Kaye lights fuse then lets 'Fire' burn gray


Back in 1998, when he battled New Line Cinema and star Edward Norton over the final cut of "American History X," director Tony Kaye earned a reputation as something of a hothead, a metaphoric bomb-thrower who wasn't afraid to challenge the Hollywood establishment.

Now that Kaye is about to release his latest film, a 2 1/2-hour documentary about abortion called "Lake of Fire," filmgoers might expect the director to offer up a fiery polemic. Instead, the film, which ThinkFilm is releasing Oct. 3 in New York and Oct. 12 in Los Angeles, is something else entirely.

Eschewing narration, Kaye sublimates his own voice. Instead, "Fire," which covers the passionate battles waged in the U.S. during the past 15 years between pro-life and pro-choice forces, allows the various antagonists to speak for themselves.

Early in the film, Kaye presents an abortion procedure, complete with the remains of a fetus. Although the material is presented clinically, it's the type of imagery that pro-lifers use to support their contention that abortion is murder. But that scene is countered much later in the film by a sequence in which a woman named Stacey, an abuse survivor who is just beginning to get her life back on track, seeks out an abortion, secure in her conviction that she is not ready to bring a child into the world.

"The film opens as a pro-life film," Kaye concedes. That early footage of an actual abortion "sets up an interesting bar as to how you come back from that, but I think the film does. In the end, you are in a gray area, really. There is a woman who has an abortion, and it's obviously the right choice for her, but there's also a sense of loss as well. It's ironic."

The filmmaker didn't set out to become the arbiter of this debate -- or even to prove himself as a documentary filmmaker.

The London-born Kaye, who made a name for himself directing commercials, moved to Los Angeles in 1990 eager to embrace Hollywood. Searching for a subject that he could turn into a narrative film, "My naivete," he says, "led me to this issue of abortion as a worthy endeavor." But Kaye couldn't find the right story to tell, so he stumbled into shooting a non-narrative film.

One key decision he made early on was to film in 35mm black and white. In part, it was an aesthetic decision. "I thought it would even everything out, and it is much easier to create a good image with black and white than with color," he says. But it also took on a thematic meaning, for as the director explains, the film isn't "entirely pro-choice or pro-life. There are lots of gray (areas) in there."

The fact that Kaye wasn't rushing to meet a self-imposed deadline on the self-financed project meant that the film could trace the whole arc that the abortion battle took in the '90s -- climaxing in the bombings of clinics and the murder of health care workers.

Although Kaye offers up his material dispassionately, he admits that the passions he captured appealed to him as an Englishman who comes from a country where similar debates, as he views it, are muted to the point of nonexistence.

"There was unquestionably a civil war undertone in the middle of the Clinton years that I caught," he says. "Thank God, it didn't become a flat-out war. But I am a fan of everything about America. The fact that the issue is debated with such fervor here almost decides the national consciousness at any given times. Being an Englishman, I love the way America deals with stuff like that because English people, they don't really care too much about anything. They don't discuss things, not critically."