After winning an Oscar in 1995 for co-writing "Pulp Fiction," writer-director Roger Avary took some time before figuring out what exactly he wanted to do.
He moved to Cap d'Antibes in the South of France and tried to buy an old movie studio. He wrote a bunch of screenplays -- a remake of a horror film and a new work about Beowulf. He grew a Dali-style mustache and moved into New York's St. Regis Hotel to write about the surrealist painter. He had two kids and became busy with that.
"One year turns into two years, two years into four years into eight years," the 37-year-old filmmaker says with a shrug in the warm, Craftsman-style home where he lives and works in Manhattan Beach, west of Los Angeles. "Pretty soon you're like,'I've gotta make a movie.' "
So finally he did. "The Rules of Attraction" is Avary's first finished project since "Pulp Fiction" became a box office and cultural smash, turning his collaborator, Quentin Tarantino, into a pop phenomenon.
Fans of the Avary-Tarantino oeuvre -- which also includes the gun-heavy "True Romance" and "Killing Zoe" (which Avary directed) -- will recognize in "Rules of Attraction" the signature intensity, if not the violence, of the earlier works.
Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, "Rules of Attraction" chronicles the hazards and horrors of the spoiled college set, seen through the eyes of different characters, among them Sean (James Van Der Beek), Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon) and Paul (Ian Somerhalder).
Avary's vision is no formulaic tale of party-hearty sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. Instead, Avary pushes his characters to the outer edge of likability and gives them a good shove. There's an underlying nihilism and a soul-deadened ennui to even the most sympathetic of his undergrads. The film opens with a particularly repellent date rape, in which the victim, Lauren, gets vomited on -- and she doesn't even seem terribly distraught.
There's a point here, Avary insists, which is to portray the vividness of that period in life. "Those times are the great ecstasies of your life," he says. "I wanted to do this film while I had enough distance from that time, but before I forgot what it was like. It's an exciting time and a terrifying time. You walk through certain doors, you close others. You feel so much."
If many reviews have been negative, Avary has not failed to get a rise out of critics.
"The movie revels in its depravity, making no salient or satirical comments about its constant barrage of pharmaceutical excesses, worthless sexuality and dead-end immorality," wrote the St. Petersburg Times's Steve Persall in one of the more unfriendly critiques. "You won't find another film as easy to dislike in this or many other years."
But others seem to have gotten the director's message: "Ellis' satire, filtered through Avary's harsh lens, is hard to stomach, harder to ignore," wrote Peter Travers in Rolling Stone. And The Washington Post's Stephen Hunter called Avary "a crude dramatist but an able anthropologist."
Avary declares himself "gratified" by the reception. "There's very little ambivalence, which I'm glad about. As long as you love it or hate it, I'm happy. If you say, 'I've seen that before,' then I'm unhappy."
In making the film, Avary also found himself in a standoff with the notoriously hard-to-read ratings board over the film's graphic approach and, mostly, its offhand tone.
The Motion Picture Association of America at first gave "Rules of Attraction" an NC-17 rating, which would have meant certain death in terms of marketing the film.
One extended scene to which the raters objected is also one of its funniest: for a montage of a trip to Europe by a character named Victor (Kip Pardue), Avary shot 70 hours of footage and edited it down to four minutes of film. The ratings board objected to the casual tone Victor uses to recount his sexual encounters, diary-style, as in: "Went to the Eiffel Tower. Slept with a model named Katinka. Woke up with a hangover."
After a lengthy argument, much negotiation and some cuts -- and, perhaps coincidentally, a long piece in the Los Angeles Times disparaging the board for the way it rated the film -- the rating was changed to an R.
It left Avary militant about the ratings board. He rails against the system, which many (Avary included) believe favors studio movies over small, independently made productions such as this $6 million film. "I prefer censorship to hypocrisy," he says. But, he adds, "the trick with the MPAA is to sit on their doorstep. Eventually the impact starts to wear off, and they get worn down. It's a battle of sloth."
Avary is accustomed by now to strenuous objection to his "tone," and his style. He appears friendly and quite benign -- shuffling around his light-filled kitchen in Prada cargo pants and a black T-shirt, attempting and failing to make a cappuccino -- but it's obvious from his work that dark thoughts have crossed his mind. In its time, "Pulp Fiction" became a new benchmark in filmic violence. That's part of the reason the writer stayed away from filmmaking for so long once he and his wife, Gretchen, decided to start a family.
While his children were babies, he says, "I couldn't make the kind of movies I liked. You become very protective of the world. I couldn't have made this film, for example."
He goes on: "I consider myself a Method filmmaker, I try to capture the essence of what I'm making. I'll take on the characteristics of the film, so I have to be very careful of the kind of films I make -- my life will mirror the film."
In this case, it meant that Avary found himself becoming pompous, forward and arrogant, like the Victor character, and retreating into the prank-prone personality of a college student during the shoot.
"I needed to become like that, to get my shots," he says. It brought out a dark side of his personality but, he says, that doesn't mean he approves of those characters, or of those traits.
He warns: Don't confuse the extreme images he creates with the message. "I'd contend that I'm a moral filmmaker," says Avary. "I'm a social satirist. I make movies of what I observe around me. They're hyper-realism. I didn't make movies about guns because I love them.
"But the world is not a gentle place. The world is an emotionally violent place. And an emotionally ecstatic place. It's a place for good and evil. I don't endorse the behavior of my characters." He takes a beat: "There's no false justice here, and no false redemption."