Michael Dunker, SHS Class of 1999, is an award-winning screenwriter & director in Los Angeles, CA. He has been accepted into 70+ screenwriting competitions including placement at the Academy’s Nicholls Fellowship, Austin Film Festival, Scriptapalooza, Final Draft’s Big Break, Screencraft’s True Story, Page Turner Awards, and attended the 2022 Nostos Screenwriting Retreat in Tuscany. He recently completed his third short film titled, Seatbelts, which will be screened at the LA International Film Festival & Beverly Hills Film Festival respectively, while focusing on securing funds for his feature debut, Detroit.
Before Hollywood, Michael served in the United States Air Force deploying twice to the Middle East and graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in psychology. His goal is to create high concept stories for wide audiences with a social commentary.
He currently works in the film industry as an on-set photographer working with such stars as Drew Barrymore, Tom Brady, Camila Cabello, Chris Evans, Gustavo Dudmel, Eva Longora and Queen Latifah. His proudest moment is taking his mom to Monument Valley to show her where Forrest Gump stopped running.
Tell me about growing up in Sycamore and your time spent in Sycamore schools and your early years in life.
I got to Sycamore at five or six. I was a product of Electric Park before moving to Woodgate where I had a built-in friend group that played pit football, rewatched 80s movies, and spent summers at the pool. Sports were everything. It was the era of street hockey and I’m sure some are still [angry] about the dents in their garage doors. No cell phones, no social media. And the only way you found your friends was seeing their bikes outside their houses.
Looking back, I can get nostalgic about Sycamore. It’s very safe, very peaceful. Any place that has day-old donuts for half price and a pumpkin festival would make Norman Rockwell proud. But during my time, I wanted to escape. I wanted an adventure. I wasn’t built for public education, nor the standard 9-to-5, so I got out. Today, I adore Sycamore and visit frequently. And in my travels, I can honestly say it’s one of the best small towns in this country.
Also, if you're reading this, sorry about your garage doors. It wasn’t me.
Was there a teacher that made a lasting impression on your life?
Rob Majerus & Jack Wright stand out. Both are great educators and tough football coaches. Mr. Majerus preached two philosophies that I continue to absorb: “style & class” and “pride & perfection.” He held us to a higher standard and wanted the best for us, even at the expense of our degenerate attitudes. Mr. Wright was a historian, which I always admired. He spoke to us as human beings without abusing his superiority and that mattered during those teen years.
I’d like to give an honorable mention to our 8th grade Constitution teacher, Mr. McAvoy, who loved America and hated communists, and [who] I can still hear his voice today.
Were there activities that you were involved in?
I played football all four years, which was enough for me. No clubs, no extracurricular, no honor societies. The real pleasure was the midnight drive to Rockford to play hockey with my close friends. During the summers, we’d practice at West School and then played in roller tournaments throughout the suburbs. When the YMCA finally opened their rink, our team was so dominant they had put us in the adult league. Those were the best times, in addition to the film & art conversations at Sam’s Pizza with their legendary delivery crew.
After you graduated from Sycamore High School, where did life take you?
After SHS, I enlisted in the United States Air Force. It was the fastest way out and the adventure I wanted. I did my basic training in Texas, radio school in Mississippi, and was stationed at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma City. Within six months, I was deployed to Saudi Arabia. Two years into my enlistment, 9/11 happened. We all watched it, then prepared for war. When I got out in 2003, we had already invaded Iraq, but my contract was over. I used my G.I. Bill to attend Michigan State University in East Lansing and graduated in 2007 with a degree in psychology. The contrast of going from a soldier to student was alarming, but I joined clubs, played hockey, and started making short films to ease the pain of paying 40,000 dollars a year for an education often consisting of memorization-to-scantron. In the end, I’m truly grateful I got my degree, but school was never easy for me.
Once I graduated, I packed up my car and traveled to Los Angeles to start a career in film. For years, I worked long hours for little pay on crappy projects. Then I started taking behind-the-scenes photos on sets. Then I started writing more short films that we could produce. Then I started working with the greats. And I continue that grind today.
If you could share some advice for Sycamore High School recent graduates, what would it be?
I want to tell you to go to college, but that trade schools are equally valuable in this era. I want to tell you to join the service and it’s the best decision I ever made, but it’s not for everyone. I want to tell you to travel but keep your head on a swivel because the world is no joke. I want to tell you that your generation is the changing of the guard. That you have endless resources at your disposal and that your future is limitless. I want to explain that my generation, and the ones before it, use the internet as a convenience as yours uses it as the norm, but with this one resource--you have the opportunity to progress this country, to create a better society, to advance out of this primitive thinking into the new world of information where real change can happen.
But how can I tell you that and put more on your plate when there’s already so much given when you're the first through the wall of the modern information age?
So I’ll just say this: wear sunscreen. If you don’t know where that’s from, look it up.
You can see more of Michael’s work via his professional pages here:
Photography website: www.photographybymichaeljohn.com