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The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio
by Terry Ryan
Tuffy's Adventures in Promotion & PR
The following appeared in #395 (5/3/05) 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.
THE PRIZE WINNER GOES TO THE MOVIES - PART IVTHE 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.