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Courting Trouble

In 'American History X,' the biggest turf battles have happened off-screen.

September 13, 1998|Patrick Goldstein | Patrick Goldstein is a Times staff writer

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.

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