Family & Companions
An accomplished and award-winning director of television commercials and music videos in the 1980s and early 1990s, Tony Kaye made an auspicious feature debut in 1996 with the powerful drama "American History X." The film, which starred Edward Norton as a reformed racist, scored with critics and audiences alike, but its success was quickly overshadowed by a bizarre battle of wills between Kaye, Norton and the film's producers at New Line Cinema. His public fight and ensuing propaganda blitz devastated his personal life and finances, leaving his career in tatters. But Kaye eventually rallied with the highly acclaimed documentary "Lake of Fire" (2006), which graphically depicted the struggle for abortion rights. Meanwhile, he made his second feature film, "Black Water Transit" (2010), starring Laurence Fishburne, though the movie's production company went bankrupt during filming and it went unreleased. With his back against the wall once more, Kaye made his third movie, "Detachment" (2012), a social drama about the high school education system starring Adrien Brody. Though he had failed to live up to the promise of "American History X," Kaye nonetheless continued to make intriguing films regardless of his financial struggles.
Born into a working class family in London, England in 1952, Kaye developed a passion for art, and entered the advertising world to fund his projects. He was soon in demand for his visually striking and thematically arresting commercials and music videos for clients in America; Kaye was adept at producing comic spots as well as ones rife with drama and tension, such as his controversial "Junkyard Dog" ad for the American Legacy Foundation's campaign against the tobacco industry. He also gained a reputation for somewhat outlandish and self-serving statements to the press, including one in which he named himself as the "most important British director since [Alfred] Hitchcock." Kaye had viewed his work in advertising as a means to launch a film career, and he got his chance in 1996 when he signed with New Line to direct his first feature, "American History X." Written by David McKenna, the film told the story of a California skinhead who was convicted of a racially motivated murder, but renounced his ways after gaining insight during his prison time. He returns to his old neighborhood to prevent his younger brother from following in his footsteps, but is unable to save him from the violence that surrounds the criminal lifestyle. Though Kaye was less than fond about the script, he was intrigued by the social and political aspects of the project, and thought that he could improve on the existing material during the filming process. He was also buoyed by the presence of critically acclaimed actor Edward Norton in the lead role, and by the fact that Norton was equally committed to producing the best version of the film possible.
According to all accounts, filming on "American History X" went smoothly, and Kaye worked well with its notable cast, which included such established performers as Stacy Keach, Elliott Gould, Fairuza Balk, Avery Brooks and Beverly D'Angelo. But problems quickly arose after both New Line and Norton gave him notes on the first edit, which Kaye had viewed as the final version of the film. He reacted angrily towards the suggestions and was replaced in the editing room by Norton. Relations between Kaye and his star and producers broke down further in subsequent meetings, especially when the director brought a priest, a rabbi and a monk to the negotiating table. New Line eventually relented and allowed Kaye back into the editing room, but the version released to theaters was, in his opinion, a watered-down edit of his original vision. Kaye retaliated by forcing the organizers of a festival in Toronto to pull the picture from their schedule, which infuriated New Line. He then launched a series of full page ads on the back pages of Variety and The Hollywood Reporter which alternately cajoled and harangued Norton and New Line head Michael De Luca for their decisions. The ads also accused Norton of giving more screen time to himself in his edit. The final straw came when Kaye asked the Directors Guild to take his name off the theatrical release. His suggestion for a replacement - "Humpty Dumpty" - was shot down by the DGA, which he met with a $275 million lawsuit against the Guild and New Line Cinema. Rather than garner support for his cause, Kaye's actions were viewed with both confusion and derision by the Hollywood press and community at large.
Despite Kaye's campaign, "American History X" performed exceptionally well at the box office and even garnered an Oscar nomination for Norton. However, the film's success was not trickling down to its director, who found himself a pariah in the very industry he had worked so hard to break into. He was also deeply in debt because of the ads, which had swallowed his personal finances and kept him from finding work in advertising. Kaye's marriage also fell victim to his crusade. But he persevered, attempting to launch a second feature in the midst of the fallout from "History X." He began placing ads in the trades soliciting Marlon Brando to appear in a film based on an unpublished script by Tennessee Williams called "One Arm." The legendary actor, who was himself something of a Hollywood outcast at this point himself, reached out to Kaye and began talks to appear in the film. But the deep eccentricities of both personalities helped to sink the project before a frame ever rolled before a camera.
Kaye had stopped communicating by phone during the "American History X" debacle, and relayed all conversation to an intermediary. This did not sit well with Brando, but relations were soon repaired, and the duo launched into a new project, with Kaye filming a master acting class with Brando, which would be released on DVD. The film, titled "Conversations with Brando," fell into chaos almost immediately after it was launched; Brando wanted to co-direct the film with Kaye, who responded by showing up to the set dressed as Osama bin Laden. The massively corpulent Brando himself would don drag or various disguises for the "classes," many of which dissolved into arguments between the actor and the audience of students. After filming hundreds of hours of footage for the project, "Conversations with Brando" was pulled from the Toronto Film Festival, where it was making its premiere in 2002. It remained permanently shelved after that.
Undaunted, Kaye began work on a documentary, "Lake of Fire," which explored the issue of abortion rights through interviews on both sides of the argument, as well as graphic footage of actual surgical procedures. Entirely self-financed by Kaye, the film was briefly taken away from him after he declared bankruptcy at the turn of the new millennium. Kaye eventually completed the film and released it in 2006, which earned angry responses from both sides of the debate, as well as considerable praise from critics, several of whom placed it among their favorites in their year-end lists. Kaye also rebuilt his finances with numerous commercial projects in the U.S. and abroad. In 2007, he began work on his second feature film, a crime thriller called "Black Water Transit" which he shot in a post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans with an impressive cast that included Laurence Fishburne, Karl Urban, Brittany Snow and Stephen Dorff. He also commented extensively on the "American History X" debacle in press interviews, which revealed that he had emerged with his sense of humor intact and a new-found understanding of the nature of collaboration. Still, he struggled once more financially as the film's production company went bankrupt and the film remained unreleased. A few years later, Kay returned to helm his third feature, "Detachment" (2012), an urban drama about the failure of the public education system starring Adrien Brody. Despite an Oscar winner in the lead, the film failed to attract much notice in its limited run.
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Established Tony Kaye Films in L.A.
Began work on "G-D," a look at the abortion issue in America (completed in 1999)
Feature directing debut, "American History X"; also served as own cameraman; fought with New Line over final cut
Announced plans to direct Marlon Brando in "One Arm," an unproduced script by Tennessee Williams; project never made
Helmed the five-and-one-half-minute short "Pluto Warrior"
Sued by actor Larry Jenkins and Flashworks Prods. over reportedly reneging on an agreement to direct a film for which he had been paid $600,000
Hired as director for an acting video produced by and starring Marlon Brando called "Lying for a Living"; quit after the third day
Directed the "Dani California" video for the Red Hot Chili Peppers
Helmed the documentry "Lake of Fire," a look at the landmark case, Roe v. Wade, examining its impact on the United States and the deep divisions on the issue of abortion; earned an Independent Spirit Award Nomination for Best Documentry