Writer-director Jane Anderson faced several unique challenges in bringing The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio to the big screen. This is appropriate, considering that the film's real-life protagonist, Evelyn Ryan, dealt with more than a few challenges of her own.
With 10 kids and an alcoholic husband, 1950s housewife Ryan struggled to make ends meet and maintain a happy household. The solution she came up with was unconventional but effective: Using her considerable wit, Ryan managed to win numerous "jingle contests" staged by companies promoting products. Her winnings, which included everything from cash and bicycles to grocery-store shopping sprees, often kept her large family afloat.
As portrayed in the film by Julianne Moore, Ryan never backs down from a challenge, and one senses Anderson is much the same. First, there was the matter of finding all those kids: The film required 20 young actors, plus a set of infant twins, to play the Ryan children at various ages. Anderson cast most of these young performers out of Toronto, where the film was shot. "The advantage to that, I found, is that the kids up there aren't quite wrecked by the business the way they are down here," she explains. "I was looking for kids who had the discipline to maintain a character on-set, but...I also wanted really natural kids. The challenge was, I had to genetically match them to Woody [Harrelson, who plays family patriarch Kelly Ryan] and Julianne, genetically match them to each other as they age, and get the focus and personality out of them."
One particularly pivotal role is that of middle daughter Tuff, aka Terry Ryan. The film is based on her memoir, titled The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less. "Because that's a major part, I auditioned a lot of actors down here, but I was really unsatisfied with what I found," says Anderson. "I hate to say it, but it seemed like there was a lot of Botox going on in the lips already. I don't know if it's because the look is in, so actresses who have those big, puffy lips work a lot and therefore go out on the auditions. I don't know what's going on, but I couldn't find any young actress who I would believe grew up in the '50s."
Another unfortunate thing about some contemporary young actors, adds Anderson, is that they tend to have "Valley speak." "They have to get rid of it, because there are a lot of great period movies coming out, being cast, and actors have to go back to the craft, go to speech class and learn mid-Atlantic speech again," she says.
The part finally went to Oregon native Ellary Porterfield. As teenage Tuff, Porterfield delivers a natural, honest performance, holding her own opposite Moore and Harrelson. "I could believe that she could take care of her brothers and sisters; I could believe that she could be responsible," says the writer-director. "The middle kid of 10 has that job: You look after the younger kids, and as every kid leaves, you rise in the ranks of the family, and you have to become more and more responsible. Also, she grew up to be a writer, so I was looking for that intelligence, and Ellary had it."
Once Anderson had her young cast in place, she gathered its members together to discuss growing up in the 1950s and the various siblings' personalities. "When it came time to block them--which was a real challenge for me, to block 10 kids for camera and keep the flow--they were able to give me ideas," she says. "That's ideal because, as a director, you control your picture and you have a certain vision. But to me, to collaborate with the actors, I want to hear from them, what they'd like to do."
As for the adult actors in the film, Anderson took note of their very different approaches to the work. "Julianne's very independent," she says. "She comes on to [the] set fully loaded. She doesn't like to discuss what she's going to do, she doesn't like to rehearse. Her craft is exquisite, and she's very smart. She really knows how to sit down with the script and deconstruct the beats and know where she wants to go. Woody likes to collaborate and he likes to rehearse, so I had to balance between the two of them."
It was another challenge, but one that Anderson relished. "You want each of your actors to be as comfortable as they can," she says. "Everybody has a different technique, and you have to honor that technique as a director. You can't force an actor to rehearse if they don't want to. The job of the director is to make sure you don't crush an actor's impulse and to create an atmosphere that will allow them to do their work and to feel comfortable to have the freedom to create."
Anderson has a special empathy for actors because she began her career as one, dropping out of college and moving to New York when she was 19. Her first gig was in David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago, opposite Peter Riegert and F. Murray Abraham. "I soon discovered that I was never going to be a brilliant actor," she says. "I was never really eager to show everything, all my insides, onstage, and I think that's an essential. And I knew I would never have the craft, just because of the nature of my voice. I was not born with a great voice, singing or otherwise."
Anderson--whose voice, by the way, has a distinctively warm, husky quality--decided to focus on comedy. "Lily Tomlin was my idol," she says. "I did cabaret, and I was pretty successful. I did all kinds of crazy characters. I felt safer doing comedy and also performing my own words. From that, I transitioned into becoming a full-time writer--a playwright, a screenwriter. I love writing because, as a writer, I can be any character."
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio marks Anderson's feature-film directorial debut, but she's been involved in interesting, emotionally complex moviemaking for quite a while. She won an Emmy for her screenplay of HBO's The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, starring Holly Hunter, and was nominated for Showtime's The Baby Dance, which she wrote and directed from her play of the same name. In 2003 she picked up another nomination for Normal, the HBO TV movie based on her play Looking for Normal.
For Prize Winner, Anderson was originally hired by filmmaker Robert Zemeckis to adapt the book for him to direct. "Then he said, 'Aw, Jane, I don't think I can deal with all those kids, I'm gonna get someone else to direct,'" she remembers. "I said, 'You know what? I'd really like to do this. I really have a vision for what I want to do.' He thought about it and came back and said, 'I'm gonna let you run with it.' It was the greatest gift I've gotten so far in my career. We all depend on that one person to believe in you. The first person who did that for me was Jodie Foster when she produced the first film I ever directed, The Baby Dance. She took the chance on me, she backed me up. Robert Zemeckis has done the same thing with this, and I'm deeply grateful to both of them."
Anderson is also grateful for the years she spent as an actor. Her experience gives her unique insight into the plight of performers. "I understand, first of all, how dreadful it is to audition," she says. "I make sure to be very available to actors when they come in to audition for me. Being respectful of an actor when they walk in the room will only enhance their audition. It doesn't serve to treat an actor like an idiot or a nonentity when they walk in the room, because they'll freeze up. When I cast the day players in my film--all those small parts--I'm looking for really interesting faces and interesting characters, and I want them to shine in the audition and then, if I cast them, on the set."
She also knows what it's like to be on the receiving end of direction. "I know what can become annoying," she says. "I know that being left in the dark and left to do the guesswork can be very frustrating and very frightening. For instance, when a day player walks on-set, I talk it out with them and let them talk to me about what they want to do, and I explain to them what the scene is about for me, so that they know where to go. On the other hand, I know what it's like when a director overtalks. You're loaded up, ready to go, and they keep blabbing. I love to talk, and I have to pull myself back--talk kills the emotional windfalls." BSW