Christine Jeffs interview
Miles Fielder talks to director of Sunshine Cleaning, Christine Jeffs, about blood, guts and cleaning fluid
Kiwi filmmaker Christine Jeffs (pictured centre right) wasn’t the obvious choice to direct the American indie comedy Sunshine Cleaning. Her previous two features, the New Zealand marital breakdown drama Rain and the British dead poet biopic Sylvia, might have been fine films, but comedies they weren’t. Nevertheless, Jeffs’ black comedy about two sisters (played by Amy Adams and Emily Blunt) who start up a crime-scene clean-up business in New Mexico was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival.
‘I like comedy, actually,’ Jeff says. ‘My first short film [Stroke, which premiered at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival] was kind of funny. Every time you do a film you have to ask yourself: “am I personally interested in?” With Sunshine Cleaning it was the sister dynamic, because I have one sister. I thought it would be a fun relationship to explore, how the sisters are quick to flare up and quick to forgive, how they take on roles, one of them being bossy and one not. A lot of the humour also comes out of the sisters’ relationship.’
Many of the film’s laughs are also derived from the Midwest setting and from the unusual nature of the business the sisters set up. Crime-scene cleaning is actually a thriving business in recession-era America, as the film’s screenwriter, Megan Holley, discovered when she heard a real-life story broadcast on public radio. Basing her script on the report about two friends in Baltimore who went into business mopping up blood and guts, Holley made the friends siblings and moved the location to Albuquerque.
‘I was fascinated by businesses being set up to do this,’ Jeffs says, ‘but I wondered if Albuquerque was too small to have something like this. In fact, there are two separate crime-scene cleaning businesses there, and it’s a city of only 800,000 people. I think it’s a pretty violent place. I think the Americans in the cast and crew had seen it all before, so I possibly saw the city with a set of fresh eyes.’
Was Jeffs not concerned the dark subject might overwhelm the film? ‘There’s a lot of humour as well as a lot of sadness in the job they do,’ Jeffs says, ‘because they’re fish out of water. And then the screenplay is about these girls growing up and finding to their surprise they’re fulfilled by helping people clean up the mess of their lives. So the film’s kind of hopeful in that way.’
Sunshine Cleaning is on general release from Fri 26 Jun.