Behind-the-scenes drama wasn’t enough to derail Tony Kaye and Edward Norton’s 1998 gritty crime drama, which went on to win critical acclaim and a rampant fanbase. Here are 15 things about the making of the controversial film that might surprise you.
1. IT’S DIRECTOR TONY KAYE’S DEBUT FILM.
Kaye, who had cut his chops directing music videos and art installations in the 1990s, made the jump to directing feature films with American History X. The movie is also screenwriter David McKenna’s debut.
2. KAYE TRIED TO DISOWN THE FILM.
Kaye was unsatisfied with the final cut of the movie, so he tried to use Alan Smithee—the official pseudonym (coined in 1969 and discontinued in 2000) for directors looking to disown their projects—in the credits. The Directors Guild of America blocked the effort, however, because DGA guidelines stipulated that directors could only use the Smithee pseudonym if they agreed not to publicly disparage the film, something the overly vocal Kaye had already done.
3. IT WAS PARTLY BASED ON THE LIFE OF REFORMED SKINHEAD FRANK MEEINK.
Meeink, who served three years in prison for charges related to white supremacist beliefs, is now an accomplished anti-skinhead author and lecturer.
4. JOAQUIN PHOENIX TURNED DOWN THE LEAD ROLE OF DEREK VINYARD.
He thought the film’s subject matter was too intense.
5. NORTON WAS ALLEGEDLY CAST WITHOUT KAYE’S APPROVAL.
Norton stepped in when Phoenix passed on the project—reportedly against Tony Kaye’s wishes. Kaye wanted to find another actor, but let Norton keep the part because Kaye simply couldn’t find anyone better prior to the start of shooting.
6. TO PLAY DEREK, NORTON HAD TO BULK UP AND SHAVE HIS HEAD.
The normally slight actor gained 25 pounds of muscle for the role.
7. NORTON WAS NOMINATED FOR THE BEST ACTOR OSCAR FOR HIS PERFORMANCE.
Roberto Benigni took home the trophy for Life is Beautiful.
8. NORTON ALLEGEDLY TOOK A PAY CUT TO APPEAR IN THE MOVIE.
Reports claim he received one-fifth his usual $1 million-per-movie fee.
9. NORTON TURNED DOWN A ROLE IN SAVING PRIVATE RYAN FOR AMERICAN HISTORY X.
He would have played Private Ryan (Matt Damon got the part instead).
10. THE DINER DANNY AND DEREK GO TO IS A FAMOUS HOLLYWOOD LOCATION.
While it closed in 2000, Johnie’s Coffee Shop is immortalized in movies like The Big Lebowski and Reservoir Dogs.
11. EDWARD NORTON HELPED WITH THE FILM’S FINAL CUT.
While Kaye was editing the film (which took more than a year), Norton and the movie’s studio, New Line Cinema, would send him story notes. And after two of Kaye’s submitted cuts proved unsatisfactory, Norton stepped in to provide his own version of the movie, which is 20 minutes longer than Kaye’s.
12. OUTRAGED OVER NORTON’S CUT, KAYE CANCELED THE FILM’S PREMIERE.
Kaye heard that the unauthorized cut of the movie was accepted at the Toronto Film Festival while he was shooting a commercial in Germany. The scorned director immediately boarded a plane to Toronto and had organizers pull the movie from the festival’s lineup. When it came time for the film’s wide release, he filed a $200 million lawsuit to legally have his name changed to Humpty Dumpty in the credits as his way of protesting of the unapproved cut. He also took out 40 pull-page ads in trade papers denouncing the movie.
13. KAYE BROUGHT SOME BACKUP TO HIS NEGOTIATIONS WITH THE FILM STUDIO.
The studio allegedly called a meeting to hash things out with the distraught director, who showed up with a rabbi, a priest, and a monk to try to smooth things over. Kaye’s stunt didn’t work, and the working relationship remains sour.
14. KAYE SAW THE MOVIE FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 2007.
Nine years after the film’s controversial release, Kaye agreed to introduce and sit in on a free screening of American History X at a YWCA in Wilmington, North Carolina.
15. KAYE HAS CREATED A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE FILM’S CONTROVERSY.
The doc, entitled Humpty Dumpty, was never released.
Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Warner Home Video
In the 1950s, Elvis was king, hula hooping was all the rage, and movie screens across America were overrun with giant arthropods. Back then, Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and other “big bug” films starring colossal insects or arachnids enjoyed a surprising amount of popularity. What kicked off this creepy-crawly craze? An eerie blockbuster whose impossible premise reflected widespread anxieties about the emerging atomic age. Grab a Geiger counter and let’s explore 1954's Them!.
1. Them!'s primary scriptwriter once worked for General Douglas MacArthur.
When World War II broke out, the knowledge Ted Sherdeman had gained from his career as a radio producer was put to good use by Uncle Sam, landing him a position as a radio communications advisor to General MacArthur. However, the fiery conclusion of the war left Sherdeman with a lifelong disdain for nuclear weapons. In an interview he revealed that upon hearing about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and started to throw up."
Shifting his focus from radio to motion pictures, Sherdeman later joined Warned Bros. as a staff producer. One day he was given a screenplay that really made his eyes bug out. George Worthing Yates, best known for his work on the Lone Ranger serials, had decided to take a stab at science fiction and penned an original script about giant, irradiated ants attacking New York City. "The idea appealed to me very much,” Sherdeman toldCinefantastique, "because, aside from man, ants are the only creatures in the world that plan to wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at that time.” (His statement about animal combat is debatable: chimpanzee gangs will also take organized, warlike measures in order to annex their rivals’ territories.)
Although he loved the basic concept, Sherdeman felt that the script needed something more. Screenwriter Russell S. Hughes was asked to punch up the script, but died of a heart attack after completing the first 50 pages. With some help from director Gordon Douglas, Sherdeman took it upon himself to finish the screenplay. Thus, Them! was born.
2. Two main ants were built for the movie.
Them! brought its spineless villains to life using a combination of animatronics and puppetry, courtesy of an effects artist by the name of Dick Smith. He constructed two fully functional mechanical ants for the production, with the first of these being a 12-foot monster filled with gears, levers, motors, and pulleys. Operating the big bug was a job that required a small army of technicians who’d pull sophisticated cables to control the ant’s limbs off-camera. These guys worked in close proximity and often crashed into each other as a result, prompting Douglas to call them “a comedy team.”
The big insect mainly appears in long shots, and for close-ups, Smith built the front three quarters of a second large-scale ant and mounted it onto a camera crane. During scenes that required swarms of ants, smaller, non-motorized models were used. Blowing wind machines moved the little units’ heads around in a lifelike manner.
3. Them! features the Wilhelm Scream.
Fifty-nine minutes in, the ants board a ship and one of them grabs a sailor, who unleashes the so-called "Wilhelm Scream." You can also hear it when James Whitmore’s character is killed, and the sound bite rings out once again during the movie’s climax. Them! was among the first movies to reuse this distinctive holler, which was originally recorded three years earlier for the 1951 western Distant Drums. Since then, it’s become something of an inside joke for sound recording specialists. The scream has appeared in Titanic (1997), Toy Story (1995), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Batman Returns (1992), the Star Wars saga (1977-present), all three The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003), and countless other films.
4. Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance.
In one brief scene, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy plays an Army man who receives a message about an alleged “ant-shaped UFO” sighting over Texas. He then proceeds to poke fun at the Lone Star State, because, as everybody knows, insectile space vessels are highly illogical.
5. Many different sounds were combined to produce the screeching ant cries.
Throughout the movie, the monsters announce their presence with a haunting wail. Douglas’s team created this unforgettable shriek by mixing assorted noises, including bird whistles, which were artificially pitched up by sound technicians.
6. Sandy Descher had to sniff a mystery liquid during her signature scene.
Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Them! has a deliberate pace and the massive insects don’t make an onscreen appearance until the half hour mark. Douglas took credit for this restrained approach, saying, “I told Ted, let’s tease [the audience] a little bit before you see the ant. Let’s build up to it."
So instead of showing off the big bugs, the opening scene follows a little girl as she wanders through the New Mexican desert, listlessly clutching her favorite doll. That stunning performance was delivered by child actress Sandy Descher. Later, in one of the most effective title drop scenes ever orchestrated, a vial of formic acid is held under her character’s nose. Suddenly recognizing the aroma, the traumatized youngster screams “Them! Them!” Descher never found out what sort of liquid was really sloshing around in that container.
“They used something that did smell quite strange. It wasn’t ammonia, it was something else,” she told an interviewer. Still, the mysterious brew had a beneficial effect on her performance. “They tried to create something different and it helped me a lot with that particular scene,” Descher said.
7. Them! was originally going to be filmed in 3D and in color.
To hear Douglas tell it, the insect models looked a lot scarier in person. “I put green and red soap bubbles in the eyes,” he once stated. “The ants were purple, slimy things. Their bodies were wet down with Vaseline. They scared the bejeezus out of you.” For better or for worse, though, audiences never got the chance to savor the bugs’ color scheme.
At first, Warner Bros. had planned on shooting the movie in color. Furthermore, to help Them! compete with Universal’s brand-new, three-dimensional monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon, the studio strongly considered using 3D cameras. But in the end, the higher-ups at Warner Bros. didn’t supply Douglas with the money he’d need to shoot it in this manner. Shortly before production started on Them!, the budget was greatly reduced, forcing the use of two-dimensional, black and white film.
8. The setting of the climactic scene was changes—twice.
Yates envisioned the final battle playing out in New York City’s world-famous subway tunnels. Hughes moved the action westward, conjuring up an epic showdown between human soldiers and the last surviving ants at a Santa Monica amusement park. Finally, for both artistic and budgetary reasons, Sherdeman set the big finale in the sewers of Los Angeles.
9. Warner Bros. encouraged theaters to use Them! as a military recruitment tool.
The film’s official pressbook advised theater managers who were screening Them!& to contact their nearest Armed Forces recruitment offices. “Since civil defense in the face of an emergency figures in the picture, make the most of it by inviting [a] local agency to set up a recruiting booth in the lobby,” the filmmakers advised. Also, the document suggested that movie houses post signs reading: “What would you do if (name of city) were attacked by THEM?! Prepare for any danger by enlisting in Civil Defense today!”
10. The movie was a surprise hit.
Studio head Jack L. Warner predicted that Them!, with its far-fetched plot, wouldn’t fare well at the box office. So imagine his surprise when it raked in more than $2.2 million—enough to make the picture one of the studio's highest-grossing films of 1954.
11. Them! landed Fess Parker the role of TV's Davy Crockett.
When Walt Disney went to see Them!, he had a specific objective in mind: Scout a potential Davy Crockett. At the time, Disney was developing a new television series that would chronicle the life and times of the iconic frontiersman, and James Arness, who plays an FBI agent in Them!, was on the short list of candidates for the role. Yet as the sci-fi thriller unfolded, it was actor Fess Parker who grabbed Disney’s attention. Director Gordon Douglas had hired Parker to portray the pilot who ends up in a psych ward after an aerial encounter with a gargantuan flying ant. And while his character only appears in one scene, the performance impressed Disney so much that the struggling actor was soon cast as Crockett.
By the Texan’s own admission, his good fortune may’ve been the product of bargain hunting. “Walt probably asked, ‘How much would Arness cost?’ and then ‘This fellow [Parker], we ought to be able to get him real economical,” Parker once said.
No one seems to have escaped the fan fury over the finals season of Game of Thrones. While likely no one got it quite as bad as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, even author George R.R. Martin—who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the show is based, faced backlash surrounding the HBO hit. The volatile reaction from fans has apparently taken a toll on both Martin's writing and personal life.
In an interview with The Guardian, the acclaimed author said he's sticking with his original plan for the last two books, explaining that the show will not impact them. “You can’t please everybody, so you’ve got to please yourself,” he stated.
He went on to explain how even his personal life has taken a negative turn because of the show. “I can’t go into a bookstore any more, and that used to be my favorite thing to do in the world,” Martin said. “To go in and wander from stack to stack, take down some books, read a little, leave with a big stack of things I’d never heard of when I came in. Now when I go to a bookstore, I get recognized within 10 minutes and there’s a crowd around me. So you gain a lot but you also lose things.”
While fans of the book series are fully aware of the author's struggle to finish the final two installments, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, Martin admitted that part of the delay has been a result of the HBO series, and fans' reaction to it.
“I don’t think [the series] was very good for me,” Martin said. “The very thing that should have speeded me up actually slowed me down. Every day I sat down to write and even if I had a good day … I’d feel terrible because I’d be thinking: ‘My God, I have to finish the book. I’ve only written four pages when I should have written 40.'"
Still, Martin has sworn that the books will get finished ... he just won't promise when.