Author Andre Dubus III said he never envisioned actor James Franco in the role of a main character in his novel, “The Garden of Last Days.”
Dubus said Franco is better looking than the book’s character AJ, a man estranged from his family who is thrown out of a nightclub for breaking a rule by holding hands with his favorite exotic dancer.
Not only is Franco going to star in the movie adaptation of Dubus’ 2008 novel, but he’ll be directing it too.
“I admire him as an actor, but I wouldn’t have thought of him as he’s so good looking, and AJ is not a good looking man in my story,” Dubus said. “But, I think he can pull it off. It’s the inner truth he can convey and I’m confident Franco can do that.”
“Garden of Last Days’’ will be made into a movie this summer, said Dubus, who grew up in Haverhill and has lived in Newburyport and Newbury for the last several years. This is the second of his books to be made into a movie. In 2003, Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly starred in the movie version of Dubus’ novel “House of Sand and Fog.’’
There has also been talk in literary and Hollywood circles that his best-selling memoir “Townie’’ — the story of him growing up on the tough streets of Haverhill — will also be made into a movie.
Dubus said he began writing “The Garden of Last Days’’ in 2005, after reading a story about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist hijackers — how one of them was rumored to have visited a strip club in the days leading up to the attacks.
“How could they be so extremist in their interpretation of Islam as to commit mass murder then go to a fallen place like a strip club before they attack?” Dubus asked himself. “What fueled the writing of the novel was what if you’re a woman who danced for one of these hijackers unwittingly, and then after the smoke has cleared from that horrible day of 9/11, you have some of their blood money in your bank account. What would that be like?”
Dubus wanted to give the hijacker a voice as well and tell his side of the story. Dubus spent months researching the events of Sept. 11. He read the Koran twice for an understanding of Islam, and he read other sources including the history of Egypt and of Saudi Arabia, even books about strip clubs — 33 books in all, he said.
“The tough part was how to write from his (hijacker Bassam’s) point of view without judgement,” Dubus said. “As Ernest Hemingway said, ‘The job of the writer is not to judge, but to seek and understand.’”
Dubus said that two years ago, actor and producer Gerard Butler optioned his novel to be made into a film.
“He hired Hanna Weg, a really good professional screenwriter, to adapt it,” Dubus said. “She and I met during a book tour for the novel in Los Angeles in 2008, and I was very impressed with her. She understood the book on a deep level.”
About six months ago, Dubus received a copy of Weg’s final script.
“I just loved it,” he said. “I think it’s important for writers of a novel to protect the integrity of their original stories, but at the same time you have to allow the filmmakers a certain amount of leeway without violating the integrity of the story you’ve written.”
“The Garden of Last Days’’ begins one September night in a Florida nightclub where the lives of three characters intersect. April, an exotic dancer, loses her usual babysitter after the woman has a panic attack and ends up in the hospital. With no one to turn to, April decides to bring her 3-year-old daughter with her to her job at the Puma Club for Men, where the girl can watch children’s videos in the office while April dances.
On this night, April has an unusual client, a young foreign man named Bassam who is free with his money, is drinking heavily and is out for a good time. Bassam also happens to be on the brink of committing a horrific act of terrorism. At the same time, a drunken and lonely AJ is thrown out of the club for improper behavior.
“Early on in the story, AJ is involved with April’s daughter, but not in a creepy way,” Dubus said.
Dubus said he gave the screenwriter his blessing to set the film in modern day New York, where filming will begin July 8.
“When the book came out in 2008, I don’t think the reading public was ready to step into the point of view of one of these terrorists,” Dubus said. “I think now that we’re more curious about what causes this kind of madness.
“I really stand by my portrait of Bassam,” Dubus said. “I think anyone who reads it will understand how these guys think and I think Hanna Weg captured that in the script as well. She captured the complexity of the young terrorist.”
Dubus said he was informed that Franco would be involved in turning his novel into a movie on a recent tragic day.
“When I found out he was going to be the director and star, it was, very sadly, the day of the Boston Marathon bombings,” Dubus said. “It was a strange synchronicity of forces. I was at the marathon that day with my daughter to watch one of my nieces and it was so crowded at the finish line that we left (before the bombs exploded).”
Dubus said he has confidence in Franco’s ability to direct the movie, saying Franco directed a screen adaptation of William Faulkner’s 1930 literary classic, “As I Lay Dying,” which will premier at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival this month.
“Being chosen for the Cannes is a huge vote of confidence in his abilities as a director,” Dubus said.
Franco most recently starred on the silver screen as the title character in “Oz the Great and Powerful,” with Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis.
Dubus said the title of his novel, “The Garden of Last Days” has a biblical/Koran reference, and also refers to one of the main characters.
“April’s landlord, a widow named Jean, has a really lush garden at her home,” Dubus said.
Dubus anticipates visiting the movie set, but doesn’t see himself in the role of consultant.
“My involvement will be minimal at best,” he said. “It might be fun doing a cameo, but I’m not going to insinuate myself ... I don’t want to impose.”
Dubus said that during production of the 2003 movie “House of Sand and Fog,” an adaption of his 1999 New York Times bestseller, he learned what the traditional role is of the novelist and “what they need me for and what they don’t need me for.’’
“I learned in ‘House of Sand and Fog’ that some of the actors were distracted with me being around,” Dubus said. “They were nervous thinking I’d be looking over their shoulders to perform the characters as I created them. I’m more sensitive to that this time around.
“‘House of Sand and Fog’ is a real dark narrative,” Dubus said. “This (‘The Garden of Last Days’) is a more hopeful story and very timely one that might appeal to a wide audience. And it has a great ending. One that is even more affirming than the one in my book. I think it’s very honest and important, given the times we live in.”