Actor Edward Norton picks his films carefully: his latest, American History X, is only his fifth. But after a bitter experience with British director Tony Kaye, who quit the picture calling Norton 'a narcissistic dilettante', he'll probably be even more careful now.
Edward Norton landed an Oscar nomination for his first film, Primal Fear, and justly so. He gave a brilliant performance as a sweet-faced, stammering altar boy who turns out to be a vicious psychotic, and each of the two personae was so persuasive that you were left wondering: which one is the real him?
American History X compounds the mystery. Norton plays a bright young man who becomes a neo-Nazi skinhead and commits a horrific murder. Convinced in prison of his error, he is, on his release, dismayed to find his kid brother (Edward Furlong) writing term papers on Hitler as champion of civil rights. Norton's character is, unusually, not a grotesque moron but charismatic and articulate. And the actor is equally compelling as the decent middle-class boy and as the bile-filled white supremacist. 'A lot of people, in the United States at least, would love to say this movement is just a marginal bunch of rednecks,' he explains. 'And it's not. It's springing up in comfortable suburbia and what seem very happy homes. Part of what holds those kids is the glamorous seduction and the illusion of empowerment.'
Norton, 30, comes across as soft-spoken and intelligent (he is a Yale graduate), with a boyish, self-deprecating smile. He played the long-suffering attorney of the publisher of Hustler magazine in The People Vs Larry Flynt and a Jimmy Stewart-like ingenue in Woody Allen's musical Everyone Says I Love You. More recently he stole Rounders as Matt Damon's sidekick, a raffish, likeable cardsharp. He picks projects carefully: American History X is only his fifth movie. 'Everyone was very focused on the humanist message,' he says. 'I had a very strong sense of a collaborative purpose. The idea was that it was a tragedy. The story of a person who destroys himself through his own anger.'
Yet that common purpose is long gone, for the film has embroiled Norton in an embarrassing fracas with its British director, Tony Kaye. Famed for his visionary commercials (the train journey so relaxing that even the Penguin on a paperback goes to sleep; a car convention at which a thousand babies assert their right to ride in safety) and infamous for his eccentricity, Kaye joined the project promising Norton his second Oscar nomination. Two years later he had quit the picture, attempting - the matter is still in litigation - to take his name with him and have the director credited as 'Humpty Dumpty'. There followed a blitzkrieg of allegations. The producers dismissed Kaye as 'frenzied and delusional'. He attacks Norton as 'a narcissistic dilettante' who ruthlessly re-edited the film to enhance his own performance.
Mainly, Kaye has refused to shut up- like many a disgruntled Hollywood director in the teeth of outside interference- and exit gracefully. Instead, he has devoted his creative talents to an extraordinary campaign to sabotage American History X, which has sent him round the world from Toronto to Tokyo, inspired 32 full-page advertisements in the press and, he claims, cost him over $1 million. Norton is tight-lipped when I wonder whether American History X was, perhaps, not quite as collaborative as he was claiming. 'You're from Britain, and so you know that Tony Kaye is nothing if not a hype artist,' he ripostes. 'And, at the end of the day, much more interested in hype about Tony Kaye than anything else.'
We met at the Berlin Film Festival. Kaye was, of course, conspicuous by his absence, though he had flown into town the previous weekend to hold a rival press conference on the Brandenburg Gate. 'Edward was pretty funny about it,' recalls David McKenna, the film's plumpish, ingenuous young screenwriter. 'He said, "Here we have a bald guy with a stutter whom no one can understand anyway because he's speaking in English."' But when I ask Norton about Kaye's visit to Berlin, he shrugs, 'I really have no idea.'
His voice takes on an exasperated edge. 'Quite frankly the only unusual thing was how incredibly indulged Tony was. Your standard film is completely cut and mixed in about five months. He took 14, which in my experience is singular for a first-time director in modern Hollywood. Then he asked for, and was given, three more months alone to realise his new vision and he didn't do anything. I could cut a whole film from scratch in three months.'
Lobbying for yet more time, Kaye turned up for a meeting with a rabbi, a priest, a Tibetan monk and a camera crew in tow. 'When you do that,' Norton says, 'you pretty much invalidate your claims to artistic oppression.' McKenna describes the course of the dispute in tones of infinite sadness. 'Imagine this friend with whom you have a great relationship though the whole shooting. And then when it comes to editing he can't find the movie. Tony doesn't understand how to build drama and characters. He used to images. The first cut he did was 91 minutes. The thing was a skeleton. Do you let you friend keep making a mess? Or do you try and help him?' Norton and the studio helped Kaye by preparing a new cut - the version eventually released - which runs nearly two hours. It did not meet with his approval. At one point the director punched a wall so hard he was hospitalised with a broken hand. Then the vendetta began.
I try to contact Kaye, a long process which gives me an inkling of the studio's frustration. First he was thought to be on location in the Far East but then he surfaced in Venezuela. There was a brief chance to reach him in Los Angeles, after which he would be in New York, Paris, or possibly Helsinki. My deadline was expiring almost as fast as my patience when he called me from Canada. Our two-hour conversation is a curious mix of sober analysis and sabre-rattling rhetoric. Kaye explains that he felt the film needed a stronger black character and a broader perspective that would explain the hero's Damascene conversion. But, he says, 'Edward convinced himself that every scene, every word should be about him. He was always going to be the jewel in the crown. But his manic focus on lengthening his own part eventually decreased the integrity of the picture. My reaction is unprecedented. I've taken the train set and thrown it in the air. No one violates my creativity without paying the price in blood. I'm very big on revenge. They will fall one at a time.'
He confirms the story about the rabbi, the priest and the monk. 'I thought it would lighten the situation.' And what a scene: the 'supposedly lunatic director' with his holy men, chosen so that everyone, whatever his creed, would have a guru to identify with! 'It was a fabulous moment. I have been creating myself as a character for years and years.' One day, Kaye adds, someone will make a film about him. Hype about Tony Kaye? By all means! But, the director says, if he had made the film he wanted, he would be channelling all his energies to hyping it.
Norton got his second Academy Award nomination. By the time you read his, he may even have his Oscar. Asked how he feels, the actor smiles his boyish, self-deprecating smile and gives the standard rap. 'It was totally unexpected. The critics' prizes can be pretty flaky but this is voted for by other actors so it's more of a complement. On a tangible level, for a small film like this, it might encourage people to check it out. I'm incredibly thrilled about the people I work with. The rest is pretty much hot air.'
He has just made another film, The Fight Club, with Brad Pitt and David Fincher, the director of Seven. And undeterred by his recent experiences, he is poised to direct his own movie, Keeping the Faith, a romantic comedy about a priest and a rabbi (though not a Tibetan monk) in love with the same girl. And Kaye? 'He feels very bitter and betrayed," McKenna believes. 'I'm sure that Edward getting nominated was a dagger through his heart. It's not about protesting the movie anymore. It's about Tony Kaye against the system. He could have been involved with a pretty damn good movie. Instead, I'd be surprised if he works again.'
The story of a man who destroys himself through his own anger? Kaye says his robust crusade will simply have the beneficial effect of warning off the faint-hearted. 'I want to be the greatest director of all time, that has ever lived. To do that it is important for me to frighten 98 per cent of Hollywood away. There is only a small amount of cream in any bottle of milk. Edward and David are two ver talented but very young men who will realise in the fullness of time that they do not have a masterpiece on their hands. They won't work with a director like me again, ever.' That last point is probably the only one in the affair on which there is no argument.
American History X opens on Friday (UK release date)
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