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September 18, 1998 - Image 14

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1998-09-18

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14 - The Michigan Daily - Friday, September 18, 1998

'History' already marked
with scandalous'

Los Angeles Times
HOLLYWOOD - It only took one glance at Edward
Norton, stripped down to sweatpants and sneakers, playing
pickup basketball at Venice Beach, to make it obvious that
"American History X" would be no ordinary movie. It wasn't
the young star's shaved head or his muscular new build that
grabbed your attention.
It was the tattoos.
His chest was decorated with a Nazi swastika, his shoulder
with an Iron Cross. His biceps bulged with a Nazi war eagle.
On his forearm was the inscription: "White Power." On his
back was "DOC," short for Disciples of Christ, an Aryan
white-supremacy group.
As Norton dribbled the ball down court, you noticed some-
thing else - his team was all white, the opposing team all
black. Racial taunts echoed back and forth as director Tony
Kaye filmed the players jockeying for position under the bas-
This wasn't just a game of basketball. It's a battle for turf.
After Norton wins the game with an easy layup, he made his
attitude clear. "Get off my (expletive) court!" he told the
opposing team. "This is my house!"
During a break in filming, Kaye struggles to explain the
point of this particular scene. Finally, a simple answer comes
to mind: "It's about hate," he says. "Hate and anger."
In Hollywood, controversy is often nothing more than a
marketing tool. But "American History X" has emerged as
one of the hot-topic films of the year, though not for the rea-
sons New Line Cinema had intended when it began shooting
the film early last year.
Written by 30-year-old screenwriter David McKenna,
"American History X" had all the makings of a must-see
movie that would inspire the sort of stormy op-ed page debate
enjoyed by such films as "JFK" and "The People vs. Larry
Flynt" Raw and inflammatory, it cast Norton as a virulent
white supremacist imprisoned for killing two black youths
who tried to steal his truck. When he emerges from prison,
he's a changed man. But can Norton stop his hate-filled
younger brother, who's already writing worshipful accounts
of "Mein Kampf" for his history class, from following in his
The film is anything but politically correct. Its dialogue is
laced with profanity directed at blacks, immigrants and Jews.
It features a graphic scene in which a Norton-led skinhead
posse trashes a Korean-owned food market. And many view-
ers will np doubt be disturbed by Norton's racist character,
who, even before he has a change of heart, is easily the most
charismatic character in the film.
But with its Oct. 30 release just around the corner, the
film's potential impact has been undermined by an ugly, very
public spitting match between New Line and Kaye, a concep-
tual artist turned TV commercial director who has been as
angry and unpredictable as any of the characters in his movie.
Incensed by New Line's decision to release its own cut of the
movie, Kaye has disowned the film, describing New Line's
version of the film as a "rape, a total abuse of creativity."
Having already pressured New Line into withdrawing the
film from the prestigious Toronto Film Festival, Kaye has also
threatened to hire protesters to picket any theaters showing
the film next month.
In the past, directors have removed their names from films,

which were then released with an "Alan Smithee" credit, the
signature sign of a project gone bad. But the wrangling usu-
ally occurred behind the scenes. With Kaye, everything has
been in the open, especially since the director began running
a bizarre afray of full-page ads in the Hollywood trades in
June. Calling the ads "hype art," Kaye quoted philosophers
and politicians while alternatively attacking and praising New
Line, depending on the status of their negotiations.
New Line still holds out hope that moviegoers will judge
the film on its own merits. But Kaye's noisy denigration of
the movie has done irreparable harm to the film's potential
critical acceptance. After so much bitter feuding, with Kaye's
describing Norton as a "narcissistic dilettante" and one of the
film's producers, John Morrissey, calling Kaye "a Judas to his
own movie," it seems appropriate to describe a history of
"American History X" as the anatomy of a fiasco.
Steve Tisch, who later became an executive producer on the
film, submitted McKenna's script to New Line twice; it was
turned down both times. Producer Rob Fried, then running
Savoy Pictures, bought the script, but Savoy went out of busi-
ness. Finally, after New Line Productions President Mike De
Luca bought "Jello Shots," he bought "American History X"
too, with John Morrissey and Lawrence Turman on board as
The producers first approached Dennis Hopper about
directing the film. When he passed, they hired Kaye, who had
been De Luca's favorite choice. Norton wanted the lead role
badly enough to do a screen test and waive his usual fee. At
the time the film began shooting, Norton was making S1 mil-
lion a movie; the producers say he took the part for consider-
ably less than half his normal price.
During filming, with Kaye establishing the tone, the set
became a magnet for quirky, expect-the-unexpected behavior.
Kaye would arrive for work in his "hype-art" car, a Lincoln
Town Car with a chauffeur, four cell phones, a fax machine
and a California license plate that read: "JEWISH." During
the Passover holidays, Kaye had boxes of matzo delivered to
the set.
Kaye shot the film in the same manner as his Nike and
Guinness stout ads, doubling as cinematographer and camera
operator. Still hampered by an occasional stutter- he says he
couldn't talk properly until he was 26 - Kaye often wan-
dered about the set, totally silent, looking for unusual angles
or visual images. Filming on Venice Beach one day, the direc-
tor had a chance meeting with a homeless man. Intrigued, he
bought him a hotel room, gave him a script and asked him for
When the film wrapped in May of last year, New Line
breathed a sigh of relief.
They believed Kaye had delivered a powerful drama. But
even before filming was completed, tensions mounted as
Kaye and Norton jockeyed for control of the film. Norton was
involved in rewriting portions of the script; his influence was
obvious when Kave shot a crucial scene where the actor ral-
lies his skinhead troops before they ransack a Korean market.
McKenna says he rewrote the scene himself; Norton just
put his spin it. "We probably rewrote 25 percent of the script,
but we always did it together - he never did anything by
Last fall, New Line test-screened Kaye's first cut of the
movie, which earned surprisingly good numbers for such a

Courtesy of Miramax

Ed Norton, seen here in the current film "Rounders," has been taking a stab at editing.

hard-edged drama. But then New Line made an unusual
move; it agreed to have Norton edit a cut of the film himself.
Kaye contends Norton broached the idea; De Luca says he
approached Norton, although he acknowledges the actor gave
him an incentive, threatening not to promote the film if he
couldn't "stand behind the movie." Norton has repeatedly
refused to discuss his involvement in rewriting or editing the
However, veteran studio hands say that having an actor
spend nearly two months in the editing room is a situation
fraught with peril - most established directors would never
allow it. Although Norton was there with Kaye's knowledge,
the director couldn't contain his anger about having to step
One day Kaye stormed out of the editing room and
punched a nearby wall, cutting his hand to the bone. "My
hand must've hit a hidden nail, because I had blood gushing
everywhere' he recalls. "I had to go to the hospital to have
stitches. I still have the scar."
In early June, before Kaye submitted his own new cut, New
Line test-screened a version of the movie that incorporated
many of the changes made by Norton.
The screening went so well that De Luca and New Line
Cinema Chairman Bob Shave had a meeting with Kaye
where they tried to persuade him to let New Line release the
film in its current form. That was the moment when events
began to spiral out of control. Incensed, Kaye threatened to
take his name off the film.
The next day De Luca apologized to Kaye and brokered a
compromise, where Kaye was given an additional eight

weeks to work on the film. But the damage was done.
Wounded by what he saw as a New Line betrayal, Kaye began
a series of increasingly bizarre and combative actions that
eventually destroyed any possibility of an amicable solution.
First came the now-legendary Hollywood trade ads, which&
quoted everyone from John Lennon to Patanjali, the Indian
founder of yoga. Some of the ads were clearly designed to
shame New Line, including one that quoted Edmund Burke
as saying: "All that is necessary for the forces of evil to win
in the world is for enough good men to do nothing."
Kaye recently lost an even more crucial battle. In late
August, the Directors' Guild of America denied his request
for a pseudonym. Earlier this month, New Line asked an
arbiter to impose a pseudonym on the film, a move that was
also denied. As it stands, unless Kaye and New Line agree on
a pseudonym acceptable to the DGA, Kaye's name will stay
on the film.
It is unlikely that New Line will agree to Kaye's first choice
of pseudonym, Humpty Dumpty. "I like the sound of it:
directed by Humpty Dumpty," he says. "In fact, I'm going to
hire someone to wear a Humpty Dumpty outfit, walk around
New Line's plaza and sit on their little wall and occasionally
fall off. It'll be my new hype-art project."
Kaye realizes that his vexing behavior has earned him little
sympathy in bottom-line-oriented Hollywood, where he is
viewed more as a kooky publicity seeker than an imperiled
artist. "People think I'm mad," he says. "But outsiders like mq
are always seen as being crazy. It's only after we're dead that
people finally say, 'You know, he actually made a lot of



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