Roger Avary entered the Hollywood limelight with 1994’s Pulp Fiction, an Oscar-winning script he wrote with former Manhattan Beach video-store co-worker Quentin Tarantino. The same year, Avary directed his first feature, Killing Zoe, which took the Pulp formula on a bloody spree to Paris. The movie got mixed reviews and did little business at the box office—which seemed to support the notion that Avary wasn’t exactly the brains behind the erstwhile partnership.
Since then, the 37-year-old
Manitoba-born writer-director has maintained something of a low profile. “I’ve made about seven other films,” jokes Avary by phone from L.A. “All of them were in my mind.”
He’s being a little too modest, but only a little. Avary did direct Mr. Stitch, a Frankenstein-inspired 1995 TV pilot that ended up as a straight-to-video flick. He also worked on several films he ultimately didn’t direct, such as A Perfect Murder, or that haven’t gotten made, such as ones derived from Beowulf and The Sandman comic book.
Nonetheless, Avary hasn’t had to scramble to pay his bills. “Since I won the Academy Award for Pulp Fiction, I have had great success as a writer,” he notes. “My rate went up.”
Still, he says, “I’ve always considered myself a director. I only became a writer out of convenience. Because it’s cheaper and easier than hiring somebody else to do it.”
After Killing Zoe, however, Avary says, “one year turned into four years, which turned into eight years. And finally it came down to I need to make a movie or I’m going to die. So this was the unlikely candidate.”
“This” is The Rules of Attraction, the 1987 Bret Easton Ellis novel that grabbed Avary when he first read it as a student at “a small liberal-arts school in Northern California” that he’d “rather not condemn” by naming. “I’d been thinking about the book since I was in college, when I first read it,” he says. “It was such a condemnation of the luxurious debauchery of the ruling class, who were all around me. It’s so blisteringly accurate, and something that I could really identify with.”
The novel’s style didn’t encourage cinematic adaptation, Avary concedes. “It’s composed of maybe 15 to 20 first-person narratives, in stream of consciousness. And they’re all talking about various events throughout the year, in seemingly scattershot order, sort of Rashomon style. Similar to Trainspotting, you could almost make 20 different movies out of this book. It’s very much about perception and reality.”
Other writers, including Ellis himself, had tried and failed to extract a workable script from the book, Avary says. “It literally took me 15 years of thinking about it before suddenly it struck me: I had to work backwards with nonlinear storytelling, like Pulp Fiction. I decided to try to show the different points of view and encapsulate them in one superscene. To have all the other scenes be subsets of the superscene and avoid cutting. There are edits, of course, but there is no actual fracture in the timeline. It’s not like you’re jumping back in time, but pulling back through time, which never causes you to disconnect from the scene you were just in.”
This interest in chronology, Avary admits, doesn’t come from the book. “That was mostly me,” he says, “I was very much interested in making a movie about time and perception. It wasn’t until after I had made this film that I was looking at my other work and started noticing that as a theme. I’m not sure why that’s emerged.”
Avary suggests that he wrote the screenplay as a form of a therapy, never expecting to make the film. “I actually wrote it without owning the rights,” he recalls. “What happened was, I was working on a job for a studio, and I woke up in the middle of the night, realizing, I’ve got to do Rules of Attraction. So I just kind of hammered it out. I just wrote it really quickly and put it away.”
Because he had no intention of pitching the screenplay to a studio, Avary didn’t follow scriptwriting conventions. “The script had no Page 1,” he says. “That confused a lot of people, but that was how the book began. It began midsentence. I designed it to feel like the book, but at the same time I described all the camera moves and the various motion-control devices that I would need to do certain effects.
“Normally, you write screenplays as a skeleton key to a movie. But I wrote this thinking that I’m never going to get this movie made, so I’m just going to write it for myself, so I can see the movie. I wrote it as if I was describing cinema. I just directed the film in my head and then put it on paper. And that’s the script I went out and shot.”
Avary eventually showed the screenplay to producer Greg Shapiro, who was working with him on an HBO project. Shapiro insisted that the script should be filmed. “I had been developing very normal Hollywood films for studios for a while, and those hadn’t gotten going, so I thought it was crazy to try to make this film,” Avary says. “But we pulled it together very quickly. We did a quick rights search and discovered that the rights were available, and the next thing you know we were making it.”
The movie hints at being set in the ’80s, with lots of vintage synth-pop on the soundtrack. “A lot of ’80s music is a little cheaper than contemporary music,” says Avary, who also notes that he couldn’t get all the songs he wanted. “We had to take out [Lindsay Buckingham’s] ‘Holiday Road.’ It was outside of our ability to afford it. We also didn’t get ‘Monster Mash.’ A painful blow.”
The film does include “Without You,” however—and for a suicide scene, an acquisition Avary terms “nearly impossible. The song is sung by [Harry] Nilsson, but the publishing is owned by Badfinger. Two of them committed suicide, it turns out. I didn’t know that when I first laid the song in.”
Despite all the Depeche Mode and Cure tunes, Avary says that Rules is supposed to “contemporary, but it’s full of anachronisms as well. I like to create temporally and spatially nonspecific films. I even went so far as to consult a fashion designer. She said, ‘Denim. When the movie comes out, everything’s going to be denim.’
“But I didn’t want to do the fashion of next season. What I’m worried about is 10 or 20 years from now. Will it feel somewhat timeless? So what I did instead was research the fashions of Coco Chanel in France around the ’30s. I felt the climate of France between the wars was very similar to the climate that I was portraying.”
Avary also returned to France for part of a road-trip montage that he claims was unscripted. “I just took a camera and followed [actor Kip Pardue],” Avary says. “Wherever Kip went, I went.”
Among the icons he managed to film in the process was a Monoprix, one of a chain of stores that also feature in Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders. The French title of that film, Bande a Part, just happens to provide the name of Tarantino’s production company, A Band Apart.
“I would love to say that I did that on purpose, but that’s purely accidental,” Avary claims. He laughs, and promises to further discuss Monoprix’s significance in an e-mail: “I’ll think of a better answer.”
As of this writing, he hasn’t. —Mark Jenkins