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Friday, Feb. 18, 2000

An Alan Smithee wannabe

"American History X" was always destined to be controversial due to its subject matter of neo-Nazi skinheads. But it entered a whole new realm of surreal scandal when, in what must be some kind of first, director Tony Kaye came to Japan in February 1999 for the express purpose of denigrating his own film.

In his hotel suite, the multitasking director (two cell phones, dinner and this interview) ranted about how his star Edward Norton and studio, New Line Cinema, had conspired to wreck his film. Many versions of this falling-out exist, but there's one thing all parties seem to agree on: When Kaye failed to meet a deadline for making the final cut, the studio -- purportedly assisted by Norton -- took it out of Kaye's hands and made their own version.

"It basically came down to Edward Norton demanding the film go out as is," claimed Kaye, saying that New Line -- not unreasonably -- were forcing the deadline to fit Norton's window of availability to promote the film.

"It was fantastic for him," groused Kaye. "[After his cut], his role seriously increased, by about 20 minutes, but the integrity of the picture had gone right down."

Considering that Norton was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, one wonders if perhaps the director is making much ado about nothing.

Au contraire, says Kaye: "The nomination for Edward -- as much as I detest him for what he did, and would never ever work with him again -- attests to the quality of the work within the film. And there were a lot of other great things that could have come out of it as well that have been lost because of the pettiness of it all, really."

When pressed as to what, specifically, he would have done differently, Kaye paused -- for an uncomfortably long time -- before answering.

"It's very difficult to explain what I would have done or wouldn't have done, verbally. Because that's not what the cinema is all about, and that's not what filmmaking is about, and actually that's why so many people think they can direct, and actually they can't, because they think it's a series of meetings that you just kind of float around in, and get other people to do it."

Getting into the nitty-gritty, Kaye pointed to problems with the original script, the lack of a black voice (which he attempted to balance by adding a new character) and the casting of Norton in the lead.

"Edward is very much this sort of privileged, well-educated East Coast young man," said Kaye. "He wasn't right. Yeah, he could play it, but he wasn't this kind of out-of-control lunatic, which is what the character should have been."

Yet it's apparent that none of these were things that could have been fixed though editing alone. Watching the film, it's hard to see why Kaye was making such a fuss, especially since it seems that his often stunning stylistic flourishes have survived intact. Could it have been a last-minute retreat when the work didn't meet his own expectations?

Wounded pride seems likely. Kaye, like many highly talented individuals, is a bit of an egomaniac, prone to comments such as these: "To be honest, none of the people I was involved with here, none of them, had ever been involved in the making of a great film. They didn't understand what the search for excellence was actually about."

Kaye came to Hollywood after having made a name for himself in TV commercials ("I set that world on fire . . . the whole style of commercial-making now is the style of what I did.") and, having been king of the hill, it seems he resented the fact that a mere actor, Norton, could pull rank on him.

At any rate, the easy route would have been for Kaye to ask to have his name removed from the film -- a common practice, where the missing director is identified by custom as "Alan Smithee." Kaye says he tried, but the Director's Guild of America wouldn't allow him. "They said that there's a clause in there that if you publicly criticize your film, they won't allow you to take your name off it," Kaye said. "So it's a First Amendment issue, freedom of speech."

So Kaye took his argument to the courts and the press, attacking many sacred cows in Hollywood, and it looks increasingly likely that he'll never eat lunch in that town again. According to Kaye, "I couldn't even get a lawyer to take on my case there [L.A.]. I had to go to Washington. Amazing."

Kaye is quick to criticize Hollywood as "a town where everybody second-guesses everyone else. You can't have a conversation with somebody else now without a lawyer," he says. "You can't ring someone up to talk about a problem without bringing in a lawyer."

This, however, did not stop the director from filing a $275 million lawsuit.

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