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Tony Kaye on “Lake of Fire”

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By Aaron Hillis

IFC News

[Photo: Left, “Lake of Fire”; below, Tony Kaye, ThinkFilm, 2007]

A wildly successful commercial and music video director, Brit-born Tony Kaye’s eccentric behavior (or in his words, “lunacy”) made him an inadvertent media sensation when his feature debut, “American History X,” led to very public clashes with New Line Cinema and star Edward Norton. Unhappy with changes made to his neo-Nazi saga without his consent, Kaye took out several full-page ads denouncing Norton and his producers in trade mags, tried to have his directorial credit changed to “Humpty Dumpty,” took a studio meeting with a rabbi, priest and monk in tow, and eventually befriended the late Marlon Brando, who infamously greeted him with: “I hear that you’re as crazy as I am.” You’ll have to do your own research to find out how an Osama bin Laden costume helped Kaye fall permanently out of favor with Brando, but that was years ago…

Now in his mid-fifties, Kaye has calmed down considerably, and his career is finally getting back on track. His latest film, “Lake of Fire,” is a devastating 152-minute documentary that probes the religious, political, moral and philosophical questions surrounding the hot-button issue of abortion. Shot on black and white film over a period of 16 years (which, yes, predates “American History X”) and covering all the relevant points without drawing subjective conclusions, “Lake of Fire” may just be the definitive film on the topic. In an age of muckraking and polemics, Kaye’s must-see is refreshingly even-handed and yet still progressive-minded. It’s a remarkable feat from a guy who, once upon a time, was deemed never allowed to work in Hollywood again. I sat down with the quiet-spoken, occasionally stuttering Kaye to talk about the doc and his notorious past.

You started filming “Lake of Fire” in the early ’90s before being sidetracked by other projects. Why did it take so long to get back into the swing of things?

Well, I’ve been working on it this all the time, but obviously not every day for 16 years. When you’re making a film about a person or an incident that took place, it’s kind of easy because there’s an obvious beginning, middle and end. When you make a film about an issue, none of that exists. It took quite some time to hit upon the realization that I needed to tell the story of a particular woman as she goes through the procedure: traveling to the clinic, checking in, having a conversation, having [the abortion], then talking about it afterwards. It was a very difficult film to edit, to get the balance just right, and it was also a very expensive film because I wanted to make a documentary that was epic. I financed it all myself, so I had to make lots of TV commercials and music videos, which take time because I have to care about those and do a good job.

Then I went bust while making this film, and [there was] my adventure in making “American History X.” I had to recover from that, and for a while during editing, the film wasn’t even owned by me. I had to buy the film back because my company owned the film and that company went bust. I had so much other crazy shit that I was dealing with because of my lunacy over “American History X,” my reactivity… I kind of had the confidence that no one else would want it anyway, so no one else was going to buy it because it didn’t have a value. It wasn’t even finished at that point in time. It’s easy to say now because it’s finished and I obviously got it back, but I always had the confidence that it would be okay.

I find it fascinating that you yourself refer to your past behavior as “lunacy.” Do you think that moment in your life has permanently affected your career or changed how people characterize you?

Yeah. I mean, now it’s getting better. I have just written and directed a film I’m editing now [called “Black Water Transit”], and now “Lake of Fire” is coming out. Maybe a couple years ago, there was barely an actor who would’ve taken a meeting with me because of my dealings with Edward Norton and Marlon Brando, the fallout there. So yeah, no one… people wouldn’t take a meeting. It’s been very hard. I only have myself to blame and I don’t blame them. It’s a tremendously difficult ride making a film. It’s a wild horse, you know? And if you’re an actor, your voice is your voice, but it’s so much in the hands of the director you’re working with, so you definitely have to be careful.

“Lake of Fire” is so wide-ranging in both content and context that I can’t imagine how you boiled it all down to two and a half hours. Was there enough usable material to justify, say, a seven-hour cut?

I think it will be at some point. I don’t consider the work to be finished yet. I want to do a television piece and a series of DVDs, because I have so much stuff. But with anything, there’s always a cream that rises to the top, and it quickly became apparent what the best things were. Then it became a decision: I wanted it to be as impartial as it could possibly be, but it needed to have a structure. When you do have the fortune of [working within] the Charlie Chaplin school of filmmaking — shooting, editing, shooting, re-editing — you can mold the clay however you wish. So after a period of time, I realized why I needed [to include] the story of one woman, which was not in my mind when I began. I needed to fully see how the process emanates, not that a man can ever understand what a woman goes through.

At one point I had eight researchers working for me who found a series of clinics that trusted us and felt this was a very important piece we were working on. They helped us find those women. When I shot [clinic patient] Stacey and the recovery room at the end, which I guess I did about five or six years in, I knew that was the end of the film; I was always working towards that. Because the pro-life argument is the more attacking argument of the two and the pro-choice argument defends the right, I felt the film should open as pro-life, which it does. Then you piece together the murders and the tos and fros in the grey areas, and you end in a situation that… There’s no such thing as a woman who irreverently does the best she can with the circumstances of her life. Even Stacey, who [is having] her sixth abortion, you feel a sympathy towards her. Though she’s absolutely a thousand-percent sure she’s done the right thing, there’s this sense of loss at the end, and a sense of irony about that. There’s no better way to have a conclusive ending to a story than with irony. So with all those factors, the film is what the film is. Whatever I do to it in the future, it’s not going to become a different film. It’s just making certain points bigger so that there’s a different kind of turn, like light and shade.

You say you couldn’t understand what a woman goes through. Was that a concern when you started, how people would perceive this coming from a male filmmaker?

I don’t really care about that, or it’s not that I don’t care, but… What I’m addicted to is the process and struggle of learning about the rhythms of filmmaking: story, pictures, sounds and the way editing cuts in, what works and what doesn’t. I’m completely addicted to trying to figure that out. It’s something that I don’t think anyone can really achieve in a lifetime, so it’s kept me fascinated. I’m not bored a minute in any day. Now, 16 or 17 years ago, when I began, there was an element of me that said, “Wow, this comes out and you’ll see it big in this theater and everyone is there,” and there was an element of that, but that’s not what it’s about for me now. All I’m concerned about is learning, getting better and being involved in projects that are honest, just glued to this spectacle and truth. I’m totally addicted to that. I mean, I was very good at making television commercials about cars, and I don’t even drive.

When pro-life advocate Randall Terry looks straight into the camera and says he can’t get through to the pro-choice crowd he’s standing within, it reminded me just how strong people’s convictions can be when they don’t just believe something to be true, they “know” it’s true. With this in mind, do you think the film will appeal to both sides of the argument?

It’s very difficult for me to talk about what the film says. I can talk about how it’s made or what I set out to achieve. Pro-choice is supporting an idea. Pro-life is supporting something that they can see; it’s “the known.” There are only two things that happen in the whole film: a late-term abortion at the beginning, and a regular abortion at the end. The rest of it is said, even the murders. Yes, phenomenally, I’ve got the bloke who was killed where it took place before [it occurs], but you don’t see anything happen. You are told that that took place. I don’t know if I’m going to answer your question appropriately, but as a human being firstly, and secondly as a filmmaker, I am very interested in the unseen. “Lake of Fire” is about religious fanaticism and the debate over abortion, but it’s about something else, too. It’s honestly very difficult to talk about anything other than why I chose to do certain things; I wish Noam Chomsky was here. The film is somewhere between “the killing of a three-year-old and washing your hands” — that’s the best line of the whole film.

“Lake of Fire” opens in limited release October 3rd (official site).


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.