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Director Tony Kaye on being an ''X''-pariah

Director Tony Kaye, humbled by the fallout of his notorious behavior on ”American History X,” talks about his Hollywood comeback

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Sarah Lee/eyevine/ZUMA Press

By the end of 1998, it was looking like director Tony Kaye would never work again. His battles with New Line Cinema and star Edward Norton over the final cut of his acclaimed neo-Nazi drama American History X (which he loudly disowned) became the stuff of Hollywood legend — and transformed Kaye into a veritable pariah. Now the iconoclast is back: After a positive reception at Toronto for his abortion documentary Lake of Fire, the director has nabbed a gig helming the upcoming thriller Blackwater Transit, which will feature Black Snake Moan star Samuel L. Jackson and will be shot in New Orleans. EW.com chatted with Kaye about returning to Hollywood, the American History X controversy, and his plans for the future.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Is it exciting or is it scary to be shooting in New Orleans?
TONY KAYE: Well, it’s just very wonderful. And very exciting. And I’m very happy to be bringing business to a great American city, a very beautiful one, and one that I think has become tougher and more resilient — rather like post-911 New York.

Will this be a different experience from American History X? Do you feel more ready for it?
I think I’m the sort of person that makes lots of mistakes in one go, and then I tend to learn from them. I’m not saying I’m not going to make any mistakes, but I think that I certainly made enough last time to keep me going for a while. But my endeavors last time were passionate and about making the film better. New Line is going to release my other film, called Humpty Dumpty, which is a film about my experience working on American History X. It’s a docu-drama. And then after that it’s going to come out in a special edition box with all kinds of things in it for American History X.

So have you and New Line mended fences?
Yeah, yeah. I have a tremendous respect for New Line and what they’ve achieved over the years. And, yeah, I’m eternally grateful to them in the bigger picture for giving me my break.

Have you talked to Ed Norton?
I haven’t, no. But I’m trying to get Edward to be in Humpty Dumpty.

You called that a docudrama — it’s mixing reality and fiction?
Yeah. There’s three elements to it. The lion’s share of it is me pointing a camera at myself during the period of making American History X — it’s really a descent into a sort of inner chaos. And then there’s a series of interviews that I’ve filmed already. And then I created a character, a similar character [to myself], trying to do something with his life, and that interweaves it all. But the lion’s share is really what happened to me in the process of making that film.

Do you think you affected the industry with AHX?
I like to think so. It was made in a very gritty way, harking back to ’70s filmmaking a bit, I guess. There hadn’t been a film made like that for a long time.

Do you think there’s a place for you and your kind of work in Hollywood? Are you worried about alienating people again?
No. Film is business; it’s commerce. And film is entertainment. And that’s not to say that a film that doesn’t attract a big audience is a failed film, but I think that you’ve got to be honest. The goal has to be to make a film with integrity and truth and spectacle in some way, and it translates to a huge audience, and it has all those other things as well. That’s what every filmmaker is trying to do. And I hope to be one of the group of filmmakers that have achieved that.

Let’s talk about Lake of Fire — does that explore about both sides of the abortion debate?
It does. My plan was that we as a society needed a document that wasn’t propagandist in any way, that just explored [the issue]. I didn’t realize how difficult it would be, but that’s what I set out to achieve.

In recent years you’ve been directing videos — like Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ”Dani California.” Are you going to still keep doing them?
Yeah. I love to be involved with the world; I don’t want to isolate myself. I want to be in the thick of it and I just want to work. I’ve been in a bit of a holding pattern and I’m just very happy to be working. I’m 54, I love it, and I’m just happy to be part of the machine that is the world of now, and I want to do my bit to benefit mankind, and to end the chaos.

You once said that you thought you were the best director since Hitchcock… Do you still feel that way?
I was a big fan — I still am — of Muhammad Ali. And I just used to copy him [and his boasts]. It’s sort of setting goals for yourself: If you say something like that, you have to try and achieve that.