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.