By Kyle O'Brien, Creative Works Editor

April 17, 2018 | 14 min read

After a career that took Tony Kaye to the highest highs of the commercial world to the banishment of ‘Hollywood Jail’, the revered and, to some, terrifying director is just happy to be steadily working these days. Kaye, arguably one of the most brilliant commercial directors of the past few decades, continues to make thought-provoking and cinematically rich work, even if his career took a few diversions along the way.

For all that has happened in Kaye’s tumultuous career, he remains a powerful voice in both advertising and film. That he has ventured into other art forms as well has only strengthened his resolve to do good work and create meaningful art.

“I haven’t stopped making TV commercials over the years. I did two very big jobs with Tham Khai Meng [co-chairman and worldwide chief creative officer at Ogilvy and 2016’s most awarded senior creative]. Ogilvy and I are friends,” Kaye told The Drum during an interview at Supply & Demand, a creative and production house with offices in New York and Los Angeles that counts Kaye on its impressive roster of directors, and one he helped get off the ground with founder Tim Case in the late 90s.

Kaye got his start in advertising as a junior art director at Collett Dickenson Pearce in 1979, one of the biggest agencies in London at the time, and the place where Alan Parker and Ridley Scott launched their Hollywood careers, something Kaye very much wanted to emulate.

As an ad director, Kaye helped change the way people think about advertising. His style went way outside of the box. Both visceral and real, with visual ideas that were big and cinematic, Kaye developed a reputation for an edgy style that borrowed from movies, often shooting in grainy black and white. His D&AD-winning 1990 ‘God Bless the Child’ ad for VW showed gritty scenes of urban life as a little girl watched, then gets safely into a Volkswagen Passat with the tagline ‘If only everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen.’ His Volvo ‘Twister’ spot showed the violence of tornadoes as a storm chaser deftly dodged storm debris in his car.

Kaye was heavily lauded for his British Railway spot in 1988 that blended train travelers with whimsical animation. Though he went over time and topped the budget – spending the entire £250,000 making the 90-second spot – he took nothing in payment. The ad, along with a Real Fires ad that had a dog, cat and mouse kiss, became classics and cemented Kaye’s reputation in the ad world as an outstanding talent.

And though Kaye eventually went into filmmaking, a punishing experience that is well documented, he has continued to make smart, thought-provoking and award-winning commercials. He was even the first recipient of the Clio lifetime achievement award in 2001, an accolade given subsequently to icons like Lee Clow, Dan Wieden, Bob Greenberg and Linda Kaplan Thaler.

To Hollywood fame and then to ‘jail’

With his broad vision, Kaye seemed a natural fit for feature-length films. But Kaye, admittedly, is sometimes not easy to work with, being meticulous and changing things constantly until he feels they are right. As his fame grew, so did his reputation for being eccentric and difficult. He was fired by British Airways for one ad in 1995 and sued for unpaid fees – and settled for over half a million pounds. To get attention, he put his settlement receipt on display in Charles Saatchi’s gallery.

Still, in 1996, Kaye was one of the highest paid commercial directors in the UK before making the move to features. As a Hollywood director, Kaye created a name for himself, though it wasn’t always in a good light. He was offered American History X, an edgy film about a neo-nazi skinhead (Edward Norton) who tries to prevent his brother from going down the same path. The film was a critical favorite in 1998 and got Norton an Oscar nomination. But Kaye wasn’t satisfied with the final edit and made a fuss about it, eventually asking to take his name off the project. When that didn’t happen, he sued to get his name off the film, asking instead to be replaced with ‘Humpty Dumpty.’

The ensuing battles with the Director’s Guild of America and his resulting antics essentially meant that his reputation was tarnished, even as his talents were lauded. Other attention-grabbing, yet career threatening, stunts he pulled were to dress up as Osama bin Laden in November of 2001 and losing his temper on numerous occasions with stars, which included him getting fired from several films. He admits he was eventually put in “Hollywood jail” for antics which he now regrets.

A return to his commercial roots while branching out

With all of the turmoil of the late 90s and early 2000s, Kaye never stopped working, but as he became persona-non-grata in Hollywood he saw his career go in different directions, regaining his respect while not making negative waves.

Some people championed Kaye and his vision, including, early on, Marlon Brando and later famed music producer Rick Rubin, who tasked Kaye to direct the video for the Red Hot Chili Peppers song Dani California.

“I worked with Rick Rubin…I did a Johnny Cash video (God’s Gonna Cut You Down) that he won a Grammy for and I did a Red Hot Chili Peppers for Dani California that we also won a million things with. Working with Rick, he’s much better at what he does than I am with what I do. He totally respected what I did, dragged me forward, brought me on, gave me an open field and came in where he felt he needed to say certain things… he was amazing and he was dead right. That video is very cool for what it is, and how he helped me build it without getting in the way,” says Kaye.

He notes that working with people that are at the tops of their respective games makes the project and everyone working on it better. Kaye is a huge Beatles fan and found himself lucky to work with Sir Paul McCartney last year on a virtual reality project.

“I did six shorts for Paul McCartney that have had several million views, which is quite big in that zone, for something called Jaunt. That was an incredible opportunity, to work with somebody like Paul, who is, like 10 years older than me. And to see someone who has achieved more than any of us could possibly dream of… he was an investor in the camera that we used. There’s nothing better than working with someone that’s much better than you are – he’s certainly much better than I am,” stated Kaye.

Utilizing other art forms to feed his muse

Kaye knows he is a director first, but sometimes that isn’t how he is inspired. He channels his creativity in other directions, including artwork, writing and music. To wit, his acoustic guitar sat in the corner as we talked and he takes it with him on his travels and plays and writes songs when inspired that have helped him sort through his dealings with his time in Hollywood.

Tony Kaye playing guitar

Music definitely bleeds into his other non-directing muse – visual arts. Kaye recently exhibited more than 200 original paintings at his first solo art show, ‘The Walls of the Mountain,’ in a small gallery, Able Fine Art, on the lower east side of Manhattan in New York City. The paintings in the show speak to this underlying theme of Tony being trapped for years in “Hollywood Jail," and the artwork is as unconventional as he is. Rather than typical framed canvases, his “scribbles and doodles…quite esoteric,” as he calls them, range from large caricatures of himself to scribbles on small pieces of cardboard.

Tony Kaye at Able Fine Art Gallery

On the modern state of advertising

Kaye may have mellowed since his Hollywood days, but he still has plenty of opinions and non-stop creative ideas, including on advertising.

“The great thing about doing TV commercials, or any form of creative content, is it can be done very fast. So, you’re involved as much as you’re allowed to be involved, and the world moves on, and it doesn’t get in the way of anything, and I’m working all the time,” he says.

He embraces both the longer and shorter-form advertising movements, a concept which he takes to the extreme. “I would rather make a 700 hour show about a fried egg. That would be my most ideal thing I’d like to do. There’s a million things that can happen when you’re making a fried egg. There’s the person that makes the fried egg and there’s the backstory of that person,” he says.

“When I first became an art director, the billboard poster was something I found great pleasure and had great success with. I won a lot of awards my first year being an art director within that medium. Press, I wasn’t very good at, but doing a poster, one idea, bang. Making it bold, having it in the street, that was where I landed. And I consider the six-second, the ten-second commercial to be exactly the same. In fact, if you’re watching a TV commercial… everyone’s gagging to tell a story over a long period of time, so they want to show you the long cut. But really, people don’t have the time. If they know it’s a commercial, they want it to be in and out, quick. So to me, to do a six-second, 10-second, 15-second commercial is ideal. I’m doing some. I did a job for Ogilvy last year for their Vietnam office, it was for a cement company, a number of six-second spots. So I’m loving that form.”

He says that a story arc doesn’t really matter in six seconds. “I think you can throw anything at it, as long as it’s quite clear what it’s for. If you’re working under 20 minutes, in my opinion, you don’t need any structure. You can be as fragmented or as crazy as you want.”

Kaye recalls that in the 90s, he was in a desperate mindset of feeling like he was trapped in advertising, trying to make art. But now, “in being very experimental, I feel I have this vast range of tricks, or experience, so when someone comes to me with a story they want to tell, I feel I can offer them literally a stand back and forward.

“The great thing about advertising and the great thing about the stage as it is now is that you can manage expectations and you can give your client exactly what it is that they’ve expected. You also don’t want to get into a situation where you’ve got 48 versions and no one can see the wood from the trees. There’s got to be a kind of hybrid structured improvisation. I think that’s when it gets the healthiest. We’re not going to do 80 versions, but we might do two or three. I think that’s ok.”

Being content while looking forward

After a past that was often brilliant yet sometimes troubled, Kaye is again happy to be working. Aside from his work with Supply & Demand and Ogilvy, he has plenty of his own projects, including feature-length films.

“The movie I’m just finishing right now is very experimental. I’m trying to get it into Cannes,” he says. But unlike in his first go-round with Hollywood, Kaye knows his role as a director.

“In the movie I’m just finishing I’m dictating largely how it should be but I’m not dictating every cut. The editor does that. I’m dictating the way I think it should be. I’m more a person who knows when something is wrong, and I know when something is right, but I sometimes don’t know exactly how to get there. I have to experiment.”

One of his film projects is called ‘Hollywhore,’ and it seems timely in the age of #MeToo and other current headlines.

“It’s the journey of a Russian actress, so it’s kind of funny that Russia is so in the news. She’s not doing very well and she wants to go to Hollywood to become a star. And it’s all the things she encounters on that journey… It’s a comedy, a satire. It’s either (coming out) at the right time or the wrong time. I’m either going to get out of Hollywood jail or they’re going to throw the keys away. Personally, I think it’s coming out at the right time, because what’s going on is good. I think the business is going to get much better as a result. I think these things that have happened, should not have happened and if we can stop them from ever, ever happening again, we should.”

Kaye also counts several other movies, including a story called Hagadah, which is a portrait of a Mossad agent. And one called Stranger than the Wheel, that he has been trying to make for 26 years. “I hope I can make it soon,” he added.

To be a great creative, no matter what the medium, Kaye circles back to the Beatles, a band he says defined creativity at its highest point. “Where you get people working together as a team and they help each other. Nobody gets in each other’s way. Everyone tries to make each other look good. And when the stars really line up…personally I don’t think they’ll ever really line up the same way again. I think the Beatles are the highest point in any creative form. I don’t think there is a painter, or a director or an architect or poet or a writer or an actor that has created a body of work that is as universally accepted both artistically and as a commercial entity as high as what the ten hours of music that they did. And ten hours of music that has lasted for over 50 years, and it still stands strong and high,” he says.

For his own future, he is, of course, happy to be working and wants to continue exploring his own creative paths.

“I don’t want any more confrontations. I’m not looking for any more fights. I’m not looking to win. I’m just looking to be a part of the process and to work. I don’t consider that to be a defeatist attitude. I consider that to be a very realistic and practical methodology, to get better. And every now and again I’m going to find that pocket of work where it just gels. The time that the work gets really good is when the stars line up.

“I want to live. I want to stay alive, and I want to work. And although I’m currently finishing a movie right now, and have several others in the pipeline, I am the kind of person, I don’t like to kick back. Every day to me is like a blessing and a gift from God, and I just want to work,” he says, but he does add that sometime in the future, “I wouldn’t mind having a hit film.”

To check out the latest creative campaigns from around the globe, please visit The Drum's Creative Works section.

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