The New Comeback Kid: Tony Kaye

By Nick Haramis

Click here to read our full interview with Tony Kaye!

imageKaye, left, Mercer Hotel, New York City.

Tony Kaye was born in London in 1952, but people don’t talk about this history. No, his trajectory begins with a very public falling out with Edward Norton and New Line Cinema over the final cut of neo-Nazi drama American History X. Following its debut in Toronto in 1998, an enraged Kaye took out 35 pages of scathing ads in Hollywood trade papers, slamming the film and its major players. He considered changing his name to Humpty Dumpty, to mess with the film’s billing. He fell in (and then out) with Marlon Brando, in a strange series of events that involved classes for liars and an Osama Bin Laden costume. He stopped speaking on the telephone altogether. But, as they say, time seems to heal all wounds. With Lake of Fire—Kaye’s first feature since “the most publicized battle over final cut in Hollywood, ever”—he returned to his controversial roots with a two-and-a-half-hour documentary about abortion. Mixed in with esoteric ethics from thinkers like Noam Chomsky and Alan Dershowitz, the film documents some of the most chilling images ever captured by a video recorder—frozen fetuses, religious rally fervor, and the entire procedure as it happens.

An older, decidedly wiser man sits in a Manhattan office, a Kabbalah red string bracelet on his left wrist, his guitar nearby. He looks poised as he describes his next feature, Black Water Transit, and his new documentary Humpty Dumpty; but jolts of nervous energy betray a calm exterior as he talks about his past and his hopes for the future. “Telling stories is what I’ve always wanted to do,” Kaye begins, as he readies himself to discuss his ride with the Devil. “It’s taken me a long time to prepare myself for the job, but I think I’m ready to go now.”

BLACKBOOK: The anger that arises from watching Lake of Fire is conflicted and complicated. How were you able to stay objective?

TONY KAYE: I don’t really have a point of view. I’ll tell my kids, “Don’t touch the boiling pot because you’re going to get burned,” but other than things like that, I really am an empty vessel that makes things go through it.

BB: Michael Moore and other American documentarians inspired you, but this seems quite removed from the bully and his camera.

TK: 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.

BB: It must be difficult 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-one that hasn’t been resolved and might never be resolved. With an incident, there’s something that incites it, it takes place, it dies down. That’s the beginning, middle, and end. With an issue, where do you go?

BB: What have you taken away from working on the film?

TK: When I was younger, it was all about proving myself. I couldn’t 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 [points 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 fall out with the producers. American History X 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.” We’ve all heard stories about creative people going a bit mad. We are all 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?

TK: His agent 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 of this bad blood?

TK: Yeah, it was good that I got beaten up-by myself. At the time, I thought, “I’ve got my own movie industry. What do I need that one for?” I’ve since been working on a story about the afterlife, 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! If someone is a lunatic, then people think their work is great. I threw myself into the role in such a passionate way. 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: 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’ll have to be honest-it was tremendously good fun. What eventually happened though was, “Shit, I really want to be doing work. And shit, maybe I’m never going to be able to again.” I was wrong. I sold my soul-wait, I didn’t sell my soul to the Devil. I had become the Devil.

Photo by Moses Berkson.

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