"Taking a play I greatly admire and messing it up – I didn't want to be the guy that wrecked it. That's what kept me up at night," he says, describing the star-studded film based on Tracy Letts' Tony Award-winning dark comedy, which opens Friday.
After early screenings of the movie, his fears of not doing justice to a Pulitzer Prize-winning work about a wild and emotional family reunion were not realized.
"A good third to 40 percent of the play is not there," he says, but when it was shown to actors who had been in the play on Broadway, they had trouble remembering what was missing.
Wells – a writer, executive producer and director whose lengthy credits include TV's "ER" and "The West Wing" and the film "The Company Men" – didn't have too much trouble assembling the film's players. Both Meryl Streep, who plays the bitter, drug addled matriarch and Julia Roberts, who plays one of her troubled daughters, had seen, and liked, the play.
One cast member whose hiring came later was Benedict Cumberbatch, whose iPhone video audition for the role of the shy nephew made its way, via the casting director, to Wells, who had been unfamiliar with his work.
For Wells, who saw the play twice before he had any idea he would be involved in a movie version, the story's appeal is in its truthfulness – bitterness, deception and unpleasantness included.
"People were amazed by it. They told me how much it reminded them of their own families," he says.
Yet Wells doesn't like using the term "dysfunctional family" to describe the characters or Letts' vision in writing the play or the film's screenplay.
"It's too reductive," Wells says, calling Letts' portrait of a modern family of pioneers who are living in a vast space something that clearly belongs in the line of works by America's great dramatists Edward Albee, Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams.
August Osage County
Starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Julianne Nicholson, Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis
Written by Tracy Letts
Directed by John Wells
Runinng time 1 hour, 59 minutes