Humpty Dumpty: An Interview with Tony Kaye

The director on his new teaching drama Detachment, his American History X documentary and the unfinished Katrina movie Black Water Transit.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

 

Tony Kaye became a legendary Hollywood story. Part of the ‘90s music video turned feature filmmaker movement, he feuded with New Line Cinema and star Edward Norton over American History X. He even sued to try to take his name off the film, but instead of Alan Smithee, he wanted his credit to read Humpty Dumpty. Subsequent Kaye films have also been mired in development troubles, including the still unreleased Black Water Transit. He does have a new moving coming to theaters though. Detachment stars Adrien Brody as Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher who tries to help students who have given up on their education. The faculty is made up of actors like James Caan, Lucy Liu, Christina Hendricks and Tim Blake Nelson, and Kaye breaks the narrative to interview the characters, and include animated interludes on the school’s chalkboards.

Kaye brought his guitar to the Hollywood PR office where he was giving interviews, overlooking the city, but we got on such a roll we didn’t want to break the flow to ask for a song. Detachment is in theaters Friday.

 

Crave Online: Is this the essence of drama, just trying to help an uncooperative student who’s resisting?

Tony Kaye: I say this. Carl Lund is the man with the axe to grind. Carl, the writer of the movie, was a teacher and he turned up for school every day, tried to do a great job and was frustrated by all this seeming chaos that was running against his sail as opposed to with it. So he was able to write all this fantastic stuff that gave me the opportunity to go out and make a film and get other people to want to make it as well. Where I’m coming from in this particular project is I’m coming from a place of humanity and saying that in your day, there’s all kinds of things that you’re going to come up against. And then you have to make a choice and you have to be proactive or reactive. Or, just to make a choice is indeed a leap because if you’re reactive with no choice, if it’s an emotional reaction, that’s not so good. So with the brilliance of Adrien Brody and the brilliance of Carl Lund and all the other actors, I was able to do my thing which is create a sense of realism, documentary realism that tells a story that is very, very fine. It doesn’t run in the sort of three act paradigms or any of the more formal moviemaking zones. This one is a notebook. It’s a random notebook but analog, a real notebook, not digital because there’s no texting. I kept all that out of it. No texting, there’s a blackboard, not a smart board. It’s just emotion, taking a scene like the Lucy Liu scene and getting her to play it like her family just got mowed down. Not like it’s just some kid saying “I’m bored.” For her, it’s “Well, you are my family because I’m connected to you and you are being killed and assassinated and I f*cking want to throw myself in front of your car to stop you. Just f*cking wake up.”

 

Those are the stakes. Trying to help someone is even harder than just trying to stop a bad guy.

Yeah, but what I’m saying is I’m letting all these other things run through me. I didn’t walk around thinking I wanted to shed a light on education. I’m trying to think in the next layer up. I’m just trying to think of if we all get on, if we all realize we’re all one person, then that is going to solve a lot of the problems. Education is amazing. The challenges to education are great because it means hey, pick up a book. Don’t just be kicking walls because you can’t buy a kindle or an iPad. Read a book. Something that I learned from making this film, there’s plenty of stuff that’s already here. There are plenty of cures already here.

 

But you as the filmmaker recognized the opportunity for visualizing this drama in the material.

Yesh, yeah, yeah, sure.

 

With the documentary style, there’s also animated segments with the chalkboard animation. Does that represent something more abstract than the realistic approach?

 

I thought the school needed to be a character in the film. I though the school needed a voice so I thought the school could talk by way of the blackboard and chalk and it could animate. And also it provided a sort of chaos, a dysfunctionalism in the alignment of the structure of the picture, which to me is a part of the portrait, a part of an accurate portrait of the reality of what takes place. Obviously everything that took place in this movie might have taken place over 10 years in 50 schools, but we focused it all into 90 minutes or a couple of weeks within the life of a teacher.

 

Had you wanted to break narrative in Hollywood movies in ways they wouldn’t let you, like the way you use documentary interviews and animation in this movie?

First of all, I don't know if they would let me or they wouldn’t let me. I made sort of a terrible mistake in my first movie that I made, American History X. My passion to get a certain vision, my technique in verbalizing my passion did not work. I frightened a lot of people away, an immense amount of people that I frightened away. So I’m seeking originality but I’d love to work on a studio picture. I’d love to have done John Carter. I’d love to work for the Disney Corporation. I tried to. I nearly worked for Disney when I was a kid. I had an interview in their accounts department in London. I didn’t get the job. I would have loved to have gotten it. When I got out of art school I made a bee line straight for that place. Maybe I will. I’d love to have a canvas of that size, get $100 million, $200 million to make a picture. I could really do something with that, and for the people I’m working for and execute what they want and deal with all the politics. It’s taken me a long time to have gotten to this place where I think I can do that. I just did it for this movie because I thought it was right for this picture.

 

So it’s not to say you would always have cutaways to artistic diversions.

Well, I think to a certain extent, if you’re taking a subject matter, it’s always good to really investigate it. With two people that are talking, you’ve got your mind on the conversation and you’re also thinking about certain other things. I’m doing the same thing. So with all the other factions that are going on – we don’t know each other, there’s a telescope over there, there’s Los Angeles, there’s a computer, there’s your notebook, your bag, my guitar – there’s always other things going on, there’s people outside, there’s all these other things going on here. To me if you’re depicting a scene between you and I, it would be inaccurate not to introduce those other things in some cinematic form.

 


 

You have had problems on some films and some are still not completed and released. Did Detachment go smoothly?

Yeah, Detachment went very smoothly. I’m not going to say I saw eye to eye with everyone on every beat and everything but Detachment went so well because Adrien and I, Adrien Brody and myself really connected and we really were able to find an identity, each of us, in Henry Barthes. We protected each other and we didn’t step into each other’s space. We didn’t get into each other’s way. Yes, there’ve been some projects that I parted ways on at the scriptwriting stage or that I parted ways on in earlier stages. The only project that I have had real trouble with is Black Water Transit which is a movie that’s not finished yet which is a movie that I desperately want to finish which is a movie that houses incredible performances from Lawrence Fishburne, Brittany Snow, Evan Ross, Beverly D’Angelo, Karl Urban, Stephen Dorff, about these caricature people, crime associated people in New Orleans and how their darkness has been made even darker by the forces of nature after the hurricane. So I’m desperate to finish that film. It’s just that I and a few other filmmakers, Taylor Hackford and David O. Russell, we all got caught in a maelstrom where Capitol Films, who had this very ambitious and wonderful vision of how they were going to approach the media, they just spread themselves a little too thinly and we all got caught, we couldn’t finish any of our films. It affected me more than it affected them because David O. Russell and Taylor Hackford really hadn’t shown their sort of skull and cross bone flag quite so much as what I’d done. So for me all of a sudden to be out there on the washing line in a situation like that did not look good. So I’m so happy that Paper Street, Austin Stark and Benji Kohn really kind of saved my neck with this movie.

 

So Black Water Transit needs to be edited?

And shot, we need to shoot more as well. Kia Jam, the producer of Black Water Transit, and I are very good friends still. We talk to each other every couple of months. He’s in Russia shooting another movie right now but we’ll get it there. Kia’s been with that project for years, since the time when Bruce Willis bought the book and thought hey, there’s a character in there for me. Maybe that’s the idea, to go and shoot Bruce Willis talking about buying the book and just thinking about the book and you start intercutting.

 

When you talk about flying your skull and cross bones flag, do you mean your film was more unorthodox than Russell and Hackford’s?

No, I’m a very normal and orthodox person that goes out of their way to present eccentricity. It’s not that I do that so much now but I’ve been doing it for so many years that it’s become routine now. My heroes were always these kind of lunatics and I thought f*ck, I’m so boring and ordinary and dull, I’ve got to up the ante a bit here. So I’ve tried to be this very eccentric character and that works very well if you want to be a painter which I did once upon a time, if you want to be a musician which I did once upon a time. But if you want to make movies and you want to make challenging movies, you’ve got to be the sanest person in the room. That’s something that I really realized in my more recent years.

 

Maybe with this new perspective, and on DVD there’ve been a lot of restorations of films where directors have been removed from them, would it be worth restoring an alternative version of American History X?

I’m not unhappy American History X, okay? There was a lot of experimentation that I wanted to do back in the day of that and because of my own poor judgment and misunderstanding of how to play the game, I talked my way out of it. So I don't think the best use of my time would be spent on redoing American History X. I think American History X is there. I do have a documentary called Humpty Dumpty and the Kabbalah which is something I shot during my meltdown, or my pretend meltdown during that period. I hope to get that out there in the world at some point. Maybe that can have certain re-edited scenes of American History X but I’m very proud of what we all achieved with American History X. I’m very proud of the performance by Edward Norton, I’m very proud of the performance by Eddie Furlong, I’m very proud of Beverly D’Angelo’s work and Stacy Keach and Avery Brooks. It’s a good film and time is our most precious commodity and always the ultimate judge. It’s still there. It’s still in the top iTunes 100. It’s still there.

 

Humpty Dumpty is the name you tried to take as a pseudonym. Does Hollywood take things too seriously, like an “important” movie can’t have fun like that?

Getting back to what I was saying is that if you’re a musician or you’re a painter or you’re an artist and you’re doing this singular expression, you can be as lunatic as you want. You can be as idiosyncratic as you want. If you’re a filmmaker, particularly if you’re a hired director to direct, a hired gun, you didn’t write the script. I didn’t write American History X. Yeah, I rewrote some of it, but I didn’t write it. It’s my job to be serious at the right time. American History X is a very serious movie about a serious subject. There’s something else I believe in and I think we all have to adhere to this. Everything that happens is meant to be. It’s meant to happen like that. But sometimes you don’t know at the time that it’s meant to be disaster. Sometimes we all have to let go and the light sorts these things out. We just have to be proactive as much as we can in dealing with all this stuff. So Hollywood is what it is. Hollywood works because it is the Mecca of the entertainment world and it has a big, big industry here that works and has done a lot of fantastic work for a lot of years. It’s for me to question it but not to get in the way of its flow.