When Megan Holley was named one of Variety’s 10 Screenwriters to Watch in 2005, her Hollywood agents had to wait till she clocked in to work–tending to drug addicted lab rats–to tell her the good news. That’s because Megan, who’d quit her longtime job editing industrial safety films to take a month-long filmwriting fellowship, had come home with no money. And her phone had been cut off. So, it’s no surprise when Holley, who describes herself as an ‘eternal optimist who takes huge leaps of faith,’ admitted she really related to the struggles of the two lead characters she created Sunshine Cleaning.
It’s been a long road for this new hot talent. It was back in 2001 that she first began writing the story of the two sisters who find their true selves after creating a business cleaning up other people’s tragedies. Encouraged to enter the script into a local film festival, Megan soon found herself a winner and taking meetings with former Focus Films production chief Glenn Williamson, who’d shown up on campus to serve as a board member for his former alma mater. What might have been smooth sailing from that point turned into a twisty multi-year saga. Names attached to the project early on–director Karen Moncreiff and actors Ashley Judd and Zooey Deschanel– pulled out. New producing partners came in. The screenplay, Holley admits, went through several ‘reincarnations.’
Megan is protective of her work, and quick to express her dismay early in our conversation at the critical reception to one of her characters–Joe, the sisters’ father–who has been described by some as a schemer, always looking for a get-rich-quick deal. “I think he’s heroic! He works hard, he loves his kids to a fault,” she protests. “It was so surprising to me that people saw him as bumbling!”
She was also ready to take on, if not quite as passionately, the subject of changes made to her script once the producing team behind Little Miss Sunshine came on board. “There were continual rewrites”, Megan recalls, “based on who was attached. It was always a story about the sisters, and about Rose’s developing a sense of herself though the job, but I did trim back some storylines. The character of Norah changed the most. I couldn’t be more thrilled with what Amy Adams and Emily Blunt and all the actors brought. They made things so much richer. And Christine (Jeffs, the director) brought a ton of material. What great visual style!”
Holley says she can see comparisons that some people make between her Sunshine and Little Miss, but points out that she wrote her script five years before she knew anything about the other film. “I loved that movie,” she moans good naturedly. “It’s fantastic, but it’s got a different tone. There were some elements shared and that was initiallyt a concern. So, there was discussion about changing the title, but none of the new ones seemed to stick.”
Considering her comments about the ‘fine tuning’ that was going on around her, I can’t help but wonder whether Megan, as a first time writer, was intimidated. “Well, I did speak up,” she admits. “But I was keenly aware that these people know more than I did. They’ve been around. I was a novice, and I was given a tremendous opportunity to learn. I thought it was a good idea to listen to them.”
Now that Sunshine Cleaning is a box office success, Holley hopes her next projects will have shorter gestation periods. Fox 2000 assigned her to adapt the Key to the Golden Firebird, Maureen Johnson’s teen lit novel, for the screen, and she’s recently completed the script. She’s also got several pitches in play for both TV and film, and she hears her adapted screenplay of A Jealous Ghost, which Kirsten Dunst is producing and will star in, is “very, very close. But,” Megan says with a rueful chuckle, “I’m not holding my breath.”