Director Tony Kaye burned every bridge in moviedom with his 'insane' behavior. But now, with his new drama, Detachment, earning great reviews and conquering film festivals, he tells Chris Lee it was all an act. With the help of Kabbalah, Kaye’s determined to get back into Hollywood’s good graces.
ony Kaye after winning the revelation prize and the international critic's prize for 'Detachment' during the American Film Festival in Deauville, France, in September, Damien Meyer, AFP / Getty Images
The most shocking aspect of British director Tony Kaye’s acclaimed new drama, Detachment, which goes into limited release in New York on Friday, may be its absence of a totally bonkers backstory.
After all, the man responsible for bringing the movie to the screen is renowned in Hollywood for his world-class freakouts, grandstanding meltdowns, and studio headbanging. Kaye’s infamy has endured for nearly a decade and a half, even if he’s quick to tell you that he’s no longer the cuckoo-clock-crazy music-video eccentric who proclaimed himself the “greatest English director since Hitchcock” even before screening a single frame of his jarring movie debut, American History X, in 1998. “My craziness and ridiculousness and stupidity and idiotic nature was largely an act,” Kaye recently told The Daily Beast.
Detachment explores the ruinous state of the American educational system, and features Adrien Brody as a substitute teacher who steps into a broken system to shake his students out of their deep senses of hopelessness, apathy, and rage. Although the character is deeply repressed himself, he somehow manages to also inspire his fellow faculty members to rise above career burnout—and even help out a teenage hooker along the way.
The ensemble drama (which also features strong turns from Marcia Gay Harden, Mad Men star Christina Hendricks, Bryan Cranston, James Caan, and Lucy Liu) cleaned up on the festival circuit last year, gathering critics’ and audience awards at such festivals as Deauville, Tokyo, and the São Paulo International Film Festival. And when it premiered at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival last April, Detachment was met with a number of ecstatic reviews. “I think Detachment has largely gone like a dream,” the director said. “Two or three more [movies] like that and I’ll be back in business. I want to be in the good graces of [studio] executives.”
Appreciation and humility, however, were hardly the character traits Kaye was recognized for in the late 1990s. After making a big splash as an award-winning TV-commercial director, the would-be auteur landed his breakthrough gig directing American History X—which stars Edward Norton as a neo-Nazi ex-con attempting to break his ties to a white-supremacist gang—for New Line Cinema.
But the director publicly clashed with Norton (calling him a “narcissistic dilettante”). And when the now-defunct studio chose to exercise its contractual right to revoke final cut of the movie from Kaye, he went berserk, retaliating through a series of outlandish, hype-generating stunts that have become legendary in Hollywood—a streak of bad behavior that stands in a class of its own even among the supersized ego trips and tantrums for which the movie industry is known.
In 1998, the director spent $100,000 of his own money on a series of 35 trade-paper ads denouncing American History X’s producer and bad-mouthing Norton via quotations from such historical luminaries as John Lennon and Albert Einstein. “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any one thing,” read one ad’s text, quoting Abraham Lincoln.
Then, when Kaye was called in to negotiate with New Line top brass about final edits, he brought spiritual backup with him into the executive suite in the form of a rabbi, a Catholic priest, and a Tibetan monk who mingled uneasily with the studio suits while he filmed the whole ordeal.
And yet Kaye remained so incensed at the producers’ decision to tack on 40 minutes of additional footage to his cut of American History X, he lobbied to have his name removed from its credits, soon discovering that a ruling by the Directors Guild of America prevented his use of a pseudonym. So Kaye demanded the movie be credited to “Humpty Dumpty” and filed a $200 million lawsuit against New Line and the DGA for allegedly rigging the arbitration and violating his freedom of speech.
New Line’s cut of American History X eventually was released to generally strong reviews, and Norton received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his searing performance in the film, now generally regarded as a cult classic.