EXCLUSIVE: The year was 1994 and the Croisette was Roger Avary’s oyster. Not only did he have Pulp Fiction at the festival, the film he co-wrote with Quentin Tarantino which would go on to win the Palme d’Or, but he also made his feature directorial debut out of competition with the psychedelic heist pic Killing Zoe, which would take home a Critic’s Prize.
Avary returns to Cannes this year, but in a slightly different capacity, that of pitchman in the market. He stands in a conference room at the Majestic Barriere alongside his screenwriter daughter Gala, surrounded by foreign sales buyers after a successful Voltage Pictures presentation for his first directorial in 12 years, Unwind based on the 2007 Neal Shusterman YA dystology. Voltage recently announced that it was boarding Unwind as co-financier and foreign sales rep, working on the Constantin Film/Don Carmody production.
Per Avary, “I have changed as a filmmaker” after a “few bumps in the road”.
One of those bumps for Avary was serving a stint in jail between 2009-2010 after pleading guilty to gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. Avary was sentenced for causing a car crash that injured his wife and killed a passenger in Ojai, CA. At the time reports said that the filmmaker was at the wheel of a Mercedes sedan that was traveling at 100 mph-plus when it crashed into a telephone pole.
“I live my life in complete transparency over that. And it’s without question that the accident and jail were the worst things that had happened to me. I made a conscience choice, do I let something like that destroy me or make myself better? There’s nothing more existential than a 23-hour lock down in the hole, being in prison and watching prisoners get shanked, hanged, and their heads kicked in by guards,” Avary tells Deadline.
Coming away from those dark days, it’s not surprising to hear the director behind Killing Zoe‘s hyper carnage to say, “I’m not super excited about onscreen violence.” Nonetheless, he remains the same cinematic rebel; the same guy who with Tarantino tore up movie tropes, and reignited avant garde independent filmmaking with Pulp Fiction.
It was Avary’s anarchistic attitude that prompted Constantin co-president Robert Kulzer to deliver a copy of Unwind to the filmmaker. Having fizzled with another YA adaptation, The Mortal Instruments: The City of Bones ($31M domestic, $90.5M global B.O.), Kulzer tapped Avary to give Unwind the edge it needed, similar to how Stanley Kubrick turned Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange into an auteur de force and an timeless classic for the youth around the world.
“Robert told me, ‘I need you to be dangerous with this’,” explains Avary, “’Make a bold film that asks questions when people leave, but also feels like a total unique experience.’”
“I want Unwind to affect people. A lot of my movies because they’ve been social satire, and frankly because I was a younger filmmaker at the time – a lot of them have been misunderstood, particularly in regards to exactly what that the message was,” says Avary who warns that it’s not the anticipated onscreen violence that’s dangerous in Shusterman’s tomes, “it’s the themes.”
Avary came under fire by critics for his 2002 college bacchanal The Rules of Attraction, a feature adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel based on his days at Bennington College. One of the intriguing takeaways in that film as observed by various film reviewers was how Avary handled the story’s timeline with a yo-yo sensibility, while also employing a split-screen. Variety panned, “Pic fails to translate Ellis to the screen as well as Mary Harron’s American Psycho did” however, Roger Ebert gave Rules of Attraction a second chance, writing that he came away “emerged with a more evolved opinion: The Rules of Attraction is a skillfully made movie about reprehensible people”.
Avary responds “In the reviews for Rules of Attraction, I was largely accused of glorifying this behavior and it wasn’t my intention nor was it Bret’s intention. Both of us are social critics of our time period. And so, with satire there’s a fine line. It can be misinterpreted. Unwind isn’t satire. This to me is a very clear classic tale that has a lot of themes that are triggering kids; a disaffected youth who’ve been abandoned by the previous generation.”
Expounding on how millennials are being crushed by The Man, Avary says, “I’m priced out of the housing market, my son is 17 and is now just attending college, and for him, the world is a different place. It use to be when it came to a job, you competed regionally, now you compete with the entire world. It’s intense for kids right now. There’s a vanishing middle class. Kids are feeling robbed. It’s upsetting and scary.”
Unwind takes place in a world where those over 18 either function as a cog in the machine of a brainwashed society or they are “unwound”. That means their bodies are taken apart and given to the government who then disperses them to those who are deemed worthy. Three teens decide to rage against the machine — Connor (Ian Nelson), Risa (Kiernan Shipka), and Lev (Percy Hynes White).
Unlike The Hunger Games and Divergent, Unwind is a male-driven YA property in its main protagonist of Connor, who after discovering that his parents are going to unwind him, goes on the run. Shipka’s Risa has been living in a state home, and has always known that one day she’ll be unwound, however, she always tries to be the best person she can be, until she learns that the system is truly working against her. Lev’s parents are religious, and since they tithe, they’re also donating their son to the government. Bill Paxton plays the Admiral, who is a very different type of leader than Donald Sutherland’s acerbic President Snow in Hunger Games. The Admiral has handed over his son to the unwinding process, but is having second thoughts about the whole process. Meanwhile, Jay Baruchel plays a cop that collects kids on the run, much like the Sandman in Logan’s Run. Says Avary, “Jay is a comedian by nature, but always plays someone who is likable. I wanted to use Jay in an opposite way; he can be scary and has a driven side that I want to exploit.”
After reading Unwind, Avary found the property reminscent of Burgess’s The Wanting Seed which dealt with overpopulation in a futuristic society, “but it had a much better engine” and wasn’t “as bleak”. Avary had his daughter, Gala, vet the books. She was quite familiar with the Unwind series and gave Dad the thumbs up. Describing how the books stand out from the YA pack, Gala explains, “When you look at movies like Hunger Games or Divergent, they’re so overly stylized. It’s not a world of our own. I don’t believe those characters. But with Unwind — if we took one step to the left, we could be these characters.”
Avary plans to shoot Unwind in Winnipeg, Canada, given its architectural clash of 1930s Chicago,Brutalist, futuristic and dystopian landscapes. “I’m a student of David Cronenberg’s work, so I started looking at his early movies where he was relying on architecture and volumes of space to represent the inner psyche of his characters.” Avary is also drawing visual inspiration from Simon Stalenhag, a Swedish artist whose retro futuristic landscapes angle on the crossroads between the past and tomorrow.
After working with a number of co-writers like Tarantino and Neil Gaiman, Avary says that with his daughter Gala “I had to make my own co-writer.”
“Working with my daughter has been critically important to making Unwind,” says Avary about getting the pic’s voice down pat. “I want this movie to be a call to action, a manifesto.” Since the ninth grade, Gala has worked with her father in various capacities on his projects. Most recently she penned the pilot episode of her father’s Canadian TV sci-fi series XIII: La Series. “Kids are smart. They have good bullshit meters. They can tell if you’re speaking down to them,” says Avary.
“When Quentin and I made Pulp Fiction, it came from a place of anger. We felt no one was speaking to us. I don’t attach myself to material until I’m upset at the world and I connected to Unwind on a number of levels,” adds the filmmaker.
Avary’s last time in the director’s chair was 2004’s Glitterati, a feature synthesis of two Easton Ellis novels, The Rules of Attraction and Glamorama, however he’s also penned a few prolific screenplays prior to prison including Beowulf ($196.4M global B.O.) and Silent Hill ($97.6M global).
Says Avary, “To be perfectly honest after Beowulf, I didn’t know who I was as a filmmaker. I even intended to direct that film. I sold that movie to Robert Zemeckis, and while it was a wonderful experience; I didn’t know who I was because I did something for the money. What do I do? What is it all about? Kneeling on the asphalt and praying for just one thing — just life– suddenly you realize what you have to say.”
Avary’s 1995 screenwriting Oscar win (shared with Tarantino) aside, as the saying goes, it is in our greatest defeats that we realize our greatest accomplishments. And it’s fair to say that Avary is truly having an epiphany.
“After being incarcerated, after being released, it’s not any small statement. Everyday I wake up and think how I can make the world a better place. What can I do to honor the loss of life? This movie is a part of that.”