A Novice Auteur Makes His Stand


The mystery began with the June 11 issue of Daily Variety, which carried a full-page ad quoting the John Lennon lyric: “Everybody’s hustlin’ for a buck and a dime, I’ll scratch your back and you knife mine.” The same day, an ad ran in the Hollywood Reporter with a quote from Edmund Burke, saying: “All that is necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing.”

Both ads were signed at the bottom of the page: Tony Kaye.

The enigmatic ads, which have been followed by others, one quoting Abraham Lincoln, another Albert Einstein, yet another admonishing Leonardo DiCaprio to “immediately” read a Tennessee Williams film script, prompted a buzz of curiosity in always gossip-hungry Hollywood. Were they a political tract? A cheeky movie promotion? The work of another shameless self-promoter?

In the mind of Tony Kaye, a 45-year-old British conceptual artist and award-winning TV commercial director, the ads were what he calls “hype art.” But the first ads, about backstabbing and the forces of evil, also served a more immediate practical purpose. Kaye was sending a very public message to New Line Cinema, which has been engaged in a behind-the-scenes skirmish with the director over the fate of his feature film debut. Titled “American History X,” the turbulent drama stars Edward Norton as the leader of a gang of violent, neo-Nazi skinheads. After his release from prison for murderering two black men, Norton’s character struggles to put his past behind him and prevent his younger brother (played by Edward Furlong) from following in his footsteps.

The ads were Kaye’s response to an acrimonious meeting he’d had several days earlier with New Line top executives Bob Shaye and Mike DeLuca and two of the film’s producers. Witnesses say Kaye and Shaye engaged in a shouting match and Kaye threatened to take his name off the film, which could force New Line into releasing it with an Alan Smithee director’s credit, the signature sign of a film project gone bad. The argument largely focused on the length of several sequences, as well as the placement of a key flashback scene. Tempers ran so high that a frustrated DeLuca announced, “This meeting is over,” and stormed out of the New Line conference room.

“It was a healthy debate, because we’re all passionate about the film, but feelings did get intense,” acknowledged DeLuca, who brought Kaye to the project. “Bob and Tony got into a heated conversation, and there was some sniping and I think Tony misinterpreted what had happened. But it was a mistake for me to walk out, and I apologized to Tony for it.”


At issue, according to several participants at the meeting, was a test screening of the film that New Line had held the previous night. Kaye had previously screened his version of the film, which both DeLuca and Kaye say went well. The second screening was of a composite version of the film reflecting the input of New Line executives, the producers and Norton, who have all made frequent visits to the editing room since Kaye finished shooting the film last May.

The second screening went so well, DeLuca says, that he and Shaye attempted to persuade Kaye to allow New Line to release the film in its present form. Kaye balked. “They were talking about putting the film out in a state I was unhappy with,” he says. “Since I gave them my director’s cut, I’ve been editing the film according to their guidelines. Some of the things I was asked to do were ridiculous. But I felt I’d given them my best ear and I said, ‘Now it’s time for me to go back to work again.’ I’m fully aware that I’m a first-time director, but I need the same autonomy and respect that Stanley Kubrick gets. I’d rather take my name off the film than let it come out as it is now.”

After the meeting, Kaye took out the initial ads that ran in the trades. DeLuca then met again with Kaye, where he agreed to let the director have an additional eight weeks to work on the film. Kaye says the meeting occurred the day before the ads ran. DeLuca says it was the day the ads appeared. Either way, DeLuca insists “the ads didn’t influence our decision at all. We knew Tony was frustrated and was going to take them out. We all got a laugh out of it--it’s just Tony’s way of expressing himself.”

On June 15, after reaching agreement with New Line, Kaye ran a new ad. Addressed to the studio’s top brass, he quoted Patanjali, the Indian founder of yoga: “When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project . . . you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.” It added: “Thank you, thank you. Tony Kaye.”

Kaye’s seemingly madcap ads served a shrewd purpose, making it clear he was willing to back up his threat to walk off the film. It’s difficult to market any movie with an Alan Smithee credit--few, if any films with that credit have ever turned a profit. It would be even more difficult to promote “American History X” without the director on board to defend its volatile subject matter. As it is, the film has a tarnished image, since its release date has been pushed back several times, a move that is often interpreted as a sign of trouble. (The film is now slated for a Nov. 6 release.)

New Line has been considerably more patient with Kaye than most studios, which would have long ago taken control of the film. New Line also gave Kaye unusual latitude during the making of the film, allowing him to serve as his own director of photography and camera operator.

New Line also gave Norton extraordinary input into the project. The young star, who took a reduced fee and rewrote much of his dialogue in the film, spent many weeks in the editing room, working with an assistant editor on a cut of the film that reflected his thematic and political concerns. He has also told New Line, DeLuca says, that “if he can’t stand behind the movie, he won’t do publicity” for the film.

Norton defenders say he was asked by New Line to be involved in the editing process, and did so with Kaye’s full knowledge. “It’s not normal to have actors in the editing room, but Edward’s been like a co-producer on this movie,” DeLuca says. “Sometimes it’s just easier for the actor to try different edits, to demonstrate what he wants.”

However, Kaye says that Norton, who did not respond to interview requests, was often an “uninvited” visitor. “I very much respect Edward’s talent as an actor and I’m not opposed to actors’ being involved in the editing process. But his abilities as a filmmaker are less than nil. He abused the process by politicking with New Line and telling them I didn’t know what I was doing. Edward is not calling the shots. Tony Kaye is calling the shots, and if I don’t end up calling the shots, I’ll be gone from the movie.”

If New Line were dealing with a more pragmatic director, it might have called Kaye’s bluff. But Kaye, who with his shaved head looks like Michael Stipe’s older brother, is known for his unpredictable behavior. In 1983 he took out an ad in the London Evening Standard announcing: “Tony Kaye is the most important British film director since Alfred Hitchcock,” surely an example of hype art, since, as Kaye admits, “that was before I’d directed anything at all.”

Kaye went on to become a top director of TV commercials, but remained a prickly free spirit. When British Airways complained he was using too many ethnic actors in one of his ads for it, he staged a public protest outside a London British Airways office, dressing up 50 film extras as Hasidic Jews.

In 1995, Kaye, who is an observant Jew, ran an ad in the Hollywood trades that announced: “Jewish car for sale. Four telephones, one fax machine, $3 million.” It was half hype art, half truth. Kaye is chauffeured around town in a Lincoln Town Car with four phones, a fax and a California license plate that reads “JEWISH,” although he admits he only leases the car.

In addition to “American History X,” Kaye has been making “G-D,” a documentary on abortion, and staged several conceptual art pieces. He has “installed” Roger, a homeless man he met in London, to walk around the Tate Gallery there. Not long after the Getty Museum opened here, he hired Lorraine, a woman he met on Venice beach, to appear daily at the Getty.

“She just walks round, looking at the art,” he explains. “She was recently arrested for being drunk and disorderly, and I had to bail her out. When the judge admonished her for being a troublemaker, she told him she wasn’t a troublemaker, she was a work of art at the Getty.”

But is Kaye being a troublemaker? Or is he a director defending his work? And what will happen if he and New Line are still at odds when Kaye submits his cut in eight weeks? “We have an excellent movie,” DeLuca says. “The issues we’re debating are about subtle changes. Hopefully we can compromise, because I can’t see this coming out as an Alan Smithee film.”

But Kaye says New Line is going to see “an entirely different movie” in eight weeks. “If a baker makes a cake, it doesn’t matter who manufactured the flour or mixed the cream, it’s the baker who takes the ingredients and bakes the cake. And that’s the way it is with this movie. Unless I’ve made the cake, I won’t have my name on it.”

Either way, the hype-art ads will continue. As Kaye puts it, “I’m on to something big here.” Just how big he doesn’t know. Asked to explain the ad that quoted Lincoln, he says: “It was very expressionist, in the sense that I’m not entirely sure what it meant either.”