By Aaron Hillis
[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).