22 2 / 2011
The Forgotten History of American History X
Before director Tony Kaye embarked on his first feature film, 1997’s American History X, he’d already been declared a genius of the advertising world. Kaye was famous for taking months to craft the perfect 30-second commercial, and his meticulousness only bolstered his reputation. Top brands including Guinness and Volvo sought out his services, because he was just that good.
But Kaye was more than a perfectionist; he was an egoist and an eccentric. During a period of unemployment in the mid-1980s, Kaye ran a full-page ad in London’s Evening Standard proclaiming, “Tony Kaye is the Greatest English Director Since Hitchcock.” He also attempted to start his own art movement, which included an “exhibition” of a homeless man in London’s Tate Gallery.
So, perhaps it should come as no surprise that American History X turned out the way it did. Studio execs at New Line Cinema were impressed by the concept behind Kaye’s pitch—to create a film about a former skinhead who tries to keep his younger brother from following in his footsteps. But after shooting 200 hours of footage and delivering a rough cut to the producers, Kaye still wasn’t satisfied with the movie. He wanted to tweak the storytelling, and the studio agreed to give him another eight weeks to complete the project.
During those two months, Kaye did virtually no editing. Instead, he went to a Caribbean island to consult with poet Derek Walcott, who plied the director with a few vague ideas about how to improve the film. Upon returning, Kaye decided to add in footage of actual neo-Nazis, but he had no idea how long that would take. Exasperated, the studio execs eventually pried the movie out of Kaye’s hands, and New Line released an earlier cut of the film.
At that point, Tony Kaye lost it. He sued the studio for $200 million and demanded that Humpty Dumpty be credited as the director. He also spent $100,000 on print ads that trashed the movie. In interviews, he badmouthed the script and claimed that actor Edward Norton had been wrong for the lead role. Yet in spite of Kaye’s insistence that the movie was horrible, American History X went on to garner terrific reviews—not to mention a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Edward Norton.
[by Clay Wirestone]
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