At 63, Tony Kaye is plotting another comeback. Although he’s always been an award-winning director of commercials and music videos, his feature career is a study in scorched earth. His last film was five years ago; before that, he shot “Black Water Transit,” which was never finished. And then there’s his debut, a masterpiece riddled with production woes called “American History X.”
That track record leads to perceptions that it’s impossible to take Kaye seriously — but that would be a mistake.
Studios may view him as a flustered and frustrating eccentric, but Kaye remains a rare breed — an outlaw artist working through one hurdle after another, beaten but not broken, and always ready to rise again. While virtually every American studio movie reflects some kind of compromise, truly unfiltered creative visions are rare. At a time when we could use more committed independents, we don’t hear from Kaye nearly enough.
That’s about to change, and while his characteristic brashness is still evident, he said he’s learned a bit of restraint. “We’ve all got demons inside of us,” he explained in a recent phone interview. “I’ve gotten rid of mine — or got them under control.”
His chosen vehicle to showcase that rehabilitation is “Stranger Than the Wheel,” Kaye’s first feature-length project since 2011’s “Detachment.” Last fall, Kaye announced on Facebook that Shia Labeouf would star in the self-financed film.
He’s wanted to make this movie for decades. In the early ’90s, Kaye was a popular director of commercials and music videos (he won a Grammy for Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train” video). But his goal was to make movies. “Stranger Than the Wheel” was one of three scripts he considered for his debut (another one was written by a newcomer named M. Night Shyamalan; the third was “American History X”).
Written by Joe Vinciguerra, “Stranger Than the Wheel” is the story of a young man who struggles to reconnect with his estranged father. “It’s a kind of serial drama about isolation, alienation, and alcoholism,” Kaye said recently, clearly relating — even if he hadn’t lost his father in recent years, Kaye would identify with the character’s alienated state.
In April, Kaye announced the departure of his lead via email, with the subject line “SHIA LABEOUF QU!T.” (“Tony and I rolled around and wrestled an idea together,” Labeouf explained by email. “We shot a test. But in the end, we are not making a film together.”) Now the film will star Evan Ross (“The Hunger Games”). Kaye has been shooting test footage, and plans to begin production later this summer, with the stated (if unlikely) goal of finishing the picture in time for the fall festival circuit.
Or, all of this could be a preamble for more of the same. Eighteen years ago, “American History X” was also gearing up for a fall showcase — the Toronto International Film Festival offered it a prime slot — when Kaye flew across the country to meet with festival CEO and director Piers Handling. Claiming New Line Cinema had made changes to the film without his permission, Kaye asked Handling to refuse the studio’s version and show his cut instead.
“He was eccentric, opinionated, and had a very strong sense of what he wanted to do,” Handling recalled, noting that Kaye brought a small digital camera with him to their meeting and recorded the whole conversation. Handling talked to the studio about showing Kaye’s version, but instead, the company pulled the movie from the lineup.
While artistic temperaments are often part of the filmmaker package, Kaye is a breed apart. He’s the kind of Hollywood aberrant whom the corporate-overlord studio system has all but bred out of existence. “Tony doesn’t play that game,” Handling said. “He always wants to do things on his own terms.”
That’s an especially dicey proposition in 2016, an age in which every facet of the entertainment industry is deathly allergic to risk. Anyone concerned about the bottom line would be wary of Kaye’s track record when it comes to managing a responsible production.
During production on “American History X,” Kaye went to war with his star, Edward Norton, declaring him unfit for the part. (He later received his second Oscar nomination.) Kaye hired a priest, a rabbi and a Buddhist monk to join a meeting with New Line executive Michael De Luca. Editing was a protracted process and, after Kaye completed a cut the studio liked, he demanded eight more weeks to radically reimagine the film.
When New Line refused, Kaye began trashing the movie; he threatened to remove his credit and replace it with “Humpty Dumpty.” (That has since become the title of an unfinished documentary about the production that Kaye hopes to release.) Then came the Toronto showdown.
When it was all over, Kaye had earned the outright ire of New Line, the DGA, and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers; everyone else was confounded. After that, things didn’t get easier. While he won a lifetime achievement award for his advertising work in early 2001, that fall, Marlon Brando hired Kaye to direct a series of acting workshops. The filmmaker showed up dressed as Osama bin Laden, shortly after 9/11, infuriating everyone involved.
A year later, he confessed his major regret in an article for The Guardian. “I thought I was upholding the old movie industry traditions of strutting around, picking fights with the studio and being the fly in everyone’s ointment,” he wrote. “I had passion — you have to give me that. But I was, it has to be said, a spectacular pain in the ass.” These days, he describes his previous setbacks as the result of “desire for self alone.”
Whatever his current emotional state may be, his existing filmography speaks on its own terms. If there’s an overarching theme to Kaye’s work, it’s his ability to deliver achingly real portraits of America’s fractured communities.
Kaye’s antics make it almost too easy to dismiss his filmmaking outright — as this writer did initially, with “Detachment.” The vulgar tale of a disgruntled public high school instructor (Adrien Brody) struck me as a shrill riff on “Half Nelson.” At Kaye’s urging, I took a second look, and found that “Detachment” is more than theatrics surrounding student-teacher relationships: it’s a tender investigation into what it means to feel utterly helpless while battling institutional dysfunction.
But nothing in Kaye’s filmography demonstrates his vision more cohesively than “Lake of Fire,” the haunting black-and-white encapsulation of abortion debate in America that Kaye spent decades assembling. From its visceral imagery of abortion operations to the angry protestors, the film conveys an operatic vision of anger and frustration rendered in expressionistic terms.
Kaye realizes it’s his most coherent achievement to date. “I don’t know how I made that movie,” he said.
“There are some people who don’t really fit into the Hollywood structure,” said Handling. “Tony’s one of those guys. He’s a renegade, an outsider — not unlike Orson Welles.” And like Welles, Kaye’s sensibility extends beyond the fits of ambitious projects, some more polished than others. The man is indistinguishable from his movies.
Kaye has remained an accomplished commercial artist. The money he makes on ads enable him to self-finance his films. He also recently completed work for the virtual reality company Jaunt on a six-part series, “Pure McCartney,” which features McCartney at home discussing his relationship to five different songs. Kaye spoke emphatically about the possibilities of the new technology. “It’s this incredible process of carrying the viewer into a solitary experience,” he said.
Kaye described his current inspirations as ranging from Jackson Pollock to David Lean, whose “Lawrence of Arabia” epitomizes the kind of sprawling drama Kaye hopes to create. “I’ll get there,” he said, and hopes to do it with “Stranger Than the Wheel.”
Credit: Armando Estrada
His new star is thrilled at the prospect. “I’m generally just excited about anything Tony Kaye does,” said Ross, who has already been shooting footage for the project around Los Angeles. “I don’t think I’ve worked with a director like him who can just put incredible things together.”
Kaye shared his vision with IndieWire via multiple emails, showcasing photos of ink-blotted pages filled with fractured images from his planning sessions for the film: a raggedy school bus, some kind of giraffe-bird mashup, an impressionistic sketch of his leading man, the quixotically named Faunce Bartleby.
“I think I am real,” he wrote at one point. At another, he noted that he planned to turn “Stranger Than the Wheel” into a musical — “a dramuzical epic,” as he wrote in an email. At times, he sounded off about his resistance to industry standards, noting his frustration over a recent big studio film he attended with his kids. “These perpetrators of pollution people should not be allowed to work!” he wrote.
Will Kaye succeed in bringing his visions to the world? If not, it won’t be for lack of trying. While he has struggled with a stutter over the years, the impediment was barely discernible in recent conversations. Kaye has no trouble formulating the case for his latest efforts.
“I’ve got something marvelous here,” Kaye said of his new project. “Don’t worry: I want it to be a hit.”