20 Sep 1998
When pre-eminent British adman and self-styled artist Tony Kaye accepted the task of making his first feature film, no-one thought it was going to be easy. But two years later, Kaye has reportedly spent more than a million dollars of his own money re-editing American History X, and is locked in power struggle of Wellesian dimensions with New Line, U.S. backers of the film, demanding to get back into the editing suite when they took him off the project. Since June this year, Kaye has waged his war with wild, anti-Hollywood rhetoric. He's taken out full-page ads in Hollywood's trade papers, held the negative film hostage, attended a meeting at New Line with a rabbi, a priest and a Tibetan monk in tow, alienated - by his own estimate - 98% of Hollywood, and declared that he wants his name replaced on the film by that of Humpty Dumpty. What is Tony Kaye on?
So what happened with New Line? Start at the beginning...
I have a bit of a track record for being a passionate professional. And sometimes my passion is explosive, but it was very important to me not only to make a great film, but to make the process great as well - that everyone enjoyed working with me, I wasn't difficult and I came in on time and under budget. I wanted to do everything in a proper way, because although I'm called a first time filmmaker and this is the first feature film that I've ever made, I don't consider myself to be a first time filmmaker at all. I've been playing with film for 15 or 16 years and to be honest with you, I consider myself the greatest craftsman/director/imagemaker on this planet and I defy anyone to try and create film like me when I'm allowed to work in a way that suits my style and my personality. Essentially, I took on a script that was very poorly developed by the producers.
But weren't you involved in the script development process?
I was, and I got to it and developed it a little bit further and I made it a little bit better by the time I shot it, knowing full well that when I shoot I use the script as a ticket for the journey not a road map. But after the first cut, there were problems with it that were basically inherent in the screenplay. The film could have been released at that point in time and it would have done really, really well, and it would have got critically acclaimed.
After all this time in (and being shut out of) the edit room, how do you feel about the film now?
It might well do now, because it's not a bad film, even though it's been tampered with. It's just not great, and good is the enemy of great. So I was in the situation whereby they wanted to release a version that I'm not happy with and they expected me to do what most of the Hollywood directors do here: play the game, put on the smile and go out and promote the film and then go happily forward and make some other bit of shit. And I wasn't prepared to do that; I've kicked up a fuss and I've been very honest about what I believe to creative abuse and creative rape by the people that should have been backing my vision. Now I seem to be up against the entirety of Hollywood.
What about Edward Norton, what ís your opinion of him?
I never thought Edward Norton was right for American History X but he really wanted it and New Line gave me five or six weeks to see if I could find anybody better and I couldn't. In the end I was pushed into a situation where I worked with Edward. I said to the producer that I would get a fantastic performance out of him that would get him probably nominated for an Academy Awards and he could even win it, and I said that even though all that might happen I'll still stand here and tell you he just wasn't right for that role. And his work in American History X is fantastic. Edward is a fantastic actor. I think he's technically brilliant, but he doesn't have that physicality and that anarchic emotion that was required for American History X. But I don't want to take anything away from the guy, even though he gave me terrible grief on American History X (With New Line's blessing, Norton reportedly took over the editing of the film). He's a phenomenally talented guy and if I had a project that I thought he was right for, I would most certainly work with him again. Even though I have described him as a narcissistic dilettante, which is exactly what he is...
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm trying to get my name taken off it. I'm probably going to be suing the DGA (Directors' Guild of America) because they have refused to allow to take my name off the film. They have a clause in their agenda that says you can take your name off a film, but you can't criticise it or explain why, so an artist can't explain why he wants to take his name off a piece of his work, which is totally absurd. It's against freedom of speech - the first amendment - so I'm going to sue them.
But what made you choose the name Humpty Dumpty?
When New Line said to me I couldn't have an Alan Smithee credit, but that I could choose another name, I thought, 'what name makes me laugh, what name makes me smile or at least makes me happy?,' because I'm going to be so upset when this thing comes out, after working on it for two years, and it's coming out not like I want it to come out and it's not as good as it ought to be, so I wanted a name that would at least make me smile, and I pulled this name out of the air -- Humpty Dumpty.
But hasn't it all been one huge metaphorical joke?
It's a joke in the sense that if it makes anyone laugh then that's good. I laugh when I read about all this. In the LA Times this weekend there was three-and-a-half pages about this whole thing and as I was reading it, I was in hysterics. You see, what I'm trying to do as well is create a character: this lunatic artist, this crazed nutcase - which is me. But actually I've been doing it for so long now that it's real. I thought I was just inventing this character because I like people to think I'm nuts, but maybe I'm the real thing, maybe I am nuts. But I'm living my life by this code, it's authentic, it's real, and in the process of becoming a metaphorical joke, I don't know who's left in this town who even wants to work with me
Don't you feel you've been somewhat naive?
Yeh, I was very naive. I was a bloody fool actually, and I'm paying the price.
What about the series of ads in trade papers? What was the reasoning behind those?
The messages don't only relate to this particular film, but relate to all kinds of things that I'm going to be doing. I see it as a kind of dialogue with the world. Thatís going to continue now for the rest of my life.
After you recent experience, do you still want to work in Hollywood?
(Emphatically) Oh yeh. This hasn't sort of in any way watered down my love of this place or my passion for being a successful Hollywood filmmaker, I just made a very big mistake in choosing the wrong collection of people to work with.
So what's the next film you want to work on and who will you make it with?
I bought a Tennessee Williams script called One Arm six or seven months ago, and Marlon Brando has sort of taken me under his wing. He's tried to help me and talk me into playing the (Hollywood) game because of the sort of things that he's done in the past and because he knows how evil this town is. It's wonderful to spend hours with this guy -- I've never really had a mentor before and to have Brando is just amazing. And so out of all the badness that's come out of this (American History X), at least I think we're going to make an amazing film from One Arm.
Read the original interview