spent over fifteen years shooting and editing Lake of Fire, a
concerted effort to listen to perspectives on abortion in this country.
During the extended production, many shifts occurred, including 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 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.
Kaye and I spoke
last week before the film's New York and Los Angeles opening. We talked
about what makes a film "American," the choice of black-and-white
and the use of close-ups of the human face, documentary predecessors,
and how his way of speaking has influenced the way he works. I'd forgotten
about Kaye's pronounced stammer until we started to speak; for personal
reasons that will become clear, I've left a small amount of it in the
having a press day, but have you been talking about the film for hours
been talking about it for a bit. But I've been talking about it, thinking
about it for many, many years, so it's not something that's going against
the grain, y'know.
have to call this one of the most "American" films I've seen
in some time, in several senses. One reason is the effort to make a
balanced film that might discomfit any viewer, an approach that's about
the seeds of political intolerance and antagonism. That's the idealistic
version. But It isn't just abortion, but there are dozens of subjects
people are yelling at each other about in this country today instead
of being temperate, considering the other side. Is this film that showed
you a different country than you thought you knew? A lot of things shifted
in that crazy 15-year time.
y'know, it's great what you say, actually, because when I came to America
in 1990, I began making Lake of Fire shortly afterwards. I came
here because to make American films. That was my plan. I, I, I was and
will be, y'know, I am a fan of American films. It's always seemed to
be that people on film should have an American accent. [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.
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, 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 tat you 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 done. 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's you're
not to presenting your own views.
this was entirely self-financed?
Yeah. Yeah. The kind of thing I was making here there would have been
nobody, nobody would've financed this. This is an entirely an act of
just a desire to do good, to try and do good work, y'know.
glad there's someone out there in distribution like Mark Urman
and ThinkFILM, but I can see that, financing just being impossible,
this being the worst possible pitch on earth.
Mark and ThinkFILM are doing a fantastic job. It really was a terribly
difficult thing. AndPiers Handling of the Toronto Film Festival
kindly, kindly accepted it. It was very difficult to get this film shown
at any festival or to get anyone interested in releasing it. Very, very,
were your interviewer this entire time, I'd guess. Do you have a certain
style? Errol Morris has a thing he's called "dog face"-you
turn on the camera and say nothing, he's said, let the camera roll,
people get unnerved. Basically anyone starts to confess after three
minutes without instructions. Do you get to know the subjects before
you turn the camera on?
I interview them, I'm, I'm, I shoot my own film as well, so I'm kind
of hidden behind the camera. I just tell people to look into the glass
of the lens. And then I mumble the odd word now and again. 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 to moving on about something else
and the camera just rolls, and that's it really, y'know.
you're interviewing, it's interesting how different things can set a
subject at ease, or not. Something, um, I would observe from things
I've read and from talking to you for a couple of minutes here. As a
child, I had a pretty serious stammer-
I've found as an adult and I'm interviewing people, the stammer seems
to come out at good moments, where suddenly it feels like that if I'm
discernibly a little ill-at-ease, just like in life, it suddenly puts
them at ease, where I have a kind of vulnerability. And I
something that's been tough for you? Because obviously, a little bit,
you still have a little bit of that, as I do as well.
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'know?
have two style questions, things I like very much.
first would be the black and white. I'd called it shades of silver more
than shades of gray, which, of course, is ironic. Is it all 35mm and
why did you make that choice? The second part is the close-ups. A lot
of times, the phrase "talking heads" is used as a pejorative,
it's derogatory in the general discourse. But I love extreme close-ups.
The human face isn't just for Ingmar Bergman. I've made some
documentary shorts and always want to go in tight and watch the eyes,
and how thoughts flicker across the face.
listen, you really are
[laughing] saying all the right things,
y'know! I can't believe what you're saying. Yeah, listen. 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. And yeah, 35,
I shot it all on 35mm, I wanted to emphasize
When I started making
this, I didn't really know much about documentary filmmaking. Well,
I had seen, y'know, Errol Morris' Thin Blue Line, which I thought
was great, and Roger & Me, Michael Moore's film, I'd seen
those. And Leni Riefenstahl, y'know, I was a fan.... [laughs]
maybe not of the subject matter, but of her work. And Humphrey
Jennings, the [British] documentary filmmaker. So I didn't really
like the way documentaries, I mean, I didn't really want to make, I
wanted to make it a cinematic experience as much as I could and I wanted
it to have a certain style, so it was very important to me to use 35mm.
I didn't use it all of the time, but it's 95% 35mm.
black-and-white harks back to Nykvist as well as Jennings and that strain
of British documentary making?
it was an esthetic, it definitely has an esthetic appeal to me, but
with this, I really did it because the black-and-white, there are sort
of gray tones. There are shades of gray. I was making a film the views
of the pro-choice and the pro-life, there's an area of confusion within
that. I just thought that was a good, you know what I mean... I didn't
mind my esthetic; I didn't feel bad about that! [laughs]
also flattens some of the ways we might discern class or regional differences.
Colors and textures come across differently. It creates this uniform
grayscale of "people-ness."
a lot of the many years finding a way to marshal all this material?
Longitudinal filmmaking like Barbara Kopple's Harlan County
USA or Steve James' Hoop Dreams are usually built on spending
a lot of time with a set of subjects. In this case, it feels like you
probably had to spend a lot of time finding some sort of consistent
tone. Is that the case?
as I said, it's just been a terribly difficult film to make. At a certain
point, I had to go out and shoot a story, I had to find a story of a
woman making a journey, you know what I mean? Through all of the, through
all of the various points. That was tremendously important, to get that.
The editing, yeah
Editing is the part of the process I enjoy the
you working with one or more editors over the period?
KAYE: I did
work with a number of editors, but there is only one editor, Peter Goddard,
who is the credited editor.
kept you returning to it? What sort of frustrations, or perhaps the
more encouraging perspective would be, what thought kept you persevering
despite the fact that it was becoming a big chunk of a lifetime's work?
Well, y'know, when I set out to do it, my intention was that when it
was finished, it would be finished. I never expected to spend as long
as I did. There were other difficulties, obviously, things like the
financing of it towards the end. I went bankrupt at one point over
American History X, over my work on American History X. I
lost the film for a while, I stopped working on Lake Of Fire,
I had to buy it back. There were difficulties like that [which] I encountered,
but, to be honest, I was going to work on it for a lot longer, but I
thought in the end, I just have to get this thing out.
there were days of depression or weeks or months away from the film,
but what's the drive that kept you at it for so long? It is admirable
that you did, and we have the finished product in front of us, it didn't
come out an overworked shambles the way some long-in-production films
have in the past. What can keep a filmmaker focused over all that time?
Well, that's what a filmmaker is, a filmmaker is a marathon, a marathon
runner. It's not really a sprint, it's just dogged, a dogged climb up
a steep hill. Any film is like that even if it's
paradigm of time is, that is what a filmmaker is. That's the nature
of this beast, y'know?
did the title occur to you? The Book of Revelations was a big part of
my Southern childhood, the apocalyptic images and phrases.
just kept recurring and recurring. During the editing phrase, people
kept saying that. It eventually became the title of the film.
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