Remembering “American History X”. Interview with Screenwriter David McKenna.

Many of us who grew up in the 1990s remember American History X as one of the era-defining films of the decade. It’s an emotionally crushing film about racism, and the dark paths that hate take you down if you let it become the driving force in your life.

Below is my interview with Mr. David McKenna, the man who wrote the original screenplay for the film.

Thank you, David, for your time!

Who are you? Tell us a bit about yourself in your own words?

First and foremost, Teemu, I’m a husband and a father and then I’m a writer. I’ve been married 22 years, I have three kids, and as I answer these questions, I’m alone in my hotel room after a long day of teaching my daughter how to snowboard. That sums me up fairly well.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in San Diego and after my parents divorced my mother and I moved up to Newport Beach, where I spent my entire childhood. 

What was your childhood like?

My childhood was for the most part wonderful. I grew up near the beach. It was a little difficult being an only child from a single mom who worked hard to provide for us, there were definitely some tough times, but my mom loved me, and that’s all I needed.

When did writing and literature enter your life?

I think writing came early for me. I grew up pre-technology, rotary phones, so there was lots of down time where I was forced to use my imagination. I think when you have that, and you pay attention to 8th grade English and sentence structure like I did, those are the makings of a good beginning.  

Who were/are your greatest influences and inspirations as a writer?

First of all, there’s a big difference between JD Salinger and Alvin Sargent.  Big difference between books and movies.   Catcher In The Rye was the first book I ever read, To Kill A Mockingbird my 2nd, and they both had a profound effect on me in my early teens.  But I was always a movie lover. A script I read when I was first breaking into the business was the first draft of Eric Roth’s The Good Shepherd. It’s a special piece of writing, and it’s something I aspire to still today. 

How did you end up choosing screenwriting as your creative outlet as a writer?

I was a business major at San Diego State University, and I hated it. A friend of mine at SDSU was accused of rape, the charges were dropped three days later, but his life was ruined by that time. I thought it would be interesting to show what he went through, kind of like a male version of The Accused, so I went to the student store, found Syd Field’s book Screenwriter, and my life changed right then and there.

What were your first screenplays like?

Simply dreadful. No other way to put it. Whenever I’m in the mood for a good laugh, I’ll go back and read some drafts. Writing scripts is a meticulous process, and the only way you improve is through experience and repetition. That’s why you never see a kid sell a script at 23. I sold my first at 25, which was young, but I had been writing since I was 19.

I think it’s safe to say that your breakthrough work was the masterful American History X. In your own words, tell us about how you came to write this film! Where did the idea come from? What was the process of writing it like?

Well, it was a multitude of factors that sort of just came together. I was really into punk rock when I was in junior high. I met a skinhead when I was in high school. I saw Mississippi Burning in college and it blew me away. So I kind of took all of these scenarios and knew I wanted to create this skinhead. Then I came up with the name Derek Vinyard. Then I came up with his little brother, telling it through his eyes, then I wrote the first scene, and I was off to the races. I had written three scripts previous, hadn’t sold anything, so I was frustrated. The process was fairly nerve-wracking because I wrote it while I was locked in my apartment in LA during the Rodney King riots. I wrote the first draft in six weeks. It was 89 pages. When I gave it to my buddy to read, he called me at 3 am and said “dude, this is it.” That’s when I knew I had a chance.

Edward Norton as Derek Vinyard

What did you research while writing it? Neo-nazis, other hate groups?

Well, I had sort of observed these guys from a distance for a while. Then one night Tony Kaye, our director, and I went to a party after I had written the second draft. I don’t think Edward had been attached to it yet. For a half hour I talked to a guy with an M-16 tattooed to the side of his head. It was pretty intimidating, if not terrifying. Especially when he asked me “are you going to make us look like a bunch of assholes?” 

What was the process of selling the script like? Did you have to compromise with the studio to any great extent, or did they just buy it as it was?

They always buy it as it is and there’s usually very little compromise. It’s easier to replace you. The whole process was almost as crazy as that skinhead party. The script was getting a lot of attention, but nobody was going to buy it. I remember Teddy Zee, an executive at Sony, really wanted it. He said, “we made Boyz In The Hood, we’re doing this!” Then Lisa Henson his boss read it and said “Teddy, have you lost your mind?” In the end, Cathy Schulman and Rob Fried at Savoy were the true champions of it, until they went bankrupt.

Was Tony Kaye the first choice for director, or were other people considered? Did you have a say in picking the director?

No. Dennis Hopper wanted to do it but wanted a million dollars and our budget was nine million so that wasn’t an option. By this time, Mike DeLuca, President of New Line, picked the script up from Savoy, and he had me meet with Larry Clark and Tony. I liked them both, I thought Kids was incredible, but Larry had a scheduling conflict.  Tony had only done commercials, but his reel was like nothing I had ever seen. And I liked the fact he was British and somewhat insane. I just didn’t know the extent of his insanity.

I’ve read over the years that the process of filming and editing the movie entailed some kind of a power struggle between director Kaye and actor Edward Norton. Do you have any personal memories of or insight on this topic?

I was right in the middle of it so yes, I have a lot of insight.

Here’s the deal. Tony shot a terrific movie. I had seen all the dailies, I know what we had, I was on the set every day, and he and Edward had a solid relationship. Tony simply couldn’t find the film in the editing room. And as we gave him notes, it only got worse. It was very frustrating.  A screenplay is like an architect design, and once a builder (in this example, director) starts moving around bathrooms on the fly, bad shit is going to happen.  Edward simply went into the editing room at everyone’s behest, cut the film according to the script with Jerry Greenburg, and rescued our child from an abusive father.

Did the film turn out the way you wanted it to? In other words: are you happy with the final form of the film that the audience got to see?

I think it’s a really good movie that could’ve been extraordinary. Am I happy? No, I’m never happy because I’m an asshole (just kidding, of course). But it gives me pleasure that so many people loved it. And it could’ve been a hell of a lot worse, so I’ll take it.

The film has a devastating “twist ending” that really challenges the audience in a way that an average Hollywood film usually doesn’t. How did you come up with the ending?

Well, this isn’t your average Hollywood film. New Line was an incredible company, and they bought my first three scripts. Mike, Lynn Harris, Mary Parent, Brian Witten, Richard Brener, Donna Langley, that’s an all-star line-up of executives. How’d I come up with the ending? Well, I asked myself, what’s the ultimate tragedy?

How do you look back on American History X in terms of your own professional life? Are you still in touch with the people you made it with?

Oh man, it changed my life. I don’t know if I’ll ever out-perform it, but I’ll die trying. Edward [Norton] and I will always be like brothers. We still text quite often—he’s quite the family man now. DeLuca was a godsend, having the balls to make it when no one else would. And deep down I’ll always love Tony, even though he probably thinks I hate him.

You also wrote the fantastic Blow, one of my favorites from the 00s. Tell us a bit about writing it!

I had sold AHX and a script called Jello Shots to New Line. Mary Parent called and said I have this book. I read it in two days and said, “who do I have to screw to do this movie?” Mary said “Ted Demme and Denis Leary.” So I met with them, they graciously hired me, and I developed the script for two years, becoming close with George while he was in prison. Unfortunately, there were creative disagreements (imagine that!), especially with the 3rd act, and I was replaced by Nick Cassavetes. In the end, I think Ted directed a good movie, God rest his soul. And I’ll always be thankful for it.

You were one of the screenwriters for the film Bully, but withdrew your name from the project. Why?

Well, I was the only screenwriter, and I used an alias. It was just a long laundry list of letdowns. I spent a week in New York,  Larry and I went through the script tooth and nail at his place, and I thought we were really on the same page. I soon discovered how wrong I was. I didn’t agree with a lot of his casting choices, I hated a lot of the perverted camera shots, I felt gross just watching it. I thought it was over the top solely for the sake of being over the top, and I just didn’t want to be associated with it. 

Your latest film, Embattled, is a great film about a topic that I’ve always been interested in: masculinity and men’s identities being negotiated. Where did the idea for this film come from? What was it like writing it?

Thank you, Teemu. My son Colin, who has special needs, is the third male lead in Embattled so it was quite the honor to get bossed around by him on set.

Yeah, I don’t really understand toxic masculinity and some of those other terms, but it seems to be the catchphrase of the moment, so I’ll roll with it.  What I do know is I’d been looking to do a father/son piece in the vein of The Great Santini for many years and when this two-page treatment came across my desk, about a father and son fighting each other in an MMA bout, I jumped on it immediately.

It was a huge challenge, especially selling this notion of father vs. son, so writing it was quite the challenge. This was probably the best experience I’ve had making a film and I’m extremely proud of it.

What’s next in your life? What can we fans look forward to from you in the future?

Well, you never know which one is going to breakthrough. I have so many scripts at various stages of development—all it takes is getting one of them in the right hands.

Where can people keep up with your work?

Just go see Embattled on Amazon Prime and we’ll move forward from there!

And finally, my regular questions I ask all my interviewees:

Your top 3 films?

Ordinary People, On The Waterfront, Reservoir Dogs

Your top 3 albums?

Everclear’s “Sparkle and Fade”, Joe Jackson’s “I’m The Man”, Elvis Costello’s “My Aim Is True”, and Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack tie

Your top 3 books?

“The Fountainhead” Ayn Rand, William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”, Salinger’s “The Catcher in The Rye” and Carnegie’s “How To Win Friends and Influence People” (tie)

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