It’s been 15 years since the release of "American History X" (on October 30, 1998), and to this day, the movie stands as a riveting and brutal drama about the persistence of white-supremacist racism in America. It cemented Edward Norton‘s reputation as the premier Method actor of his generation, and it included at least one scene (the infamous curb-stomp sequence) that’s been copied by everyone from "The Sopranos" to "Family Guy."
Yet to this day, many viewers still don’t know the often even more dramatic story that went on behind the scenes of the film, in which first-time feature director Tony Kaye fought with Norton and distributor New Line over the final cut of the film. He ultimately filed a $200 million lawsuit because he preferred to be credited as Humpty Dumpty rather than allow the studio’s cut to be released under his name. Read on to learn more about Kaye’s epic and absurd battles to preserve his vision (and how they led to Kaye’s epic sabotage of his own career), as well as the rest of the off-camera drama behind "American History X."
1. Kaye was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family in London. He made his fame as a director of commercials (consciously following in the footsteps of British admen-turned-filmmakers Alan Parker and Ridley Scott) and music videos, including such memorable clips as Soul Asylum‘s "Runaway Train."
2. David McKenna made his debut as a screenwriter with "American History X."
3. Joaquin Phoenix was reportedly offered the role of Derek Vinyard but declined because he found the material repugnant.
4. Edward Norton was not Kaye’s first choice to play Derek. "Edward is a fantastic actor. I think he’s technically brilliant, but he doesn’t have that physicality and that anarchic emotion that was required for ‘American History X,’" Kaye said in a 1998 interview with Kamera.co.uk. Still, Kaye said, New Line gave him several weeks to find someone better, and he couldn’t.
5. There was one plus to hiring Norton, Kaye thought at the time. "One advantage of having Edward was that we had a shared vision of how to improve the script," Kaye told the Guardian in 2002. "In casting him I was really buying another writer."
6. Although "American History X" marked Kaye’s feature film debut, he considered himself a veteran filmmaker already because of his work in commercials and videos. A decade earlier, he was already billing himself as "the greatest English director since Hitchcock."
7. Kaye’s initial edit of the film drew notes from New Line on how he might improve it. He spent a year recutting the film. "In that time, I found a whole new film, one that they never allowed me to finish," he told the Guardian.
8. New Line found the second cut even more unacceptable. At that point, film editor Jerry Greenberg and Norton worked on a third cut. "I was so staggered by what [Norton] was doing to my film, and by the fact that New Line approved, that I punched the wall and broke my hand," Kaye told the Guardian.
9. Norton wasn’t the only star with whom Kaye had strained relations. He also had difficulty with Edward Furlong (the "Terminator 2" actor, who played Danny, the younger brother whom Derek tries to keep from following in his own racist footsteps). During post-production, while he was on the phone with Furlong’s management, he stomped on a VHS cassette of the studio edit of the movie and tried to flush the pieces down the toilet.
10. Kaye took out a series of nearly 40 full-page ads in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter criticizing New Line and defending his cut. He would quote John Lennon and Shakespeare. In response, New Line took out at least one ad, quoting Dr. Seuss.
11. At one point, relations between Kaye and New Line became so tense that he tried to improve the karma by bringing a rabbi, a priest, and a Tibetan Buddhist monk with him to a meeting with New Line executives.
12. Kaye tried to have his name removed from the credits, using instead the name "Alan Smithee," the official pseudonym used by Hollywood directors who disown their films. The Directors Guild of America wouldn’t let him, however, since the Smithee credit comes with an agreement not to criticize the film or to explain why the filmmaker wanted to disavow the project.
13. To Kaye, that seemed like prior restraint of his First Amendment right to free speech. So instead of "Alan Smithee," he tried to get the film credited to "Humpty Dumpty." When New Line refused, he sued the studio for $200 million.
14. During his battles against the DGA and New Line, Kaye befriended fellow Hollywood iconoclast Marlon Brando. He did this by announcing that he’d acquired the rights to "One Arm," a previously unpublished Tennessee Williams screenplay and publicly offering a role to Brando (who, of course, had become famous by starring in Williams’ "A Streetcar Named Desire").
15. Brando and Kaye met at Brando’s home in Hollywood. Out of mutual wariness, each brought a video camera to record their conversation. Kaye told Brando of his Humpty Dumpty strategy, noting that the Directors Guild was forcing him to use his real name. Therefore, he concluded, he was planning to legally change his name to Humpty Dumpty. "You’re going to officially change your name to Humpty Dumpty?" said Brando, laughing. "That’s damned good!"
16. New Line ultimately prevailed and released the Norton cut of the film, which is actually about 20 minutes longer than Kaye’s cut. Kaye accused Norton of adding extra footage to give himself more screen time.
17. According to at least one count, the film as released includes 205 uses of the F-word, or about one use every 35 seconds.
18. The movie cost a reported $20 million to make. It earned back just $6.7 million in North American ticket sales, but it earned another $17.2 million overseas.
19. Before the film’s release, Kaye predicted that Norton would be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. He was right. In fact, Norton’s nod was the film’s only Academy Award nomination. He lost to Roberto Benigni for "Life Is Beautiful."
20. Having burned most of his bridges in Hollywood, Kaye found work when his pal Brando hired him to direct "Lying for a Living," a series of seminars starring the legendary actor in which he’d teach viewers how to use the techniques of acting to negotiate everyday real-life situations. But Kaye showed up for work the first day dressed as Osama bin Laden — this was in November 2001, just weeks after 9/11 — a gag that everyone present found more appalling than funny. Kaye was soon off the project.
21. Kaye chronicled much of his off-camera battle over "American History X" on video. He planned to compile it all into a movie to be called "Humpty Dumpty," a warts-and-all portrait of his own extreme behavior in his struggles against the studio and the Directors Guild. "When I watch that video and hear some of the s–t I was uttering, I want to blow myself away," Kaye told the Guardian in 2002.
22. In 2007, Kaye told the Telegraph that New Line had agreed to include "Humpty Dumpty" as an extra on future home videos of "American History X." The 2009 Blu-ray edition, however, contains the same extras as the earlier DVD — that is, three deleted scenes amounting to about seven extra minutes. No "Humpty Dumpty."
23. McKenna went on to write another movie about high-school violence, 2001’s "Bully," but he ultimately chose not to put his real name on the release; he’s credited instead as "Zachary Long."
24. In 2008, Norton starred in the reboot "The Incredible Hulk." He famously rewrote Zak Penn’s screenplay, took part in the editing process, and disputed with Universal over the length of the release cut (though he had director Louis Leterrier on his side). Universal ultimately released a version 23 minutes shorter than the edit Norton and Leterrier wanted.
25. Kaye has managed to complete and release two other features since "American History X." The even-handed abortion documentary "Lake of Fire," which took Kaye nearly two decades to complete, earned a limited theatrical release in 2006. While his crime drama "Black Water Transit" went unreleased after the production company ran out of money, his 2011 feature "Detachment" (a drama that, like "American History X," was set in a public high school) saw a limited release in America before opening a year later in Europe. "I like to think I’m going to be more successful in the future — and have the things I could have had if I’d contained my passion better than I did with ‘American History X,’" he told the Guardian last year. "Now I’ve learned. Now I hope I’m having a moment."