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."