Earlier this month, I wrote about Variety's latest list of screenwriters to watch and its double-edged sword -- elation that more female writers were entering Hollywood, mixed with disappointment that these women were busy writing 'bout boys -- all the dramatic and comedic romance the audience-at-large has come to expect from the XX-chromosome set.
Luckily, not every scribe to grace that list has followed this ever-present path. In 2005, Megan Holley was named one of Hollywood's "It" screenwriters by the trade, and it wasn't for typical fare. She had written Sunshine Cleaning -- a film about a woman and sister who start a crime scene-cleaning business and use it to get their lives on track. The film hit the screens earlier this year, and is now hitting the shelves on DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow.
I was eager to talk to Holley. I liked watching Sunshine Cleaning, but more powerfully, I appreciated it. Behind the great performances (Blunt's troubled Norah in particular), there was a unique tone to the film. Its gentleness suggested that Cupid would pop up at some point to shoot his arrow, but he did not. And this didn't reveal a failure in the script or its direction, but rather a revelation about what we've come to expect from cinema -- the romantic resolution. "To me what was really important was that this character was really coming into her own through this business that she built," Holley explains. "Her growth and evolution as a person was really based on that. Based on something that she did and built. I didn't want to... I don't know... It seemed too easy or convenient to then tie it up with some kind of romantic consummation. I wanted her to be standing on her own two feet."
Holley's treatment of her characters -- her dedication to their business, and their emotional development outside of men -- suggests that she carefully crafted her characters to break the norm, to defeat the stereotypical "female" plot we've all grown accustomed to. But as she explains, it was merely a dedication to the depth of her characters, and making them real, that inspired Holley. "I don't think that I set about, in any conscious way, trying to present the female characters in one way or the other. I just wanted to present them in a way that felt real to me."
Talking to Holley, and discussing women in Hollywood with her, it became immediately obvious that she didn't have a political, feminist agenda. She wasn't striving to change the landscape of film, and that's what makes Sunshine Cleaning notable -- it all came about organically. She simply felt dedicated to her characters and wanted to make them real -- and her reality, which is true for many women, isn't something we usually see in Hollywood. Sunshine Cleaning focuses on someone who builds a business and life for herself. While it's a move that's helped by the men Rose knows, it's help without the prince who saves the day. It's help that ultimately allows her to gain independence and stand alone.
This is probably because Holley herself isn't fluff-obsessed: "My tastes really are wide open. I like popcorn flicks, thrillers. I like things that are more kind of human-scale, and ground in reality. I just love movies. I'm trying to be open to different genres, and explore what I can write and not put limits on myself." So she set out to do just that.
In her driveway, listening to NPR, she heard about two women who started a crime scene-cleaning business. "I was immediately struck by the fact that these women were doing this business, which seems very male-centric. They had such a unique take on their work. Instead of emphasizing the gross-out factor of what they did, they really emphasized how they felt that it was really important work. That they were helping people at a really vulnerable time. And that is the idea that really kind of resonated with me."
"I grew up in the Midwest, and didn't really have any clue how to get into the industry," Holley explains. "I'm in Richmond, Virginia now. I just started doing little short films and showing them at a local venue. From the response I got from that, I tried to do something bigger and started writing a screenplay before work every day." Cash-strapped at the time, Holley didn't have the money to enter the contests that required an entry payment, so she just kept submitting the script to free ones, which led her to being one of the winners of the Virginia Governor's Screenwriting Competition. Soon, the script was in development, and Holley became a great example of someone who went out there and created what she wanted to see, rather than just imagining it in the abstract.
Now she's got a handful of pictures in the works, but it's her new script that says a lot about what Hollywood needs: "There's a project that I'm tinkering with right now, focusing on a relationship between a mother and daughter, that I'm feeling very passionate about. It's something that I've been kicking around for a while. We'll see what comes of it. I'm in love with the characters right now, which is the most important thing for me and keeps me invested in the project -- feeling an attachment to the characters. And I definitely have a romance going on with these characters. Hopefully I can turn it into something."
Perhaps she means a romance for her characters, but I see it as a romance between herself and the women she writes. Outside of studio expectations, regardless of political aims, Holley has created women she feels passionate about: women who find their own success in hardship, who have personal exploits that don''t take over their lives, and -- refreshingly -- women who follow the Bechdel Rule well.
If we could only get this type of thinking in more mainstream fare...
Watch a clip from the film below ...