Behind-the-scenes drama wasn’t enough to derail Tony Kaye and Edward Norton’s 1998 gritty crime drama, which went on to win critical acclaim and a rampant fanbase. Here are 15 things about the making of the controversial film that might surprise you.
1. IT’S DIRECTOR TONY KAYE’S DEBUT FILM.
Kaye, who had cut his chops directing music videos and art installations in the 1990s, made the jump to directing feature films with American History X. The movie is also screenwriter David McKenna’s debut.
2. KAYE TRIED TO DISOWN THE FILM.
Kaye was unsatisfied with the final cut of the movie, so he tried to use Alan Smithee, the official pseudonym (coined in 1969 and discontinued in 2000) for directors looking to disown their projects, in the credits. The Director’s Guild of America blocked the effort, however, because DGA guidelines stipulated that directors could only use the Smithee pseudonym if they agreed not to publicly disparage the film, something the overly vocal Kaye had already done.
3. IT WAS PARTLY BASED ON THE LIFE OF REFORMED SKINHEAD FRANK MEEINK.
Meeink, who served three years in prison for charges related to white supremacist beliefs, is now an accomplished anti-skinhead author and lecturer.
4. JOAQUIN PHOENIX TURNED DOWN THE LEAD ROLE OF DEREK VINYARD.
He thought the film’s subject matter was too intense.
5. NORTON WAS ALLEGEDLY CAST WITHOUT KAYE’S APPROVAL.
Norton stepped in when Phoenix passed on the project—reportedly against Tony Kaye’s wishes. Kaye wanted to find another actor, but let Norton keep the part because Kaye simply couldn’t find anyone better prior to the start of shooting.
6. TO PLAY DEREK, NORTON HAD TO BULK UP AND SHAVE HIS HEAD.
The normally slight actor gained 25 pounds of muscle for the role.
7. NORTON WAS NOMINATED FOR THE BEST ACTOR OSCAR FOR HIS PERFORMANCE.
Roberto Benigni took home the trophy for Life is Beautiful.
8. NORTON ALLEGEDLY TOOK A PAY CUT TO APPEAR IN THE MOVIE.
Reports claim he received one-fifth his usual $1 million-per-movie fee.
9. NORTON TURNED DOWN A ROLE IN SAVING PRIVATE RYAN FOR AMERICAN HISTORY X.
He would have played Private Ryan (Matt Damon got the part instead).
10. THE DINER DANNY AND DEREK GO TO IS A FAMOUS HOLLYWOOD LOCATION.
While it closed in 2000, Johnie’s Coffee Shop is immortalized in movies like The Big Lebowski and Reservoir Dogs.
11. EDWARD NORTON HELPED WITH THE FILM’S FINAL CUT.
While Kaye was editing the film (which took more than a year), Norton and the movie’s studio, New Line Cinema, would send him story notes. And after two of Kaye’s submitted cuts proved unsatisfactory, Norton stepped in to provide his own version of the movie, which is 20 minutes longer than Kaye’s.
12. OUTRAGED OVER NORTON’S CUT, KAYE CANCELED THE FILM’S PREMIERE.
Kaye heard that the unauthorized cut of the movie was accepted at the Toronto Film Festival while he was shooting a commercial in Germany. The scorned director immediately boarded a plane to Toronto and had organizers pull the movie from the festival’s lineup. When it came time for the film’s wide release, he filed a $200 million lawsuit to legally have his name changed to Humpty Dumpty in the credits as his way of protesting of the unapproved cut. He also took out 40 pull-page ads in trade papers denouncing the movie.
13. KAYE BROUGHT SOME BACKUP TO HIS NEGOTIATIONS WITH THE FILM STUDIO.
The studio allegedly called a meeting to hash things out with the distraught director, who showed up with a rabbi, a priest, and a monk to try to smooth things over. Kaye’s stunt didn’t work, and the working relationship remains sour.
14. KAYE SAW THE MOVIE FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 2007.
Nine years after the film’s controversial release, Kaye agreed to introduce and sit in on a free screening of American History X at a YWCA in Wilmington, North Carolina.
15. KAYE HAS CREATED A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE FILM’S CONTROVERSY.
The doc, entitled Humpty Dumpy, was never released.