Roger Avary: Rule breaker

The director Roger Avary has a new film, but still gets asked the same questions. Why did he and writing partner Quentin Tarantino fall out? And did they sleep together? Ryan Gilbey gets the juice. And more

Friday 14 March 2003 01:00

If you saw Roger Avary in the street, you might mistake him for a beach bum, or a Queensryche roadie on his day off. It's the kinky, sunbleached locks, the dopey-dude eyes; there must be a Lebowski lurking in the branches of his family tree. But you could comb Hollywood for years and not find a more industrious talent. True, he has directed just two features in the past decade – the nasty 1994 heist movie Killing Zoe, and a trippy new film of Bret Easton Ellis's novel The Rules of Attraction. He has not, however, been idle.

Since co-writing Pulp Fiction with his longtime chum Quentin Tarantino, and subsequently sharing the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, 37-year-old Avary has become one of the industry's most prized script doctors, earning what he freely admits is silly money. "After Pulp Fiction, my rate went through the roof. A simple polish can fund me for a year and a half." Miraculously, you don't feel like pushing him down an empty lift shaft when he says this. It's the way he tells 'em; arrogance and boastfulness are beyond his repertoire.

Avary's latest film is evidently the work of someone smitten by cinema and its possibilities. Love it, hate it or pass out at it – and many people have, thanks to a graphic account of a bathtub suicide – there can be no ignoring Avary's transparent glee at breaking all the rules in The Rules of Attraction. For starters, he has fashioned a poignant comedy out of Ellis's "difficult" second novel – "difficult" in this context meaning no one ever made it to the end because it was like wading through a cesspool. It wasn't the drug-addled, vomit-soaked sex that rendered unpalatable Ellis's induction into life on a fictional New England campus so much as the misanthropy: all human life was DOA. Avary has translated Ellis's despair into sensitivity. Everyone in the movie is still going to hell, but Avary hints this might be a bad thing.

Partly he does so by manipulating time to alert us to a sense of loss, a longing for what might have been; his technique of running the film backwards is on its own a powerful and judiciously deployed tool. Next to The Rules of Attraction, a film like Run Lola Run is barely up to walking speed.

Then there is the virtuoso section midway through the film when Avary absconds from the narrative for five minutes to follow a minor character named Victor on a hedonistic jaunt around Europe. The director and his actor, ex-model Kip Pardue, did it for real, partying hard over two weeks with Pardue in character as Avary trailed him with a DV camera from breakfast to bed. "Kip would bring girls back to the hotel room, they'd be making out. And beyond." How far beyond? "I have no interest in making pornography," he says, sounding mildly embarrassed at my prurience. "When I felt I'd got enough of what I needed, I'd go back to my room. There was no need to stick around until the final cigarette." Avary is now editing the 70 hours of Victor footage into an accompanying film called Glitterati, which may or may not be a good idea.

Ellis himself has registered his approval of The Rules of Attraction. "Bret sneaked into an early screening," says Avary. "I was mortified. He's not known to monitor what he says, and I had heard he didn't like the other films based on his books [Less Than Zero and American Psycho]. But he told me it was not only the best adaptation of his work, it was one of his favourite movies."

One of Avary's smartest moves was to cast James van der Beek – the marshmallow-faced hero of Dawson's Creek – against type as a nasty piece of work. "I was initially sceptical. But I met James for lunch, and as he removed his sunglasses I glimpsed this capacity for cold, dark emptiness. His eyes were shark-like. No – doll-like. It creeped me out." In the course of the film, we see van der Beek masturbating, taking a dump, smoking pot and punching a girl in the face; as subversive career moves go, it rivals Julie Andrews flashing her breasts in S.O.B. While he prunes away at Glitterati, and prepares yet another Bret Easton Ellis adaptation (of Glamorama), Avary is having a ball doing rewrites on David Fincher's next film, Lords of Dogtown, about the 1970s Santa Monica skateboarding scene. "I used to take writing jobs indiscriminately," he admits. "But now I only take the ones that I know will be fun. Because as everyone knows, fun rules." The words spill out of him; he's like a faucet on full blast. Perhaps that is why he devotes so much time to the detailed journal on his website – a single day's conversation couldn't offer enough space for all the talk he has in him.

Also, it's about being available. "Most film-makers end up insulating themselves from the world," he sneers. "I find that lame." He organises competitions, polls, Q&As. If you log on now, you can discover everything you never realised you wanted to know about Roger Avary, from why he used his Oscar speech to tell the world that he needed to pee (well, he needed to pee) to whether he and Tarantino were lovers ("I'm open to just about anything, but I draw the line when it comes to sex with Quentin"). I ask Avary if he gets weary of Tarantino's name cropping up in every interview he gives, and for the first time in our long conversation he seems rattled – affronted, even. "I love Quentin," he protests. "Pulp Fiction bought my home. And it afforded me complete artistic freedom. That's an incredible luxury. That movie wasn't just a success, it was a phenomenon. Like everything it can be a blessing and a curse. But it's not much of a curse, let me tell you."

The friends had a famous spat a few years back, but Avary insists it was nothing to do with him getting a mere "Story By" credit on Pulp Fiction, a subject he seems keen to avoid. (Addressing the matter of why his contribution was belittled, he writes on his website: "Good question. I'm still asking myself that.") But still, the dispute was another matter of literary property. Avary had a hand in every Tarantino screenplay until Jackie Brown. He wrote The Open Road, the original script on which Tarantino based True Romance, and helped him organise the structure of that movie. He came to Tarantino's rescue when he was having difficulty with a scene in Natural Born Killers, and wrote background dialogue for Reservoir Dogs.

All this he could stomach; he was just helping out a buddy, right? Then one day in 1994, Avary is having lunch with the actor Eric Stoltz. Avary is telling Stoltz about a killer monologue that he's just put into a new screenplay, deconstructing the homoerotic subtext of Top Gun – "You can ride my tail anytime," that kind of stuff. Stoltz nearly chokes on his appetiser. "Oh my God, Roger," he says, "I'm so sorry. I don't know how to tell you this but Quentin just improvised that exact speech into a movie we're in."

The film was Sleep With Me, and Avary was mad as hell. "We were at Cannes with Pulp Fiction, and I just blurted out my anger in the hotel bar. Quentin was so apologetic. He said, 'I had to come up with something on the spur of the moment and your words just came to me.'" It's all history now. "I actually think he did a good job of delivering the monologue," says Avary, rather manfully. Whatever. I think it's clear who comes out of that story looking like a wretch.

But Avary, bless him, bears no grudges, or else covers them up well. "We saw each other recently. We hugged, we talked about our movies. That's all we can do now because we're holding on to our own ideas." Just when you thought this man couldn't get any sweeter, he admits to being awfully excited about the opening night of Kill Bill, Tarantino's upcoming martial arts thriller. "I purposely haven't read the screenplay. I'm not going to the premiere. I want to be there on opening night with all the other fans who are prepared to eat paint in order to see the movie. It looks like just the kind of cheese I like with my cracker."

'The Rules of Attraction' is released 28 March

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