The Rapid Rise and Fall of Dylan Avery
With his 9/11 conspiracy doc "Loose Change," director Dylan Avery became an Internet sensation and a leader of a movement. Then the film grew into a monster that nearly ruined his life
On a clear, unseasonably cold spring day, Dylan Avery, creator of the world’s most popular 9/11 conspiracy film, Loose Change, stands near the base of One World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan. There is a camera around his neck, and bags of film gear hang off his shoulders. Though he has likely watched more raw footage of the twin towers crumbling to the ground than anyone, he is seeing the new, completed building for the first time. “I don’t see closure. I don’t see healing,” he says, gesturing toward the fence surrounding the structure. “I see barbed wire.”
At 30 years old, Avery is still dealing with the aftershocks of his movie, which he released in December 2005 when he was just 21. In a matter of months, Loose Change had been viewed on the Internet more than 10 million times, by 20,000 people per day (All before YouTube was a household name). Suddenly, Avery became a youth icon and a kind of national celebrity, galvanizing the 9/11 Truth Movement—those who fervently believed the Sept. 11 attacks were coordinated by the U.S. government.
He was referred to as “a real hero” and earned praise from renowned artists like director David Lynch, who said of the film: “It’s not so much what they say, it’s the things that make you look at what you thought you saw in a different light.”
Avery is in town to conduct interviews for his new documentary about police brutality called Black and Blue. Though he still has his signature soul patch, he is no longer the spitting image of angry youth in revolt. His hair is freshly buzzed, he wears a beaded Rasta bracelet on his wrist and his feet are clad in sandals, despite the weather. The Fight Club-loving skinny boy who once declared that there was going to be a “second American revolution,” now calls to mind a gentle Buddha.
“I never planned on talking about 9/11 for the rest of my life,” he says. “Everyone wants me to keep playing this role, but when I made Loose Change, I was young and pissed off.” He pauses for a moment. “I wanted to make a film and see if I was good at it, but it took over my life.”
Three days before we meet, Michael Ruppert, one of the world’s most prominent 9/11 conspiracy theorists, put a bullet in his brain. He was a forefather of the Truth Movement and, at the age of 63, had devolved into a condition of crippling paranoia. The news was a big deal for Avery, who admits, “If I allowed myself to continue down a certain path, that could have been me.”
That path, of course, began with Loose Change.
There are technically four versions of the film, the final released in 2009. Each is essentially a retrofitting of the one that came before it, introducing new or improved graphics, formats and interviews. “It was a living, breathing thing,” Avery says.
For the average person, there is just the second edition of the movie, which was released shortly before New Year’s 2006. That was the one that went viral and energized the Truth Movement. That was the one that gave rise to feature stories on Fox News and in Vanity Fair. The film’s thrust was clear: U.S. government officials had foreknowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks, ultimately allowed them to take place and afterward attempted to cover their tracks. “I just wanted people to question what happened,” Avery says.
Even now, the second edition’s appeal is obvious. The presentation is rough and edgy, a compilation of stitched-together images culled from raw TV news coverage of 9/11, set against a backdrop of hypnotic hip-hop beats. For 80 minutes, Avery, in his distinctly skeptical post-adolescent voice—the sound of youthful arrogance—directs the viewer’s attention to suspicious activity, basically saying what to think.
Early on, for instance, there is a picture from the Department of Justice’s terrorism manual, released in 2000, that shows the World Trade Center set in crosshairs. Soon afterward, a sentence from “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” a 90-page report published that same year by a neoconservative think tank, pops up on the screen: “The process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event—like a new Pearl Harbor.” (The quote’s context, describing a timetable for a technological makeover of the military, is conveniently left out of the narrative.)
Avery then points out that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are among the report’s authors, the setup for a key assertion that comes later in the film: The twin towers, made of steel, could not have been brought down solely by airliners, since steel melts at 2,750 degrees while jet fuel burns up at 1,500. We watch grainy footage of the structures collapsing, the nature of the destruction apparently consistent with that of a controlled demolition. Taken together, the sequence is enormously effective (though debunkers were quick to point out that steel loses half its strength at 1,200 degrees, enough to have brought down the towers).
If nothing else, Loose Change was a tremendous piece of agitprop that struck a chord at precisely the right moment. According to a Zogby poll in May 2006, when the film was buzzing around the Internet, 42% of Americans believed the 9/11 commission, charged with investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, either ignored or “concealed” critical evidence that contradicted their “official explanation” of the day’s events.
“It came out when the 9/11 Truth Movement was at its peak,” says Jonathan Kay, author of Among the Truthers. “All this new technology was available. At the time, people were not used to grassroots activists making high-quality video propaganda. People assumed that if it had high production values, it was something to take seriously. The significance of Loose Change was quite amazing. Many of the conspiracy theorists I interviewed for my book were propagandized through video.”
“I had to make my mark on the world, and I honestly felt like no one would care. I didn’t expect a billion people to see the film I cut together while waiting tables at Red Lobster,” Avery says. “But the 30-year-old me would not make the 20-year-old me’s movie.”
Avery grew up in the northern foothills of the Catskill Mountains, in Oneonta, New York, with his mother, Annie. His father left before he was born, and the two didn’t meet until Avery turned 27. “I didn’t feel any kind of connection with him,” Avery recalls.
Annie managed a health-food store, and without child support, she had to work often. But she and her son were close, and she instilled in him a progressive sensibility and a healthy dose of skepticism. “I raised Dylan to be a free-thinker,” she says. “If somebody said one thing, I’d make him think about what they were really saying.”
As Avery grew older, he became withdrawn. “I didn’t want to go to school,” he says. “I got picked on all the time because I was vulnerable and lonely.”
He passed time drawing cartoons, spending nights watching movies with his mother and laughing at television shows like South Park and The Simpsons. “My mom did a damn good job,” he says. “But I was angry and confused. I was mostly raised without someone telling me, ‘Here’s how you talk to girls. Here’s how you shave.’ There was a certain presence that was missing. I didn’t have to bow down to anyone.”
When Avery turned 14 he met Korey Rowe, who picked up a paper route next to his. Rowe ran with a different crowd. “Dylan was into video games,” he says. “I was into sports and pussy.” Though they had little in common, they quickly became close friends, with Rowe taking on a kind of paternal role. “I tried to help him, using some of the things my father taught me. I brought him to parties and he blossomed.”
“If it weren’t for Korey,” Avery says, “I’d still be that timid little kid.”
When the boys were 17, Rowe dropped out of high school and eventually enlisted in the Army, while Avery applied to film school, at SUNY Oneonta, but didn’t get in. After he graduated, in 2002, he took a job doing local construction and began to sketch out a screenplay. It was a fantastical caper about a couple of boys who, sensing something nefarious, decide to investigate 9/11, unearthing a vast conspiracy and becoming heroes in the process. “It was fun,” Avery explains. “About kids fucking shit up. The original script ended with a rally on the White House lawn, and then I think we all fake our own deaths.”
The plan was to splice the fictional story with real-life news footage, but then it turned into a documentary. “It was kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he admits. “The feature script definitely paved the way for what was about to come.”
Avery sent bits of the feature film script to Rowe, then in Afghanistan, who was supportive. “I was telling him it was great,” he says.
When Rowe made occasional trips back to Oneonta on combat leave, the boys would shoot scenes together—freewheeling rap sessions with a Richard Linklater vibe, incongruously mixing witty banter with speculation about 9/11. The sequences took place in Avery’s living room, in the car or over dinner. “We’d smoke weed and just pull out the camera, no thought to lighting or continuity or anything like that,” Rowe recalls.
At the same, Avery researched his screenplay, digging further and further into the Sept. 11 attacks. “I wanted to try and find out what happened,” he says. “I didn’t go in with an opinion, per se, but for me, it was like slowly tumbling down a rabbit hole.” Before long, he became obsessive, staying up late at night, researching put-options on United Airlines’ stock and NORAD timelines.
In February 2003, Rowe was sent to Sinjar, on the western border of Iraq. “That’s when I knew something wasn’t right,” he recalls. “For the next year, I had to go around looking for weapons of mass destruction, and I saw we destroyed their country.”
While he was there, Rowe acquired an old PlayStation and a television. Avery mailed him the first cut of Loose Change, which ran to 20 minutes and was now basically a documentary. “I gathered a few friends around my little screen to watch,” Rowe says. “One yelled, ‘This is bullshit!’ and another said, ‘This is good information.’ They started throwing things at each other, and then we had to go on a mission.”
Rowe left the Army in August 2005, four months after the official first edition was released. “I was on board to say something,” he says. “I was on board with Dylan.” The two boys, now both 21, worked on the second edition together in Oneonta. It hit the Internet that winter, and soon blew up worldwide.
The next two years were a whirlwind. The boys toured the country, screening their film and attending Truth conferences, where they were the stars. They were courted by Alex Jones, the rabid conservative conspiracy theorist and radio host who, among other things, believes the MSG found in juice boxes and kettle chips is part of a “chemical warfare operation” to spread homosexuality. He was at the forefront of the Truth Movement and rubbed shoulders with celebrities like Charlie Sheen, who was a Truther himself and a big fan of Loose Change. In early fall 2006, Jones facilitated an introduction between Sheen and the boys, suggesting the actor might narrate the next version of the movie, which would, with his cache, lead to a theatrical release.
Sheen met with 2929, Mark Cuban’s entertainment company, which had produced politically minded films like George Clooney’s Goodnight, and Good Luck and the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, saying he wanted to make a new edition of Loose Change. The idea was to rework the previous movie, turning it into a high-end production that would appeal to mass audiences.
At one point, Sheen had the boys over to his home in Los Angeles. “There were extravagant fruit and cheese platters,” Rowe recalls. “His backyard was perfectly manicured. He had a Picasso in his downstairs bathroom, had flat-screens, 60-plus inches, everywhere. There was a private movie theater, where we screened Loose Change for him and his people.”
The boys moved out to L.A. in March 2007, but the project talks fell apart six weeks later—their controversial movie presented a professional conflict for Sheen, who at the time was the star of Two and a Half Men, one of the most popular shows on television. There was a general concern that associating with Loose Change could make the actor less appealing to mainstream viewers.
Meanwhile, based on the expectation of returns on the future film, Rowe, the businessman of the operation, had gone into severe debt. In advance of what the boys thought would be their big production, they hired employees and a script consultant, bought fresh footage and new cameras to reshoot interviews, and subcontracted graphics to a company in Germany. Avery and Rowe needed an additional $100,000 to finish the film. So they tapped Alex Jones, who stepped in and lent them the cash.
When the third edition, known as Final Cut, came out in November 2007, it hit with a ping, not a bang. Though it was produced for $250,000—the other two cost about $12,000 combined—there was no theatrical release, just DVDs for sale on a few websites. It was overproduced, with the rough edges that made the second edition so attractive smoothed over and polished. In other words, they had tried to make a Hollywood film.
“The movie was shit,” Rowe says. “The people involved destroyed it. There were too many cooks in the kitchen.”
Avery was tired and beginning to grow wary of both the Truth Movement and his place in it. “There were anti-Semites saying the Israeli intelligence agency pulled off 9/11,” he says. “They wanted me to put that stuff in my films.” In a bizarre twist, some in the movement accused him of working for the government, conducting a disinformation campaign to discredit Truthers. Others, who disagreed with his ideas, berated him on a popular blog called Screw Loose Change, where commenters regularly said things like, “Jeez, fucking Hitler must be proud of Dylan.” And in different forums, strangers fantasized about his demise. “There were YouTube videos dedicated to killing me,” he recalls. “One said, ‘Dylan Avery dies in a plane crash,’ and it was just stock footage of a plane crashing. You see enough of that, and it really starts to wear on you.”
Avery made his last Loose Change film in 2009, in a last-ditch effort to rectify Final Cut. “I didn’t want that to be the final word,” he says. “I felt like I’d whimpered away with my tail between my legs.” At a cost of $12,000, the last version, American Coup, retains the scrappy spirit of the second edition but with a professional panache—it’s narrated by the actor Daniel Sunjata, whose voice has an authority that Avery’s lacks. It’s also a more diplomatic film. “People aren’t meant to walk away thinking ‘inside job,’” Avery says, “but rather that 9/11 was a terrible tragedy that deserved a proper investigation, not the one we got.”
In a stroke of good luck, Netflix picked up American Coup, but that was of little consolation to Avery, who was done with the Truth Movement and “being the 9/11 guy.” He retreated to San Diego with his pit bull, Gordo.
“You spend all day, every day with people hating you, telling you that you should die, saying you’re worthless,” Avery explains. “All these things about you that you know aren’t true. But you hear them enough times, and you might start to believe them. I wasn’t ready for it, and I didn’t want to deal with that my whole life. Am I going to be 60 years old, still getting hate mail about a movie I made when I was 20? That’s not what I wanted for myself.”
In 2011, after avoiding the limelight for two years, Avery went on Alec Baldwin’s podcast, “Here’s the Thing,” for an interview. The actor was clearly a fan of Loose Change and referred to it as “the Gone With the Wind of the Truth Movement.” Avery, however, sounded like a broken man, giving the impression that the film had all but destroyed him. “Loose Change happened because I wanted to make a film,” he said. “It was born out of the passion of wanting to be a filmmaker. And then Loose Change took over my life, and it’s almost like filmmaking is completely out of the question.”
“Do you feel, for you personally, that’s one of the greatest impacts of 9/11? The loss of you as a filmmaker?” Baldwin asked.
“All I’ve ever had is broken promises and phones that don’t get answered,” he replied.
Today Avery has little money and his future remains uncertain. Back in 2006, when his movie was hot and the movement was peaking, he earned $75,000. Now he scrapes by as a freelancer. “I look for gigs on Craigslist,” Avery told me. “I’ll edit a trailer for $100 because that will buy food.”
Yet he’s excited about his new film, Black and Blue, especially because it’s grounded in fact-based stories, not theories, about people who have been abused by the police. And though questions still linger about 9/11, such as why, on Sept. 6, 2001, the daily average for put-options on United Airlines stock quadrupled, he no longer tortures himself with speculation. “In my truly angry times, in 2005 or 2006, if you asked if the Bush administration planned the attacks, I would have said, ‘Fuck yeah’.”
“I don’t think Bush could plan a bowl of cereal,” he says.
Toward the end of the day, we circle around to Zuccotti Park, where he and thousands of other Truthers had gathered on the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11. Five years later, Occupy Wall Street would commandeer the same ground. For a moment, Avery is nostalgic, but then says, “Ruppert was confirmation that you have to walk away. He had a dog! I have a dog, man. I could never leave my dog behind. He was there for me when no one else was.” Avery is silent for a moment. “It’s a dark, dangerous world, the world of conspiracy. You make a commitment and either stick with it to the very end, or you don’t. It’s easy to get sucked in, and really hard to get sucked back out.”
We are joined by Victoria Codella, Avery’s girlfriend. She has long blond hair and pale blue eyes. Smiling, she gestures toward the park. “I snapped a picture of you here in 2006,” she says, referring to the anniversary rally. At the time, she and Avery didn’t know each other.
He beams. “I’d love to see that.”
Codella hugs his arm. “I’m getting the chills, thinking about everyone I spoke to that day. I was so nervous to finally speak my mind.” She peaks up at her boyfriend. “I knew who Dylan was, but he was meeting lots of people.”
Avery glances at the park for a few seconds. “It’s all a blur, baby,” he says, and steers her in a different direction.