Jane Anderson's The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio is a suitably schizophrenic dramatic comedy based on Terry Ryan's autobiographical book set in suburban Ohio during the '50s and '60s, the end of America's "contest era". With its sunny face hiding its sad, struggling soul, it stars the lovely and ever-sharp (and gloriously freckled) Julianne Moore as Evelyn Ryan, a suburban mother who keeps her ten kids fed and clothed by entering every jingle and slogan contest she possibly can, winning cash and fabulous prizes. Woody Harrelson as her often-drunk but still-loving husband skillfully shifts from pathetic maniac to hurt pup, and the occasional fourth wall breaks work more often than not. Prize Winner is a sweet little movie, the kind that will make you want to call your mother and just say "thank you", and it is in theaters now.
Anderson has written big budget Hollywood fare, like It Could Happen To You and How To Make An American Quilt, and won an Emmy for writing Michael Ritchie's 1993 HBO movie, The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom starring Holly Hunter. Anderson took the time to talk with Cinematical during her recent promotional tour.
Cinematical: Why did this project appeal to you?
Jane Anderson: I've never seen either in literature or films anything that celebrates housewives and mothers quite in the way that Tuffy's [Terry's] book did. I've always experienced looking at the 1950's as stark, with interesting women committing suicide or running away. Evelyn was trapped in such a bleak situation, but she overcame it. She was one of the most heroic characters I've ever read.
Were you involved in getting it greenlit?
No, but I had Robert Zemeckis. He bought the property and produced the film, and it was really great to have him as my backup. He was my great Hollywood gorilla who could go to the studios and get what I needed to make this film the right way. I doubt that I could have done that on my own. Sometimes, it pays to depend on the kindness of strangers, like it did here. It's a great irony, too, with a big powerful guy like Bob, scoring with such a tender and almost feminist piece. I'm grateful for him being my champion and the book's.
Did you have any fears after being away from the big screen for so long?
Since I've been directing films for cable steadily [with four additional Emmy nominations], this was just a continuation of my craft. I really didn't think about this being any different than an HBO piece like Normal or If These Walls Could Talk [the second one]. My biggest concern was just to tell a good story.
How closely with Terry Ryan did you work in writing the screenplay?
We didn't write together at all, as I managed to overcome the challenges of adapting the book on my own. She was really helpful with research, though, answering questions on her family and especially her mother whenever they came up. When we started production, she brought me tons of photos, which were a huge help for the production designers and costumers. I did have her write some new jingles, and she channeled her mother for me beautifully.
Was it weird to work with special effects so much?
No, I enjoyed the challenge, though I prefer working with actors in building a scene rather than depending on effects. I did do all my own storyboards, which helped the effects team a lot. It's a delight for me to stick my hands in various mediums.
Were Julianne Moore's many freckles a make-up effect?
No, that's all her. I am so grateful to her for allowing that. It's so human.
Where did you find all the great old product packages?
My art department did all the research, and because Evelyn saved everything, Terry supplied them with all the old entry blanks. We were lucky to have her support.
In that you have worked mostly in TV, what challenges did you face in adapting the material so that it would rise above what so many people expect of a TV movie?
I never made my TV movies like TV movies; I made them like films, so that was never a question for me. I do what I do. What saved the film from being labeled as a TV movie was scrapping the idea behind my very first draft, which was a pretty literal adaptation telling the story from Tuff's POV. That all felt very ordinary to me. Then, thankfully, I came up with the idea of telling the story from Evelyn's POV and breaking the fourth wall and playing with style a bit, and it worked.
What else did you do to make the film feel so authentic?
We studied a lot of archival commercials and print ads of the time. I feel that the '50s kitsch breakaways provide visual and emotional relief from darker portions of film. Bob was a great, supportive producer, and told me to go wild. When you have a great filmmaker giving you permission to break the rules, it gives you a lot of courage.
Is this your first big tour?
HBO is pretty good with press promotion, but I've never traveled like this. We're doing San Francisco, L.A., New York, Philly, Boston, Toronto, Dallas (if it's still there) and Seattle.
Is Emmy polish expensive?
The trophy sits up there on the shelf. I really don't look at it much, because I'm always thinking of the next thing to write about.
Speaking of which...
Right now, I'm two years late on a play commission, but my next feature, which is for New Line, is called The Wife. It's about a woman who is married to a grand, famous novelist like Philip Roth, but she decides to break from him to go off on her own.
And speaking of award winners, after having worked with Holly Hunter, did you have her in mind for the part of Billie Jean King when you wrote When Billie Beat Bobby?
I sure did. Holly has the same sort of feistiness that Billie Jean had, and she was my only choice for the role.
And your hopes for the Prize Winner?
I want women to see it, and I want guys to see it, because I think older men will like it. I want anyone with a mom to see it. Really, I want everyone to see it -- that's why I'm talking to you in the first place, isn't it? [Laughs.]