Roger Avary is an Oscar-winning screenwriter, but these days he has trouble gathering his thoughts. "How do I put this?" Avary said on the the terrace outside his hotel in Locarno, Switzerland, where he's currently serving on the international competition jury at the city's film festival. "I haven't talked about this to anyone other than family and close friends, so I want to measure my words very carefully."
He stared at the ground and took a breath. "Incarceration didn't change me," he said after a long pause. "In many ways, incarceration galvanized me. The totality of the experience helped me." While Avary looked relaxed in a salmon-colored shirt and neatly tousled hair, sunglasses hid the emotion on his face.
Four years ago, the co-writer of "Pulp Fiction" and "True Romance" — as well as the director of "Killing Zoe" and "The Rules of Attraction" — faced a situation far more disturbing than anything depicted in his movies. Driving under the influence in Ojai, Calif., Avary got into an accident that killed his friend Andreas Zini.
Released on bail, Avary was eventually charged with vehicular manslaughter and pleaded guilty, serving time in a one-year work furlough and then later behind bars for eight months. Reasonably enough, he discusses the incident with trepidation. "I spend nearly every waking moment thinking about how I can live my life in such a way as to honor this absolutely terrible loss that occurred," he said.
The answer has slowly come to him with new work. Based on the sheer volume of projects currently in his queue, Avary may have entered the most productive period of his career, not to mention an entirely different stage of artistic expression.
The last two years have been especially busy: He recently finished overseeing the scripting process for the second season of the French-Canadian spy show "XIII: The Series." He's working on a screenplay for Paul Verhoeven based on the director's scholarly tome about the life of Jesus. With production company Wild Bunch, he's planning to reteam with "Rules of Attraction" scribe Bret Easton Ellis to direct an adaptation of Ellis' "Lunar Park." For "Moon" director Duncan Jones, he reworked the screenplay for a biopic about James Bond creator Ian Fleming. He also plans to adapt the early William Faulkner novel "Sanctuary."
Avary said his immense activity is part of his plan to find a creative outlet in everything he does. "I'm looking for work that enriches me and touches me somehow. I'm certainly not taking work just to pay bills."
As if to prove that point, at the request of the Locarno Film Festival, Avary agreed to maintain a blog chronicling his experiences in Switzerland. He used the opportunity to construct another piece of fiction that refers to his fellow jurors as "the Thieve's Guild": Apichatpong Weerasethakul is "the Thailander," while "The Housemaid" director Im Sangsoo is "the South Korean," tags that make the group sound like a medieval take on "Ocean's Eleven."
Avary's reports contain enough coded insight to turn them into a brilliantly gonzo set of festival dispatches that analogize the jury process to espionage. After singling out Apichatpong's meditative filmography, Avary wrote that "he always did things his own way…not every heist needed to pull in the big bucks. A true thief pulled a heist because it was in their soul to do so."
That's a sentiment to which Avary relates. He said he never stopped writing except when he had no choice: After he began tweeting a similarly embellished account of his experience in the work furlough, Avary was forced into solitary confinement and served out his remaining sentence in lockdown. Since then, he has stayed away from the creative prospects of status updates. "The problem with 140 characters is that subtlety is lost," he said, then politely requested we change the subject.
With the trauma of his jail time came an epiphany that carried him through the ordeal. "I never stopped writing," he said, although he had a harder time watching movies, a hobby relegated to the prison television where he found himself watching "My Name Is Earl" by default. Even such relatively minor limitations influenced his new perspective. "If I've learned anything," he said, "I've learned that we don't have control."
Asked about his state of mind over the course of his prison experience, Avary flashed back to 2000. Around that time, he was involved in developing an unrealized HBO series entitled "Medal of Honor" about soldiers who received that prize. Over the course of his research, Avary befriended Vietnam vet James Stockdale, an American pilot who was imprisoned for several years in the Hanoi Hilton, the torture center most recently known for housing John McCain. Stockdale was kept there the longest — seven years — and subsisted on a diet of pumpkin soup in between torture sessions.
"I asked him how you survive something like this," Avary said. "I cannot stress to you how strong and noble this man was."
Avary said Stockdale turned to his position as a Stanford professor, where he specialized in the stoic principles of the Greek philosopher Epictetus. "The basic philosophy of stoicism is that you have nothing real external to your own consciousness, that the only thing real is in fact your consciousness," Avary said. "In thinking about his experience, it just occurred to me that the notion of control of your external environment is an illusion."
Given his introspection, it's no surprise that he's a great fan of fellow juror Apichatpong's work, singling out "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" as a favorite. "I find him to be a fascinating humanist in many ways."
While Avary's own filmography may lack Apichatpong's soothing qualities, his two feature-length directing credits (not counting "Glitterati," which was constructed from footage of a wild Eurotrip seen in "Rules of Attraction" but never released) contain heavy, immersive stories about people losing control of their lives and struggling to understand their priorities. No matter the loud, angry people they focus on, Avary's movies contain an intimacy that holds up.
This October will mark the tenth anniversary of "Rules of Attraction" hitting theaters in the U.S. Avary said would like the movie to receive a special anniversary release, but has yet to convince distributor Lionsgate. Seen outside the context of its initial release, it remains an enjoyably surreal endeavor that messes with the characters and viewer alike by constantly rewinding various party scenes, drawing us into seemingly inconsequential moments of hedonistic indulgences and rendering them bleakly poetic. Avary, who drew from personal experience for certain moments in spite of taking cues from the novel, described it as a form of self-analysis. "On the initial release of the film, my intention was to make something about events in my life that I had observed and lived," he said. "I was writing as a social critic of myself."
Much of Avary's output, both as a director and screenwriter, places his literary perspective inside a showy entertainment mold. (Unsurprisingly, he's also a fervent gamer who collects vintage arcade systems and speaks excitedly about the medium's current potential. "If Stanley Kubrick had been alive today and making videogames, he would have made 'Portal,'" Avary said, referencing the recent Valve franchise.) However, until we see Verhoeven's "Jesus of Nazareth," no movie scripted by Avary better demonstrates the marriage of spectacle and historical inquiry better than "Beowulf."
Prior to selling the property and taking a screenwriting credit along with Neil Gaiman, Avary hoped to direct that project for years. (Robert Zemeckis directed.) Having taken a lesser role in that passion project, Avary found himself in a tough headspace even before the 2008 disaster that changed his life. "I began to ask myself, 'Who am I as a filmmaker right now?'" he said. "And I didn't know what I had to say."
Now he has a solution and sounds tentatively hopeful about it. "When you're a writer, you pull your life into your work," he said. "My first love is cinema. That's where I want to be judged."
At that exact moment, a small finch landed immediately beside us, sidling up to Avary's espresso. Avary turned to it and smiled. "Oh, hello!" he said. The bird sat there for a moment and stared back before fluttering off. Avary watched it go. "That's amazing," he said. "What a beautiful bird." For the first time, beneath his sunglasses, his eyes appeared to light up.