With Detachment in cinemas, the British director talks candidly about learning from past mistakes and not being drab.
Notorious British director Tony Kaye has become famous for disowning the film that made his name American History X (wanting to credit his name on the film as ‘Humpty Dumpty’), and his pranks such as dressing up as Osama Bin Laden to film meetings, provoking the ire of Hollywood executives. With new film Detachment in cinemas, his first since 2006’s Lake of Fire, and other projects in development, LWLies speaks to a more mellow Kaye about working with Adrien Brody, learning from past mistakes and not being drab.
LWLies: How did you get involved with Detachment? Was it a long process to get it made?
Kaye: Yeah, I read the script about five years before I made it. You know, it’s difficult to make movies now of any kind, particularly more arty ones. So it took a long time and I didn’t really get enough money to make it in a way that I really wanted to. In the end I just did the best with what I had.
What was it like working with Adrien Brody? Was he involved quite heavily from the beginning?
That was fantastic. No, we met the day before the shoot. He was brilliant we made it between the two of us, we ran away with it. His work as an actor-director is I’m sure about as good as it gets. We just got on very well, he was very protective of me when I needed it because I’m not very good in certain political situations, but he’s terrific. And he set the paradigm for the whole thing.
Were the cast all keen to get involved from the beginning?
The way the movie ended up, some of it is a bit embarrassing to have so many of those great actors playing such small roles, it wasn’t initially intended like that. But the movie ended up how it ended up. But I do think that I got however small and fantastic this caricature of this creative teacher played by James Caan, and Lucy Liu was amazing and I would’ve liked to have got more with Bryan Cranston, but I couldn’t it just didn’t work and Marcia Gay Harden, I would’ve liked to have got more. But I was thrilled with Sami Gayle, it was her first movie, and my daughter Betty Kaye. The whole thing was worth doing just to work with Betty really.
Your daughter gives a great, very sensitive performance. Will she be appearing in any more films?
She’s been acting on the stage for her whole life but she’s studying fine art at UCL. A career as an actress is not easy so I think she could do it. It’s up to her really how she organises it. I give her as much help as I can. I mean I didn’t give her the role because she was my daughter but I gave Betty the script pretty much after I read it. And I made a decision that unless she was the best I wasn’t going to give it to her. She was fantastic in the casting and I looked at a lot of other girls, she was just the best.
You’ve commented that the film is not just about the education system, it’s about wider things such as looking for human connection and I also saw it as about a loss of identity and surviving your circumstances. Is it important to you to always emphasise these wider themes in your films ?
I guess I’m a frustrated writer and actor, a mixture [laughs]. And I took the script which was written by Carl Lund, a wonderful script, and who was a teacher. Then I was thrown this other miracle with Adrien whose father was a high-school teacher for took all 30 years. So I took all these words from Carl and Adrien and I went off with them all. But I never for one moment was making a movie about a teacher in a school [laughs]. Although there are some wonderful scenes set in a school that would imply that this is what it might be about. But once you analyse it as a movie about education it’s very shallow, it doesn’t offer anything. I mean don’t even go and see it, if you want to go see a movie about a school and teachers, it’s not that film. It’s not a film that is intellectual at all. What I was making the film about was about how we all have to keep ourselves together in the chaos of our lives, everyone’s life whoever you are and however fortunate you might be. It feels there’s this kind of chaos and a world that is filled with the same thing.
We have to be completely a part of it, yet we have to be detached, which is why the [Albert] Camus quote is at the beginning. And that for me is the same thing with Derek Vinyard in American History X, it’s the same character. I’m very interested n that, in learning how to deal with everything, learning how to get better. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I’ve been fortunate to have got this pretty great job and learn about stuff. My real job, I’m not a writer or actor particularly, I’m not a very visual person actually, but because I am or have been a showman and exhibitionist in my own life I understand kind of what it’s like to act in front of the camera. So when I’m talking to an actor I can explain by doing. If you pointed the camera at me it would of course look ridiculous but I can do mannerisms and suggestions that they seem to understand. And I’ve had a chance in life to be fortunate enough, I mean Marlon Brando took me under his wings like a son, and he talked to me about things. That put me in very good stead. And I never thought that the kind of director that I was going to be would be this type. I thought I was going to be some sort of, I’ve worked with commercials and music videos, and it was probably going to be more of this kind of visual stuff. But that’s not really where I’ve ended up, I’m completely obsessed with actors and acting and helping them to get blood out of a stone.
It’s a lot about Adrien’s performance, which some critics are calling his best since The Pianist.
I was honestly shocked at how good he actually was. We had one cast and then we lost one cast and then we threw another cast together and did it. So Adrien and I working together was really very accidental, although I was happy to work with him. And I always thought he was a good actor but I never dreamt that he was as good as he actually turned out to be.
How much of the film was Carl Lund’s script and how much of it was your invention for example the animation?
It was always impressionistic, Carl wrote a very impressionistic text that was probably more impressionistic actually. I might’ve made it less impressionistic. I mean when Carl started writing it I don’t even think Henry Barthes was the main character. It kind of just got bigger and bigger, and then I got Adrien to work with and then Adrien sort of became Carl. Yeah, it strayed a long way from the script, but in essence it is exactly what the script is, it says what the script says I didn’t change the sort if deeper voice in it. But I just focused it more about the character of Henry.
You’ve talked about the use of multi-media in Detachment as making it like a war film, could you elaborate?
Yeah, there was less of that actually by the time I’d finished then what I set out to do. But certainly when I started shooting I saw it as a war movie in a school where things are happening one thing after another, it was like an onslaught. I think that fell away a little bit by the time I got to the end. I know it seems quite impressionistic in comparison with the other films, but it became more of a lion in the end which was hard to tame.
Has your experience of making music videos and commercials informed the way you make films?
When you’ve made so many commercials as I have, I worked it out a little while ago that I shot over 8,000 days. There’s going to be a DNA from that but it kind of annoys me when I read ‘Oh, it’s like a music video because he was a music video director.’ Because it’s just modernistic filmmaking; I don’t think things have to be made in a very drab, by-the-numbers-camera in that position-lens-over-there, constant-recycling, don’t-cut-away-from-anything, over-the-shoulder close-up way. It doesn’t have to be like that, it’s got nothing to do with music videos or commercials. You know crazy films have been made by people who haven’t been within a 1000 miles of a music video or commercial set. But you know there is an element of me in anyone whose made those things, that once you get the luxury of getting so much money, in those days not nowadays, for the fabrication of a few seconds you do think in a slightly different way.
You make quite provocative films with social issues and commentary on American society, would you say these are the films you’re particularly drawn to making?
Yeah, I mean I’ve done one about racism in America, and one about abortion issues in America. This one is set against the background of education. I am in love with the country, I’m a bit stopped as to where it is right now. It’s not where I came to in 1990, it’s not that place anymore. Maybe it’s just that I’m at home here now, I’m riveted… I mean I should come back to London to make a new film I hope to do that. I am trying to make a movie in England now actually. But I grew up in London watching television on an old Bakelite TV set and I went to the cinema, and it was America that’s all it was, all the TV shows were set in America. It was a long time before Coronation Street appeared [laughs]. I was mesmerised as a kid by the place and the actors.
You disowned American History X, how do you feel about that film now, and what did you take from that difficult period?
I had a passion and a vision and I wanted it to be exactly like I wanted it and I didn’t get it right, I didn’t play it right. I could’ve got exactly what I wanted but I played it wrong. I learnt a lot, it’s good that I didn’t succeed at that point in the manner of my being that I was.
What’s happening with films like Lobby Lobster and Black Water Transit that haven’t been released yet?
I haven’t finished Black Water Transit yet, it’s very simple, the company [Capitol Films] that was financing it stretched themselves a little too thinly. Taylor Hackford, David O Russell and me have all got films with them that we haven’t finished yet. Lobby Lobster is a personal project that I’ve been working on for 15 years it’s an experimental film that’s a long way from being finished. I’ve got hours of cut film and a script that’s about 400 pages long. It just really is going to take me years to get somewhere with that. But these things are all going to appear at some point.