'American History X' is troubled by conflict between director Tony Kaye, lead actor Edward Norton, and studio New Line Cinema

Could you look into the camera and state your name and the date?” the man with the minicam asks the reporter with the tape recorder. ”I’m documenting everything.”

No, he isn’t a special prosecutor. His name is Tony Kaye — ”the greatest English filmmaker since Alfred Hitchcock,” if he does say so himself — and the reporter he’s videotaping in his Hollywood hotel suite this afternoon may end up as footage in his next cinematic opus: a documentary on how his first feature film, American History X, was ”raped” by New Line Cinema, how star Edward Norton (”a narcissistic dilettante”) ruined the film in the editing room, how producer John Morrissey (”Pompous Pilot,” Kaye calls him) also betrayed him, and how the ”Dinosaur Guild of America” (as he dubs the Directors Guild of America) trampled his First Amendment rights by refusing his request for a pseudonym in the credits (he wanted Humpty Dumpty). In short, it’s a behind-the-scenes ”making of” film that will trash pretty much everyone and everything involved in the making of X.

Just another Hollywood diva diving off the creative deep end — except for one bizarre detail: The movie Kaye is so desperately trying to take his name off of may actually be a minor masterpiece. In fact, X (opening Oct. 30) could be the most fascinating film a director has ever attempted to disown.

A dark, button-pushing race-relations drama set in L.A., it has Norton playing Derek Vinyard, a working-class fireman’s son who becomes a disturbingly articulate — and horrifically violent — local hero to a gang of neo-Nazi skinheads. Showcasing a performance by Norton that will surely generate a major Oscar campaign, it’s an astonishing directorial debut for a guy whose previous professional experience behind a camera was making tire commercials for European TV.

”Well, it’s good enough to fool Hollywood,” Kaye says, focusing his minicam. ”It’s good enough to fool New Line. And it’s certainly fooling Edward Norton. But it doesn’t fool me. My standards are a lot higher.”

I’m as proud of this film as anything I’ve ever worked on,” says Norton. ”It started as a gritty drama. But by the time we finished, it was a tragedy in the classic Aristotelian sense. It grew to epic proportions.”

You could say the same thing about Norton, who added some 25 pounds of muscle (not to mention a swastika on his chest) to play X‘s heavyweight antihero. Months later, brunching on eggs near his West Hollywood home, the 29-year-old actor looks more like his old self, the skinny Yale grad who was anointed the next Sean Penn (or was it the next Dustin Hoffman?) after his Oscar-nominated turn as a psycho altar boy in 1996’s Primal Fear.

Norton has been flush with offers ever since — Woody Allen picked him for his young alter ego in Everybody Says I Love You, and Milos Forman cast him as a porn lawyer in The People Vs. Larry Flynt — but he had to lobby hard to land the lead in X. He won over New Line quickly enough, especially after offering to take a pay cut (getting only ”about a fifth” of his then $1 million asking price, he calculates). The producer was an easy sell as well. ”I knew we had a movie the minute Edward’s manager called,” Morrissey says.

American History X
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