An evening with Tony Kaye



T-T-Tony’s T-T-Talk wasn’t so much a talk as an amazing display of heartfelt emotion and hardcore talent.

Despite my old boss, Terry Lovelock, joking to me that Tony Kaye should pay the audience £20 each to see him, rather than the other way round, Tony Kaye’s D&AD President’s Lecture last Wednesday appeared to be a sell-out. To rapturous applause, the errant director ascended the steps of the stage, after an introduction from this year’s D&AD president, Neville Brody.

As Tony trod the boards, dressed in jeans and shirt and wearing what looked like a leather pork pie hat, he seemed a little uncertain what to do next. Eventually he picked up an electric guitar and settled down on a chair that was positioned centre stage. He slowly tuned the guitar, string by string. Then, accompanied on organ by Oscar-winning musician Anne Dudley, broke into song. I didn’t catch all of the words but those that I did seemed intense and spare. Think Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska meets Leonard Cohen.

Tony strums his stuff.

Tony strums his stuff.

More uncertainly followed as Tony wandered around the stage pointing at different lights that illuminated the auditorium in an attempt to get them dimmed. With the room suitably darkened Tony’s first video started only to have Tony stop it immediately for another round of light dimming.

When the video finally got into its stride, it announced itself as ‘Humpty-Dumpty’, a title superimposed over the name of his film, ‘American History X’. This was part of a project that Tony is working on, about his trials and tribulations during the editing of ‘American History X’. More or less the first scene was Tony begging the chief of a Canadian film festival to remove the film from the event, as Tony hadn’t approved the cut. The Canadian’s bemused expression made it clear that this was a situation he’d never encountered before.

The video moved on to Tony ranting to himself in a hotel room, phoning various studio executives, and finally asking the head of the studio’s cutting rooms to down tools and go on strike in protest over the cut.

Suddenly, a large caption appeared on screen: ‘Enter Marlon Brando’. There were Tony and Marlon filming each other as Tony complained about the treatment that ‘American History X’ had received at the hands of its producers. Marlon, with marvelous wit and wisdom, patiently explains to Tony that movies aren’t art they are business, which is why it’s called ‘show business’. He goes on to point out to Tony that the Screen Directors’ Guild requires that every director put his name to his movie. Tony recounts this by saying that he doesn’t want his name on it, so he’s going to change his name. Marlon is incredulous ‘you’re not going to change your name to Humpty-Dumpty, are you? I laughed so much as this that I am not really sure what happened next or in what order, so forgive me if the chronology of events that I now describe is wrong.

Tony produced some sheets of paper and read from them. What Tony’s words amounted to was a kind of blank verse account of how he got his job at Collett, Dickenson and Pearce, at the time he joined, the best advertising agency in the world. As anybody who’s met him knows, Tony suffers from a stammer. So, every time he phoned Neil Godfrey, the agency’s head art director, for an interview he couldn’t get out the words ‘can I speak to Neil Godfrey, please’. So he was forced to put down the receiver.

After four of these sorry episodes, he decided to record a perfect version of ‘can I speak to Neil Godfrey, please?’ Using the tape recorder, his fifth attempt got him put straight through to Neil’s secretary who asked who was calling. ‘Fuck’ he said to himself, ‘I forgot to record ‘it’s Tony Kaye’. Down went the receiver again. Eventually, though, he did get through and was hired, thanks to Neil Godfrey, who pleasingly was a member of Tony’s audience.

Now, listening to Tony’s words and watching the ‘Humpty-Dumpty’ video suggested to me that he is a fan of the Beatles. In one scene in ‘Humpty-Dumpty’ he’s shown driving a car while singing along to ‘Help’. And in his speech, there was a direct quote from ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’ from the Beatles’ ‘Sergeant Pepper’ album: ‘over men and horses, hoops and garters’. The lyrics go on to say ‘in this way, Mr. K will challenge the world’. I don’t think Tony used these words, but they would have provided a sweet and appropriate pun had he done so.

'Over man and horses, hoops and garters.'

‘Over men and horses,
hoops and garters’.

Next up was Tony’s commercials and pop video reel. As you’d expect these are stunning pieces of work. In one of the videos he seemed to have enrolled the help of almost every living rock and roll legend from Iggy Pop to Brian Wilson, by way of Keith Richards and Kris Kristofferson. He was asked his favourite and he cited the mouse, cat and dog commercial, ‘Furry Friends’, that he directed for Real Coal Fires in the eighties. He said he had no idea how the three animals got along so well; unlike their owners who spent the entire shoot squabbling with each other.

Next, at least I think it was next, we were shown a harrowing scene from ‘American History X’ where Edward Norton’s character frightens off his mother’s potential Jewish boyfriend with a racist rant about the police attack on Rodney King.

At last it was time for the question and answer session. Tim Lindsay did a sterling job of marshaling questions from the floor and helping Tony answer them. At two points, Tony appeared to break down and cry. Tim, ever the consummate account man, guided Tony through these crises until Tony emerged the other side. One questioner asked what Tony’s admired influences were. ‘Moses’ was Tony’s first answer. Then, perhaps less surreally, Tony mentioned, ‘Breaking Bad’. This brought a cheer from the audience. Somebody else asked Tony about his filming technique. Tony said that he concentrates on actor’s faces and doesn’t worry too much about the backgrounds. He also said that he treated his camera and himself as another actor in the scene.

Tony and Tim Lindsay.

Tony and Tim Lindsay.

Tony ended with two more songs. In the second, the chorus included the words ‘I’m not crazy, I’m not mad’. In a pantomime moment I was seized with the urge to shout ‘Oh yes, you are’. And, in many ways, he is. That’s what makes his work so different, so unexpected and so exciting. Only a mad man could do it. And I mean that description in an entirely complimentary way, not in the superficial Madison Avenue sense  – though Tony has been responsible for some great adverts. Being Tony Kaye is either a blessing or a curse, or, as his President’s lecture appeared to demonstrate, a tortured mixture of both. He doesn’t take life easily, that’s for sure.

At the end of the evening, I went up and shook hands with Tony and said hello. His smile was so genuine and powerful that for a few brief seconds I felt as if I’d been bathed in sunshine. I hesitate to mention the word aura, but there’s definitely something special about the man. As one of my old CDP colleagues, Peter Travis, said afterwards: ‘to have missed Tony’s lecture would have meant my life wouldn’t feel anything like so fulfilled as it does today. He was inspirational!’ I can only add hear, hear to that.

Copyright: Michael Everett 2013

All pictures are courtesy of D&AD.








About Mike Everett

I am a freelance creative director and writer of all forms of communication.


Subscribe to our e-mail newsletter to receive updates.

, , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.