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Filmmaker-turned-novelist Michael Dunn talks about his latest novel based on an unproduced screenplay with THE BET cowriter, Chris Smith.

It’s not uncommon for a novel to be adpated into a screenplay or for a film to have a novelization tie-in. It is, however, somewhat unique for an unproduced screenplay be adapted into a a novel by the screenwriter. Uncommon as it may be, that’s exactly what Michael Dunn did with the screenplay he cowrote with Chris Smith.
What is DETOX about?

The back of the book says it’s a story of boy meets girl, boy falls in love, boy loses girl, but in DETOX, the boy is bi-polar and off his meds, the girl is a heroin addict and the plan to get her back involves kidnapping and ketamine.

That sounds pretty dark.

It’s really not. Not compared to some of the other stuff I’ve done. It definitely has some intense moments in it, but there’s quite a bit of humor.

So, boy kidnaps girl to get her off heroin?

He does. Mat and Julia, the main characters, broke up, but Mat wasn’t ready to let go. He’s been spying on her—even though there’s a restraining order against him—and discovers she’s doing heroin. He freaks. Somewhat naively he thinks he can detox her on his own and hopes she’ll be so grateful, she’ll fall in love with him again. It’s a love story at its core.

What made you decide to turn the script into a novel?

A screenplay is just part of making a film; it’s not the end product. A novel is the end product. Shooting a film costs a lot of money, but you can write a novel for free. I was tired of not being able to shoot something and had never been able to finish a book before because I’d always run off course and got lost and gave up. After I wrote the script for BEAUTIFUL, the characters wouldn’t leave me alone, so I decided to give writing a novel another go since I already had the whole thing written, just in script format. After that was done, I decided to give DETOX a go.

How long did it take to write?

I was overconfident because BEAUTIFUL only took about six months to write. DETOX took about a year. But that’s nothing considering the script took about six years.

Why did the script take so long?

Chris Smith and I wrote it together, but it wasn’t like we were sitting next to each other hashing it out. I’d write a draft and send it to him. He’d read it, add/change/etc. and send it back, and we’d talk about before repeating the process. We went through about eleven drafts that way, sometimes months between drafts.

How much of Chris’ work is in the novel.

It’s impossible to remember who wrote what in the script. It all blended together. He’s more clever than I am, more witty, so a lot of the good stuff is his. I mean, he basically came up with the puppets in THE BET, so he’s got a very different take on things than I do.

He thinks he can detox her on his own and hopes she’ll be so grateful, she’ll fall in love with him again. It’s a love story at its core.

What was the most challenging part of the adaptation?

Not just translating what was happening in the script into paragraphs. To really let the words flow, and, when it gets going, new things come up, and I’ll go off on tangents, and twenty pages go like that! But most of the time, I’m sitting there trying to get the words to flow. Or trying to think of just the right word or way of describing something. I’ll have something simple in the script like “Mat pops some peanuts into his mouth,” which, if filmed, is just a throwaway bit to show he’s eating something, but in a novel I feel like there needs to be more justification and will go on about how he’s hungry, but doesn’t want to eat, and what he’s craving. A lot of times what I’m doing at the moment leaks in there. If I’m craving a cheeseburger, the character’s going to be craving a cheeseburger. Then later, wonder why I went on and on about him wanting a cheeseburger.

What was the inspiration for the story?

During post production on THE BET, I realized that wasn’t as much of a horror film as I thought it’d be and wanted to write something that would be more traditional horror. But had to be cheap. So I was thinking, okay, there’s a cabin in the woods—’cause that’s how you do low budget horror, right—and something’s happening there. I couldn’t figure out the something. Then one day I was doing a photoshoot with Francis George who had a huge horse syringe on his shelf from an ad he’d shot a few years before—it’s the one on the cover of the book—and he said, “You should use that for a movie poster.” That night, while I was trying to fall asleep, all I could think about was what would the movie be about that had a huge syringe for a poster? Then, BAM! DETOX. About a guy forcing his girlfriend—no, ex-girlfriend cos that’s more conflict—to detox, and then something happens to them. I started writing it and it fizzled. Then Chris got involved and it went through a number of major changes: locations—from cabin, to motel, to his brother’s house, to Northrup’s—and characters—Chris was Mat’s brother, then his sister—to what the “something” was that was happening to them. First there was a killer in the woods, then Matt was the killer, then Chris was trying to make Mat go mad to get him out of the picture to be with Julia, to what it is now. There was a crazy showdown where Julia had a sword—I had been watching Kill Bill. No wonder it went through so many drafts.

How different is the novel from the script?

It’s actually pretty close. There’s a lot of new stuff to flesh out the characters, flashbacks or memories. When you can show what’s going on inside the characters’ heads, you have a lot more freedom than you do with a script which is such a constrained medium. No fluff. Just action and dialogue. With the book, I could really go a lot deeper.

Which do you prefer, writing novels or scripts?

I like scripts because you are more focused on what’s eventually going to be seen. You focus on pacing and structure and dialogue. But then I will find myself going off and writing long bits of “fluff” that are great for a novel, but have no place in a script. That’s when I know it’s time to start writing a book again. When I write scripts, I tend to read filmmaking books and graphic novels, and when I write novels, I tend to read novels.

It seems bondage is a common theme in your work?

It is. Definitely. But it’s more a symbol of mental restraint than physical restraint. In THE BET, I wasn’t writing about a girl who was bound and gagged physically; instead, she couldn’t remember her past. It’s also a gimmick to keep characters to stay put so I don’t have to spend a lot on sets or locations. If a person is in trouble and wants to leave, just tie them up.

Are you afraid of being pegged as a misogynist?

I have been. It’s silly, really. Courtney, who played The Girl in THE BET would argue I’m not. My wife would argue I’m not. But it’s also part of why I made MONEY SHOT, to put a man in the same situation.

Yet that film still objectified women in a way.

If you mean because she’s doing a striptease, a little, yeah. But she’s also the one in power. It’s still kind of sexist though. I was worried with DETOX that no actress would want to play a character tied to a bed the entire film, and that was something Chris and I were always working on, to find a balance. In the novel, though, I really wanted to give Julia more depth.

Spreads from the novel DETOX
There are bits of unique typography, why?

The passages where Julia is on ketamine? That’s something unique to the book. I did a lot of research on drugs and am probably on a bunch of watch lists for what I Google. I was fascinated by what people said it was like to be on ketamine and wanted to incorporate it somehow. I’m a fan of House of Leaves which is a totally wonky read the way it’s done with the type going all over the place and in spirals and whatnot, so it just seemed like an interesting way to do that and to give the book a nod to its visual roots.

Why ketamine?

Again, a lot of Googling and why I’m probably being monitored, I was looking for ways to knock someone out. Chloroform in a rag is a myth. Doesn’t work that way, apparently, and that’s what we had in the script. The best thing I could find that would be relatively safe and able to be injected was ketamine.

Has the book been sold to a publisher?

No. It’ll be self-published. At least until someone wants to pay to publish it. But I have to do two versions of it, because to get it on Amazon and other retailers, there are restrictions on how the book is laid out. The way the type gets cut off, they won’t do that. I don’t know why. But at least that’s the restriction from where I publish the books. So one version will be more constrained in how the text is laid out, the other will be, what, the “Preferred Version?” I’ll also be trying out CreateSpace for the regular version to see how that goes.

What’s next?

I’m going back an doing another draft of BEAUTIFUL to get that ready to publish. Then the ever-promised graphic novel version of THE BET.

Any new films coming out?

You have any money?

DETOX is available now, and all variants can be purchased in the RUBBERSHOP. Also check out Michael’s first novel, BEAUTIFUL, also available to buy. For more information about BEAUTIFUL, read the interview here.

Fore information about the screenplay, contact RUBBERSQUARE.