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About The Production
Producer Robert Zemeckis recalls that he first heard about the book The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio and its inspiring heroine, Evelyn Ryan, when he read a review in The New York Times' book section. "It sounded like an almost impossible but wonderful story, and it just seemed to encapsulate a part of America that existed right on the cusp of the mass-marketing era.” What fascinated him was that Evelyn's family was actually able to survive because of her talent. "But more than that,” he says, "it was Evelyn's unshakable optimism and her love of life—that spiritual quality that allowed her to get through a life of hardships.”

Zemeckis passed Ryan's book along to partners Jack Rapke and Steve Starkey, who shared his enthusiasm for the story. Rapke offers, "I was impressed by Evelyn's brilliance, but more than that, I was attracted to the fact that no matter how bad her life seemed to be on the outside, she always saw the glass as half full. She saw whatever she was given as a gift.”

Producer Steve Starkey also found himself drawn to the material. "This heroic woman was able to overcome even the most extreme obstacles in her life. It's truly an uplifting story,” he remarks.

Published in 2001, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio was author Terry Ryan's tribute to her remarkable mother, Evelyn Ryan, who died in 1998. "She was 85 years old when she died, but she could have lived to be 185 and it still would have been too soon as far as we were concerned,” states Ryan, the sixth of the ten Ryan children. "My intent was to bring her back to life, if only on the page. Luckily, she made it easy for us.”

As Ryan and her siblings went through their mother's things, they found seven dressers and a cedar chest full of all of her contest memorabilia: 24 notebooks in which she had recorded every jingle and poem she had ever written; hundreds of letters of congratulations from the sponsoring companies; and 70 entry blanks. There was even a letter that said "Dear Mrs. Evelyn Z. Ryan: Congratulations! You have won a General Electric television set. Signed, Bob Hope.”

Ryan had to rent a van to move all of her mother's papers from Defiance, Ohio, to Terry's home in San Francisco. Putting it all together, she ended up with a 400-page document that she called her "Mom Manual.” She realized she had the outline of the story of her mother's life, which became a springboard for a fascinating book. Years later, when Ryan got the news that her book had been optioned for a movie, she says her first thought was, "My mother is the only person I know who is dead and still winning things.” 

Zemeckis' first choice to write the script was Jane Anderson. "Even before Jane turned to directing, she was writing these wonderfully quirky, beautiful screenplays,” says Zemeckis. "There was just something about this story that just demanded that Jane should be the one to adapt it.”

Anderson loved the book, saying it was Evelyn's unbridled optimism that particularly resonated with her. "Evelyn was not a woman of independent means; she was a woman of independent happiness. She had a crushingly difficult life, but she insisted on living in a state of delight. But she was no fool. She knew how to sidestep adversity and meanness with grace.”

Robert Zemeckis had originally planned to direct the film himself, but when other commitments interfered, he immediately turned to Anderson. "Jane has an amazing sense of character, and of timing and style,” Zemeckis comments. "Her understanding of human nature allows her to create—and help the actors create—real characters that are resonant and accessible. It was evident from the screenplay she had written that she had a real passion for the material, and I knew in my heart she would do a wonderful job directing the film.” 

Over the two years Anderson had worked on the script, she and Terry Ryan had


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