At first Jane Anderson was only the screenwriter of “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio,” a true-life tale of Evelyn Ryan, a 1950s housewife who kept her large family together, even though her husband was an abusive alcoholic, by using her skill at winning contests to survive financial hard times. As Anderson explained during a recent Dallas interview, “Robert Zemeckis, my producer, had bought the rights to the book [a memoir penned by the woman’s daughter] and asked me to write the screenplay,” intending to direct it himself. And the final product bears both their imprints.
“When I’d go in and kind of hack over ideas with him about what I wanted to do with it,” Anderson said, “he kept saying to me, ‘Jane, people aren’t going to understand the era. Younger audiences, we have to worry about them, we have to let them in on it. Go to the TV for a way to solve this.’ And he had his researchers pull hundreds of old commercials for me.” Their style became a visual motif repeated through the picture. But Anderson made some major decisions herself. “On the second draft of the screenplay, I decided to take it away from the daughter’s point of view and use Evelyn, because there was so much we needed to explain–the fifties, the era, what women were up against. I thought it was really important to get inside her head, but because Evelyn was so isolated, it would have been awkward to have her talking to a best friend. It wouldn’t have worked. I came up with the idea of her talking directly to the camera.” Anderson noted that this derived from the material Zemeckis’ researchers had provided. “Part of that [decision] was from watching a bunch of archival commercials from the fifties,” she said. “What I noticed, and what I loved about those early commercials, was that they were really primitive, really hokey, and they had little housewives directly addressing the camera. I thought it would be really interesting to allow Evelyn to be the spokesperson for her own life. But she’s not shallow in the way the women in the commercials are–she lets us in on her deepest secrets.” She added: “I also noticed in a lot of those commercials there would be animation–teeny, tiny housewives on giant sinks, scrubbing giant pans. They would reduce women to these little fairies. That’s the ultimate in powerlessness, so that’s why I played with the girl group–the three girls prancing across the screen. I just lightly folded that into the style of the movie.”
When asked if she worked closely with Terry Ryan, who wrote the book, Anderson said no: “I structured and wrote the whole screenplay on my own. I talked to Terry just for research and to get an idea about the psychological elements of it. When I write a screenplay I choose a theme–I give myself a one-sentence guide. And this was two ideas. One was ‘a woman of independent happiness.’ And the other phrase that kept coming up was, ‘Pain is inevitable, but suffering is an option.’ So I knew that once I figured out the structure of Evelyn talking to the camera, I knew that every scene had to contain the DNA of that. And I just picked scenes [from the book] that I thought visually would be the most interesting, like the tulip incident, because it was all about having a crushing disappointment, but finding the beauty in the moment. The shopping spree had to be in there–anything that had to do with feeding the family, because Evelyn’s whole objective in life was to physically and spiritually feed her children so that they could leave that house whole and healthy and emotionally stable. So the spilled milk scene–the crashing milk bottle–I knew when I read in the book this description of her blood mixed up with the milk going down the heat register, you can’t get more filmic than that. They’re just themes you tease out of the book. The book was rich, that memoir.”
“And finally I solved the screenplay,” Anderson recalled. “And he [Zemeckis] decided he just couldn’t deal with all those kids on the set.” (Evelyn has ten children, and in the final film they’re played at various stages by twenty young actors.) “So he handed it over to me. When he said that he didn’t think he was going to direct it, I said, ‘Can I do it? I’d like to direct it, because I think I have a real vision for what I’d like to do with this thing. And he thought about it for a day, and he came back to me–called me up–and said, ‘We’re going to let you run with it.’ That was a huge, huge chance he was taking on me.” (Until that point, Anderson had directed some well-regarded telefilms, but never a feature.) “And I’m ever-grateful to him for that, because we all depend on people in our lives who will give us a leg up to the next level. And that he did.”
Anderson professed no problems in working with twenty youngsters in the cast. “It wasn’t that bad. They were really disciplined. We shot in Toronto, and I hired an actress–someone to kind of be the kid wrangler, to kind of fluff them up emotionally before I got to the set. But what I did in prep was, I got all the kids together and we did research, and I had Terry Ryan write up little synopses of each of her brothers and sisters, and we got those to the kids. And then I had snapshots of the actual Ryans from that period, and gave each of the children pictures of ‘themselves,’ of who they were going to play. We talked about the fifties. You always stood when an adult came into the room; you always said ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.,’ never first names; you never said bad words. And you particularly obeyed your parents, because corporal punishment was a very common thing back then, and kids knew they couldn’t mess around with their parents. We talked about having an alcoholic dad and how that affects how you behave in the house. And we talked about being one of ten, how you’d fall in the ranking of the family. So by the time they got to the set, they were ready to go.” And she added with a smile, “And they were Canadian kids. I don’t know, maybe they’re just less spoiled than American kids.”
But as important as the youngsters were, the lead adults were even more so, and Anderson was fortunate to secure Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson to play the Ryans. “You go through various casting adventures, and I believe you always find the right cast,” she said. “I chose Julianne because of the incredible intelligence in her acting–she knows how to walk delicate lines in playing characters. This is a really tough part, because she’s walking that line between being an optimist and being a realist. And you never once in her performance have any doubt that she’s intelligent and strong and in control. And that’s vital, because you don’t want the Evelyn Ryan character to ever look like a fool, or even look like she’s in denial, that she’s a Pollyana, or unsophisticated. Julianne has the sophistication that the part needed. And Woody has such humanity–he was able to create a character that wasn’t all bad, and that’s essential to this part. We had to understand Kelly [Ryan]–he was a beaten man, he wasn’t a bad man. Just a man who’s defined himself by his failures. That’s what a pessimist is.”
And Anderson added a final bit of praise for her prize-winning protagonist. “Evelyn had the choice between going mad, or finding a way to constantly alleviate the tension. And she did it through laughter. It’s remarkable.”