by Pat Holt
Tuesday, May 3, 2005
'THE PRIZE WINNER' GOES TO THE MOVIES - PART IV
How does a book become a movie? What happens to the author when Hollywood moves in?
In Part I, Column #392, we learned to forget the stories one hears about Hollywood dismissing authors and gutting books as we watched writer/director Jane Anderson work with Terry Ryan on the screen adaptation of Terry's memoir, "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less."
In Part II, Column #393, we witnessed the Ryan adult children discover exact duplicates of their childhood home, toys, wallpaper and cars before meeting the 20-some child actors who would portray them and feeling their heads blown off by the power and the authority of Julianne Moore, who plays their mother.
In Part III, Column #394, we watched an entire scene filmed in "Mom's Closet" and traveled to a remote spot outside Toronto, where prankster Woody Harrelson in a bloodied costume stumbles onto a bike trail and pleads for help from real-life bicyclists (they don't buy it).
[For all Terry Ryan columns, go to www.holtuncensored.com/terry/index.html]
THE RYANS TAKE THEIR PLACES
Even more thrilling than traveling to Toronto to witness their family history being transformed into a movie, one by one the adult Ryans were called away to the Wardrobe, Hair and Makeup trailers for their own on-camera appearance.
This scene takes place near the end of the movie when, after the death of their prize-winning mother, played by Julianne Moore, the ten kids come home to Defiance to clean out the home Evelyn Ryan had purchased with her first big winnings some 45 years before.
The house will soon go on sale, so despite their grief for the mother who saved their life every day from the "monster in the kitchen" - their alcoholic father, played by Woody Harrelson - the Ryan siblings have to move fast. Sorting through everything Evelyn saved - and she was an inveterate collector of family memorabilia, right down to dolls and baseball gloves and high school graduation programs - they discover the treasure she had quietly secreted away from all of them: seven large dressers and a cedar chest filled with entry blanks, coupons, announcements of her prizes, 24 contest notebooks, ticket stubs from the football game where Dick was awarded the bicycle she won in his name, and numerous poems that revealed her gift for sly humor and tricky syntax.
Writer-director Jane Anderson intuited that by this time in the movie, audiences would delight in the surprise of seeing the real Ryans rather than adult actors. So she wrote a scene in which the camera pans across 10 saddened but conscientious siblings who remove family pictures from the walls, divvy up keepsakes and fill boxes to ship away later.
Jane had also noticed that the family's deep attachment to their mother still registered on the faces of the real Ryans. Even the big strapping Ryan men - toughened up early, heaven knows, to take life's hard knocks without flinching - could not stop from getting teary at the mention of Evelyn Ryan (let alone at the presence of a book or movie about her). Time and again, Jane would turn from the camera to a sea of moist eyes and noses-ready-to-blow, and one could almost watch her remarking to herself how touching it would be if the power of that emotion could be captured on camera during the Ryan children's only scene.
So feelings ran high among crew and visitors alike as each of the Ryans returned from Makeup, Hair and Wardrobe to take their positions in the living room set. Aside from passing items from one to the other, their job was to acknowledge how they felt when their mother passed away; what it meant when they gazed for the last time at worn spots on the linoleum; how it felt to sit on the family couch with the busted spring, or peer at the windows where Mom liked to catch the afternoon light as it passed through one of her kitschiest prizes, a collection of colorful whiskey bottles in the shape of George Washington's head (all empty, much to her husband Kelly's dismay).
Indeed, as they practiced the scene, a hush filled the great hangar-sized soundstage that usually was a'bustle with hammering and ringing buzzers and shouts of "FINALS!" and "QUIET, PLEASE." No one watching could miss the sense of loss that permeated every handing-off of this book of photographs or that box of letters. Jane and her cinematographer made wide-lens squares with their fingers as they panned across the set, following youngest daughter Betsy Ryan as she walks through the hubbub to ask if Tuff wants to keep their mother's now-famous Underwood typewriter.
So now: Once the rehearsal and all the spotlights and booms and technicians and "actors" were in place, Jane spoke softly to the Ryans about the underlying emotion of this scene. Think of the camera as your mother, she said. Evelyn is taking one last look at this house and her children before she departs this life. As the camera moves across the room, she will be saying goodbye to each of you, whom she loves and is so proud of, having believed in every one of you all those years of your childhood and long after you became adults. This final look back gives her the resolve she needs to begin her own journey to the other side. And then, with that distinctive way she had of walking out the door - elbows in, back straight, shoulders squared - she leaves the family home forever.
Well! Jane's quiet evocation of Mom Ryan, which would have uncorked tears from Karl Rove if he had a heart to begin with, inspired among the Ryans a renewed sense of purpose. Throughout their visit they had avidly inspected daily production sheets and internalized the importance of never wasting a moment so that Jane would finish the movie on schedule. They had admired the efficiency and professionalism of real actors whom they witnessed expressing and, one might even say, packaging emotion perfectly a hundred times. So they returned Jane's gaze with the enthusiasm and sense of duty their mother had inspired every time she assigned them an important childhood task. Okay! they seemed to say. We got it! Gripping each prop with purpose and authority, they took their place in the pantheon of all real-life nonactors who have entered the fictional realm of moviedom - think of Alfred Hitchcock, think of the Holocaust survivors at the end of "Schindler's List," think of Fran Lebowitz as the arraignment judge in "Law & Order" (well, I take that back).
So filled with a sense of mission were the Ryans that much to everyone's astonishment, no matter how many times the scene was shot and Jane reminded them that their mother was in the room for the last time, nary a tear nor lump in the throat could be detected. Instead, what the camera saw was the face of duty, the face of control, the face of industry as each Ryan kept emotions in check while cleaning out drawers, filling up boxes and passing family heirlooms to the next one in line.
The rest of us, though, watching from behind the cameras - all the spouses and the children and agents and friends and even a crew member or two - felt the tears flooding forth without check, and many a nose was blown after the final "Cut!" and "Print!" had been called. Man, what a family, we said to each other. Their mother would indeed be proud.
And Jane, it turned out, was the proudest of all. Instead of a weepy "Bambi number" (the mother dies), the scene reflected the kind of iron will and undaunted optimism that Evelyn Ryan had instilled in her kids, in the book and in this movie. What we all had to learn was the plain fact that Tuff and her siblings knew from the day they were born: that Mom Ryan may take one last look at her family and walk out that door forever, but her children would never be without her in this lifetime.
THE WEIGHT OF A TYPEWRITER
And this is the sensibility that follows Tuff Ryan into the next scene as she carries Evelyn's large and clunky Underwood typewriter onto the porch. She sits down on the top step, the machine balanced on her knees, and notices a piece of paper stuck under the platen. Turning the ratchet, she discovers her mother's last poem and begins to smile while reading it, despite this moment of unbearable separation. Just then, Julianne Moore appears by her side as the spirit of her mother. Wearing the homemade pink housedress and '50s hairdo that she wore earlier the movie, aged about 42, Evelyn turns to the camera and reads the poem out loud.
Every time I pass the church,
Evelyn appraises the poem with that straightforward candor and unexpected humor we know we're going to miss long after the movie ends. She gives Tuff an affectionate kiss on the cheek, and we sense rather than know that Mom has passed on her legacy as a writer to The Real Tuff, who will go on to write the book that will become the very movie we're watching now.
The scene takes maybe five seconds, but it's such a key event in the movie that Jane wanted the camera to record it from every possible angle with every possible dimension registered from Julie's variety of expressions. This meant reshooting the scene about 15 times, the very best of which - we were all crowded around the TV monitor to witness it - would be the camera focusing on Terry's feet as she closes the screen door to cross the porch, carrying that heavy typewriter as if it were as light as a feather, and, as the camera pulls back to frame her body, sits down as gracefully as a dancer with the machine practically floating onto her lap.
You'd think that actors would lose the spontaneity of their performance when they do take after take for the camera, but months before, during her first visit to the soundstage in July, Terry devised a theory that explained why things don't happen that way. Every movie starts out like a moving jigsaw puzzle, she decided, where you feel the pieces (scenes) float around as though looking for the right fit. As various takes are shot, the actors build on each other's timing, sense the rightness of lights and sound and camera moving into position around them, find that grounding at the center of their very souls, and boom - magic happens. The scene takes on a freshness that never existed before. Even the littlest kids on the set sensed this wonderful contradiction - the more takes of a scene were filmed, the "newer" it got. And all the actors were so matter-of-fact about it that Terry changed her mind by the end of the filming: "What's 'magic' to us is simply talent to them," she said, which probably was the understatement of the whole trip.
But to see this happen to Terry herself was a huge revelation. Julie, of course, went through her usual transformation, which is to say, not an eyebrow lifted or a muscle in her face changed, but somewhere deep down and probably from the cellular level on out, she became Evelyn Ryan before our eyes. And each time we saw those little ankles moving past the screen door and watched the camera pan up to view Tuff finding and reading the poem, and gazing into the distance, and imagining the Real Evelyn sliding in beside her, it was as if no camera, no lights, no soundstage, no Toronto and no crew were there to filter that moment of profound recognition between them.
The only problem was that Terry's ankles and knees seemed to be turning into glass. They didn't just appear more fragile or delicate each time she carried the Underwood out and sat on the steps - they seemed to be shattering in slow motion, as though hairline fractures were splintering from the inside and weakening every ball-and-socket motion on the way. You'd never know it from looking at Tuff's face, which seemed ever more serene as she carried the typewriter onto the porch and rolled the poem out of the platen - in fact (and who could blame her) it seemed that Julianne's kisses sent Terry into a Never-Neverland of her own.
But Julie herself began to notice the sheen of perspiration enveloping Terry's forehead and cheeks lip around the 10th tape. "Gee, Tuff, how much does typewriter that weigh, anyway?" Julie said sympathetically.
"About 35 pounds," Terry replied, "probably as much as your youngest child." Julie laughed appreciatively - her toddler weighed a bit more than that - but with each new shoot, Evelyn's kiss grew more smoochily maternal, as if the mom in Julie were as aware of Tuff's physical duress as the mom in Evelyn always had been.
Wincing as if her own ankles were killing her was Terry's literary agent, Amy Rennert, who had used a panel appearance at the mystery conference called "Bouchercon" - held in Toronto the same week - as an excuse to visit the soundstage with her partner, Louise Kollenbaum. Amy had found a way to be at Tuff's side from the first interview ("The Today Show") to the first speech ("Evelyn Ryan Day" in Defiance, where Terry was given the Key to the City, which doubled as a bottle opener) to Jane's many visits in San Francisco and now to Toronto. Along the way, I had noticed, all the Ryans felt taken care of in some fundamental way just because Amy was there.
(Two kinds of agents inhabit the world, I've decided - those who sell the author's book to a publisher and say, "Call me when you've got another one"; and those who represent the author at every turn, from development of the first pitch to running interference until the hardcover is remaindered and the paperback continues. Amy is one of the latter.)
"Something's not right," Amy murmured as she watched Tuff appear to light like a butterfly on the porch stairs. "Tuff's ankles can't take much stress after last spring." Amy knew was that Tuff had only recently emerged from a bout with rheumatoid arthritis that had attacked her ankles and knees. Relief of pain came from that wonder drug of the day, Bextra, which eventually caused such violent side effects that Tuff stopped taking it (and the drug industry took it off the market). Her symptoms never fully returned, but later she began to feel dizzy and see double, which she attributed to a cold in the inner ear, perhaps because of too much plane travel. When the rest of us felt some of the same symptoms during our own flights to Toronto, we concluded that a mixture of trapped air, increased pollution and basic cooties had begun to infiltrate airplanes and the only answer was either the new preventative, Airborne, taken before getting on a plane, or cold and allergy remedies like Sudafed and Benadryl, which we popped like candy afterward. And for everyone but Tuff, the symptoms went away.
At the "wrap" party, Jane climbed up several ladders outside the soundstage and, with bullhorn in hand and a brilliant Fall sun descending behind her, thanked everybody "from the rooftop," including the Ryan clan and especially the author of the book for "bringing Evelyn Ryan's story to the screen." It was at that point we noticed that looking up made Terry even more dizzy, but like the rest of us, she was smiling and laughing when Jane unleashed her big surprise for all the kids who played young Ryans - a fireworks display that exploded against the night sky with such brilliant white light that Toronto neighbors must have run for cover.
From Toronto, Terry flew on to Columbus for another speaking engagement, and as a result (we thought), her vision and hearing worsened, her gait grew more unsteady, and for the first time, her speech slurred. Her doctor suspected a stroke and ordered an MRI scan. To make a very long story short, brain lesions showed up on the film, and a short time later Tuff was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer that had metastasized through the lymph system to the brain.
'WE CAN'T TAKE IT WITH US...'
We would find out later that joint pain is a symptom of Tuff's kind of cancer, but to say the news blindsided us is an understatement. We took comfort from obsessive readings of cyclist Lance Armstrong's book, "It's Not About the Bike" (sent to us by Jane, whose friend Sally Jenkins is Armstrong's co-author). In it, Armstrong describes a cancer diagnosis far worse than Terry's, and look what happened to him - after treatment, Lance Armstrong went on to win six Tours de France.
But it was Terry who embraced the news. "What timing!" she said. "At least the movie wrapped." Well, that was true. "It may be that my life as I've known it is over, but you have to say, a whole new life is starting." Gad, just like her mother. As treatments progressed, it was as though we were back in Toronto, this time watching the crew cart away not just a bedroom set but an entire wall of the soundstage, behind which we saw for the first time Terry's new world. It's not a world we would have chosen, heaven knows, but it's come to be a world we admire, maybe love. In it are millions of patients and health care workers who know infinitely more than we do about living with cancer, as well as strangers who make some kind of life-affirming connection with Terry every day. As Evelyn Ryan might say - about everything from paying bills to mortality -
We can't take it with us...
"Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio," written and directed by Jane Anderson and starring Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson and Laura Dern, will be produced by DreamWorks and Revolution Studios. It opens in selected theaters on September 23, 2005.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I don't know how many of your readers heard about the changes announced by The Atlantic Monthly recently. The magazine has decided to stop publishing short stories each month, opting instead to put out a summer reading issue that will be available only online and at newsstands.
I admit that I'm biase - my wife has published stories in The Atlantic, including one last year that won an O. Henry Award - but I do think that this is a disturbing development. We need fiction as well as journalism, literature as well as articles. The magazine's pages seem increasingly devoted to articles and opinion pieces by (often white male) Washington pundits. Here is a link to the AP story announcing the new policy:
Holt responds: The Atlantic Monthly is one of the few magazines published today with short stories that aren't slick or trendy or fall off a cliff at the end, or sound the same as every other in the same magazine. The consistent diversity and quality of Atlantic short stories is thanks to longtime editor C. Michael Curtis, but he may also be on the outs, according to Matt Briggs of The Stranger (http://thestranger.com/2005-04-21/books2.html). Briggs remembers that over its 150-year span of publishing short stories from the likes of Henry James and Ernest Hemingway to Flannery O'Connor and Grace Paley, The Atlantic Montlhly has run "idiosyncratic and funky" fiction "compared to the often fashionably safe work found elsewhere." Indeed, he adds, "of the few general interest magazines that survive today, only a handful publish fiction, and then only as intellectual wallpaper." So true.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
About your "10 Mistakes Writers Don't See (But Can Easily Fix When
They Do)," two points:
I'm no author, and I've never been to your website before, but I couldn't ignore the irony. I'm sure your advice is good counsel for writers shopping their products.
(2) You suggest that otherwise good works are passed over because of the 10 mistakes. Shouldn't your criticisms be targeted to the editors rather than the authors? Seems they're throwing away money.
Holt responds: Well, you nailed my mistake in your first query - I wish I could call the second use of "fey" in the "10 Mistakes" a small irony but it was just a blooper on my part. And while you're right about #2, I'm afraid that doesn't do authors or their readers much good. The point is that writers can no longer rely on editorial standards that used to be built into the editing and copy-editing process within every mainstream house. Many of these mistakes make the author look amateurish, despite the fact that books with worse mistakes are published and hit bestseller lists every day. So it's better to adopt your own standards at the beginning and try to clean up your manuscript before you submit it to anyone.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
How do you feel about leading dependent clauses? For example:
Having finished my last meeting, I was sitting in the blue gray glow of my computer...
Afraid I would start to bawl like a baby if I tried to say anything, I turned and walked out.
Also, do you have any problem with thoughts being in italics?
Judith Marshall Author of "Husbands May Come and Go"
Holt responds: Thank you for these delicious questions. I think on very rare occasions you can open a sentence with a dependent clause. But beware: the dang things can become addictive, and they usher in bad writing. Robin Cook, Dan Brown and Brad Meltzer (just a few I remember) are terrible offenders, often hilariously so, I'm afraid. But even when use of the dependent clause or participial phrase is confined to once every few pages, the writing begins to take on a sing-songy effect that makes the whole narrative sound amateurish. So I would try never to use them.
Thanks too for the second intriguing question. To me, internal thoughts can almost always be subtly woven into the narrative without italics, and when they are, you get that seamless quality that seems to strengthen the integrity of the entire project. Thoughts set off in italics, on the other hand, tend to fragment the text so that you risk adding false drama to every occasion of interior thinking.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
About your "cowboy POD author" Bob Kinford, he seems to blame Ingram and LSI when the problem is more likely just Amazon's clumsiness. They're apparently revamping their database module yet again, and chaos has, as usual, ensued.
In February one of our authors asked me to list his book with Amazon's "Search Inside" service. I dutifully signed up and added not just his but five other titles in our Advantage database. Received the email with the address to which the copies to be scanned were to be shipped. Shipped.
Just over a month later, I accessed our database and discovered that at least TWO of the books I'd submitted for "Search Inside" had vanished. Gone--pfft! In fact, 37 of our books were missing. Some as it turned out, had never been submitted, an oversight we are now rectifying. But I KNOW the two I'd registered for "Search Inside" had been there just 30 days or so previously.
I won't even go into the number of times we've had to upload cover art before it finally gets displayed. Then my partner who handles the Amazon account forwarded an Amazon order to me. It informed us that if we didn't ship the required copies of a math-training software program immediately, the item would be dropped from their catalog. Need I mention we don't publish software? Didn't think so. Still, makes you wonder if some poor benighted software manufacturer somewhere got the same email about our two missing books, doesn't it?
This doesn't negate the truth of the statement that bookstores need to be educated about how POD works for them. It's one of my main marketing projects. The easiest solution, of course, is for them to order directly from the printer of record, but old habits die hard and they like going to Ingram. We aren't listed with Ingram - and will never be if there's any way to avoid it. POD is meant to simplify the book-to-reader process, and the more hoops you put into that process the more confusion and expense you create. Any bookseller can order any of our titles directly from the printer, requesting payment in advance from the buyer, at 35% discount, and have it in 5-7 days via media mail drop-shipped to the customer or to them, if they hope for impulse buys. They just aren't used to doing it that way. By the way, we've used Booksurge since we opened our virtual doors, and have just begun serious marketing at Mobipocket.
Elizabeth K. Burton
Holt responds: I hear a lot about such confusion at Amazon, but what do you think about Booksurge now that it's been acquired, and tell us more about Mobipocket.
Elizabeth Burton replies: Amazon announced a week or so ago that they had acquired Booksurge (www.booksurge.com), a South Carolina-based POD printer and subsidy publishing company formerly known as Digitz, and Mobipocket (www.mobipocket.com), an ebook formatting/sales company in France.
For those who read ebooks on a Palm or other handheld, Mobipocket is by far the most popular format choice after Palm. Amazon has been offering ebooks in PDF and MS Reader, neither of which is liked by veteran ebookers for various reasons. PDF is messy unless you read on your computer and MS Reader requires you actually be connected to the Internet to read because you're not allowed to store your book on your computer. You have to let Microsoft keep it and ask permission. Given the objections ebook readers have to most DRM stuff as a matter of course, you can imagine how that goes over. As you probably know, a few months back Ingram announced they would cease listing any POD titles not printed via Lightning Source, a part of which they own. However, ALL LS titles would be automatically listed with them and be shipped to vendors. It had apparently sunk in that when you're using POD to produce backlist titles that are technically out of print, doing so by printing a whole bunch of copies to put in a warehouse is a little stupid.
So, it really didn't come as much of a surprise that Amazon would like Booksurge, which already has contracts with Penguin USA to print backlist and which also has printing/distribution partners in Canada, England, the Netherlands and OZ. Especially when you know Amazon has been weaning itself off the wholesalers and setting up direct ordering arrangements with publishers. So, they now have access to an ebook format that is very popular with avid ebook readers AND the capability to reduce the warehouse space necessary to keep books in stock.
We've been with Booksurge from day one, and our complaints have been few. The big one is their godawful shopping cart, which has probably done more to lose them sales than any other factor. They have always been quick to help us, particularly with marketing efforts, and their quality is excellent. So far, the only difference I've noticed about the new arrangement is that one of my books, which had mysteriously vanished from our Amazon Advantage database, is now listed as being shipped from Amazon in 3-6 weeks. Before, it was listed as unavailable and had the extra two bucks tacked on if anyone wanted to buy it. Considering they're already charging $22 for a $14 paperback, I can see why I haven't sold many. On the other hand, for our books, Amazon gets a bargain. They now not only sell them directly, but Booksurge has always listed them in Marketplace at regular cover. I presume Amazon will now get a bite of those sales. Ironically, there's also a listing of the book being available from Amazon for $18.70 with 24-hour shipping from Amazon in Marketplace.
They are nothing if not entertaining. :-)
As for Mobipocket, we had a selection of titles listed on their web bookstore via Fictionwise last year. I didn't pay much attention until last month, although I knew they were there. Discovered the Zumaya books were listed as being from eXtasy, our erotic fiction/romance imprint, so asked to have our other two imprints listed so I could correct things. After I did that, I added review quotes to most of the books, to very interesting results. One of the titles, a murder mystery/suspense novel, took off like a rocket, comparatively. Sold five copies last month and another five this month - which, considering it hadn't sold at all previously, I took as a good sign. I like the idea that they have a wide European audience, as I think we have a number of books that will appeal there. However, we've been told it will likely be six months before we find out what impact, if any, the acquisition will have on us.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
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