Tony Kaye’s “American History X” was supposed to establish him as “the greatest living filmmaker,” he told The Jewish Journal. Instead, the movie, a drama about the redemption of a neo-Nazi (Edward Norton), was “raped” by New Line Cinema; by “narcissistic, dilettante” Norton, who destroyed “X” in the editing room; and by the Directors Guild, which refused to allow Kaye his pseudonym-of-choice in the credits, Humpty Dumpty. What else was a director to do but take out full-page ads in the Hollywood trades, cryptically insulting his enemies by quoting John Lennon and Abraham Lincoln?
First-time filmmaker Kaye, a brilliant commercial director and eccentric “Hype Artist,” isn’t mollified that the critics are hailing “American History X” as very, very good. “Good is the enemy of great,” insists the director, who also served as cinematographer and camera operator on the film.
During a telephone interview, Kaye, 46, revealed that he was videotaping the phone as part of his upcoming documentary, which trashes New Line. He said that he arrived to a now-legendary meeting with the studio with a rabbi, a priest and a Tibetan Buddhist monk in tow.
But just as you are getting ready to write Kaye off as a kook, he waxes eloquent about “American History X” and why he wanted to make the movie in the first place.
Kaye’s grandmother committed suicide, by walking into the sea, on the eve of the Holocaust in Danzig, he says. His father, only 12 at the time, then fled to England. There, Tony would grow up in an observant Jewish home.
Years later, Tony Kaye was denounced in a British fascist publication as one of the Jews who supposedly controls the media. He certainly has received lots of media attention for headline-grabbing Hype Art pieces such as “Roger,” a homeless man he hired to walk around museums. Another Hype Art piece, “Jewish Car for Sale,” was meant to explore the response to racism; “American History X” was to continue the exploration.
As research, an intimidated Kaye frequented skinhead clubs, hung out with the leader of the “Oi!” band Extreme Hatred, and chatted up racists wearing steel-toed Dr. Martens. His camera was always glued to his face. He also repeatedly interviewed Tom Metzger, the leader of White Aryan Resistance (“A nice chap, though I’m sure Hitler seemed nice, too”), who spoke intelligently about the skinhead movement in offices decorated with swastikas and Fuhrer portraits.
It didn’t help that Kaye arrived to the interviews in the “Jewish Car,” a Lincoln Towncar with four cell phones, a fax and license plates that read, “JEWISH.” “I parked the car around the corner,” the director sheepishly admits. “I was really scared.”
Kaye, who has a shaven pate, razor-intense eyes and a pronounced stutter, says he was willing to take the risk because he wanted “American History X” to be so good that it would turn around the occasional skinhead. He doesn’t think the current film is powerful enough to do so, though many reviewers — and star Norton — disagree.
In an interview last weekend, Norton told The Journal that he took less than half his usual pay to secure the “X” role of Derek, the skinhead leader who transforms in prison and tries to save his brother (Edward Furlong) from the white power movement.
“Unfortunately, Tony has let himself get more wrapped up in the melodrama of Tony Kaye, the ‘Artist’ with a capital A, than the grounded job of making a film,” said Norton, who appeared to have lost all the muscle bulk (and the swastika tattoos) he carried for “American History X.” “I think Tony is victimizing himself with his professional immaturity. The irony is, the film he delivered to New Line, which is essentially the film everyone is seeing…has received such a tremendous response. We set out to provoke thoughtful discussion about certain issues, and Tony has succeeded in doing that, whether or not he wants to claim it for himself.”