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A Novice Auteur Makes His Stand

Movies: Director and conceptual artist Tony Kaye fights New Line Cinema for control of 'American History X.'

June 23, 1998|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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."

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