Like he did with his first novel, Michael Dunn has adapted another unproduced screenplay. This time, the subject matter is much darker, dealing with body identity disorders, amputations and sexual fetishes. Yet, as ugly as the themes may be, it’s core is about true beauty and acceptance.
What is BEAUTIFUL about?
BEAUTIFUL is about twins with body integrity identity disorder who come to believe one of them was supposed to have been absorbed in utero.
What is Body Integrity Identity Disorder?
BIID is a condition where the brain and the eyes see the body differently. Like anorexia, which is actually body dysmorphic disorder, but it’s similar. You look in the mirror and your eyes see someone who’s ninety pounds, skin and bones, but your brain sees a person who’s overweight. It’s a disconnect. A person with BIID sees a person with two arms, but his brain… It’s like it doesn’t know there’s supposed to be two arms so it thinks one of them is extra.
It sounds darker than your previous novel, DETOX.
Actually, BEAUTIFUL was the first one I wrote, but I wanted to let it sit a while, give it some time to… ferment? So I shifted gears and wrote DETOX. After that, I was ready to go back and rewrite BEAUTIFUL. But, yeah, it’s definitely darker, more intense. My wife couldn’t get past the prologue. I think DETOX would have been a lot darker if not for Chris [Smith, co-writer of the screenplay]. He definitely lightened that up a lot.
Like DETOX, BEAUTIFUL is based on a screenplay.
It is. BEAUTIFUL has seen a few iterations. It started as a short script that I’m proud to say was in the top 25 short scripts at Slamdance. I couldn’t leave it alone and expanded it into a full-length script. Then into a novel. I say, “I couldn’t leave it alone,” but it was really the characters who wouldn’t leave me alone. It was like they were real people whose problems I was worried about all the time. Every idle moment, I’d be back in their world. That’s when I knew I had to write more and more about them.
After I finished the short version of the script, they wouldn’t go away. Usually, it’s like an exorcism. I’m plagued by characters or ideas and, once I write them down, they go away. But these guys had more story to tell. Even after the full screenplay, they wouldn’t stop. After I wrote the novel, they finally quieted down, but halfway through DETOX, they started up again. That’s why I went back and rewrote the first draft. As of right now, they’re quiet.
It’s definitely darker, more intense. My wife couldn’t get past the prologue.
What was the inspiration for the story?
The inspiration came from a practical joke, an April Fool’s joke. I had seen an article, just a small, throwaway thing, I think in Details, about identical twins who had swapped body parts. There was a picture of two hands, and one had a missing finger, the other had an extra long one where the other had been transplanted. I was obsessed.
I mentioned it to Chris and he was like, “Yeah, apotemnophilia. You should look it up.” That’s not exactly what he said, but it was that casual. So I started looking stuff up online, pretty much like Stéph does in the book, and discovered this whole subculture and BIID. I tracked the article from Details or wherever to the blog BMEzine which I’d been to a few times looking at tattoos. The article was called “Adding and Subtracting,” and was longer than the one I’d read before. I wanted to write about the brothers and tried to find out who they were. Finally, I gave up and, after gestating in my head a few years, the story finally came out. But yeah, after I’d written the short version, I found out the BMEzine article had been a joke. That’s part of why Stéph and Rémy celebrate their birthdays on April 1st.
Why did it take so long to come up with the story?
It sometimes does. I was fascinated by apotemnophilia and acrotomophilia—as well as the phobias—but there had to be a story to it. I’d played with a few ideas, wrote probably three iterations of stories but none of them clicked. I think it was probably around 2005 when I saw the article and 2009 when the idea finally clicked. Embarrassing as it is, I was on the toilet when pretty much the entire story finally clicked. In the first draft of the book, Chapter One started with Rémy on the toilet, but that whole scene happened right there while I was in the bathroom and finally “found” the characters, and they started opening up to me.
I don’t know why sometimes it takes so long for the story to work itself out, but I know that once it did, I couldn’t stop it. I wrote the short script in about three days, which is fast for me, and the novel took about six months to write. But, yeah, the toilet. I don’t play Candy Crush Saga sitting there; my head is wandering and churning. I think it’s the white noise of the fan and the privacy. There and in the shower I get a ton of ideas or work out ideas or act out a scene to understand the flow. I’d be horrified if anyone ever caught me.
Why did you make the main characters Dutch?
My memory of that original article was that the twins had been foreign. I couldn’t remember where they were from and thought it was Switzerland or Denmark. Not a common country like France. I have no idea why I thought they were foreign. I’m not even sure why I picked The Netherlands. I think it was because when I did my “casting” for the characters, the actor I really pictured in the role was Michiel Huisman, who’s Dutch.
You did a casting for the novel?
I always do a casting for whatever I write. Not a real casting, not actually people showing up and auditioning or anything like that. It’s a fantasy casting where I just go by what people look like to get a solid idea of the characters in my head. It could be an actor—it usually is—or just someone I found online.
What are some of the differences between the novel and the screenplay?
The novel, in the first draft anyway, was very much a direct adaptation of the screenplay. There were a few extra bits, some places that expanded a bit and some backstory stuff about their parents, but structurally it was the same. Like with DETOX, it was nice to be able to just go and not worry about the constraints of script format and just write whatever felt right. The Christmas party was all new. The birthday dinner was new. But mostly it was just things here and there that got woven in. I think Spouse, the cop, that whole thing was new to the novel. I’d have to look to be sure, but I don’t think he was in the screenplay.
While not as extreme as DETOX, BEAUTIFUL incorporates some interesting typography. You did the design for all of the books. Do you consider yourself a designer first or writer?
I wish filmmaker was one of the options to be considered first. I get paid to be a designer and haven’t quit my day job, so I guess that makes me a designer first, but I’ve always been writing, even before I really understood how to make a story out of what I was writing. Design came into the picture as a way of collecting the stuff I’d written into an aesthetic package, so, I guess in my heart, I’m a writer first.
What else inspires you to write? What is your ritual like?
I’m not sure what inspires me or really if I have a ritual. I usually have to have an idea of what I’m going to write. I’ll even stop writing the day before without finishing what I’d been working on just to be able to get back into it more easily. Otherwise, I sit there and space out and don’t know what to write and end up surfing the net for two hours before having to get ready for work. I have to have music playing and I have to have coffee. Those are about the only two constants. And quiet. No distractions. If the kids are around, it’s a no go.
What kind of music do you listen to when you’re writing?
All kinds. Sometimes it can’t have lyrics, more ambient or dance, electronic kind of stuff which my wife calls repetitive music. Sometimes I don’t even hear the music. I’ll load a playlist with everything from pop to Christmas music to classical and not hear any of it. Cliff Martinez is amazing to listen to while writing. His scores for Contagion, Solaris and Drive are perfect writing music for me. Sometimes I’ll let Spotify’s radio play whatever genre or artist I woke up in the mood for, but usually it’s playing the recents on my Grooveshark list.
I have no idea. A bunch of things are in my head, ideas, half-ideas, things that could be a book or a film or whatever. Right now, they’re all playing quietly, but soon enough one of them is gonna get rowdy and start screaming for attention. It’s the bully that I have to take out of the playpen and deal with.