BLACKBOOK: You’ve directed commercials, music videos, feature films, and documentaries. Which is most satisfying?
TONY KAYE: Telling stories is what I’ve always wanted to do, and now it seems that’s what I do. I spent a long time making music videos and TV commercials. I’m a musician, so I’m very interested in working with other musicians as a filmmaker. With commercials, the product is not the filmmaking, but what the filmmaking serves. So making a narrative story—whether you have 30 minutes or 19 hours—is the most interesting. BB: The anger that arises from watching Lake of Fire is complicated. How were you able to stay objective?
TK: I don’t really have a point of view. I mean I have a point of view where I’ll tell my kids, “Look, don’t touch the boiling pot because you’re going to get burnt,” but other than things like that, I really am an empty vessel that allows things to go through it, or makes things go through it.
And then something or other comes out the other end. I decided to make a film about the issue of abortion, and I didn’t want it to be too much like propaganda. I was a much younger man when I started the film, and I thought, “I do have a point of view, but I’m going to make an unbiased film.” Little did I know: “Look, you don’t really know anything about anything. All you know about are the circumstances of your own life, and a little bit about sound, picture, rhythm, speech, and text.”
BB: I can’t imagine that you were able to emotionally disassociate yourself from the people and the hate that surrounded you.
TK: I was emotionally affected, but only in the sense of, “What am I going to do now? What bit do I need to get now? Where do I go next?” That, more than anything, kept me focused on this thing for as long as I was.
BB: Michael Moore and other American documentarians inspired you, but this seems quite removed from the bully and his camera.
TK: To me, American films are the best films. When I saw Roger and Me, I thought, “That’s an amazing film.” When I saw The Thin Blue Line, I thought, “Now, that is an amazing film.” I love Leni Riefenstahl’s film about the Nazi party. I love Olympia. I’ve taken a little bit from everywhere. I have no worry about stealing things. Michael Caine once said this amazing thing about acting. He was teaching a class and he said, “If you see an actor do something and you like it, steal it, because you can bet your life they’ve stolen it too.” So if I see something, I’ll take it. I’ll use it. It won’t come out the same way, because I’ll forget a little bit about it. I’ll mess it up.
BB: Was it difficult to convince people to discuss abortion on camera?
TK: No one was difficult once I was there. When I interview, I just mumble the odd word based on what the person says. I don’t push the person into saying what I want them to say. I don’t have an agenda.
BB: It must challenging to piece together a narrative from 17 years of gathered material
TK: It’s very difficult to make a film about anything, even more difficult to make a film about an issue like abortion. It’s like an infinite sea. If you want to make a movie about a person, okay, at least I know I’m going to tell a specific part of their life. Or there’s an incident, there’s something that incites it, it takes place, it dies down. That’s the beginning, middle, and end—Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3.
With an issue, where do you go? Particularly when the issue hasn’t been resolved, and may never be resolved. It became obvious that I needed a journey about one woman who leaves home, gets in a car, and has the procedure. BB: That section of the film was more disturbing than all the fetus shots put together.
TK: It just played out and I got the whole thing on camera. That to me was the end. That was the end of the film. BB: What have you taken away from working on the film?
TK: When I was younger, it was all about getting it out there and proving it, but I could care less about that now. It’s about being involved in the process every day. I now have an amazing surge of energy, and I kind of need that, because when we’re out there [point to a window overlooking Times Square] in that perfectly organized, mathematical world that presents itself as a chaotic barrage of experience—well, I need a bit of a betterment pill at some point. I don’t necessarily feel like the film is finished. But I’ll keep my mouth shut. I’m no longer behaving like a baby—speaking of which, I’m working on another film called Humpty Dumpty and New Line is going to release it. BB: It documents your falling out, no?
TK: Suddenly, I’m in the middle of this battle where I’ve fallen out with Edward Norton, which led me to a fall out with the producers. The writer of the film [David McKenna] came to me, begging, “What the hell’s going on? What are you doing?” It gets into the Toronto Film Festival, and the cut they’ve got was too long. It had 15 minutes added to what I’d done. That’s not supposed to be the case. So I was going to Toronto to rip this thing out, when I thought, “Wait a minute—I should be filming this.” So that’s what I did. And, in a way, I forgot about American History X.
I don’t know if it was the biggest, but it was certainly the most publicized Hollywood battle over a cut, ever. We’ve all heard stories about creative people going a bit mad. We are all are a bit mad, but when you narcissistically document it and gloat over it, it’s kind of wild.
BB: Have you since reached out to Edward Norton or any of the people who were involved in making the film?
TK: Beverly D’Angelo is actually in my new film, Black Water Transit. I need to get Edward to do an interview. I’ve spoken with his agent—I haven’t spoken to Ed since—and he always takes my calls. He’s very pleasant, but I never hear back. Maybe if I get more successful, Edward will want to do an interview for me. But then he’ll probably want to see the film, probably want to re-cut it. [Laughs.] BB: Has something good come from all this bad blood?
TK: Yeah, I mean, I wasn’t really ready at the time to benefit from any of the contribution I made to American History X. In all honesty, I wasn’t really ready for the success, on my own terms. It was good that I got beaten up—by myself. I threw myself into the wilderness, to my roots.
I continued making my own films. At the time, I thought, “I’ve got my own movie industry. What do I need that one for?” I had to be thrown into the wilderness like that, make loads of music videos and TV commercials, learn different things, and get the money to make my other films. Now I’m really ready.
One of the projects that I’ve been working on, with about 1000 hours of film—it’s a seven-hour cut with 300 pages of writing—is a story about the afterlife. I went to the Kabbalah Centre in L.A., and I thought it would be good to research it. I was blown away. I bumped into Kabbalah years ago when I was making American History X. Elliott Gould took me to the center once. I went back and bought all these books, and it kind of helped me. It’s been incredibly helpful to me, and it’s shown me even more why I messed up with Ed Norton, why I messed up with New Line at the time, why I messed up with American History X. BB: I can’t help wondering if you were deliberately cultivating some kind of persona, feeding into the public perception of Tony the tyrant.
TK: That’s right. That’s 100% right! As a dramatist, not having the fortune to be an actor, I did it in real life. And that can be cataclysmic. If someone is a lunatic, then people think they’re work is great. I’m not really a lunatic. Mind you, lunatics don’t think they are.
I saw a film years ago about this chap who thought he’d figured out the perfect murder. He would pretend he was mad. Then, when he was in the mental institution, he would suddenly recover. And he did. He did the whole thing. And after a period of time, he “recovers” and it’s time for him to get out, but they say, “You can’t, because you’re completely mad.” Because he was mad. No sane person would do such a thing. That sort of thing appealed to me, creating that kind of lunatic. Also, my heroes have always been arrogant, egotistical human beings.
I threw myself into the role in such a passionate way that I did all these crazy things. On my first film, I thought, “I can create a massive spectacle, you know, as a director arguing with an actor and the studio.” It was insane. It was completely insane. I am an idiot, but I think it’s sort of okay to be an idiot if you learn from your idiocy. I’m hoping that I did.
BB: When did you realize that you had lost control of the situation?
TK: Well, to be honest, it was tremendously good fun. I don’t drink, and I don’t take drugs, so it’s not as if I didn’t know what I was doing. I knew perfectly well what I was doing. Every step of the way, I knew what I was doing. What eventually happened though was, “Shit, I really want to be working. And shit, maybe I’m never going to be able to do that again.” I was wrong. I sold my soul—wait, I didn’t sell my soul to the Devil. I had become the Devil. You know, the sort of vital desire for only myself.
And however much I fooled myself with the illusion that I really was having fun, it really wasn’t fun. It was awful. Maybe. You know, when I was younger, people would say to me, “Have you ever suffered from any mental issues?” And I used to think it was very, very funny. I’m sort of losing the plot now. I’m losing the plot. You really kicked me off there when you started talking about the persona, and the fabrication.
After American History X, Marlon Brando would lecture me, “You mustn’t do that and you mustn’t do this.” So maybe that madness was worth it to bump into him at that point, to learn all that stuff from him.
BB: Back to the film for one final question. It’s so exhausting and intense. Have reactions to it mirrored that sort of intensity?
TK: It is a physically brutal film to watch. Last night, I had an amazing experience when I showed it at Tisch at NYU. There were about 150 film students who came to watch. Some of these students came up to me at the end, and said, “That’s why I really want to be a filmmaker, to make a film like that.” And, yeah, that was very intense—I could see their faces. It was really real. Not one person left.