Courting Trouble

Patrick Goldstein is a Times staff writer

It only took one glance at Edward Norton, stripped down to sweatpants and sneakers, playing pickup basketball at Venice Beach, to make it obvious that “American History X” would be no ordinary movie. It wasn’t the young star’s shaved head or his muscular new build that grabbed your attention.

It was the tattoos.

His chest was decorated with a Nazi swastika, his shoulder with an Iron Cross. His biceps bulged with a Nazi war eagle. On his forearm was the inscription: “White Power.” On his back was “DOC,” short for Disciples of Christ, an Aryan white-supremacy group.

As Norton dribbled the ball down court, you noticed something else--his team was all white, the opposing team all African American. Racial taunts echoed back and forth as director Tony Kaye filmed the players jockeying for position under the basket.


This wasn’t just a game of basketball. It’s a battle for turf. After Norton wins the game with an easy layup, he made his attitude clear. “Get off my [expletive] court!” he told the opposing team. “This is my house!”

During a break in filming, Kaye struggles to explain the point of this particular scene. Finally, a simple answer comes to mind: “It’s about hate,” he says. “Hate and anger.”

In Hollywood, controversy is often nothing more than a marketing tool. But “American History X” has emerged as one of the hot-topic films of the year, though not for the reasons New Line Cinema had intended when it began shooting the film early last year.

Written by David McKenna, “American History X” had all the makings of a must-see movie that would inspire the sort of stormy op-ed page debate enjoyed by such films as “JFK” and “The People vs. Larry Flynt.” Raw and inflammatory, it cast Norton as a virulent white supremacist imprisoned for killing two black youths who tried to steal his truck. When he emerges from prison, he’s a changed man. But can Norton stop his hate-filled younger brother, who’s already writing worshipful accounts of “Mein Kampf” for his history class, from following in his footsteps?

The film is anything but politically correct. Its dialogue is laced with profanity directed at blacks, immigrants and Jews. It features a graphic scene in which a Norton-led skinhead posse trashes a Korean-owned food market. And many viewers will no doubt be disturbed by Norton’s racist character, who, even before he has a change of heart, is easily the most charismatic character in the film.

But with its Oct. 30 release just around the corner, the film’s potential impact has been undermined by an ugly, very public spitting match between New Line and Kaye, a conceptual artist turned TV commercial director who has been as angry and unpredictable as any of the characters in his movie. Incensed by New Line’s decision to release its own cut of the movie, Kaye has disowned the film, describing New Line’s version of the film as a “rape, a total abuse of creativity.” Having already pressured New Line into withdrawing the film from the prestigious Toronto Film Festival, Kaye has also threatened to hire protesters to picket any theaters showing the film next month.


In the past, directors have removed their names from films, which were then released with an “Alan Smithee” credit, the signature sign of a project gone bad. But the wrangling usually occurred behind the scenes. With Kaye, everything has been in the open, especially since the director began running a bizarre array of full-page ads in the Hollywood trades in June. Calling the ads “hype art,” Kaye quoted philosophers and politicians while alternatively attacking and praising New Line, depending on the status of their negotiations.

New Line still holds out hope that moviegoers will judge the film on its own merits. But Kaye’s noisy denigration of the movie has done irreparable harm to the film’s potential critical acceptance. After so much bitter feuding, with Kaye’s describing Norton as a “narcissistic dilettante” and one of the film’s producers, John Morrissey, calling Kaye “a Judas to his own movie,” it seems appropriate to describe a history of “American History X” as the anatomy of a fiasco.

As a boy in Newport Beach, McKenna grew up around the hard-core punk scene, watching punks and mods get into fights at the Balboa Pier. The only child of a single mother, McKenna ended up at San Diego State, where he studied journalism and finance. He’d always wanted to write about the impact of racism: “When kids go to a school where there’s black and Mexican gang members and they get beat up every day coming home from school, you know it’s an issue. In today’s society, race is everything.”

Bored by modern-day message movies, where racists were always “stupid and moronic rednecks,” the 30-year-old screenwriter wanted to create a more provocative racist character--”a story where we could sympathize and maybe understand a radical skinhead who was really smart and organized.”

While researching his script, McKenna met a group of skinheads whom he describes as “intelligent guys” whose beliefs were shaped by their environment and family backgrounds. “I don’t agree with everyone’s opinions in the movie,” he says. “But I know we’ve got problems--crime is a joke in this country. Nobody’s afraid of breaking the law because liberal judges just let people back out on the streets.”

McKenna is now a hot screenwriter with a two-picture deal at Warner Bros. and another script, “Jello Shots,” in pre-production at New Line. But he had a hard time finding any takers for “American History X.” “Everyone was afraid of the material,” he says.


Steve Tisch, who later became an executive producer on the film, submitted the script to New Line twice; it was turned down both times. Producer Rob Fried, then running Savoy Pictures, bought the script, but Savoy went out of business. Finally, after New Line Productions President Mike De Luca bought “Jello Shots,” he bought “American History X” too, with John Morrissey and Lawrence Turman on board as producers.

The producers first approached Dennis Hopper about directing the film. When he passed, they hired Kaye, who had been De Luca’s favorite choice. Norton wanted the lead role badly enough to do a screen test and waive his usual fee. At the time the film began shooting, Norton was making $1 million a movie; the producers say he took the part for considerably less than half his normal price.

To ensure that the film’s graphic portrayal of racist characters would not be misinterpreted, New Line showed the script to several African American directors. Mario Van Peebles and Rusty Cundieff both responded with complaints, focusing on what they saw as a one-sided depiction of racial conflict.

“I didn’t call them up and say, ‘Hey, guys, you have a racist script,’ ” says Cundieff, director of “Tales From the Hood.” “But I did say there was a problem--not being black, the screenwriter may have had trouble stating the black character’s point of view. He’s created a powerful character, but when you make the film from the point of view of a character who’s evil, you have to walk a real tightrope or the film could really misfire.”

When filming began, the movie’s young actors appeared equally unsettled assuming the roles of vicious hate-mongers. Ethan Suplee, who played an especially virulent skinhead who drives around in a van, shouting “[Expletive] you, Jews!” to passersby, wore a “White Power” tattoo that was painted on his upper arm each morning before filming.

One night after filming was over, the mild-mannered actor went into a convenience store, having forgotten to remove his tattoo. When one of the people there started hassling him, he was taken aback. “I had no idea what was going on until I realized he thought the tattoo was real,” Suplee recalls. “He was really pissed off, saying what a [jerk] I was. I didn’t even try to tell him it was only a movie thing. I just got the hell out of there.”


Suplee gestures toward Ed Furlong, who’s nearby, wearing a similar set of white-power insignias. “It’s pretty intense, having to say this incredibly hateful stuff. After some scenes, Ed and I look at each other and just go, ‘Ugh! What are we doing?’ ”

During filming, with Kaye establishing the tone, the set became a magnet for quirky, expect-the-unexpected behavior. Kaye would arrive for work in his “hype-art” car, a Lincoln Town Car with a chauffeur, four cell phones, a fax machine and a California license plate that read: “JEWISH.” During the Passover holidays, Kaye had boxes of matzo delivered to the set.

Visitors were welcome. Courtney Love showed up to watch Norton, her boyfriend, film several scenes. Picasso biographer John Richardson also stopped by, chatting with Fairuza Balk, who plays Norton’s girlfriend in the film. Balk told Richardson she’d recently shared the cover of Vanity Fair with a pack of young actresses. “Well, if you’re ever in London, you can see my Gap ad,” Richardson replied. “It’s on all the buses all over town.”

Before Richardson left, Kaye showed him a newsletter put out by the National Front, a fascist British political group. In a story headlined, “Who Controls Our Advertising?,” Kaye was spotlighted as one of the prominent Jews who supposedly control Britain’s news media.

Kaye shot the film in the same manner as his Nike and Guinness stout ads, doubling as cinematographer and camera operator. Still hampered by an occasional stutter--he says he couldn’t talk properly until he was 26--Kaye often wandered about the set, totally silent, looking for unusual angles or visual images. Filming on Venice Beach one day, the director had a chance meeting with a homeless man. Intrigued, he bought him a hotel room, gave him a script and asked him for notes.

When the film wrapped in May of last year, New Line breathed a sigh of relief.

They believed Kaye had delivered a powerful drama. But even before filming was completed, tensions mounted as Kaye and Norton jockeyed for control of the film. Norton was involved in rewriting portions of the script; his influence was obvious when Kaye shot a crucial scene where the actor rallies his skinhead troops before they ransack a Korean market.


In McKenna’s script, Norton’s character rouses his followers with a brief, profane harangue. In the version Kaye filmed, however, Norton spouts statistics culled from literature he obtained from Gov. Pete Wilson’s office. “There are 2 million illegal immigrants bedding down in this state tonight,” he says. “This state spent $3 billion last year on services for people who had no right to be here in the first place. Four hundred million dollars just to lock up a bunch of illegal immigrant criminals who only got into this country because the [expletive] INS decided it’s not worth the effort to screen for convicted felons.”

McKenna says he rewrote the scene himself; Norton just put his spin on the statistics. “We probably rewrote 25% of the script, but we always did it together--he never did anything by himself.”

Last fall, New Line test-screened Kaye’s first cut of the movie, which earned surprisingly good numbers for such a hard-edged drama. But then New Line made an unusual move; it agreed to have Norton edit a cut of the film himself. Kaye contends Norton broached the idea; De Luca says he approached Norton, although he acknowledges the actor gave him an incentive, threatening not to do press if he couldn’t “stand behind the movie.” Norton has repeatedly refused to discuss his involvement in rewriting or editing the film.

However, veteran studio hands say that having an actor spend nearly two months in the editing room is a situation fraught with peril--most established directors would never allow it. Although Norton was there with Kaye’s knowledge, the director couldn’t contain his anger about having to step aside.

One day Kaye stormed out of the editing room and punched a nearby wall, cutting his hand to the bone. “My hand must’ve hit a hidden nail, because I had blood gushing everywhere,” he recalls. “I had to go to the hospital to have stitches. I still have the scar.”

There is considerable disagreement over how much Kaye’s cut differs from the cut assembled by Norton, New Line and the film’s producers. At issue is the length of several sequences, especially a bitter family argument and Norton’s anti-immigration speech, as well as the placement of a key flashback scene, in which Norton’s father is seen denigrating Norton’s black teacher and affirmative action.


New Line contends that Kaye has wildly overstated the changes. New Line marketing and distribution chief Mitch Goldman said that after seeing the two cuts, “I could hardly tell the difference. I told Tony that the current version is every bit as emotionally powerful.”

In early June of this year, before Kaye submitted his own new cut, New Line test-screened a version of the movie that incorporated many of the changes made by Norton.

The screening went so well that De Luca and New Line Cinema Chairman Bob Shaye had a meeting with Kaye where they tried to persuade him to let New Line release the film in its current form. That was the moment when events began to spiral out of control. Incensed, Kaye threatened to take his name off the film.

The next day De Luca apologized to Kaye and brokered a compromise, where Kaye was given an additional eight weeks to work on the film. But the damage was done. Wounded by what he saw as a New Line betrayal, Kaye began a series of increasingly bizarre and combative actions that eventually destroyed any possibility of an amicable solution.

First came the now-legendary Hollywood trade ads, which quoted everyone from John Lennon to Patanjali, the Indian founder of yoga. Some of the ads were clearly designed to shame New Line, including one that quoted Edmund Burke as saying: “All that is necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing.”

Other ads were more inscrutable, including one that admonished Leonardo DiCaprio to “immediately” read a Tennessee Williams film script that Kaye owned. New Line tried to make light of the situation, even taking out response ads, nonsensically quoting from Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham” and the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.”


Matters went from bad to worse. In mid-July, Kaye became so enraged watching the film during an orchestra scoring session in London that he hurled his wallet and an orange at the video monitor before walking out of the session. Kaye says he spent several weeks working on new scenes and voice-over dialogue with Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott. But after his eight-week window was up, he had nothing new to show New Line.

When he met again on July 28 with the New Line brass, instead of bringing a new cut of the film, Kaye showed up with a rabbi, a priest and a Tibetan monk. The meeting was a disaster. Although Kaye and De Luca had an amicable private breakfast a week later, which Kaye recorded on film, New Line felt it had to draw a line in the sand. It would release the film next month, with or without Kaye’s approval, screening it first for critics at the Toronto Film Festival.

Kaye responded by flying to Toronto, where he met with festival director Piers Handling. Kaye lobbied him to reject the movie, filming their encounter as well.

Before Handling took action, New Line pulled the film from competition.

Kaye also recently ran a new round of trade ads directed at various actors in the film, including Furlong, Beverly D’Angelo, Stacy Keach and Elliott Gould, appealing to them to “help me preserve the integrity of my vision.” Kaye also tried, without success, to dissuade Furlong from doing voice-over work on the film.

Kaye recently lost an even more crucial battle. In late August, the Directors’ Guild of America denied his request for a pseudonym. Earlier this month, New Line asked an arbiter to impose a pseudonym on the film, a move that was also denied. As it stands, unless Kaye and New Line agree on a pseudonym acceptable to the DGA, Kaye’s name will stay on the film.

It is unlikely that New Line will agree to Kaye’s first choice of pseudonym, Humpty Dumpty. “I like the sound of it: directed by Humpty Dumpty,” he says. “In fact, I’m going to hire someone to wear a Humpty Dumpty outfit, walk around New Line’s plaza and sit on their little wall and occasionally fall off. It’ll be my new hype-art project.”


Kaye realizes that his vexing behavior has earned him little sympathy in bottom-line-oriented Hollywood, where he is viewed more as a kooky publicity seeker than an imperiled artist. “People think I’m mad,” he says. “But outsiders like me are always seen as being crazy. It’s only after we’re dead that people finally say, ‘You know, he actually made a lot of sense.’ ”

Despite all the tumult, De Luca still believes “American History X” makes an important statement about racism and hatred in America. “But I admit Tony’s antics have put me in a weird position,” he says. “I feel like I’m protecting a child from an abusive parent, except that the child is our movie and the parent is its director.”