Humpty Dumpty Back Together Again
By night, the approach to downtown from the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport has a ghostly, disembodied tenor. Two years after Katrina, there remain many hollowed-out buildings in various states of rehabilitation; my taxicab driver tells me that, in the aftermath of the storm, he had to relocate his family to Texas, where they still remain. Nearby, Tony Kaye is wrapping principal photography on his latest film, Black Water Transit, an ensemble thriller starring Laurence Fishburne that is based on Carsten Stroud's mystery novel. But when the Kaye and I settle down to talk the next afternoon in the mezzanine lounge of the Windsor Court Hotel, it's about another movie, Lake of Fire, his two-and-a-half-hour, decade in-the-making documentary on the American abortion debate, which premiered at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival and is about to be released in American theaters.
If Kaye's name rings a bell, it's probably because, back in 1998, his debut feature, American History X, made headlines as much for Edward Norton's Oscar-nominated performance as a reformed neo-Nazi skinhead as for the epic editing-room battles between Kaye, Norton and the film's studio, New Line Cinema. You may recall that a disgruntled Kaye went so far as to air his grievances in full-page ads in Variety and ultimately sued New Line in a failed attempt to have his name removed from the film's credits. He wanted to be credited as Humpty Dumpty instead. A few years later, Kaye's name surfaced in connection with another bizarre episode, when his planned project to film a series of acting classes taught by Marlon Brando reportedly fell apart once Kaye showed up for one filming session dressed as Osama bin Laden. (As for Kaye's portly star, his costumes of choice were said to range from female drag to a priest's outfit.)
By that point, Kaye had more than burned up his proverbial 15 minutes in the pop-culture ether. So when the British-born director showed up at Toronto last year with Lake of Fire, it was hard to know whether to take Kaye seriously, or if this was yet another attention-getting stunt. As it turns out, Lake of Fire is serious—provocative and heartfelt and probably as close to an exhaustive survey as there ever could be of this vast and irresolute issue.
Canvassing the U.S. from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to Washington, D.C., Kaye gives us a chorus of articulate and fanatical voices from both sides of the abortion divide and everywhere in between: There are extremists, but also many more considered, conflicted voices, including Noam Chomsky, veteran Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff (long one of the liberal left's few outspoken pro-life pundits) and attorney Alan Dershowitz, whose comment that "everyone is right when it comes to the issue of abortion" could be the film's mission statement. Most compelling, or troubling, or both, is Kaye's meeting with one Norma McCorvey, a.k.a. "Jane Roe" from the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case, who since her conversion to Christianity has become an outspoken pro-life activist.
"What fascinated me," Kaye tells me in slow, measured phrases only occasionally interrupted by the stutter he has battled since childhood, "was that I'd read some interviews with people who were actively pro-life and actively pro-choice, and I found myself agreeing with everybody 100 percent. So I thought, that's what I'll do: I'll make a film in which I'll completely explore the territory and have a war of words between both sides and see what happens." If he filmed long enough and talked to enough people, Kaye reasoned, he might come to a settled mind about abortion himself. "I did start out searching for how to split the atom, or how to attack Aqaba," he says. But today, Kaye is of the opinion that "there needs to be a third party: pro-life, pro-choice and pro-confusion, where you just don't know."
Kaye, who was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household and these days sports a kabbalah bracelet on his wrist, also has ambivalent feelings about the religious convictions that fuel some of the abortion debate's most intractable positions. "Religion governs everything," he says. "It even governs the life of an atheist—the mere fact that they don't believe means that they've made a choice based on religion in the first place."
On the subject of his decade in the moviemaking wilderness, Kaye is forthright and even contrite. He says he behaved badly and was ill-prepared for the responsibilities of being a Hollywood director. Now, though, he's made amends with New Line—for whom he is completing a documentary, Humpty Dumpty, about the making of American History X, that will be released next year on DVD—and is ready to give Hollywood another shot.
"The thing about Hollywood," Kaye says, "is that there's always going to be people saying, 'No, this is not right,' 'It shouldn't be like that,' 'Look, in the script, it says this,' 'We want you to recut that.' If you react to those kinds of things, you're going to punch yourself to death. I found with [Black Water Transit] that producers have come up to me and said all kinds of things, and I've listened to what everyone has had to say and discussed it with them, and invariably, something better comes out of the equation. There is a benefit to making a film as a collective. Hollywood is the capital of the film world, and if you want to make films, you have to deal with it."
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.