How The Director Of ‘American History X’ Sabotaged Himself Out Of Hollywood

Tony Kaye
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Everything Tony Kaye does is brash. From the hair he sometimes grows out, until he looks like a skinnier version of Rick Rubin, to his adequate stack of films, to the music he creates, it all screams bold streak. If you were to learn anything from listening to the director strum his guitar and wail into the atmosphere, it would be that compromise is a hell, one he refuses to visit. Once a shoo-in for one of the more talented directors of our time, Kaye moved from commercial work to a breakout feature film debut with 1998’s American History X.

As good as that film was, Kaye disowned it, wanting to rather position his dog or Humpty Dumpty in the “directed by” credit. He clashed with actors, studios, producers, editors, and ultimately himself. It’s a story that continues today. Kaye has softened, but according to several co-workers (including Bryan Cranston), not by much. His antics, controversial and incendiary, have placed him on Hollywood’s list of the ex-communicated, and it’s hard to tell when or if he’ll be scratched from it.

The trouble with Tony didn’t really begin on the set of American History X, it happened in the preceding months during post-production. According to Kaye — who was considered “hot-headed” even during his brilliant commercial work era — he received the script for the film, and immediately began rewriting large portions of it. When New Line was pushing for Edward Norton to receive the lead role of a violent skinhead who goes through a rehabilitation process in prison, Tony pushed back. Eventually, after he couldn’t find anyone “better” to take the role, he agreed to direct Norton with an air of begrudgery.

“He’s a phenomenally talented guy,” Kaye said in a 1998 interview. “And if I had a project that I thought he was right for, I would most certainly work with him again. Even though I have described him as a narcissistic dilettante, which is exactly what he is…”

After the film finished wrapping, Kaye handed in a 96-minute cut, and that’s when things slid downhill faster than a greased up boxcart. New Line gave Kaye pages of notes, the producers gave him a stack of questions, Norton handed him pages of editing changes, and it was more than Kaye could handle. The director threw what he calls a “hissy fit,” and New Line in response banned him from the editing room while giving Edward Norton the keys. In 2002, Kaye wrote a piece in the Guardian detailing his time on the film:

My problem all through American History X was that I could never tell anyone what I wanted to do with the film. Sometimes I didn’t even know myself. More often, I was so intimidated by the process that I went into meltdown if I wasn’t left alone to work things out. Of course, if you actually listened to what Norton was saying, you could hear that none of it made sense in film-making terms: that’s not his forte, as you’ll know if you saw the movie that he directed, Keeping the Faith. “Pretty f*cking awful” hardly covers that one.

Despite Kaye’s attempts to get back in the editing suite, New Line produced its own cut of the film that was roughly 40 minutes longer than the one Kaye created. He took this as a renegotiation and ruining of his work, and his antics began escalating. When the studio asked him to discuss coming back for the marketing and press surrounding the film’s release, he showed up to the meeting with a rabbi, a priest, and a monk. When the film was set to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival — a large launching pad for many smaller films — Kaye disrupted the proceedings by convincing TIFF not to screen the film.