Tony Kaye is preparing for another comeback. Almost 20 years after his angry debut, “American History X,” the notoriously difficult British-born filmmaker, 63, is making headway on an ambitious, self-financed movie called “Stranger Than the Wheel.”
Studios may have written him off years ago as a flustered 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 like Kaye, we don’t hear from him nearly enough. That’s about to change, and while his characteristic brashness is still evident, he says he has learned a bit of restraint.
“We’ve all got demons inside of us,” he tells me from his home in Los Angeles. “I’ve gotten rid of mine — or got them under control.”
Kaye’s reputation was made with “American History X.” Reviews of the skinhead drama were good, but his clashes with the studio and star Edward Norton dominated headlines. It took nearly a decade to complete his next feature, the acclaimed abortion documentary “Lake of Fire.” His third effort, “Blackwater Transit,” fell apart when production company THINKfilm collapsed into bankruptcy.
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Then came the 2011 Adrien Brody vehicle “Detachment,” which was marred by mixed reviews and more disagreements with financiers.
“Listen, Tony is a visionary,” says Kaye’s producer, Raymond Makrovich. “You either understand that and accept him for that, or you shouldn’t be dealing with him.”
Kaye has delivered achingly real portraits of America’s fractured communities, from the aggressive racists of his debut film to the feuding radicals on both sides of the abortion debate in “Lake of Fire” and the furious teachers struggling to fix the broken public-school system in “Detachment.” His new film is set to arrive in the wake of an election steeped in a uniquely American kind of outrage — even when he’s not telling overtly political stories, Kaye’s filmmaking speaks to the zeitgeist.
“There are some people who don’t really fit into the Hollywood structure,” says Piers Handling, CEO and director of the Toronto International Film Festival, who met Kaye nearly 20 years ago. “Tony’s one of those guys. He’s a renegade, an outsider — not unlike Orson Welles.”
“Stranger Than the Wheel,” written by Joe Vinciguerra, 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 says. Even if the director hadn’t lost his father recently, he would identify with the character’s alienated state.
Last fall, Kaye announced on Facebook that Shia Labeouf was attached to star as the young lead in “Stranger Than the Wheel,” the fancifully named Faunce Bartelby. Labeouf has since left the project, replaced by Evan Ross (“The Hunger Games”).
Kaye has been shooting test footage, and production is expected to get underway later this summer. Kaye’s goal is to get the picture finished in time for the fall festival circuit. Impossible? Maybe not for someone so committed to making movies exactly the way he wants.
“I’ve got something marvelous here,” he tells me of his new project. “Don’t worry: I want it to be a hit.”