As used bookstores go, Amber Unicorn Books is cozy, quaint, familiar.
So consider it a tribute to Dale Neven’s artistic vision that Amber Unicorn looks so claustrophobic and creepy as the setting for his independent film “Unwritten.”
Last weekend, Neven — who wrote and directed the film — and members of the cast and crew gathered at the store to sign posters and celebrate the film’s release on DVD and streaming services.
“Unwritten” is about an agoraphobic bookstore owner in rural Nevada who’s haunted by a childhood tragedy. He and his daughter are pulled into deadly doings when an evil character from a story he wrote years ago seems to appear, possibly auguring the end of the world.
Neven has created short films, but “Unwritten” — which had its world premiere in February 2018 at AMC Town Square — is his first full-length feature.
The film was financed by Neven’s savings, a handful of investors and about 90 Kickstarter contributors. Neven said the cast and crew also worked for deferred compensation.
“It was kind of a lifetime ambition of getting to this point,” he says. “I thought it was time to finally make a feature, so I was determined to make one no matter what.”
Neven also brought to the project years of first-hand experience working on productions here and in Los Angeles.
“I worked on a lot of low-budget movies out of L.A. and (in) different positions from PA (production assistant) to dolly grip, boom operator. That experience was great, because I got to see how all of the different departments work. So I took all my experience, and also school learning and book learning, and figured out how I could make a quality movie on a very low budget.”
Neven describes the film as a “psychological thriller,” inspired by coming across a character bio for a previous script he had written and noticing that a character was to be born “in about 10 years. And it was like, all of a sudden, what would happen if in 10 years he was actually born?”
Most of the movie takes place in a book shop, and a friend suggested that Neven see whether Lou and Myrna Donato, owners of the Amber Unicorn, would be willing to provide their Decatur Boulevard store for filming. Neven says the couple quickly agreed.
“They were very patient with us,” he adds, because “we basically took over the store.”
“It was fun at times, and at times it was not so fun,” Myrna Donato says. “But the end result was absolutely over the top.”
The Donatos have supported independent filmmakers in the past. “If the big boys came in and wanted to use the store, then I’d charge them big bucks,” she says, smiling. “But this was our way of giving back to the community.”
“Unwritten” so far has won five film festival awards, including grand prize for best feature at the 2018 Silver State Film Festival. Donato says it’s “rewarding to see the awards” the film has won, and that she feels “like a parent when their kid graduates from high school or something.”
Neven said during a break from signing posters and DVDs that he’s pleased to hear that so many people enjoyed the film.
“That’s the most awesome part. Like, we did get five awards, but the most important thing to me is that people are liking the movie,” he says. “That’s been the greatest part, and that’s what I care about more than the critical reviews.”
Preston Goodman says he could see a budding filmmaker in Neven even in high school.
Goodman has known Neven since freshman year at Basic High School. “I still remember the day when we graduated from high school in 1983, and Dale said he was going to leave town and make movies. “Here he is, still making movies. It’s so great to see a hometown guy making a big success.”
Neven’s mother, Linda Neven, has been following her son’s career for even longer.
“He started out with Super 8 (film),” she says. “He made movies and would get all the neighborhood kids making movies. He was constantly movies, movies, movies. Since he was a little kid, he wanted to make movies.”
For all of its suspense, “Unwritten” ends on a sweet note with a tribute to Lou Donato, who died in October 2017 and never saw the completed film. “Unwritten” is dedicated to him, and that took Myrna Donato by surprise.
“I still get choked up about it,” she says. “But I think it’s a great tribute to him.”