By night, the approach to downtown from the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport has a ghostly, disembodied tenor. Two years on from Katrina, there remain many hollowed-out buildings in various states of rehabilitation, and my taxicab driver tells me that in the aftermath of the storm, he had to relocate his own family to Texas, where they still remain. The next afternoon, as I down a roast-beef po-boy amid the lunchtime bustle at the legendary Mother’s restaurant on Poydras Street, the Weather Channel plays not so innocuously on a television, broadcasting news of the 2007 hurricane season’s latest storm, this one tracking toward Mexico, though the wait staff seems less certain. Nearby, the director Tony Kaye is wrapping principal photography on his latest film, Black Water Transit, an ensemble thriller starring Laurence Fishburne t hat is based on Carsten Stroud’s mystery novel. But when Kaye and I settle down to talk later that 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 which 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 that ensued 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 the pages of 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 documentary about a series of acting classes taught by Marlon Brando reportedly fell apart over Kaye’s decision to show 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 in tow, 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 and provocative and heartfelt and probably as close as any ?movie on an issue this vast and irresolute can come to being an exhaustive survey.
Canvassing the U.S. from Sioux Falls 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 here, from Planned Parenthood advocates to the hard-line Christian fundamentalist Randall Terry, 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 considered 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 herself.
“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.”
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When Kaye began making Lake of Fire in the early ’90s, friends tried to dissuade him from continuing with the project. By having failed to be in Buffalo to film the riots spawned by the militantly pro-life Operation Rescue’s 1993 protest march, they told him, he’d already missed the boat. Yet Kaye persevered, financing the film with his own money. For Kaye, then newly arrived from London, abortion seemed the most divisive — and defining — political issue in America, before hurricanes and wars momentarily displaced it. 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. I think all religions are incredible things, actually. These texts are put together by interesting people who sit around for massive periods of time conceiving of these structures, and there’s lots of interesting stuff in there. If you choose to turn yourself off to it, then, in a way, you’re losing out on a lot, because there’s a synchronicity to the way that the world works, and not to be interested in that is, in a way, doing yourself an injustice. On the other hand, to be fanatical about any of it is also insane.”
On the subject of his decade in the moviemaking wilderness, Kaye is forthright and even contrite. He says he behaved badly and that he was ill-prepared for the responsibilities of being a Hollywood director. Now, though, he’s made amends with New Line — for which 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.
“It’s all about being reactive,” says Kaye. “If you’re reactive, you’re going to have a difficult life whatever you do, wherever you live. If you’re proactive, it’s not going to be hard. The thing about Hollywood 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 kids 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. You have to be there, you have to be respected, you have to earn your membership card, and you have to renew it every six months.”