Tony Kaye wrote a deeply confessional piece in the Guardian around a decade ago, admitting to have asked a priest, a rabbi and a Buddhist monk to join him in a meeting with New Line studio executive Michael De Luca, concerning the release of his debut feature, American History X. He didn’t want them on his side – he only wanted ‘some help from God’ because he needed ten extra weeks to recut the film. Kaye also declared to have come dangerously close to organizing militant attacks on theatres showing the film upon its release because he wasn’t happy with the final result– it contained 40 minutes of ‘everyone crying in each other’s arms’ added on top of his original cut. He fought relentlessly to have his name taken out of the credits, desperate to replace it with the name ‘Humpty Dumpty’ and filed a $200,000 when they refused to comply.
It was 1998 when Kaye had become the most hated man in Hollywood. He’d become an outcast. He’s looked back on his behaviour since and admitted that perhaps it was a little ridiculous. He even goes as far as to call himself an ‘egomaniac’ and an ‘immature idiot’ but refuses to deny that he was only fuelled by a ‘heartfelt passion’.
But where did the chaos begin? Kaye may now be viewed as the most deeply troubled and threatening force to ever have stepped foot into Hollywood. It’s funny to think that the beginning of the British-born director’s career showed no sign of his destructively manic nature, dominated by commercials and music videos. His career kicked off in 1979 at the age of 27 as a junior art director. Since that time and most notably, he’d found work with artists like Johnny Cash, Roger Waters and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. At this time, he’d shaped his name with his characteristic direction and eccentric behaviour- but what would only be a shadow of the reputation he would later achieve in California.
It seems to have all started around and after American History X in 1998. He’d received the script from New Line, accepted that it needed a lot of work and set himself the task of re-inventing it, identifying a clear number of flaws. The original shooting had gone smoothly, according to Kaye. It was only until after the screening that studio started interfering along with leading man, Edward Norton. Kaye received piles of ‘suggestive’ notes, made a fuss and was banned from the cutting room! After he was finally let back in, the studio and Norton had changed so much of his film that he hardly recognised it. He was so unhappy with what had been produced [and approved] that he broke his hand by hitting it against a wall. He subsequently quit the project, calling Norton a ‘narcissistic dilettante’ and dedicating his time to single-handedly tearing the whole thing apart. This, he admitted, was the moment he started really falling apart – in line with his whole relationship with New Line and the rest ofHollywood.
This period may also have been to blame for the delays faced during the development of his 2006 abortion documentary, Lake of Fire. It was released six years ago, after 16 years work – eight years before the release of his debut. In 1998, he went completely bankrupt. It was an expensive project, 35 millimetre, but Kaye desperately wanted it to be an epic documentary with a ‘cinematic quality’ to it. As well as engaging with Noam Chomsky and a whole heap of intellectuals, the director interviews some incredibly disturbed and dangerous characters, including ex-KKK member, John Burt and activist, Paul Hill who became famous for killing a doctor. He simply states ‘I wait for them to speak, I wait for them to stop’.
In the midst of this colossal project, his battles with bankruptcy were also weighed down with a failed marriage and an almost impossible communicative relationship with everybody involved in the film scene in Los Angeles. He saved himself in the end by withdrawing from everything, refraining from talking to anyone on the phone and entering into a reclusive state – he simply didn’t want to be shouted at any longer. The biggest film industry in the world responded by turning its back to him entirely. Even the commercial industry gave up on him. He became somewhat lost, swamped in debt, with an enormous project left unfinished. Now, he admits that the time he spent absent from any kind of involvement actually did him a lot of good. He slowly twisted his way back into the industry, ‘cultivating’ friendships, and working on ads again in order to fund a collection of independent projects – including the much-awaited Lake of Fire, which he did actually get round to finishing.
These days, he prefers to channel his passionate side into his filmmaking. He’s more controlled now, and admits to being happier. In 2009, he came out with crime-drama, Black Water Transit and in 2012, his latest project, a dark and lyrical drama titled Detachment was released, drilling his remarkable talent right into the Hollywood machine and perhaps bringing a little truth into the egotistical [and comical?] claim that he should be seen as ‘the greatest British director since Hitchcock’.
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