lies about other people and get paid for it,” jokes the veteran writer/producer who has notched 830 credits, most notably as executive producer of China Beach, The West Wing and ER. From 1999 to 2001, he served as president of the Writers Guild of America, West — a two-year position to which he was re-elected in 2009. Though Wells’ television schedule keeps him busy, he has carved out time for a couple of features, including The Company Men and August: Osage County. Here, Wells talks about having lunch with Harvey Weinstein and film’s heightened sensibilities.
You got your start in the theater, then as a producer and writer for TV. Was making the leap to director always part of your plan?
I was trained as a director in college and it was always something I wanted to pursue, but it’s a very difficult leap to make. I wanted to stay in the entertainment business, so when the writing started to pay off, I pursued that, which led to some of the television producing, and then directing.
How did you get involved with August: Osage County?
I had made another film that The Weinstein Company was releasing and I was having lunch with Harvey Weinstein. We ended up talking about actors and one of the actors was somebody I had worked with before and he asked, ‘Would they be good in August: Osage County?’ I said, ‘I think they’d be great. I didn’t know you were involved.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I helped produce the play on Broadway.’ I told him I’d seen it, and he said I should take a look at the script. That’s how it came together. I was very fortunate to get it.
At what point in the development process do you start thinking about the capture medium?
I don’t look at that decision as really a ‘choosing a tool’ decision. We were going to shoot the film in Oklahoma, and planning to do a number of very large daylight exteriors on a widescreen 2.35 format. With all the work I’ve done in digital, I had real concerns about our ability to capture the scope of the place and the brilliance of the sunlight. Some of the systems are wonderful, but daylight exteriors in bright sunlight? I find that film is far better reaching. And it gives a certain texture that I was anxious to achieve. When I spoke with my DP, Adriano Goldman, he immediately shared the same sensibilities.
I think everyone sort of perceives digital to be a cost-saving measure, but I don’t necessarily find it to be. It really depends on how you use it. A lot of people just use it as an endless loop, so you can shoot and shoot and shoot. The kind of precision that we were doing with the dialogue, the movements, and the way in which we were setting the shots for this movie, I didn’t feel digital would be an advantage. I also find that the crew and the actors see that it’s film and they behave a little bit differently on the set. They have a more conscious sense of money running through the camera. That actually heightens it a bit — almost like a live performance. People get excited to shoot on film.
From a production standpoint, in terms of budget and schedule, do you feel there are benefits to shooting film?
I think there is if you know what you want and you’re working with actors who are going to be prepared. I actually find it advantageous to have that discipline of shooting to the length of the magazine and to the specifics of a cut that you want to do. My personal experience — and I’ve shot a lot of digital and a lot of film — is that the cost savings on digital are negligible, and depending on how you are using the tools, sometimes it’s actually less expensive to shoot on film.
What were some of the original conversations you had with Goldman about your vision for the film?
We started by talking about doing a little more classical style of shooting, not only with the widescreen and the film, but I wanted to use dollies and move simply. We had a lot of conversations about how to get a naturalistic look to the lighting and the brightness of the exteriors. Then we moved into talking about other movies that we admired. We were very much in sync from the beginning. And that’s part of what allows you to use film, because you’re not trying to discover what you’re going to do technically every day on the set; you already have a strong idea of what you want to accomplish and how you’re going to accomplish it.
What makes an ideal director-DP collaboration?
Mutual respect. Have conversations and listen to each other’s ideas.