Film: Knife across the water

British director Tony Kaye doesn't want you to see his new film. Why not?
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The Independent Culture
AS A blueprint for how not to get ahead in Hollywood, Tony Kaye's adventures as a first-time director on the movie American History X will surely one day pass into legend. He has alienated his leading actor, his studio, the Directors Guild of America, and pulled stunts that have made Tinseltown revise its view of him from genius to crackpot.

Kaye made his name in Britain as a commercials director of unusual visual ability, responsible for ads such as British Rail's "Let The Train Take The Strain", featuring a Hasidic Jew; the Abbey National ad featuring Lionel Bart and some cute kids; the Volvo Twister and many more. Even before he'd made a movie, he was calling himself the best film director in Britain. He is a man who revels in attention.

Kaye has been in Hollywood for seven years, making a documentary all that time on abortion, which he hopes to complete by the end of the year. It gives an idea of how dogged he is in pursuit of excellence.

Such perfectionism has plagued the filming of American History X. From the off he was displeased with the screenplay, which he has continually refashioned. In the early days of filming, Kaye was encouraged by the reaction to the rushes from the studio, New Line Cinema: "They loved it. They were calling me a genius at that point. They were shouting it all around town."

The seeds of discontent were present in the lack of rapport between him and his leading actor, Ed Norton, a fast-rising Hollywood star who won an Oscar nomination for his first movie role in Primal Fear.

"I don't really subscribe to personal chemistry," says Kaye. "Once I decide to work with a person it doesn't matter if I like them or I dislike them or if they like me or if they dislike me. What matters to me is that they do their job absolutely to the utmost and I do likewise."

Both director and actor were bound together by their commitment to the film's theme, which explores violent racist extremism. Norton agreed to less than half the $1m (pounds 600,000) he can command to be in the $5m movie.

In American History X he plays a white supremacist skinhead who denounces his past after a period in prison and determines to dissuade his younger brother from following the same ruinous path.

When the first cut of the film was complete in May last year, Kaye thought he was nearly there. Nearly for Kaye is a long way for most. "The marathon hadn't ended. We'd done 23 miles but there was still another three." After some wrangling, Kaye got eight more weeks, but when he was still not done the studio lost patience. In a virtually unprecedented move they allowed Norton to edit parts of the movie. Norton added to the script, made his part bigger, and adjusted the vision of the film so that it was viewed more through his character's eyes. Kaye called Norton a "narcissistic dilettante", and dismissed his editing efforts.

"He's obsessed with his image. He was obsessed with screen time, and because he's a terrific actor, he can pretend to be an expert at something he's not."

Kaye thought it best to play the game, despite his deep unease, if he was to stand a chance of winning through. "I went with a process of entertaining the meddling and being like a host at a party in a new house with a new white carpet where I ran from one side of the room to the other with a dustpan and brush catching all the falling objects so that they wouldn't stain the floor, because I thought in the process of doing that I could continue my process undetected and carry on working, and I kept it going for as long as I could."

With tempers fraying, there were inevitable explosions and a tortuous trail of typically Hollywood intrigue, bad-mouthing and violent outbursts. After a meeting with New Line in June, Kaye placed cryptic ads in the entertainment press quoting Edmund Burke, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein and a John Lennon lyric ("Everybody's hustlin' for a buck and a dime. I'll scratch your back and you knife mine"). It was his way of getting his message across quickly without having to wait for un-returned phone calls. At one meeting an executive stormed out, at another Kaye punched a wall in frustration and started bleeding. At a scoring session in London in July, Kaye, on seeing "clunky bits of film" threw a wallet and an orange at a video monitor. Later that month in Los Angeles he took a priest, a rabbi and a Tibetan monk along with him to a meeting to inject some spirituality into the debate. It did not work.

The first version of American History X delivered by Kaye last year received a very good rating from a research audience. After the Norton input and some more tinkering from Kaye, mainly under duress, a second test audience also brought in high ratings. This has encouraged New Line to release this version.

Mike De Luca, president of New Line Productions, commented: "I feel like I'm protecting a child from an abusive parent, except that the child is our movie and the parent is its director. I still believe Tony has made a brilliant movie. It makes too important a statement about hate and redemption to be tainted by a petty controversy that comes out of Tony's desire for self-promotion."

The movie's co-producer, John Morrissey, was openly hostile. "Tony's being a Judas to his own movie. We're really protecting him from himself. If Tony had a vision we could understand, we would support him but he can't even tell us if he could finish the movie this year. He wants to make so many radical changes that it just wouldn't resemble the movie we all agreed was a good movie when it was made."

Kaye is contemptuous of Morrissey in particular. "The tragedy of it was that I came so close to what could have been an excellent film. Certainly I would have completed a piece of work that I would have been very proud to show and I never ever got that far. The picture is going to be very# successful because it's good. But good is the enemy of great and a lot of people don't really understand that.

"I'm this little person up against this army of charming fools. The studio told me that I had to stop. I wasn't removed from the film. I wasn't fired, I wasn't told to leave the editing room, I was just told that they wanted to go out with that, they were totally happy and that was that. I said: `Well I'm sorry but I can't do that because I'm not complete.' I'm not Stanley Kubrick yet so I didn't have their backing. Stanley Kubrick says: `I'm done when I'm done' and that's what I'll do next."

Into the fray has come the Directors Guild of America, the union meant to defend the rights of directors. To work in Hollywood, Kaye had to agree to being represented by them. Now he wants the contract with them declared void because he claims it violates his freedom of speech as guaranteed under the First Amendment of the American Constitution. That a Brit has brought such a charge has not gone down well.

Kaye had wanted to take his name off the film and substitute it with Humpty Dumpty, or failing that, the traditional pseudonym of disgruntled directors , Alan Smithee. As he openly criticised the film, the Guild said Kaye violated their agreement with all studios which stipulates that pseudonymous directors must refrain from criticising their own movie. Hence the freedom of speech issue.

American History X will be released in the United States next Friday (30 October) and probably in Britain in February. Kaye says he will battle till the day it is out to try and stop it, though his lawyer Mark Lane, who was jailed in the Sixties with Martin Luther King and has fought many civil rights actions, admits an injunction is impractical as it would make Kaye liable for lost revenues.

"When the film comes out, then I've failed," says Kaye. "Until then, I'm just doing everything I can. I don't give up until it's over. It's really not over yet."

Everyone, including Mark Lane, warned him this high-profile campaign was not the way to go about building a career in Hollywood. But he is confident he will work in the town again. He owns the rights to One Arm, a screenplay by Tennessee Williams, and has signed up Marlon Brando to appear in it. Brando has taken Kaye under his wing.

"He's trying to protect me a little bit from the system, telling me of his own experiences in his own life".

Kaye says principal photography for One Arm will commence at the beginning of next year, though he is waiting for a studio to agree to cover the $8m to $9m budget.