My Tony Kaye Story

I’m a big fan of continuous professional development and ‘advancing my craft’ and learning new stuff. But, most of all, as a professional creative and commercials director, I like the random nature of inputs. Even with the best-laid plans, you often get something different from what you expect – and that, like many creative projects, just at the point you think it’s going wrong it’s going right. And vice versa. Here’s an example.

Some years ago, and I’m not sure why it comes to my mind right now, I went to a creative event in San Francisco where Tony Kaye (director of commercials, pop promos and not-yet American History X) was the star attraction. He was giving a talk called ‘What the director delivers’ or somesuch nonsense.

And there we were, a few hundred creative types maybe, early one morning at a swanky hotel on Nob Hill where Cybill Shepherd had been the previous night’s cabaret. (I hadn’t gone, much to my retrospective chagrin.) And there was Tony Kaye prowling the room, shaved head, suit jacket, adidas track suit bottoms, trainers… and followed everywhere by a dapper little Japanese man.

What an Art Director does

The organiser steps up to the mike and announces that Tony has requested to give his talk first. ‘Hooray,’ thinks the assembled throng. ‘Then maybe we can bunk off while the lesser talkers talk.’ Of course, with typical American politesse, the organisers acquiese.

Tony steps up on stage at the lectern. The small Japanese man stands beside him: immaculate black suit, buttoned up white shirt and a huge pair of black-rimmed spectacles.

Tony says nothing but hands the little man an envelope. With elaborate theatricality, the man takes off his glasses and hands them to Tony.

Tony puts on the glasses and leans forward on the lectern. ‘T…’ he says, like a man with a stutter.

‘T….’ he repeats. People shift a little uncomfortably in their seats. Who knew that Tony Kaye was a stammerer?

‘T…’ he says, a little more intently, and leans forward on the lectern. The little Japanse man observes the crowd impassively.

‘T….’ says Tony. ‘T…..’ and then a word breaks from his lips: ‘Trust.’

Taxi for Tony Kaye

With that word, he steps from the stage, walks down the aisle, through the room. Heads swivel, especially those of the organisers sitting in the reserved seats at the front, as he walks out into the hotel lobby.

There’s a pause, as people imagine what it will be like when he bounds back into the room after that dramatic opener.

It does not happen. When it becomes clear it is not going to happen, the organisers scurry into the lobby and return shamefaced.

The little Japanese man is still standing impassively by the lectern. He does not move, and will not move for the next hour, except to hand the organiser Tony’s envelope.

Angry of San Francisco

On the podium, the organisers, with real stammering, reveal that Tony strode through the lobby, climbed into a waiting cab and drove off.

Personally, I am thrilled by this turn of events, almost in fits of giggles – if a little disappointed not to see some of Tony’s reel.

However, the organisers are aghast. Many, mainly American, advertising types who have paid good money to get some creative inspiration are less than happy at having their expectations shaken up. Which just about says it all.

And so the morning stumbles on. The speakers who were originally due to talk first bravely soldier on. But their speeches are haunted, yes by the little Japanese man standing there, but also by the references they feel obliged to make to Tony’s show. It’s all anybody wants to talk about.

Talk about impact

Later, at a party, I meet a Scottish girl who works as a reporter for a US media publication who talked to Tony after the event. He’s taken aback that there’s been a bit of negativity.

‘But don’t you see’ he replies. ‘The little Japanese man. He’s the art director. When he hands me his glasses that’s him giving the director his vision. And then, it’s just a matter of trust.’ The envelope, it seems, also contained a polaroid of Tony sitting on a toilet with the word ‘TRUST’ written in marker on a card.

‘Didn’t they get it?” he asks.

‘No,’ she tells him, ‘No-one got it. And generally the crowd had come to hear you talk about your work, and felt cheated and slighted. And the organisers want to kill you.’

Which is a pity really, as it seemed to me to be the perfection expression of what Tony Kaye is likely to deliver as a director. It’ll be different, visually striking, challenging, and, guess what, not everyone – including those paying – will like it. But people will want to talk about it

As many have found, including Ed Norton, if that’s not what you want, don’t hire him.

(There’s a great, sympathetic interview with Tony in the UK Telegraph here.)