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'Sunshine Cleaning': clues at the scene of the relationship

The film's central duo clean up after crimes, but they also are investigating their sibling issues.

March 08, 2009|Susan King

Not every occupation is suffering through the recession. Take crime scene cleanup.

It seems there will always be a need for men and women with strong stomachs who can clean up, once the guys from CSI finish examining a murder, suicide or a decomposing body or two.

Seven years ago, fledgling screenwriter Megan Holley, who was editing safety and employee orientation videos for Virginia, heard a story on National Public Radio about two female friends who started a crime scene biohazard cleanup business in Washington state.

"I was struck by the job but also the attitude the women had toward their job," Holley said. "They felt they were doing something good. I think one of them called it a 'feel-good' job. They were doing some bit of good in a situation that was very difficult. I was really struck by that. I thought, I want to do something based on this world and this attitude."

So Holley researched the industry, learning about its rules and regulations and talking to people in the biz. Then she began writing the dramedy "Sunshine Cleaning," opening Friday at the Landmark in West L.A. and ArcLight Hollywood.

Amy Adams and Emily Blunt star in the film from the same producers as "Little Miss Sunshine" as two underachieving sisters living in Albuquerque who discover confidence and self-worth when they open their own crime scene service. Alan Arkin plays their father.

Though Holley's only sibling is a brother, she focused the story on sisters because she was struck by the idea of exploring adult sibling relationships.

"It's not something you see that often [in films], and I find that relationships between siblings and adults are so complicated and mired in the past," she said. "The roles that are cemented in childhood you can never get out of."

She entered the screenplay in the 2003 Virginia governor's screenplay contest, sponsored by the Virginia Film Office. "It was a free contest," she said. "I had no money. I literally ran it over to the film office at 5 p.m. the day of the deadline. It ended up being one of the big winners. [Producer] Glenn Williamson was one of the judges, and he said he really loved it and said he'd try to make it."

But the project came together and fell apart several times, and while Williamson was trying to get it set up, Holley went through some tough times financially. When she was named one of Variety's 10 screenwriters to watch in 2005, she was working as a lab technician with rats that were addicted to cocaine, meth and heroin. "It was really so sad; I was so ill from the job," she said.

"I am such an animal lover. The nice rats I would smuggle out. I had this huge rat condo in my apartment."

Holley took the job because, she said, "I was totally hard up for cash. My phone was cut off, and my agents would have to call me at work in the lab because there was no other way to get ahold of me."

Once the Variety article ran, she got a paying gig writing an adaptation for a film for Fox 2000 that has yet to be made. And by 2007, "Sunshine Cleaning" was set up and ready to start filming.

Director Christine Jeffs, who had worked with Williamson previously on "Sylvia" with Gwyneth Paltrow, was drawn to the project because of the sister dynamic.

"It was the strongest component," said the director, who has a younger sister. "I found that really interesting territory to explore on how these relationships work and how you can experience the same circumstances in life but end up making different choices."

Since the production of "Sunshine Cleaning," Holley has written an adaptation of A.N. Wilson's "A Jealous Ghost" to which Kirsten Dunst is attached, with Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego scheduled to direct.

"I have a couple of pitches I'm working on too," said Holley.

And what about her rats?

"They started passing away," she said, sadly. "The last one, Scooter, left me last year."


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