By Ray Pride
Tony Kaye spent seventeen or so years shooting and editing “Lake of Fire,” a resolute attempt to listen to perspectives on abortion in this country. During the extended production, many things happened, including several national elections and the killing of doctors who performed the procedure. The English-born director, 55, began as a maker of commercials, and is perhaps best known for his sustained battles over the post-production of “American History X” with its producers and star Edward Norton in 1998. But the elegantly constructed, complex, wrenching, unnerving, unflinching “Lake of Fire” is an entirely different beast, as unruly as the controversies that have continued from the streets and into courtrooms today. Two-and-a-half hours long, and perhaps, still subject to revision, it’s bold, even important work. There are explicit scenes that should unsettle anyone, wherever their beliefs might fall.
In a sense, “Lake of Fire” is one of the most “American” films I’ve seen in some time. One reason is the effort to make a balanced film that might discomfit any viewer, an approach that’s about finding the seeds of political intolerance and antagonism. “Well, y’know, it’s great what you say, actually,” Kaye says with his pronounced stammer. “Because when I came to America in 1990, I began making ‘Lake of Fire’ shortly afterwards. I came here to make American films. That was my plan. It’s always seemed to be that people on film should have an American accent.” Kaye laughs. “I don’t know why that is, why that is with me, but that’s the way I feel. I’ve always thought people on a stage ought to have an English accent, y’know! So I’m happy you think that it is an American film. ”
One of the fascinations of the film is the American-ness of the ideals I grew up with, where you try to listen to both sides. That you can have a pitched discussion, or debate, with someone, but not descend into the current vogue of television shouting heads. There’s an avoidance of the core, of the central facts behind issues. “Well, my plan and concept was to make an unbiased, non-propagandistic film about the issue, that curiously, in a journalistic way, explored what, what, what the word and what the issue and what it was, what abortion is. That’s the plan of the film. It wasn’t to present my own point of view or my own take, that’s not what I was trying to do, and, um, it-it-it, um, about the only thing that happens in the film is that a few abortions take place. Nothing else actually happens. The rest of it is talked about. And, um, I mean, that was my goal. That was the plan. It’s very difficult to make a film like that, it’s one of the reasons it’s taken long as it has. I was very un-unsure about it at certain times, and I’d keep on going, and I didn’t really know what I was doing at other times. It wasn’t my [intention] to do a film about an issue… sorry, about an incident or a person. Because that kind of stuff has walls. An issue, if you have a point of view you’re trying to make, it’s very difficult to make a film where you’re not presenting your own views.”
Kaye was his own cameraman and interviewer as well. “When I interview, I never really have an agenda. I’m not really trying to get anything [specific]. I just turn up and see what they have to say and I mumble words now and again if something intrigues me about what they’ve said, or I mumble the odd word to get them moving on about something else and the camera just rolls, and that’s it really.”
As someone whose childhood stammer recurs in certain situations that include while conducting interviews, I wondered how that affected his approach. “Yeah. I mean, yeah. I don’t know if I… I have a lot of it, actually. It’s just at times I do, and times I don’t. That doesn’t seem to get in the way as an interviewer, because I don’t really say much. So, um… I mean, it’s been advantageous in the sense, I guess I had to find a way to c-, c-, communicate to people other than with sp-, speech. Because at one point, it was very bad. Up until the point that I was about 26, I could barely even talk, y-y’know?”
“Lake of Fire” plays mostly in 35mm black-and-white close-ups. I observe that the human face isn’t just Ingmar Bergman’s playground. “Ingmar Bergman and Sven Nykvist are huge inspirations for me, and um… huge. The, the human face I find the most interesting, visually interesting thing on the planet. Without a doubt. And, and so therefore whenever I’m doing any shot of anybody doing anything, I’ll always go in for an extreme close-up shot. You know what I mean? Blocking from just above the chin to just above the eyes, y’know. And, and, and, looking into the eyes is most important to me, that is what I believe, y’know, what my kind of filmmaking is about.”
“Lake Of Fire” opens Friday for a week at Siskel.