American History X and Tony Kaye, Hollywood Maverick

An often spectacular drama, American History X left its maker shunned by Hollywood. Ryan looks at a great film and its maverick director.

It should have been a proud moment for British director Tony Kaye. His first feature, American History X, had finally opened on October 30, 1998, and was already earning deserved attention for the strength of its direction and its powerful performances – not least from Edward Norton, cast in the lead as a volcanically angry young neo-Nazi in Venice, California.

American History X should have marked the next phase in Kaye’s career, which, like such directors as Ridley Scott and Alan Parker before him, had begun in advertising back in the 1980s. And yet post-production on the movie had been protracted and difficult, as Kaye engaged in an increasingly public battle for its final cut. That battle had become so heated, and so bizarre, that by the time American History X finally emerged, Kaye’s Hollywood career had already crumbled.

Fellow director Mike Figgis captured a hint of Kaye’s disappointment and eccentricity in a filmed interview, conducted just a few days after American History Xs release. Kaye, lean, shaven-headed and wearing a purple silk shirt, holds a camera trained defensively back at Figgis. He talks candidly about his battles with New Line Cinema boss Michael De Luca over American History Xs final cut, his mood shifting from quietly philosophical to evident frustration. At one point, he’s on the verge of tears.

“The industry here has totally lost the plot,” Kaye says. “It’s lost touch with what reality’s all about. And that’s manifested in all the crap that it produces. I think, if you lose your temper, you have to scream. I don’t necessarily think you have to hit anybody, but you have to shout. If you get really upset, you have to cry. And I think if you have to publically do it, then you should do that…”

Ad – content continues below

And so Kaye did. When New Line refused to let him back in the editing room to finish the film to his liking, he asked that his name be taken off the credits, and asked that it be called “A Humpty Dumpty film” instead. When New Line refused, Kaye began publishing full-page adverts in trade papers like Variety, which variously hurled barbs at Norton and De Luca, or quoted lyrics from John Lennon or writer Edmund Burke. All told, Kaye took out 35 ads, spending thousands of dollars in the process.

In the end, though, all the adverts, expensive lawsuits and curious antics in meetings – Kaye legendarily took in a priest, a rabbi, and a Tibetan monk into a studio meeting at one point – did little for the director other than alienate him from an industry he clearly loved. The debacle surrounding American History X left him teetering on financial collapse, and it would take more than a decade before he finally released another feature film. 

The great tragedy is that, for all Kaye’s dissatisfaction with American History Xs final cut, it remains a spectacular diamond in the rough. Kaye’s long career in advertising and music videos means that he knows how to create powerful images to tell a story; also serving as his own cinematographer, Kaye shoots his flashback sequences is in stark black-and-white, with intense lighting and stark, inky black shadows. His direction is stylish, but lacks the superficial, processed slickness of other former ad men who turned to Hollywood.

Above all, there’s his clear ability to get the best out of his actors. Norton, whose star was already rising in Hollywood at the time, is superb as Derek Vinyard, a bulked-up skinhead who falls under the spell of a white supremacist (played by Stacy Keach) following the violent death of his father. But American History X is largely told from the perspective of Edward Furlong, who plays Derek’s younger brother, Danny, and his performance is, if anything, as powerful as Norton’s. Through Danny, we see how racial hatred is transmitted to the young and disaffected, and how seductive even the ugliest and most irrational beliefs can be to groups of disadvantaged, troubled people – which both Danny and Derek evidently are.

With Derek often captured in slow-motion, the muscles beneath his Nazi tattoos rippling, it could be said that American History X runs the risk of romanticizing the hate figures it seeks to condemn. But what the film attempts to do is show how Danny’s awe of his brother affects his own beliefs. While in prison for manslaughter Derek comes to renounce his far-right leanings, and is disturbed to find out that Danny’s joined the same group – called the Disciples of Christ – that Derek once called his own. Along with Danny’s school principal, played by Avery Brooks, Derek tries to steer Danny away from the beliefs he once held. 

Norton was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Derek Vinyard – ironic, given that Kaye was reluctant to cast the actor in the role from the very beginning. But after a few casting calls, even Kaye admitted that he “couldn’t find anyone better than him,” and the Derek role went to Norton. For Kaye, the real problems began when filming on American History X wrapped; Kaye presented an initial cut which amounted to around 95 minutes which, according to Kaye, was quite a success when it was test screened. But when the studio, and Norton, began offering their notes about the cut and how it could be improved, Kaye made little attempt to hide his frustration.

Ad – content continues below

“I wasn’t what you’d call ‘user friendly,'” Kaye admitted in a contrite 2002 article published in The Guardian. “Their first reaction after I bawled them out was to ban me from the cutting room.”

After a bit of negotiation, Kaye was allowed back to prepare a second cut, and was given eight weeks to work on it. Kaye responded by saying that he’d “found a whole new film,” and that he needed a year to finish it. It was at this point that Edward Norton began working on a new cut of American History X with an assistant editor – a move that so outraged Kaye that he punched a wall and broke his hand.

The version of American History X eventually released by New Line in 1998 was nearer the two-hour mark – around 20 minutes longer than Kaye’s first edit. Kaye argued that Norton had turned American History X into a “performance” movie, and in his interview with Mike Figgis that year, made it clear that he and the actor weren’t on the best of terms.

Kaye’s public anger and eccentricities generated headlines – in an interview with the LA Times in June 1998, he described Norton’s abilities as a filmmaker as “Less than nil” – but it also did considerable damage to his career.

“I was untouchable in all my filmmaking endeavours,” Kaye told The Telegraph in 2007. “Television commercials, music videos, films, anything […] I did a lot of very insane things. A lot of very, very insane things.” 

One of those insane things was an attempt to have his name legally changed to Humpty Dumpty in order to force New Line to put that name in American History Xs credits. Initially, antics like these endeared Kaye to his idol Marlon Brando, a Hollywood legend known for his own curious excesses. “I hear you’re as crazy as I am,” Brando said when Kaye visited his house one day. Yet Kaye’s warped sense of humor even rubbed Brando up the wrong way after a while; when the legendary actor asked Kaye to collaborate with him on a series of DVDs about how ordinary people can use acting in their everyday lives, Kaye turned up to the shoot dressed as Osama bin Laden – mere weeks after the events of September 2001. Unsurprisingly, Brando refused to take his calls after that episode.

Ad – content continues below

We can only guess what Kaye’s movie career might have been like had he been able to control his more confrontational urges. The promise and flashes of outright brilliance he displayed in American History X were by no means a one-off; he spent the best part of 18 years making a documentary about abortion in America, 2006’s Lake Of Fire, which was extraordinarily powerful and critically acclaimed. By rights, it should have been given an Oscar nomination; instead, it only made the Academy’s shortlist.

Elsewhere, Kaye started making Humpty Dumpty, a documentary about the production of American History X. Half an hour of it was shown to a small audience in 2007, but to date, the finished film hasn’t emerged. Nor has Black Water Transit, a crime drama starring Laurence Fishburne and Karl Urban; shot for $23 million in New Orleans, it once again found Kaye in arguments over the final edit. Producers David Bergstein and Ron Tutor described the film as “unreleasable” as prepared by Kaye; a bewildering bout of litigation followed among the film’s producers and a New York hedge fund firm. At present, it isn’t clear when – or even if – a finished cut of Black Water Transit will ever emerge from legal quagmire. If you want a snapshot of the strange labyrinth in which Kaye’s film is trapped, read this May 2016 press release, which is one of the most extraordinary ever written.  

With Black Water Transit in limbo, Kaye moved onto Detachment, a high school drama starring Adrien Brody as an English teacher folding under the weight of his own psychological burden. Once again, the performances are powerful and genuine – particularly Brody’s – and Kaye’s style of shooting is intimate and direct. There are small signs, however, that the shoot on Detachment wasn’t an entirely happy one. In 2012, Bryan Cranston, who also played a teacher in the film, admitted that he hadn’t even seen it.

“Tony Kaye is a very complicated… interesting fellow,” Cranston told reporters at a press conference. “I don’t believe that I’ll be working with him again.”

Kaye’s interviews and articles from the past decade or so show a gradual realization that his wild reputation – which he often cultivated himself, from his years as an ad director onwards – has only served to slow him down. A rebel and something of a performance artist in an industry that has grown increasingly nervous of mavericks, Kaye has, frustratingly, spent more time fighting battles off the screen than making movies. 

“I have this crazy reputation, which I’ve nurtured,” Kaye admitted to IndieWire in 2015.” I thought you had to be arrogant and awful. I have learned a lot over the years about process, and how to conduct myself with collaborators within the collective of making a movie, and how to be caring about the pain of others, and not to live in a realm of desire for the self alone. I’m hoping I can turn all of my mistakes into the best third act.”

Ad – content continues below

It could be that, at the age of 63, Tony Kaye’s comeback could still happen. His next project is Stranger Than The Wheel, a drama about a young man coming to terms with his violent father. Written by Joe Vinciguerra, it’s a about “isolation, alienation and alcoholism,” Kaye says. The movie was originally supposed to star Shia LaBeouf, but the actor quit in April, leaving the part open for The Hunger Games Evan Ross instead.

It’s almost 20 years since Kaye first embarked on his feature filmmaking career with American History X, and he now says he’s gotten rid of his demons – or, at least, “got them under control.” Most importantly for him, he finally appears to have found the creative freedom that eluded him on his first feature.

“Stand by your beds,” Kaye wrote on his Facebook page in January. “I have final cut.”