Close-Up: Profile - From inspired creativity to utter chaos

As well as coming back to directing ads, Tony Kaye has calmed down. Kunal Dutta discovers why.

Tony Kaye is erratic with telephones. "He knows you're calling, but might hang up," Graham Fink, the executive creative director of M&C Saatchi, warns. "Call him back. Keep trying. Don't leave a message."

Apparently, the odds of a phone interview are not stacked in my favour. Legend has it that the British film director, who suffers from a stammer, was 27 by the time he felt comfortable using a phone. Even that was to be thwarted 20 years later when he fell out with Hollywood over his first feature film, American History X. After that, he ditched the phone altogether.

Nowadays, though, he answers immediately. Hearing that it's Campaign wanting to talk about his new ad for Kronenbourg, there is a pause. You wonder if a volcanic eruption is brewing. But instead, the response is soft and understated. "OK. Cool."

It's all so nonchalant that I ask if these phone tales are actually true. "Yes," he says. "After American History X, I didn't talk on the phone or any other electronic device for about ten months. I couldn't bear people shouting at me."

Yet admen who have worked with Kaye can testify that it has usually been the other way around. Colourful and chaotic stories about him are rife. Many culminate in one terrifying flashpoint of creative difference.

Take, for example, 1995, when, after being kicked out of directing a British Airways ad, he accused its marketing manager of racism and sued for more than £500,000 in unpaid fees. And when the case was settled out of court, Kaye displayed the invoice in Charles Saatchi's gallery.

Or when an argument with McCann Erickson over a Bacardi ad saw another director hired to re-shoot the ending. A furious Kaye flew his staff out to the Dominican Republic, with instructions to hide the actors and ensure the new director returned empty-handed. When he did, Kaye flew the Dominicans back to London himself and paraded them outside McCann's offices.

Such tales make Kaye an unpredictable figure. Yet for every absurd image, there are equally inspiring ones generated from his ads. Take, for example, the yawning chess piece in the Intercity "relax" spot in 1987, a cat and dog cosying up in front of the fire in the "furry friends" commercial for the Solid Fuel Advisory Bureau or the fat, toothless face in Dunlop's "expect the unexpected".

Kaye will not be drawn into pinpointing highlights of his back catalogue. "There was a certain voice that came out of that stuff that would have been interesting if we'd spoken three-quarters of a dozen years ago," he says, clearly consigning much of it to his past life.

Kaye has continuously flitted between inspired creativity and utter chaos. So why does such talent come with a career-ending death wish? "Certain people deal with such accolades and adoration in certain ways. I became a terribly egotistical person and allowed my worst enemy to completely dominate me," he says. "Then I did American History X and hit the wall with the speed of a supersonic jet."

Ten years on, his latest ad for Kronenbourg pushes the merits of the beer's Dynamo Systeme. It takes place inside an industrial space resembling the interior of a beer can. Showing how the widget produces smaller bubbles, the ad sees chefs basking in bubbles and frantically chopping them into smaller pieces.

"I was excited about the idea of human life existing within a tiny piece of technology," he says. "As a kid, I believed that inanimate objects were alive and reincarnated from a human being. For instance, now I'm looking at my hat and thinking it was a human being that clearly didn't do so well in its last life."

So why return to commercials now? Aside from the financial reasons, Kaye cites the importance of being connected to the outside world and not being too vacuously absorbed in one's own art. "I have four kids, so I have to work," he says. "But the more you bump into people, the better your work is. Stanley Kubrick's work suffered enormously the more reclusive he became."

Despite having a veteran director, the ad was actually created by 23-year-olds Paloma Reed and Nick O'Brien, a placement team at M&C Saatchi. "They are tremendously talented souls, but haven't had any success yet so their egos are still intact," Kaye reflects.

He, meanwhile, has lost none of his artistic idiosyncrasies. For this ad, he shunned the conventional storyboard, instead submitting his treatment to the client as a poem. He also chose real chefs, rather than actors, and resorted to extreme measures, including suspending one of them upside-down for nearly half-an-hour to get the best performance.

The final ad has a frenzied pace, helped by a multi-layered soundtrack and fast cuts. "Advertising is on a quest towards unbranded entertainment," Kaye says. "But this is a real ad: entertaining, as well as confidently branded."

Having dealt with his demons, Kaye is back. One of his most recent films, Lake of Fire, has been critically acclaimed. He is currently putting the final touches on Humpty Dumpty, a documentary that puts the whole of the American History X saga to rest, while his latest film, Black Water Transit, about the 2004 New Orleans floods and starring Laurence Fishburne, will be released in the UK later this year.

Meanwhile, his new Kronenbourg spot marks the more reflective return of adland's once enfant terrible. "In a previous life, I was ostracised by the British advertising industry," he says. "I've learnt a lot through the mistakes I've made. There may be more. But, over time, I can only hope the red carpet will roll out again."

MELLORS ON KAYE ...

Tim Mellors, Worldwide creative director, Grey Worldwide

Tony's big simian face is wonderfully expressive. As his staccato stuttering hunts for verbal expression, his face has already said it. It's the same with his work. The words are afterthoughts, usually in 12-point Franklin, and Tony's lingering, long lens gaze at the minutiae of facial nuance is as eloquent as a sonnet. Whether it's a skinheaded Edward Norton, a little girl in the back of a Manhattan limo or a Hasidic Jew playing chess, Tony finds something spoken by their physiognomy that I've only seen equalled by the greatest portraitists: Penn, Freud or even Picasso.

When we were making a series of Pepe jeans ads, Tony took me to see the performance artist Leigh Bowery. "Fffffffuckin' pppppperfect," Tony said. "Let's stick light bulbs in his ears and up his aaaaaarse." So we did and, of course, it worked.

Tony is irascible, unpredictable, intuitive and a true artist, his genius for self-publicity only surpassed by his ability to shoot himself painfully in both feet in the process. Working with him is similar to one of those exhilarating theme park rides: it's one hell of a thrill, but pack extra underwear.

GREEN ON KAYE ...

Malcolm Green, Former executive creative director, Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners

Every creative should work with Tony Kaye. They'll learn lots about the art of communication, the craft of film-making and more than a little about themselves. I used to dread the phone call, the knowing laugh. "Malc. Be brave," he'd say. You'd only find out later why.

When I worked at BMP, we had the Meat Marketing Board account. Tony rang: "Malc. Be brave. The editor of The Times will call you in five minutes. I've hired Damien Hirst as a director and told The Times you're using him for a meat ad."

"But Tony, I'll get into trouble," I pleaded.

"Malc. Be brave." The editor called, I obeyed and got a roasting from Chris Powell.

Eventually, I rebelled. During the Salman Rushdie crisis, I called Tony and said the BBC was about to call: "I've told them you're directing the film of The Satanic Verses."

"Brilliant!" Tony says.

Three minutes later, he rings back. "Er, Malc. This geezer Rushdie can't go out. They're gonna kill him. Do you think this story's a good idea?"

"Tony," I said. "Be brave."

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