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The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

by Terry Ryan

Tuffy's Adventures in Promotion & PR

The following appeared in #394 (4/12/05) of Holt Uncensored, a twice-weekly email column and website about books and the book industry written by Pat Holt, former Book Review Editor and Critic for The San Francisco Chronicle.

Tuffy's Great Audio Adventure
(adapting the book to audio format):
Part I | Part II

Media Training in Hollywood:
Tuffy Meets the Spackle Sisters

The Home Town Responds:
Tuffy's Big Day in Defiance Ohio

The Midwestern Publicity Tour:
Terry Meets the "Knuckleheads in the News"

The Prize Winner on TV:
CBS Sunday Morning News, Part I
Part II | Part III

The Prize Winner Goes to the Movies:
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V



How does a book become a movie? What happens to the author when Hollywood moves in?


Perhaps the most memorable experience for every adult Ryan who visited the Toronto sound stage was the nearly electrical charge that zips around the set whenever a scene is about to be filmed.

This is where the magic of movie-making stops every heart: All the "technicals" (booms, lights, props) are in place; the actors have taken their positions; the crew withdraws as though invisible, and writer-director Jane Anderson assesses the company like a great general in the field. At this point, the scene behind the scenes begins:

         "Finals!" someone yells, and the Hair and Makeup people dart into camera range for final brush-ups on the actors.
         "Quiet, please!" shouts an A.D. (assistant director);
         "QUIET ON THE SET!" yells the more formidable assistant to the assistant;
         "QUIET!" a distant electrician tells his own crew.
         "BRRRRRRING," sounds the sturdy electric bell that rings through the entire sound stage, and now all talk and movement, even to scratch a tiny itch, stops dead.
         WHAP! goes the clapboard in front of the camera, not only to show the number and chronology of the "take" but to help a future editor line up visual and audio tapes, which are recorded separately.
         "Rolling," whispers the production chief to let the still-in-the-water company know that film is moving through the camera.
         "And....." Jane murmurs, drawing it out to give the actors a last moment of composure, "action!" And the entire collection of dozens of people, visitors and crew included, holds its collective breath.
         (At the end of the scene, after "Cut!" and sometimes "Print!" or "Take!" or "Wrap!" someone yells, "Check the gate!" which means a technician examines the camera to make sure nary a hair or dust mote has worked its way into the lens.)



The Ryan visitors were invited to watch most scenes from two locations: 1) We could stand on the set itself with the production crew (a prized location but behind many layers of people huddled around Jane and the cameras), or 2) we could sit in directors' chairs a few feet away and watch the action on a TV screen that showed us everything the camera saw. The sound on this TV had been muted permanently so it wouldn't interfere with the actors' voices. To listen in, we were given special headsets attached to audio controls about the size of a deck of playing cards with little dials for volume adjustment.

These snazzy wireless packs were treasured commodities that we passed among us like expensive binoculars at the opera. They picked up every sound on the set - not only scripted dialog during the scene but technicians' comments about placement of lights and mikes, actors' queries about movement and voice levels, camera operators' comments on the angle of their own mini-screens, the cinematographer's ideas about emotional atmosphere and impact, and finally Jane's soft-spoken, incredibly astute directions for everyone. (In other more rambunctious scenes, the aptly named stunt coordinator, Bronco, could be heard showing actors how to fall aim the padded parts of their bodies against invisibly cushioned kitchen counters, tables and chairs.)

Thus when the crew prepared the "Mom's Closet" scene, one of the few we got to watch from start to finish, our experience was similar, I felt, to witnessing a good short story take root in the mind of its creator and bloom ferociously in every possible direction, even as it was pruned into shape by the director (forgive MOC - Metaphor Out of Control).

"Mom's Closet" takes place after Evelyn Ryan discovers that her husband Kelly has taken out a second mortgage on the house without telling anybody and never made a payment. The sympathetic bank manager has called to say that he can't stop foreclosure proceedings unless Evelyn brings in the entire amount - $4,000 - in a few weeks.

Mom is blindsided: She doesn't have $40, let alone $4,000. Even when the kids suggest selling every item of value in the house, the total she would collect barely reaches $400. Evelyn pleads with the bank manager for more time, enters new contests and writes new poems, but barely makes a dent in the amount due. As the day of foreclosure draws near, all she and Kelly can come up with is a plan to ask relatives to take in two or three kids at a time until a new place of residence is found. But the kids themselves know that not enough money exists even to find a cheap rental, which means the family could break up permanently.

Every day that brings the deadline closer also inspires desperate moves on the part of the Ryans. Thanks to Evelyn's contest-winning ways, the kids are accustomed to everyday miracles, so Tuff at age 13 seeks a rare moment of privacy upstairs to talk directly to God about giving Mom a really big contest to win. "If you were saving one for later, that'll be too late," she says. "Give it to her now."

Meanwhile, downstairs, Evelyn hears a distant buzzing sound she can't quite identify. It has a repetitive rhythm that causes her to wander around the house trying to locate the source. As the "Mom's Closet" scene begins, we see Evelyn slowly enter the bedroom she shares with Kelly, drawn by this buzzing sound, which grows louder with each step. The noise seems be coming from her closet, but as we see from the quizzical expression on her face, she can't believe anybody's in there: For the 12 years they've lived in this house, no Ryan child has been allowed even to peek into Mom's closet, treasure trove as it's been for her many winnings - clock radios, baseball bats, bicycles, dolls, cowboy clothes, phonographs, hair dryers, chemistry sets - that will function one day as Christmas or birthday presents.

So Evelyn is mystified as she opens the bedroom door to find her youngest three children, all under 10, look up from the rosary beads they're holding with the kind of solemnity one sees in adults who oversee relief operations for earthquakes and floods.

"What's up, kids?" she says, bending down to examine each face at eye level. As Betsy, Barb and Dave explain that they're asking for a miracle to save the house from the bank, we see from their tiny, earnest faces that the only sacred place in the house they feel suitable for praying is Mom's Closet.

Evelyn nods gravely. She is not angry that her children have disobeyed her orders nor frustrated that they've probably seen all the goodies she's hidden away. This might work, her expression seems to say. "All right, then," she says, closing the door quietly. And as she eases out of the room, we hear the buzzing sound resume as only Catholic kids know how to do it: "Hailmaryfullofgracethelordiswiththeeblessedartthou amongstwomenHailmaryfullofgracethelordiswiththee...."

It's a great moment, touching and funny at once, and you can imagine how fascinated the Ryans came to be at every detail it took for the crew to bring the scene alive. Even the early preparations were mesmerizing: Suddenly the little shack-like construction on the sound stage designated as the Parents' Bedroom, which had been dark and moribund for weeks, began to glow with hidden track lighting and human energy. With little space in there except for a bed, dresser and closet, the atmosphere got closer and the temperature got hotter as everybody from actors to electricians and sound engineers crowded around Jane and her assistants inside.

Watching the TV monitor, we could tell even from the outside that Jane wanted the claustrophobic feel of the room to dictate the movements of the actors while she blocked out the scene. That meant that key technicians couldn't stay, so they hauled giant ladders over to the outside walls of the Parents Bedroom where they raced up the rungs to sit on the top step and look over the ceilingless walls into the pit of the room. As more electricity got hooked up, shafts of light flooded up from the action below, illuminating their faces so dramatically that they looked like beneficent human gargoyles gazing down, patiently protecting all within.

Jane's quiet efficiency on the set was so understated and consistent that rehearsals inside the tiny room took very little time. At a signal from her A.D., the crew outside scrambled down the ladders and, like a vaudeville sketch in the making, calmly carried off the entire front wall, complete with drapes and windowsill plants, to open up the Parents Bedroom for cameras, booms, spotlights and thick tangles of electrical cord, all of which slid snugly into place. Soon three or four rows of technicians and directors lined up behind Jane as Julie waited in the hallway and the kids remained barely visible through a strip of space between the door and its jamb in Mom's Closet. Then the magic began.

"Finals!" "Quiet, please!" "QUIET ON THE SET!" "QUIET!" BRRRRRRING... WHAP! "Rolling!"

"And.....," Julie, without moving a cell in her body, somehow transformed herself into Evelyn Ryan, "action!" The kids began reciting their prayer in quickstep unison as Mom tentatively stepped into the room, her head cocked in the direction of the closet, listening intently. The camera followed every movement as Julie turned the knob of the door and opened it just wide enough for the screen to capture the surprise she sees inside. All is fluid, intimate, spontaneous. "What's up, kids?" she asks, bending down in perfect position for the camera to zoom in over her head on three wide-eyed and earnest little faces looking back.

We were told later that when you film a movie, the focus of each scene depends on who benefits most from the action. Here one would think Evelyn would be the center of our attention because she finds unexpected allies in the closet. But the scene that unfolds is so intimate and spontaneous, and the children are so filled with their sense of mission and purpose that somehow, Jane intends, the focus will encompass all of them, since all will benefit, including the audience watching.

So every sequence in this scene was shot repeatedly from different angles. Once we followed Mom pulling the closet door nearly shut and leaving the bedroom, the back of the closet was carried off so the camera could record Evelyn's face when she realizes three of her children have sneaked into this historically off-limits space and have every good reason to do so. This, too, is done a dozen times. Then the back wall goes up and a side wall is taken off so the camera can move around to record Julie's point of view and those of the three little actors when Mom crouches down to look at each of the children's faces and ask, "What's up, kids?" This requires another dozen takes. Then the children explain why they're in there at least 20 times as the camera closes in on every possible shot of tiny hands fiddling with beads and little cheeks flushed with severity and perfect somber mouths reciting Hail Marys so fast they could all go on to a careers doing voiceovers for prescription drugs.

But it wasn't until we watched the face of Julianne Moore reacting to what was really going on in that closet that the essence of this movie and the production team's vision for it became clear, at least to me, for the first time. In Terry's book, this scene is given less than a few sentences, so there's little buildup to Evelyn's journey through the house to find the origin of the buzzing noise.

In the movie, perhaps because we feel extreme pressures increasing on Evelyn - not only from the bank but from the daily demands of a growing family and yet another failure on the part of her husband - we're acutely aware that discovering the kids in her long-prohibited closet could be the last straw. She could erupt in despair, frustration or sheer exhaustion. Instead, it only takes a beat for us to realize that Evelyn has too much respect for her kids for that and is more curious about what they're up to than anything - more collegial, even, in the way she shares the hope of their plan with them. And in that beat we see one of the truths that Mom Ryan has passed on to her kids, that the worst obstacles in life are best confronted without anger or outrage. That if you try not to take any kind of tragedy personally, you'll be able to seek the greatest source of power inside to resolve matters. Perhaps because they lived in one of the worst tornado pathways in Northwest Ohio, or because every night of their childhood, Evelyn Ryan taught her kids how to be safe from the tornado in the kitchen, her children grew up turning to themselves, their wits and their ingenuity and their ability to think on their feet, in the face of every adversity - even the absolute impossibility of raising $4,000 in a matter of days - that life threw at them.



I shouldn't be too weighty about this. "Prize Winner" is a laugh-through-your-tears movie in which Evelyn wins contests by using her family's foibles as well as talents for fodder, including her own husband's drinking problem -

I'm glad I use Dial
It's the one "bar" in town
With a "chaser" for "troubles"
Plain water can't drown.

- and Woody Harrelson, remembered so vividly by millions of TV viewers as a young bartender himself (in "Cheers"), brings the perfect contrast to Kelly Ryan's wildly contradictory behavior as a great Dad and a monstrous drunk.

To a person, Terry and her adult siblings remember their father as a kindly man who was full of humor and sweetness while sober, and Woody had the ability to show us a glimpse of the debased good intentions inside Kelly, even during his worst alcoholic ragings.

Woody was also the most playful actor on the set, delighting in a rare opportunity when the car accident that almost kills Kelly was filmed on a remote road outside Toronto. With "blood" all over the front of his shirt and a piece of phony windshield glass sticking out of his neck, Woody stumbled onto a bicycle trail and gasped to passing cyclists, "Won't somebody help me?" The first cyclist looked at him in shock and braked hard, then caught on. "It's Woody Harrelson!" he yelled to the others behind him. "Hi Woody!" they shouted he stood there "bleeding." "'Bye Woody!" they yelled and cycled away as though he came out of the bushes every day.

Dad's car accident was the first of Woody's several "liquid" scenes. In another, he walked around the set spraying a slimy water solution on his face so he would look sweaty when Kelly gets in a fight with Bruce. In the climactic family brawl, the crew had to toss gobs of Jell-O at Woody's head and shoulders to effect the look of a man who had just been dumped on by Mom's dessert. This is one of the great tragi-comic moments in the book and movie: Kelly shoves Evelyn, the kids leap on Kelly to stop him, the bowl of Jell-O flips out of Mom's arms into the air, and everybody stops abruptly, their eyes fastened on the rising bowl as they remember Evelyn's latest contest entry before it lands on Kelly's head:

For picnic or party, Jell-O's a boon -
Made by nine, all "set" by noon -
With taste and shimmer-shake appeal,
Jell-O jollies *any* meal.

Very soon the calls for "Quiet Please!" followed by bells ringing and actors acting and scenes wrapping became so familiar that the Ryans felt less like witnesses to their own history and more like participants in a great cinematic phenomenon. And nothing made it clearer they were really involved than Jane Anderson's boldest move as writer-director: A scene in which these very adult Ryans would play themselves near the end of the movie.

In some ways the buildup to this scene was similar to what happened in Mom's Closet: As each of the Ryans got the call from Hair & Makeup or Wardrobe, that paralytic dread of THE CAMERA TURNING ON YOU hit home and one could hear mumblings of that old favorite, "Hailmaryfullofgracethelordiswiththeeblessedartthouamongstwomen."



Meanwhile the symptoms we thought had come from too much air travel - dizziness, double vision, stuffed-up ears and unsteady gait - were abating in many of us as we over-the-counter drugs ranging from Sudafed to Dramamine got passed around like candy. That should have been the end of it, but soon something else could be seen on the TV monitor while we watched Evelyn Ryan's original typewriter - the 35-pound Underwood she used for many decades to enter contests and write funny poems - was carried across the Front Porch set at great expense to the carrier's ankles. It wasn't that we could see joints swelling up or spraining in front of us; rather a creaky, weary fragility seemed to shoot up through the bones and turned them to glass. "You think Benadryl can take care of that?" some Ryans would joke, but there was no getting the worry out of their voices. Something was wrong with Terry and nobody had a clue what to do about it.

Next: THE RYANS TAKE THEIR PLACES (You may have noticed I ran a bit long again so am expanding the series to PART IV. One more and that's it! At least for a while.)