7 items from 2016
Ryan Lambie Sep 5, 2016
An often spectacular drama, American History X left its maker shunned by Hollywood. Ryan looks at a great film and its maverick director.
It should have been a proud moment for British director Tony Kaye. His first feature, American History X, had finally appeared in Us cinemas on the 30th October 1998, and was already earning deserved attention for the strength of its direction and its powerful performances - not least from Edward Norton, cast in the lead as a volcanically angry young neo-Nazi in Venice, California.
American History X might have marked the next phase in Kaye's career, which, like such directors as Ridley Scott and Alan Parker before him, had begun in advertising back in the 1980s. And yet post-production on the movie had been protracted and difficult, as Kaye engaged in an increasingly public battle for its final cut. That battle had become so heated, »
Ozploitation weighs in on the abortion debate with “Red Christmas,” in which an unsuccessfully terminated and hideously deformed fetus returns two decades later to wreak havoc during his family’s already volatile Yuletide celebration. Starring and co-produced by horror icon Dee Wallace (the original “The Hills Have Eyes,” “The Howling” and “Cujo,” not to mention the more family-friendly “E.T.”), the film is an energetic, candy-colored romp through genre tropes that manages to take its subject matter seriously while poking fun at itself at the same time. Following a lusty debut at the Sydney Film Festival, the title will be a natural fit for genre gatherings and ancillary.
In her sprawling rural estate (the film was shot on location in the verdant Southern Highlands of New South Wales), widowed yet spirited matriarch Diane (Wallace) has managed the not-insignificant task of gathering her disparate offspring and their partners to a Christmas Day feast. »
- Eddie Cockrell
The film premiered at the Sydney Film Festival on Saturday, with another screening this Friday night.
Anderson's reaction to his Sff berth was "unsure", he told If.
"I couldn't quite believe or understand it, only because horror in this country is usually not received well here until it's proven overseas."
"I liked the idea of picking the stupidest thing I could think of and trying to write a movie based on that.".
"It's a two and a half hour doco he made over fifteen years. He's a nutjob filmmaker who always gets into fights with studios in the Hollywood system, and you can see why when you see this doco. He features three abortions in it, and covers both sides really well.".
"I decided I'd try and use horror and in particular the slasher sub-genre as a way to deal with the abortion debate, because horror can often bring up shit that you would have trouble bringing up with a drama or a comedy."
"It took in total about two years to write, including lots of discussions with women about the abortion subject. I did a first draft that was kind of a ridiculous comedy-horror where something runs around killing the family that rejected it. But then I decided I needed to make it more serious, so it took another year to write that version.".
Anderson started the process of producing the film himself early last year.
"It's written in a house, and designed to be shot very cheaply. It was private investment, myself primarily. Plus everyone investing their time became shareholders in the film, which was great. I convinced thirty professionals I'd worked with before in television to do that."
The shoot lasted fifteen days, with the official budget just on a million..
"We shot on an Arri Alexa mini, which had just come out mid last year, and we used some awesome Zeiss lenses that were super fast, because we were shooting at night. We decided we'd spend big on the camera and lenses and less big on the lighting."
Anderson wanted to cast a scream queen from the 70's and 80's because "horror audiences are very loyal to the films from the past."
"Dee got a hold of the script, and got it straightaway. And she was excited for the challenge, because all those women, once they're over sixty, they don't get exciting action roles anymore."
That coup also proved tricky: "Being such a famous actress, Dee had no frame of reference as to how low budget a film could be."
"She's done over 180 films or something, and she knows what low-budget is in America, but there was no way she could quite get what the hell we were doing. We looked like we were on a school camp. There were no vans, none of the things she's used to.".
"She's also 67 years old, and she's out at 3am, freezing, lying on asphalt. So she was only keen to do one or two takes. And she's a brilliant actor who only needs one take, but we had no money for a stand in or for 3rd ADs. So she's standing around, and then our Dp had to pray he got the focus right on the first try. In the edit, occassionally the focus goes in and out, and I guess that's what you get when you shoot so cheap."
The vagaries of indie film insurance was another source of stress.
"It was very scary because we don't have a grading system in Australia, so to speak. In America I did an ultra low-budget film as an actor, where they have an award wage that gets graded based on the total budget of the film, that works to make everything legitimate. So someone will come on for $100 a day as an actor, but they'll be insured, they'll be registered with the union, everything's above board and everyone feels safe.".
"Whereas in Australia you pay the full amount upfront, proper fees to everyone, but if you want to do a deferment or split deferred payment, it becomes a little tricky, because it was hard to get insurance. It was hard to do everything properly, and that makes it scary."
The director describes a feeling of "horrible tension" that something would go wrong..
"I'm in a house shooting all night, and if someone's Mum came out to help cook food for us, and she went to Woolworths and accidentally backed into a pram, which nearly happened, I would be the guy getting sued for that. So it's horrifying to think about. We don't have the processes here."
- Harry Windsor
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 feature 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.”
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.”
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- Eric Kohn
The first two episodes of a six-part virtual reality documentary series about Paul McCartney will debut Tuesday and is built around the June 10 release of compilation album Pure McCartney. Presented by the British Tourist Authority and the Great Britain campaign, Pure McCartney Vr is directed by Tony Kaye (the Grammy winner’s first Vr project) and produced by Palo Alto-based Vr startup Jaunt. The Vr experiences were filmed in McCartney’s home as the legendary performer recounts memories and anecdotes related to various tracks, while sharing archived and never-before-seen footage. It also includes digitally remastered audio mixed in Dolby
- Carolyn Giardina
Glenn here and welcome to Doc Corner where we're going to bring you reviews of documentaries, hopefully on a weekly basis, from theatres, festivals, and on demand, as well as special features that shine a light on the medium's history and future.
Every few years a documentary about abortion comes along to soberly remind us just how backwards attitudes continue to be towards women’s reproduction rights and just how unbalanced the debate is regarding women’s bodily autonomy in America. Trapped is a new film by Dawn Porter – probably best known for her debut feature Gideon’s Army – and is just the latest on this volatile topic, but while it may lack the epic scope and cinematic power of Tony Kaye’s Lake of Fire, it does work similarly to Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s After Tiller in the way it examines the more intimate details of the doctors, »
- Glenn Dunks
“I am — excuse my French — fucked,” director Tony Kaye said last summer about the state of his career. It certainly hasn't been easy going for the filmmaker, who clashed with the star and studio of his debut picture, "American History X," in 1998, and ever since found himself working intermittently, completing the 2006 documentary “Lake Of Fire,” and the 2011 drama “Detachment,” while his thriller "Black Water Transit" is still stuck in legal limbo following Capitol Films going under. Read More: 'American History X' Director Tony Kaye Says He's Still In Director's Jail “I am in jail. I am totally in jail,” Kaye added. “I have this crazy reputation, which I nurtured. I thought you had to be arrogant and awful. I have learned a lot over the years about process, and how to conduct myself with collaborators within the collective of making a movie, and how to be caring about the pain of others, »
- Kevin Jagernauth
7 items from 2016
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