The eccentric director of American History X gets Lobby Lobster boiling.

By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated August 03, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Hello?” Tony Kaye says into his cell phone. ”Is Marlon there?”

Amazingly enough, Marlon is there. Even more astonishing, he takes Kaye’s call. It turns out that the unpredictable auteur terrible — the guy who bought those trade ads trashing Edward Norton and New Line Cinema for atrocities committed against his 1998 big-screen debut, American History X — has become pals with the world’s greatest living actor. Kaye calls Brando several times a week, and even hopes to lure him into a cameo in his latest film, Lobby Lobster, which the 49-year-old Brit is shooting today inside a diner in a dingy section of Los Angeles. But that’s not why he’s calling at the moment.

”Marlon,” Kaye says, swiveling on a stool, ”do you remember how you offered to speak out on my behalf to the press? How you’d describe the abuses I suffered by the Hollywood community? Well, I have a reporter here with me right now.”

Those ”abuses” include the Directors Guild of America’s refusal to allow Kaye to remove his name from American History X’s credits (Kaye wanted to replace it with ”Humpty Dumpty”) after Norton (”a narcissistic dilettante,” Kaye once called him) recut the drama about neo-Nazis in Southern California. They’re also the reason it’s been nearly three years since Kaye has picked up a movie camera. And not just a camera. ”There was a period of about nine months afterward when I didn’t talk on the phone,” he recalls. ”I didn’t want to emotionally engage with anyone. I wanted to make very rational decisions, so I had someone else talk on the phone for me. I wouldn’t talk on building intercoms, either. I’d stop strangers and ask them to buzz an apartment for me.”

What finally brought Kaye back to filmmaking — and to downtown L.A., where for the past three days he’s been shooting a scene in which a deranged comedian named Lobby Lobster sprays gunfire all over the diner’s greasy walls — was an epiphany. ”I came to grips with the fact that if someone is paying for something, they have every right to control it,” he says. ”If I wanted control over my movies, I’d have to finance them myself.” So he’s using the sums he earns as one of the world’s most successful commercial directors to pay for every frame of his own film. ”When I run out of money,” he explains, ”I stop and make a commercial.”

Right now, Kaye has enough money to continue the Lobster roll for a while longer, but apparently not enough for an actual script. ”To tell you the truth, I’m not sure what this movie is about,” says Lobster star Alex Sol (who had a small part as a neo-Nazi in American History X). Neither is Kaye. ”We’re writing it as we go along,” he says. ”It’s honest filmmaking. I’m being honest about not knowing what the movie is about, whereas most directors pretend they know when they really don’t.”

As for his buddy Brando — whom Kaye befriended while pitching a film version of Tennessee Williams’ ”One Arm” — there is less uncertainty, at least on one matter. The actor may or may not end up doing a cameo, but he has no desire to talk to a reporter. ”You don’t remember?” Kaye says. ”I was in Miami and we spoke on the phone and you said you’d talk on my behalf. Hello? Marlon? Marlon, are you there? Marlon…?”