BY GENE TRIPLETT
LOS ANGELES – George Clooney and Grant Heslov must have found evenings in Osage County conducive to creativity during their stay there in the fall of 2012.
The writing/producing partners finished much of their work on the script for their new, fact-based World War II action drama “The Monuments Men” while on location in northeastern Oklahoma filming the screen adaptation of Sooner-born Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “August: Osage County.”
And Heslov has nothing but good things to say about their filmmaking experience in the Sooner state.
“Yeah, George and I wrote a lot of this film while we were living in Oklahoma, in Bartlesville,” Heslov told The Oklahoman in an exclusive interview during a recent junket at the Four Seasons Hotel promoting “The Monuments Men.”
Heslov has been a production partner with Clooney since 2006 when the two men formed Smokehouse Productions and started developing screenplays together.
The Los Angeles-born producer, director, writer and actor shared his first Oscar nomination with Clooney for Best Original Screenplay in 2006 for “Good Night, and Good Luck,” the well-received biopic on American broadcast journalist Edward R. Morrow. He also shared a Best Picture nomination for the same film with a long list of other producers, co-producers and executive producers.
In 2012, he shared a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination with Clooney and Beau Willimon for “The Ides of March,” and in 2013 he shared a Best Picture Oscar win with Clooney and Ben Affleck for co-producing “Argo,” based on the 1980 U.S. hostage crisis in Iran.
For “August: Osage County,” a drama about an Oklahoma family in turmoil that was adapted for the screen by Letts from his play, Meryl Streep is vying for a Best Actress Oscar and Julia Roberts is competing for the Supporting Actress trophy.
The film was directed by John Wells (“The Company Men”).
If Heslov was painfully disappointed that “August: Osage County” hadn’t made a better showing in the 86th annual Oscar nominations – which had just been announced that morning – he wasn’t really showing it.
“Oh well, yeah, I wish it was (better news),” he said. “Upset? Yeah, upset for John (Wells), and for the film, but …” He shrugged and didn’t finish his sentence.
He still had positive memories of filming in Oklahoma.
“Yeah, it was great,” Heslov said. “We (Clooney and Heslov) would go to set and then go back to our house that we had and work out lines. And so, for us it was good. It was some nice quiet time. I would (come back to Oklahoma) if we had the right (film project). It was certainly beautiful country.”
Heslov said Oklahoma’s Film Enhancement Rebate Program was one of the major factors that attracted the film project to the state, along with Wells’ insistence that the film be shot where the story was set.
The program is designed to recruit film and music projects to the state, offering a 35 percent rebate on all production expenditures made in the state – 37 percent if Oklahoma music is used on the soundtrack. Kings of Leon and John Fullbright songs are featured in the film.
The incentive program is capped at $5 million a year. According to an economic impact study commissioned by the Oklahoma Film and Music Office and conducted by Oklahoma City University, the state’s return on investment in the existing program is 3-to-1 in direct dollars.
Film and television production numbers have risen nearly 500 percent from $11 million to more than $50 million in economic impact since fiscal year 2005. More and more jobs have been created for the state’s growing workforce of trained film crew technicians. Support service companies have begun to spring up, providing production facilities, construction and equipment.
Hotels, restaurants and other businesses in communities large and small have been profiting when film casts and crews come to town. And, as Jill Simpson, head of the Film and Music Office, has pointed out, the film industry is showing the world an updated image of Oklahoma.
Heslov said his production company found every resource that was needed to successfully complete the filming of “August: Osage County” in Oklahoma.
“Yeah, it was fantastic,” he said. “We had a great experience there.”
And yet, in an unexpected vote in the last hours of the 2013 legislative session, an extension of the rebate program, which expires on July 1, was defeated by legislators who believe it “subsidizes movie stars” and takes money out of the state, money that could be used for health care, education, corrections and raises for Oklahoma Highway Patrol Troopers.
But Simpson has argued that “This a rebate, not a tax credit. It’s not front-loaded. The money has to be spent in Oklahoma in order for any rebates to be paid out.”
She has said supporters of the rebate “will be back in full force” during the 2014 legislative session to continue the fight to keep the incentive program alive.
Otherwise, Heslov said, he and other filmmakers like him will have to seek out other states that still have competitive rebate programs in place.
“Now I don’t know if we’ll be able to come back to Oklahoma,” he said.