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Tony Kaye In Conversation

For Breach Magazine, Issue One

Published March 2024

Edited Story at

It was May of 2019 when one afternoon, winding up the hill where I live in Los Angeles, I came across a wandering man unlike anyone I’d ever seen. He had a warlockean beard, round spectacles, a chock-full satchel, and most notably, he was strumming a guitar as he strolled. I slowed to a roll, watching him closely as he made his way down the road toward me. Where did this man come from? Did he sleep under the freeway overpass down below, or in the decadent architectural behemoth looming above us? Were his layers of black clothing a hodgepodge of found garments, or a bespoke Yohji Yamamoto ensemble? I spotted him regularly, and his presence on the hill became such a fixture in my routine that on the days he went unseen, it felt like a bad omen.  


After several months of bewilderment, I was driving with my mother in the passenger seat when we rounded a corner and there he was, as per usual. “Oh look, there’s Tony.” she said, gesturing at him. I looked at her, equal parts amused and confused by the casualness of it all – as if she’d pointed out her best friend or the postman. 

“...Tony?!” I exclaimed, eyes wide and laughing.

He was Tony Kaye. 

The enigmatic director and artist who infamously directed American History X, and then denied his involvement with the film in a slew of public denouncements –  including a 200 million dollar lawsuit, and 35 full page advertisements in The Hollywood Trade press. 

Following a happenstance meeting after the film’s release, Tony had offered my mother a job as his assistant. During the interview, Tony’s team emphasized that her primary responsibility would be preventing him from successfully continuing to purchase these ad spaces. 

Tony was not present for the interview, and my mother did not end up taking the job. 


It was late July when I went to meet Tony in London, where he’s been editing The Trainer. The film will be his first feature in more than a decade, as well as the motion picture debut of art dealer Vito Schnabel. Over the course of several days, walks, meals, and rides, I finally got to know my neighbor as I asked about his past, his present, and his visions for the future. 


It was nearly midnight when I arrived at the hotel that Tony has made his London base, and hadn’t yet reached my room when I received a text –  “We’ll meet downstairs at 6:30 a.m. tomorrow morning. Sleep well H.” 

Mere hours later in a jetlagged haze, I sat facing Tony at a small table in the middle of a fluorescently lit breakfast hall – redeyers quietly milling around the buffet, the sounds of pouring coffee, knives across toast, and pencils on crosswords creating a somewhat charming din amid the drab setting. 

My neighbor and I became acquainted in silence – both of us observing one another properly for the first time. He scribbled away at a drawing, occasionally peering up at me from behind his glasses. I stirred honey into tea, sliced an apple, and thought about what I’d ask him, when I’d ask him, and the chain of events that led us both to where we were in that moment, together. And, of course, I laughed to myself at what the pair of us looked like to any outside observer. Things continued like this throughout the day. We walked the streets of Kensington, and rode buses and tubes across town to Tony’s various appointments and regular haunts. 

With a degree of kismet on par with the invisible thread stitching our pasts, a sense of genuine familiarity and kinship established itself between us in those first several hours that bemuses me to this day. 

By the time we sat for dinner, facing each other again, we were somehow anything but strangers. 

Over carrot soup and sourdough I told Tony my story – and with disarming earnestness, he told me his. 

“I took on the system with American History X... A lot of people have seen and continue to see it, and as proud as I am of everyone’s contribution to that movie, I have always felt that my own work within it was never finished... that it was taken from my hands and released prematurely. When they released what I felt was an unfinished film, I couldn’t handle having my name attached to it. I went on this angry rampage saying that Edward Norton had recut the movie, which wasn’t true. I feel bad about that now. Edward gave a brilliant performance — he bulked up tremendously, and followed my instructions, and was fantastic on set. Anyways, all of my public bleating after the film’s release cost me my career. The truth is, I wanted to self-destruct. I wanted to burn all of my conduits to any form of normality. I had taken on the system, and I wanted to completely go against it. But wanting it was one thing... achieving it turned out to be completely shocking to me. I thought my rebellion would be a short diversion, and that I’d be able to get back on track with ease — but that has not turned out to be the case. At this moment I am course correcting, I am steering my ship back around. My reactivity and lack of skill in managing it had reared its ugly head, and consequently tainted the expression of my message for some time... which is ultimately meant to be one of love, not anger. I am working on expressing that with the clarity that it deserves now, through the creation of more art. A documentary that I have been making for about 25 years now, Humpty Dumpty X, addresses a lot of the concerns and feelings I had around the making of American History X. It’s about my process of making it, what I did, and why I did it.

Over the last year I’ve been working in London, finishing a new movie that I made with Vito Schnabel called The Trainer. It’s kind of changed my life really, and his also. Vito has changed my life — he’s taught me all kinds of things in the process of working together and developing him into his character Jack Flex. This character has, in many ways, shown me plainly where my choices have led me.

It’s always been about performance and acting more than anything. I went to America 30 years ago and felt that American people felt better to me on camera than English people, whose gestures are more trained and suited for the stage. I didn’t really want to work with those kinds of actors, I wanted to find a more raw energy – and with The Trainer, a situation presented itself wherein Vito encapsulated exactly that.”

Before our worlds converged I’d seen American History X, but had yet to delve into Tony’s iconic repertoire of music videos and television commercials. There was a 1993 UK Dunlop Tyres commercial that can only be described as a psychedelic fever dream, set to the Velvet Underground’s Venus In Furs. There was the music video for Johnny Cash’s God’s Gonna Cut You Down, his last collaboration with Rick Rubin, a hard hitting black and white tribute to the artist featuring a holy grail rolodex of Patti Smith, Jay Z, Dennis Hopper, Bono, and Iggy Pop, to name just a few. His 2011 feature, Detachment, chronicling a month in the life of a substitute high school teacher played by Adrien Brody, took my breath away – as did his unflinching 2006 documentary, Lake of Fire, about America’s ongoing abortion debate. The more I immersed myself in Tony’s world, the louder and clearer his messaging grew. His work is that of an artist on a crusade – ablaze, urgent, and completely unbridled. As our time together unfolded, I heard about what stoked his fire. 

“Any art that I have made and continue to make now is a vehicle of expression in addressing the social issues that I feel are most important... racism, homelessness, education, aids awareness, tobacco addiction, alcoholism, global warming, and abortion. These issues have always been central to my work as an artist… from long before I was making feature films. In the early nineties I made several conceptual art pieces – one involving a homeless man named Roger who I convinced to sign a contract agreeing to assume the identity of “ARTWORK”, gave him a home, gave him an American Express card, and instructed him to visit museums and learn as much as he could about art. 

Another involving a group of AIDS afflicted people beside vials of infected blood and a sign saying PLEASE TOUCH. The models sat there, all HIV positive, next to enough vials of the virus to wipe out the entire city. We did one showing outside at The Getty Museum with Eileen Getty naked. Thinking back, it was actually unbelievable that those incredible human beings believed in it as much as I did... so much as to help me realize the vision.”

Tony has found his great purpose in brazenly illuminating various regions of society’s sick underbelly. Clearly, he has never been afraid to go there in every capacity – both within the material of his work and, infamously, the way he’s handled it as the maker. At this juncture, while the former remains unwavering, Tony is now a different kind of artist – something he told me about on our final day together as I drove us out of the city to Silbury Hill, a sacred landmark in Avebury. Trying desperately not to kill us both while driving on the other side of the car and road for the first time, I concentrated on Tony’s words and on staying in our lane. 


    “It’s all in the name of my message, that we have no choice but to turn our attention to the things that matter. And art does that best. Honestly, all these things that I did had no singular message. I just had all these desires and mixtures of feelings. I wanted to do anything I could to create change in the world. Looking back, I’ve been part activist, part out of control, part lost soul, and part devotee of rock n’roll. Back then, I had no grand plan. I had no destination, or idea of where I was going. 


There’s one big difference now in terms of my practice, and it’s this. Back then, I was heavily engaged in an expression called hype art. I was trying to use the media to create hype as an art form, and I saw an opportunity in what was going on with American History X to create a conceptual art piece.”


“So your behavior in reaction to the film’s release was all carried out with… intention?” I couldn’t help but ask, relatively surprised given the resulting repercussions. 

“Yes, completely intentional. I was filming myself, my reaction, the entire time with the intention of making Humpty Dumpty X. But I’m not interested in conceptual art anymore. I’m interested in the physical, in what is real. I’m interested in buildings, making paintings and writing songs. For The Trainer, I’m interested in helping to create the best character that I can for the sake of the film. None of it has anything to do with hype or conceptual artistry. And it’s not because I’m in a more peaceful place in my life, I’m just hungrier than I ever was. 

I’m hoping for a big third act of my life. I’m 71 years old, and I’m thinking about how many movies I have left in me. I am actually looking for myself, and an audience, both at the same time. I have all these other ancillary creative interests that have become essential because of how they reconnect me with myself and the world around me in a way that feels genuinely real and physical. When I draw, paint, and write music, I feel profoundly re embodied. Over the last several months I’ve played my songs on the Strummerville Stage at Glastonbury, I’ve played for Ukrainian refugees in Poland, and in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. I play to people on buses, in bars, and in small clubs all over the world. I write songs on canvases, and I make drawings of parts of the songs that I see visually. I think a lot about musicals too, and about wanting to turn Humpty Dumpty X into a documentary musical for the stage. Songwriting has shown itself to be a very meaningful spiritual language for me.”

A Day In The Life, one of Tony’s favorite songs, played through the speakers of our rented Volkswagen as we neared two hours on the road. We’d had our fill of conversations, crackers and coffee, and were cruising sleepily across the bucolic landscape when the hill finally appeared up ahead. I learned of Silbury Hill the year before while watching Werner Herzog’s Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, a documentary about the famed British travel writer who died of AIDS in 1989. And for some inexplicable reason, I knew I needed to see it myself. It is the largest prehistoric man made mound in Europe, estimated to have been completed around 2400 BC, and while its original purpose and significance remain unknown, the site is steeped in folklore and mysticism. Stand at its base, and you feel wholeheartedly that simply being there is just as intentional an act as the hill’s creation. Those who are there have come for a reason, and there we were. 

Our journey had begun on a hill in Los Angeles, and at this one, years and seas away, we were seeing it through. 

Tony stood next to me and we looked up at the archaic monument together. After the right amount of silence, he spoke. 

“Architecture has also become very important to me, as I have been considering my life more and more as a construction of my own making. We are all the builders of our own lives, and I have been building since the day I was born. My goal now is to continue adding to my construction. I want to repair what has crumbled, and build new sanctuaries. Maybe thinking architecturally can save me. You make a building, it has to stand up straight, and it has to stay there. That’s a pure concept I can latch onto.


One of my favorite memories is of my daughter, Betty. One day, when she was small, I told her to design a house for her rabbits, whom she loved dearly. So Betty drew it all out beautifully. It had an upstairs, and a downstairs, and a ramp connecting the two floors. I got a number of construction people to come to our house and meet with Betty. She was about 3 years old. Betty spoke with them, and I remember their wonderful conversation to this day. Betty had made a line drawing, and the construction folks asked her what color she wanted the house to be. Betty said black. Then they said to Betty, “Do you want the ramp to be black also?” Betty said, “No, I want that part very dark brown!” I knew then that Betty would become a wonderful artist. And she has done just that. It’s priceless.

Art is love and we have no choice but to devote ourselves to both, wholly. What I am marching towards is that truth.” 


It was late evening when the sun had disappeared under rolling green, leaving everything chilly and silver. Ambling back to the car through tall grasses, Tony began to mumble quietly about someone named King Sil.

    “Who and what are you talking about?” 

    “The legendary King Sil. He’s buried here. Fable says so.” 

Suddenly a vision of Tony marching across a stage, wielding a scepter and wearing some sort of ridiculous king costume, played in my mind. I looked at him, marveling at my spectacular friend, and asked about something he’d said earlier. 

    “This morning you compared yourself to an actor…” 

    “Yeah, I was like an actor before. The performance is over. Now I’m just myself.”

    “And who’s that, Tony?”

He was quiet until we were back in our car, Silbury Hill shrinking in the rear view as we made our way back to the real world. 

    “Well, that’s for you to decide.” 


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