Clean Start

While her more popular classmates were trying out for the Honey Bears dance team at Evansville Central High School in the early 1980s, Megan Holley, a self-described loner, was hunched down in a seat at the North Park cinema, watching the latest movie.

Alone in the darkened theater, she dreamed about Hollywood, not as a future star, but as a writer. She was particularly fascinated by off-beat films such as the science-fiction classic Blade Runner.  Now, a quarter century after graduation from Central, one of Holley’s own quirky ideas is propelling her dreams to reality. Holley’s first feature-length screenplay has been turned into the movie Sunshine Cleaning, starring Hollywood star and Vanity Fair cover girl Amy Adams, British actress Emily Blunt (a scene stealer in The Devil Wears Prada), and Oscar-winner Alan Arkin.

The film, about two sisters whose business involves removing biohazards from messy crime scenes, was inspired by a story Holley heard on National Public Radio. The movie has drawn raves from coast to coast and prompted offers for new ventures. The star-studded film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah a year ago and had its red-carpet Hollywood premiere in March. It also marked Holley as a rising star.

Variety, the entertainment industry’s Bible, named her “one of 10 screenwriters to watch” and another industry publication, Film Radar, said Holley is “the real star … among a talented cast and crew. Her brilliant script will hopefully be remembered during awards season.” The self-effacing Holley, a 42-year-old mother of a one-year-old son, finds all of this chatter “unfathomable.”

Holley was born in Michigan but moved to Evansville as a toddler when her father, Arthur Donald Holley, took a job at Credit Thrift (later bought by American General).

The Holleys rented a home on the North Side while they built a house on a quiet street off Petersburg Road. In school, Holley chose not to compete with her brother, Scott, a popular and academically gifted student who was four years older. (Scott, a graduate of Indiana University School of Medicine, is now a plastic surgeon in Michigan.)

Megan was a shy B student who preferred movies and reading to other activities, although she was the top player on Central’s girls’ tennis team for three years, following in her brother’s footsteps but competing largely to please her mother, Mary Elaine, an accomplished player.

Her after-school activities also were limited by the household chores she inherited after her parents divorced when she was 13 and her mother took a job traveling around the Midwest during the week, selling fabrics, ribbons, and artificial flowers to gift shops.

She did find time to make a movie while at Central. Using an inexpensive Super 8 camera, she and her best friend, Kathleen Mills, who shared a love of books and movies, made a short, silly film about shopping carts attacking people in a Wesselman’s Supermarket parking lot. (She remains friends with Mills, who became a newspaper journalist in Bloomington, Ind.)

Holley cites Evansville teachers as influences in her life, among them Patricia English, her second-grade teacher at Highland Elementary, who patiently sat with her during recess while she caught up with her work. “I was not a stellar student, even in second grade,” Holley recalls. At Central, teacher James Wootton introduced her to modern classics such as Dune, 1984, On the Beach, Fahrenheit 451, and other stories that still inform her work.

She also credits one of her brother’s girlfriends at Central, Laureen Baggett, who became a teacher, for “turning me on to great literature.”

Other fond memories of Holley’s Evansville days, which may or may not show up in future films, include riding her bike to the Engelbrecht Orchards for a cider shake, munching on festival food at the West Side Nut Club Fall Festival, and hanging out at Wolf’s Bar-B-Q and the Pizza Oven.

After graduating from Central in 1984, she studied broadcasting in a work-study program at Michigan State University (both sides of her family were Michiganders), earning a degree that led to such glamorous jobs as waitressing in Chicago and caring for laboratory rats used in medical experiments in Richmond, Va., where she now lives. Holley visited Evansville regularly until her mother moved back to Michigan in 2001. Her father retired to Asheville, N.C., and died in 1995.

For a long time, Holley didn’t believe she could make a living writing for the movies. While she was involved with film-making at Michigan State, and later in Chicago, it was mostly on the technical end, learning lighting, staging, and post-production for commercials and industrial films.

“It was Mom who knew” that she could make it, Holley says, joyful that her mother was able to see Sunshine Cleaning in pre-release before her death in January.

While pursuing graduate studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, she spent $10 for a thrift-store camera and proceeded to write and direct her first screenplay. Then in 2003, her script for Sunshine Cleaning won a top award in the Virginia Screenwriting Competition. One of the judges offered to help produce the script, but when Hollywood agents contacted her by e-mail, she deleted their messages, not believing they were serious. She replied only after officials with the Virginia Film Office, sponsors of the competition, convinced her it was a big opportunity.

Now she’s much in demand.

Her latest project involves an adaptation of Our Friends from Frolix Eight, a short story by Phil K. Dick, the sci-fi virtuoso who wrote Blade Runner. Also in the works are a television series by the producer of The Closer and Nip/Tuck and an adaptation of A Jealous Ghost, a supernatural tale by A. N. Wilson, which will star Kirsten Dunst.

Evansville isn’t depicted in Sunshine Cleaning, which was filmed in Albuquerque, N.M., but the Ford Econoline cargo van that Amy Adams’ character drives in the movie –– covered inside with floor-to-ceiling blue shag carpeting –– looks just like the one Holley drove around town when she was in high school here.

Asked if Amy Adams’ character, a former high school cheerleader whose life turned sour, could be a riff on her own high-school experience in Evansville, Holley says: “Her character has a lot of the qualities that serve you well in high school but don’t necessarily translate well in life.”

Although in those days Holley herself longed to be a Central High Honey Bear, she muses, “Looking back, I’ve had an incredible experience. The whole process, from starting to write so many years ago, has been such an education, such a journey.”

And if the critics are right, her trip has just begun.

–– Writer Don Baker worked for the Sunday Courier & Press in Evansville in the late 1950s. He went on to a 30-year career as a reporter and editor with The Washington Post until his retirement 10 years ago.

To see video clips of Megan Holley’s movie, visit the Web site,

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