The Diary of Evelyn Lau

Director: Sturla Gunnarsson – Executive producer: Maryke McEwen – Writer: Barry Stevens

DOP: Tony Westman – Editor: Jeff Warren – Music: Jonathan Goldsmith – Playback diary by Janice Lee

1989: Saddened by the death of her son’s street friend, Toronto producer Maryke McEwen (creator of Street Legal), becomes consumed with the idea of making a film about street kids and what it is like to be one of these ‘forgotten people.’

She feels compelled to tell a story – their story – without victimizing or objectifying them. McEwen begins to search for a project that will allow her to do this.

Early 1990: Ivan Fecan, then director for English television networks at the cbc, brings the national bestseller Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid to McEwen’s attention. He tells her that this is the story she has been looking for. Written by Vancouver teenager Evelyn Lau, the book is a true story and recounts the four years Lau spent living on the streets, her involvement with prostitution, and her addiction to drugs. McEwen is drawn to the stark reality of the diary as well as its message of hope.

Fall 1990: McEwen looks into buying the film and television rights for Runaway, but the book has already been optioned by an American company. Not having any prospects for the book, the American company passes on the option.

McEwen approaches the cbc with the idea for a two-hour television movie-of-the-week based on Lau’s diary. Network execs are enthusiastic and buy the rights to Runaway. They agree to fund the project in full: the $2 million tv movie will be called Personal: Evelyn Lau’s Diary.

McEwen meets with Lau and the young author signs on as consultant for the movie.

December 1990: McEwen approaches former youth counselor Barry Stevens, who she has worked with on Street Legal and For The Record, to write the screenplay for Personal.

Both McEwen and Stevens agree the script should be true to the diary as well as refrain from imposing any moral judgments. Their goal is to make Personal ‘more than just an issues movie’ about street kids. Within the script, McEwen also wishes to explore the questions of what it means to be an artist and what it means to be a woman.

January 1991: Stevens begins what will become a long and grueling writing process. Before the principal filming begins in April 1993, Stevens will have written seven official drafts.

March 1991: Sturla Gunnarsson finishes his year-long tour promoting Diplomatic Immunity, his film about foreign aid workers in El Salvador. He is approached by McEwen, who has also worked with him on Street Legal, with a copy of Runaway. Gunnarsson is compelled by the spiraling voice that emerges from the book and senses the humanism inherent in Lau’s writing. Like McEwen, he is also drawn to the documentary elements of the diary.

April 1991: Gunnarsson joins McEwen and Stevens to direct Personal.

Early 1991: cbc casting directors Steve Young (Toronto) and Sid Kozak (Vancouver) begin an extensive search for the right actor to play the role of Lau. It will be difficult to cast such a physically and emotionally demanding role.

McEwen, Young and Kozak see actors from across Canada. Although they would prefer to have a Canadian actor to play the role of Lau, they send out open casting calls to New York and Los Angeles. It is difficult not to get discouraged, but finding the right woman is crucial. Gunnarsson puts it best: ‘The girl is the movie.’

Late summer 1991: Montreal drama student Sandra Oh receives a call from her sister who has read about the casting call for Personal. Oh hops on a bus to Toronto and persuades Young to let her read for him. He is convinced he has found ‘Evelyn’ and sends Oh’s audition tape to Kozak in Vancouver. Oh will be called back for four more auditions over the next six months.

January 1992: In all, McEwen and her staff look at over 2,000 young women and sit through 500 readings before casting Oh for the part of Lau. McEwen is beginning to realize the emotional power of the project. She is struck by how many of the auditioning women are drawn to the role because they feel Lau’s story is also their own. Personal has taken on yet another dimension; it also deals with how women validate themselves in the eyes of men.

Summer 1992: Oh participates in a three-day script workshop with McEwen, Gunnarsson, Stevens and Lau.

March 1993: In keeping with the documentary style of the film, McEwen casts ‘real’ people for the movie. Street kids are used as extras, her assistant plays the role of the gummy-bear-giving police guard, and the location manager is cast as a man who picks Lau up.

April 1993: The 25 days of principal filming begin in Vancouver. The process of bringing Lau’s story to film has been a personal journey for McEwen and the shoot is emotionally draining for her.

Oh, trained as a method actress at Montreal’s National Theatre School, delves into the role full force, taking the rest of the cast and crew with her. dop Tony Westman films most of the scenes himself, often crouched in uncomfortable positions with a hand-held camera.

An oppressive mood surrounds the set: a rain truck follows cast and crew for most of the shoot; makeup artists, normally hired to make actresses look beautiful, cover Oh with bruises and cigarette burns.

In spite of this, a mutual respect and camaraderie develop among the crew. In order that Oh can return to Montreal to graduate with her class, crew members rearrange their schedules and work on a statutory holiday, taking a different day off.

Summer 1993: Jeff Warren conducts 10 weeks of editing sessions in Vancouver and Toronto. McEwen and Gunnarsson approach the editing of Personal in the same manner as they did the filming; they let the piece evolve at its own pace and speak in its own voice. The audio is mixed. Jonathon Goldsmith has composed the original music.

CBC International Sales representatives screen the rough cut of Personal and prepare for MIPCOM ’93 in October.

October 1993: CBC International Sales attends mipcom in Cannes. The immediate response to the trailer for Personal is favorable. Since Runaway has been translated into several languages worldwide, foreign buyers are familiar with Lau’s story and feel the movie should be seen in their countries.

January 1994: The movie, now entitled The Diary of Evelyn Lau, has its world premier at the seventh Festival international de programmes audiovisuels (fipa) in Cannes. It is screened to a sold-out audience at the Palais Theatre. Oh is the toast of the town and wins the Best Female Actor Honors (gold) from the festival.

March 13, 1994: The Diary of Evelyn Lau airs on cbc. With its success at fipa, international sales results have been very good. Deals have been made with Bulgaria, New Zealand, Indonesia, France and Sweden.

April 1994: At mip-tv in Cannes, The Diary of Evelyn Lau is named a Rockie Awards nominee by the Banff Television Festival.

May 1994: The Diary of Evelyn Lau is named one of three finalists in the Rockies made-for-tv-movie category, along with The Cow – The Adventure of an Extraordinary Life (Czech Television, Czech Republic) and The Snapper (Screen Two, bbc, u.k.). International sales for The Diary of Evelyn Lau continue to go exceedingly well.

With the success of Diary, McEwen and Gunnarsson have decided to collaborate on two other reality-based projects for cbc. Stevens, working with Epitome Pictures, is currently writing for the cbc series Liberty Street, based on the mow X-Rated.