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Tony Kaye-DP-Lake of Fire

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By Jack Egan
There couldn’t be two more different approaches to making a documentary than Lake of Fire, by renegade English director Tony Kaye, and Michael Moore’s Sicko.
Where Moore’s film about the deficiencies of America’s health-care system makes no bones about its special pleading for universal coverage, Kaye’s doc dispassionately dives into the topic of abortion in America. He examines it from all angles, without feeling the need to reach a conclusion.
Seventeen years in the making, the film — shot in 35mm Kodak black-and-white stock — runs 2 1/2 hours. It finally hits theaters in New York and Los Angeles in early October, followed by a national rollout. ThinkFilm, which handles boutique movies, is the distributor.
The documentary’s examination of the divisive abortion issue hardly seems like a crowd pleaser. The film packs a punch. It doesn’t flinch from showing a destroyed and mutilated four-month-old fetus on the one hand and the wild-eyed fanaticism of those who have bombed clinics and killed doctors. But Kaye’s courageous approach in giving both sides their due, and the film’s intellectual integrity, won audience and critic plaudits at the recent Toronto Film Festival. There’s a tension and drama to the documentary’s unfolding, with the final sequence devoted to a young girl who is torn about having an abortion but still goes ahead with the procedure.
In its approach, Lake of Fire is reminiscent of the acclaimed documentaries of Frederick Wiseman, who first became famous for Titicut Follies, about the inmates of a Massachusetts mental institution, and went on to do other in-depth examinations of single subjects in documentaries like High School and Primate. “Wiseman has been a big influence on me,” says Kaye. Other documentarians whose films he has watched and learned from include those of Humphrey Jennings, Albert Maysles, Errol Morris and, yes, Michael Moore.
Besides directing, Kaye is also the cinematographer on Lake of Fire. Almost the entire film was shot by Kaye himself, with only a few interpolations of news footage. He used an Arriflex 435 and a Sony HD camera.
Serving as his own cameraman made it easier for Kaye to go to a key event or gathering. “I filmed whenever I could,” he says, “whenever something happened.” Kaye is his own director of photography on all of his films, including his last theatrical feature, American History X, made a decade ago.
As a cinematographer, he is self-taught, having picked up the skill as a prolific maker of commercials in England. “Where else do you get a chance to shoot 100,000 feet for a 60-second spot?” he asks. Kaye has also done many music videos for groups like the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Kaye rejects being called a documentarian. “I make movies meant to be shown on a big screen.” As cinematographer he took a number of steps to make the abortion documentary more cinematic. Faced with the challenge of shooting a lot of talking heads, which visually is usually pretty boring, he frequently resorted to extremely tight close-ups of interviewees’ faces.
“I love watching people talk and the human face is to me a very interesting thing. The tight shots show their eyes more as they speak, and eyes reveal the personality and where the truth lies,” he says.
Kaye decided 35mm black and white would provide an overall aesthetic for Lake of Fire. The choice also turned out to fit the subject matter. “Documentaries are usually multiformatted, made of many film and video stocks, shot in color, black and white, photographs, drawings, archival material. So I got scared,” he says. When Kaye, working with editor Peter Goddard, began cutting, his initial instincts were affirmed.
“I began editing and I saw that the black and white made it elegant,” he says, adding that “the point I was making was that, morally, this film portrays black tones and white tones, but there are mostly gray tones.” The look underlined the idea that within the extremes of the abortion debate, “most positions are shades of gray.”
The editing process went on periodically during the years of making Lake of Fire. Kaye says he has no idea how many feet of film he shot. He graded the finished film in a Grass Valley Spirit Telecine for his high-def master.
Kaye paid the entire tab for the film. He estimates it cost him between $6 million and $7 million. At one point it pushed him into bankruptcy.
“Self-financed work is hard,” he says. “On this, it was real hard, with millions spent over 17 years. I finally went broke, and the courts took the movie away. I kept shooting though, optimistically hoping I’d get it back, and I did, though I’m still paying for it.” Kaye, in fact, continues to work on Fire, referring to it as “a work in progress,” which he hopes will be seen in a fuller future version, perhaps on television.
American History X has been the director’s most notable and controversial credit. A cult favorite, it starred Edward Norton, who was nominated for a best actor Oscar on his portrayal of a Nazi skinhead who tries to reintegrate with society after leaving jail. Norton added 18 minutes of footage to Kaye’s cut, which enraged the director. It ended in a bitter contretemps between New Line and Kaye that earned him a reputation as a bomb-throwing troublemaker. At one point, Kaye asked New Line to change his screenwriter credit to Humpty Dumpty. When New Line refused, Kaye sued the studio for $200 million. There was never a settlement.
Ironically, Kaye is in the process of finishing another long-term project which is called Humpty Dumpty. It details the aftermath of making American History X, and amazingly, New Line has agreed to release it. Most likely it will be packed as an extra when the 10th anniversary edition of X gets put out on DVD.
Kaye isn’t deterred about pursuing more passion projects. Long in the works is Lobby Lobster, which he describes as a tragic comedy about the falling outs in a family. And he recently finished filming Black Water Transit in New Orleans. It deals with a group of people three months after Hurricane Katrina struck. And he continues to film more material for a future version of Lake of Fire.

Written by Jack Egan

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