BEHIND THE SCENES
The story behind the movie "Sunshine Cleaning" is almost as unlikely as the film’s tale of sisters who rebuild their lives and family bond by starting a biohazard removal company. First-time screenwriter Megan Holley was inspired by a news piece she heard on the radio about a new growth industry: the crime scene clean-up business. "I thought that it would be just a fantastic backdrop to tell a story," she says. "I started working on the script and I wrote a couple hours every day before work. It took me a while, but I finally got it finished and I sent it off to a local screenwriting contest."
Holley won the competition and then attracted the attention of producer and former studio executive Glenn Williamson. When Williamson agreed to serve on the board of a film festival at his alma mater, the University of Virginia, he wasn’t anticipating reading one of the most original screenplays to have crossed his desk in years. "They'd asked my office to help evaluate scripts," he says. "My assistant read it first and said, ‘This is really good,’ so I read it and it was really good. When I went to Charlottesville for the festival, I made it a point to meet Megan."
Williamson told her he wanted to produce her film. He thought the script was a perfect fit for Big Beach Films’ Peter Saraf and Marc Turtletaub, producers of the Oscar-winning indie hit Little Miss Sunshine. "Megan’s got a seriously off-beat sense of humor," he says. "So do I, and certainly the Big Beach guys do, too."
Coincidentally, Saraf had heard the same radio program and was riveted by the idea of a story about crime scene cleaners. "I immediately thought, wow, that would make a great movie, but I could never figure it out," he says. "In my thinking, it was a thriller or some kind of crime story. Then this script lands on my desk, this wonderfully emotional story in which these young women start cleaning up after crimes as a way to make money and unexpectedly find a sense of self-esteem through the work."
In another coincidence for Saraf, the boy in the film is named Oscar, as is his own son. "In Little Miss Sunshine the title character is named Olive, which is the name of my daughter; totally a coincidence," he says. "So when I sent the script to Mark Turtletaub, he called back and he said, ‘So we’re only going to make movies with ‘Sunshine’ in the title and your kids’ names in them?’"
Saraf and his partners were sold on the project immediately. "Megan has an incredibly original voice and we don't find that very often," says Turtletaub. "It’s heartfelt and quirky at the same time."
"We thought Sunshine Cleaning was funny," he continues. "We thought it was touching. We thought it was heartbreaking. We thought it was sweet. We thought it was real. We just couldn’t say no to it. And that’s how we make movies."
Describing Holley as "the real deal," Brody adds, "She’s a real person who has stories to tell, and always wanted to tell them and then finally sat down and wrote this script. She had this amazing day job working with crack-addicted rats. She said she would take them home because she felt sorry for them when they were going through withdrawal. Before that, she edited highway safety videos."
According to Saraf, the Big Beach producers think very carefully when selecting a director. "Filmmaking is not just an artistic process," he says. "It’s hanging out with somebody for a couple years. You want to make sure you like their work, and you like them as a person."
Glenn Williamson had worked with Christine Jeffs on her second film, Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as the tragic poet, Sylvia Plath. "Christine was clearly talented with drama. She has a gift with the camera and with the actors, and I knew she'd create a great visual style for this movie. This story's got a real interesting mix of comedy and human drama and real emotion that made her a perfect fit."
The rest of the team agreed. "Christine Jeffs was somebody whose movies we really, really loved," says Turtletaub. "When we were first throwing names around, we knew that Christine’s unique aesthetic, her ability to frame up a shot and make pretty pictures, was rivaled only by her ability to work with actors and to get the story told. There wasn’t a lot of discussion once her name came up."
Though clearly a departure from her previous work, the script was just the type of project the New Zealand-born filmmaker was looking for. "I found it both poignant and funny," says Jeffs. "I wanted to do something humorous for a change, and I was also looking for an American film with great actors."
Peter Saraf points to one of the movie’s climactic scenes as an example of Jeffs’ ability to amplify emotion with visuals. "Norah has taken her new friend Lynn trestling, which is getting under a train trestle as close as you can to the train and letting it run over you ‘like a giant steel God screaming in your face,’ as she says. Intercut with that are all of the other characters without dialogue—it’s all visual. Everybody is going through some sort of a moment of crisis and catharsis. Usually a moment of catharsis in any kind of a story is a personal moment. This sequence makes it a cathartic moment for this entire family and it’s incredibly powerful."
At the center of Sunshine Cleaning are Rose and Norah Lorkowski, a pair of underachieving siblings hoping to make something of themselves in the field of biohazard removal. Finding actresses with just the right chemistry to play the roles opened up the story in ways that astonished even the writer. "They are different than I had imagined," says Holley. "Better than what I had imagined. They bring a complexity that I didn't even dream of while I was writing this in my room."
Amy Adams, who plays Rose, was an early frontrunner for the role. "Amy is one of those actors who comes up with something different every take," says producer Jeb Brody. "She’s incredibly exciting to watch, because it’s rare to see somebody who can move you in so many ways. She has the right mixture of ex-cheerleader and real depth. That depth hasn’t really been tapped very often, and this is her opportunity to show it."
Director Jeffs was equally impressed: "Amy just walked in and grabbed the part. She has so much charisma!"
Adams says that exploring the Lorkowski family dynamic is what first attracted her to the film. "I thought Christine had such a great perspective on sisters," she says. "We ended up having this whole conversation about sister relationships, which was something I enjoyed examining. I also really could identify with wanting to be more than you are, in a different place than you were born into, to sort of elevate your status in the world. That's something I think a lot of people identify with."
The actress and the director met up in Albuquerque a couple of weeks before shooting began to go over the script in depth. "Christine is so creative. She’s pushed me to make Rose quirkier and more sympathetic, and that's been a lot of fun. She gave me some ideas that I wouldn't have come up with myself, a couple clues that took it in a completely different direction and gave it more dimension than I thought possible."
The casting process for the role of Norah Lorkowski led the filmmakers to versatile, award-winning actress Emily Blunt. "It was so exciting to imagine who could play Amy’s sister," says Jeffs. "Emily turned out to be perfect."
Working with actors whose previous roles she knows and admires was a bonus for Adams. "I was also really looking forward to working with an actress who is a peer," she says about Blunt. "When I found out it was Emily, I was completely intimidated. I knew I was really going to have to step up.
"She's become my partner in crime—or in crime cleanup, as it were," Adams laughs. "When you're playing sisters, it’s really important to pick up on each other's rhythms. And it feels just so natural to be working with Emily. I can see her as one of my sisters."
Adams and Blunt were virtually inseparable during production, says Jeffs. "They totally supported each other and were like dynamite together. They just had fantastic chemistry—it was an exciting combination."
Peter Saraf had been watching Blunt’s career since he first saw her in My Summer of Love at the Toronto Film Festival. "It was my favorite movie at the festival, and I fell in love with both of the performances in that film," he says. "And when I went to see The Devil Wears Prada, I was blown away by the fact that it was the same actress. Her performance in one movie was so beautiful and passionate and dramatic, and in the other movie it was laugh-out-loud funny. That’s exactly what Norah needed to be.
"It would have been easy to paint Norah as a character who’s a bit of a stoner and who just hasn’t done anything with her time because she’s lazy, but that’s an incredibly boring character," says producer Glenn Williamson. "Emily brought a great amount of depth to the role. She’s so naturally funny without pushing it, and she can also just be incredibly sweet and real."
Blunt was fascinated by Norah’s free-spirited attitude, as well as the sense of loss she discovered in the character. "She has a lot of questions that have never been answered and everything has sort of been swept under the carpet in her family," observes the actress. "Because she has unanswered questions about her past, she’s fascinated by other people’s backgrounds.
"Initially, a biohazard removal cleaning company is not interesting to Norah, and so she is dragged kicking and screaming to their first gig. But she’s fascinated by other people’s worlds. This is such an intimate look. Other people’s tragedies and the trinkets that surround them are fascinating to her. She becomes drawn into this world and finally has a sort of purpose and she likes that feeling.
"There aren’t a lot of scripts like this that come along," says Blunt. "I read everything and this was the best thing I’d read in a really long time."
After the experience of working with Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine, the producers never considered anyone else for the role of the girl’s father, inept salesman Joe Lorkowski. "Anytime we can get him in a movie, we're going to cast him," says Turtletaub. "He's one of a kind."
Arkin was more than happy to return to work with the team that produced the critically acclaimed film for which he received his third Oscar nomination and first statuette. "I loved the script and I got very excited about working with Amy and Emily," says the veteran actor. "Those were the primary inducements."
An actor’s actor, Arkin has a resume that includes an Academy Award®, a Tony for his work on Broadway and even a songwriting credit for the Harry Belafonte hit "The Banana Boat Song."
"Definitely awesome," is how co-star Amy Adams describes him. "Before he was cast, I got a phone call—‘Alan Arkin wants to talk to you.’ And I said, ‘What did I do?’ I was terrified to call him. I really wanted him to play Joe and I was afraid I would say something stupid."
The actress says she and co-star Blunt were both in awe of Arkin. "Emily and I kind of stalked Alan. We have so much respect for him that all we could do was smile at him with big eyes. I think he was a little creeped out by us, but he managed."
When casting the character of Mac, Rose’s former high school boyfriend and currently married lover, the producers wanted to make sure they had an actor who could really connect with Adams and make the relationship real and true. Steve Zahn is best known for his broad comedic roles in films such as Happy, Texas, Out of Sight and Daddy Day Care, but Sunshine Cleaning was a chance for him to show off his dramatic skills.
"Steve Zahn is a gifted comedic actor, but also a wonderful dramatic actor," says Williamson. "We were lucky to be able to put him in a great role and to watch him really shine."
Zahn acknowledges he might not be the most obvious choice for the role. "If they had a list of Macs, I'll guarantee you I was not on that list," says Zahn. "But I got the part, and I was really happy to get the part. It is truly one of the best scripts I've read in a long, long time. It's unique and funny, and it just has so much depth to it. Usually I look at the characters first and try to think, ‘Hey, is this something I want to do? Is this a character I want to play?’ But for me this was, ‘I want to be in this movie. I'll do either one of the guy parts. I don't care.’"
For her part, Adams can’t imagine a better choice for Mac. "I was so moved by Steve’s performance," says the actress. "In the hands of another actor, it could've been played really cocky and really unsympathetic, but he understood the relationship. He helped me to figure out why Rose was with him. When I started doing the scenes with Steven, he was just so honest."
Adams said Zahn’s ease with the material made her relax during some of the film’s more intimate scenes. "Our very first scene working together, we were both pretty much naked," she says.
"That could've been really uncomfortable, but he had no sense of vanity and that really made me comfortable. At one point we were discussing real estate. They'd say, ‘Action,’ and we'd do a little bit. And then he'd say, ‘No, really. You should invest in acreage.’ And then it's right back to it."
Mac has some unexpected competition for Rose’s affection from Winston, a supplier of biohazard removal supplies who takes the girls under his wing as they struggle to understand the complexities of the business. It was a departure for Clifton Collins, Jr., the award-winning actor who made a splash playing Perry Smith, the condemned murderer in Capote opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman. "When I first got this script, Emily Blunt and Amy Adams were attached, so that was enough to pique my interest," he says. "In addition, the character I play is something really different for me. I’m constantly relating with the child and the two girls. We’re like a little family, from my perspective."
Collins says working with Arkin, Adams and Blunt kept his improv skills sharp. "They are all really quick on their feet, and Christine gave us the freedom to go long if we wanted. It was really great."
The search for the young actor who would play Rose’s son Oscar stretched across the country and took several months. Shortly before shooting began, they had still not cast the part when Glenn Williamson suggested they see Jason Spevack, a boy he had worked with from Toronto. Spevack flew into Albuquerque the same day he received the call. "He sat down and did a table read with about 40 actors and nailed it that very first day," says Brody. "We knew we had the right boy."
Oscar, says Spevack, is very different from him. "And I like that he’s different. It’s sort of fun to play different characters. He has lots of interesting little gizmos in his room. He loves his Aunt Norah. And that’s basically his everyday life."
Emily Blunt was impressed with her young co-star, with whom she shot a number of poignant and funny scenes. "He is delightful and he was an angel for this production," she says. "He grew in confidence so much and learned to trust his own instincts. And some of them were so wacky and so perfect for this rather strange, eccentric little boy. I think he’s going to steal the show."
Spevack’s acting skills are unusually refined for his age, Christine Jeff’s notes. "He has a great ability to be real, which a lot of kids don’t," she says. "Jason just captured the part perfectly. He’s a great listener. He also had a wonderful rapport with Alan Arkin—Jason was just amazing with him."
Originally set in Baltimore, close to the writer’s own stomping grounds, Sunshine Cleaning was filmed in Albuquerque, New Mexico. "Albuquerque has a great feel, from the buildings to the landscape," says Jeffs.
The financial incentives offered by the state were also a draw, but it was the unique look and feel of the southwestern city that cinched the deal, says Williamson. "We were considering several places. We were flying to Albuquerque to scout the location and we were maybe five minutes from touching down when Christine said ‘I love it. I want to make the movie here.’ We hadn't even landed yet!"
Jeffs had seen photos of the city that embodied the atmosphere she sought for the film. "There is a really interesting book of contemporary American photography by Jeff Brouws called Approaching Nowhere," Jeffs explains. "There are some amazing photos of Albuquerque in the book, and the city just has such a wonderful, iconic kind of feel. It was strip malls and Old World all at the same time—a combination of arid desert and franchise landscape."
Albuquerque, they decided, was also the just right size town for the story. "We wanted a city that wasn't too big," says Turtletaub. "It also has two sides of the train tracks. Rose is somebody who had all these aspirations in high school and then ends up on the wrong side of the tracks. Albuquerque offered us that."
Brody is sure they will be returning to Albuquerque to film in the future. "Everybody here knows exactly what they’re doing," he says. "We worked with a group of people who had read the script and loved the project and were contributing to it as fully as they possibly could.
"Plus, you’ve got all different kinds of looks. You’ve got Route 66 with all those great old signs. You got the strip malls. You’ve got a poor demographic and a richer demographic. You’ve got a university. It’s just got so much going on."
According to John Toon, Sunshine Cleaning’s director of photography and Jeffs’ longtime collaborator, New Mexico also afforded them the opportunity for some singular visuals. "It has a really unique flavor," he says. "It looks different from anywhere that I’ve seen before. In terms of visual style, you can shoot wide shots, you can shoot landscapes and the light is fantastic. Everything is in close proximity, so you can travel around the city really easily.
"The production team ought to be congratulated on this film because they’re fairly free thinkers," he continues. "They have an expansive view of how to make a movie, and they allowed us a lot of visual freedom in the making of this film. I think it will have a unique look."
The film marks the fourth time director Jeffs worked with Toon, and she was thrilled to enlist the services of her trusted DP once again. "John does fantastic stuff," she says. "He allowed the intimacy with the actors that I like the camera to have. He has an amazing visual sense."
For production designer Joe Garrity and art director Guy Barnes, Sunshine Cleaning’s subject matter presented some unusual challenges. While the crime scenes needed to be realistic, they could not become the central focus of the scenes. "What Christine wanted more then anything else was realism," says Garrity. "But the film is about the people, not about the kind of dramatic and very visual images used in horror movies. It’s more about what’s happening to these people, and we see it as a part of heir seeing it."
Jeffs sought to strike a careful balance within the film’s tone and imagery. "I wanted it to be graphic and intimate at the same time," she says. "The colors and spaces of Albuquerque were important to achieving that. Joe Garrity, costumer Alix Friedberg and John Toon were also huge contributors."
While some of the scenes are unflinching in their depictions of the aftermath of violence, producer Peter Saraf says that isn’t the point. "We don’t see any of the crimes," he says. "We see the cleaning up as Norah and Rose learn how to do it. At first they have no idea what they’re doing and they’re throwing stuff in the garbage, which is of course all wrong. But Norah and Rose eventually learn all the skills that they need in order to do this job right, and they’re able to build a business.
"It’s this wonderful metaphor of cleaning up at the end of somebody’s life, while their own lives are a total mess," he observes. "They need to clean up after themselves. And they eventually do in this film."
Jeffs concurs, suggesting that the characters come to terms with their own mess by dealing with those left behind by others. "They are able to move forward and beyond it through what they do for a living," she says.
To ensure realism, the production company retained the services of a crime consultant from Albuquerque. "We had a real crime scene investigator named Enrique Castenada come in," says Jeffs. "It was interesting to find out that there were such people in a place as small as Albuquerque. There were two crime-scene cleanup companies for a city of about 800,000 people."
"Enrique Castenada was great," adds Garrity. "He came to all of our preproduction meetings so he could share his knowledge about specific scenes. He’s seen it all and he showed us pictures of actual crime scenes, so we had the opportunity to look at images similar to the ones in our movie. And he came by to help out every time we recreated one."
Adams and Blunt spent days working in the faux crime scenes, which were sometime a bit too realistic for comfort. "It was pretty shocking to be in the middle of all that," says Adams. "I had done some research. Our consultant had a whole book of pictures that were pretty graphic. I also read a book called So You Want to be a Crime Scene Cleaner, or something like that. It’s part of a series of books about challenging jobs and it's written like a children's book, so it's kind of funny."
"The first crime scene we had to shoot was one of the more mild ones," says Blunt. "But there was blood just splattered all over this bathroom wall. They actually managed to get little fleshy pieces stuck on there and that was kind of gross. And so we were cleaning it and one of them got stuck on my toothbrush and I was trying to get it off and I slapped it right on Amy’s shoe. It kind of does gross you out even though you know it’s fake."
But in the end, says Williamson, the film is about people who are finding themselves and accepting who they are. "It's about healing—that's the theme that runs through it. In this new world of cleaning up after people have died, Rose and Norah find themselves the ones who help start the healing. It’s actually making them better people, going to all these crime scenes and fixing the mess in other people’s lives. Through all this work that they’re doing, they become closer as a family and they’re able to move on."
"People are going to want to see Sunshine Cleaning primarily because it’s a great movie with a phenomenal cast," says Saraf. "It is a movie that is entertaining and has an emotional payoff. That’s what I, as a moviegoer, want. I want to come out feeling either energized or changed in some way, or just really looking at things in a new way. And along the way I want to laugh."
Turtletaub is confident the film speaks for itself. "One of the things we learned over the last few years is that we let audiences come to the movie instead of trying to tell them what the movie is about," he says. "Part of the marketing of Little Miss Sunshine was just that way. We opened in nine theatres and then gradually word of mouth built, and people found in it what they would find. I feel the same way about Sunshine Cleaning. It's this special screenplay with amazing talent. And we're going to let people find it."