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Fall Sneaks

The Life He Once Knew

Roger Avary hopes to return to his 'Pulp Fiction' form with a story that echoes his own college years

September 08, 2002|PATRICK DAY

Aspiring filmmakers spending time in front of the mirror practicing Oscar speeches and dreaming of fame and creative freedom could learn a thing or two from Roger Avary.

The 37-year-old writer-director won an Academy Award in 1995 for co-writing the wildly influential "Pulp Fiction" with Quentin Tarantino. Although Avary can claim the distinction of stealing the spotlight from the usually garrulous Tarantino that night (he ended their acceptance speech by announcing, "I'm gonna go now 'cause I really have to take a pee"), it's Tarantino who went on to fame and fortune. Only dedicated "Pulp" fans recognize Avary's name.

Having a low profile, however, suits Avary just fine. "I prefer to wander out to the movies and not be recognized," he says in the office behind his Manhattan Beach home. "There's greater liberty in that path in life. I've got to wonder, can you be normal and exist among people and continue to relate to the real world in your work if you are a media celebrity?"

He speaks from experience. After his Oscar win, his brief flirtation with fame gave him a taste of the bizarre--porn stars have suggested creative uses of his Oscar statuette--and the discomfort of unbearable pressure.

He used to leave the award on his desk by the computer. "I'd sit down to start writing," he explains. "I'd look at it and it would just suck the life out of everything I was doing. It was like, all of a sudden, whatever I was working on, it had to stand up next to the Academy Award. I couldn't just write for fun."

The little golden man now rests inside a tool drawer in Avary's house.

Rejecting fame may have bought him a more normal personal life, but it hasn't helped his filmmaking ambitions. His directorial debut, 1994's "Killing Zoe," was made with the help of Tarantino as executive producer, but the film was lost in the flood "Pulp Fiction's" pre-release hype.

Avary's follow-up, 1996's "Mr. Stitch," received its premiere on cable's Sci-Fi Channel. It's with the Oct. 11 release of this fall's "The Rules of Attraction" that Avary finally stands a chance of reminding Hollywood who he is.

The film, an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' 1987 novel, follows the lives of three undergraduates involved in a love triangle at a small East Coast liberal arts college, and their classmates' excessive experiences with sex, drugs and alcohol. Toying with narrative and cinematic conventions, Avary has attempted his most ambitious and stylized film, and he's cast a roster of Hollywood's Next Big Things, including James Van Der Beek, Shannyn Sossamon, Jessica Biel, Kip Pardue, Ian Somerhalder and Kate Bosworth.

It was while Avary was himself a college undergraduate at Menlo College in the San Francisco Bay Area during the late '80s that he first read "Rules of Attraction."

Having been a big Ellis fan since the novelist's debut, "Less Than Zero," Avary grabbed "The Rules of Attraction" immediately upon its publication. "It was the first time I'd read something that was vivid and absolutely true to what I was seeing around me at the time," Avary says. "I'm reading it and I'm thinking to myself, I have to make this."

Both Ellis and Avary are familiar with controversy. Ellis received a critical and public lashing with the release of his 1991 Wall Street serial-killer novel, "American Psycho." Avary's work, with "Pulp Fiction's" hired killers and depraved hillbillies, has been a flashpoint for those seeking to pin blame on the popularizing and glorifying of violent crime dramas in the mid-to late '90s. Joe Brown described "Killing Zoe" in The Washington Post as "a toxic, repulsive film."

"My point of view tends to be so intense that people either really vibe to it or they don't." Avary says. "If they don't, then they're strongly negative about it. There's very little ambivalence in between."

He's heard the criticisms of Ellis' work and expects his film adaptation to get more of the same. "When you're doing social criticism the way [Ellis] does it--nihilistic social criticism--people tend to turn off to you a little bit."

Despite his enthusiasm for the material, Avary could not figure out a way of turning the essentially plotless novel into a film. (Ellis himself made an unsuccessful attempt at a screenplay and has no involvement with Avary's adaptation.) He would finally figure it out a decade later, but at the time, the temptations of real-life debauchery were too great. Even after establishing himself in Hollywood, lucrative writing assignments on still unproduced scripts kept him distracted from personal projects. Avary's lifestyle in college wasn't much different from that of the hard-partying students in the film. He's proud to show off photos of himself vomiting into a metal bucket.

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