Tony Kaye - The maverick returns

Tony Kaye has had a colourful career: commercials director, artist, film-maker, provocateur. Campaign caught up with the master of controversy as he makes a return to UK advertising.

Tony Kaye returns to the ad industry
Tony Kaye returns to the ad industry

Why do you want to make ads in the UK again? Advertising is the voice of money, money talks and it has to speak eloquently like that of a diplomat. It has to speak with a posh voice even if it's from Skid Row. Language. Understandablanguage. Syntax. Voice architecture. I don't know why but I feel at home in it. It's like being Jewish. I can read Aramaic Hebrew perfectly but I don't understand a word of what I'm saying. But it allows me to connect with any Jewish community anywhere I go. I guess I have that connection to being involved in the distribution of communication. And London is my capital for that because it's where I first saw billboard posters and my mother always pointed them out and told me how real the tomatoes looked!

When I began making commercials, I always used to think, OK, we made this commercial and that was that. Then, when I got into it more, my thinking went on to say: "Hey, what else can we do with all this stuff, where else can it go? Let's turn it all into a quiz show or something?"

And then the internet appeared. I shot the first-ever Microsoft commercial in the very early 90s. Making it took me all over the world for Wieden & Kennedy, shooting people and their computers and the internet. I had no idea what it all meant.

I want to make commercials in the UK again because I have surpassed Go, I rolled a "6" and a "2" and landed on Kings Cross Station.

Pop goes the we sell.

What are you most proud of in your career? Two things.

1. A songwriter called David Pirner. A band called Soul Asylum. A song called Runaway Train. A record label called Columbia Records. I made a video about missing kids, runaway kids and what they were running away from. Bad things. I included photographs of missing kids and information about when they were last seen. I changed the photographs wherever the video ran: the US, the UK, Australia etc. I changed the information and pictures of kids relevant to territory. My thought was to reunite families. That this was not a public service commercial but a music video. Therefore, it would be cool to return. To return to MTV in a way. That way, I thought it would work. Try to make things better. Twenty-six kids did return home to their families as a result of this concept. Of course, some of these situations were troubled. Overall, the result was positive. New beginnings.

2. On my arrival in the United States of America in 1990, I decided to make a movie about abortion. To make a movie about the debate on the subject in the United States of America. My intention was to try to educate the populous on what abortion actually was. Educationist. Simply that. Take no sides. My social conscious propelled me through 18 years of thought. It took me 18 years to finish it. I invested my entire career to the endeavour, to the subject mater. I thought it was important. It was theatrically released in America, many people have seen it all over the world and more will.

What are you least proud of? And what should I write into this fiction fate? The cat may well eat my tongue, but I will still speak for me and it ain't not never gonna be too late. The stress of a choir heard in the cries of my eyes, I say I'm sorry to everyone I ever hurt, I apologise.

What do you think of UK advertising today? I looked at what did well at the Cannes advertising festival. I loved what W&K UK did for Lurpak butter. Both concept and the execution were equally brilliant. Magnified a billion-fold by the challenge of taking a very unsexy product (in my opinion) and making it both relevant and hip. The scary power of advertising!

What do you think of ad agencies? If my agenda today was to purely direct TV commercials, I would prefer in fact to either join an advertising agency or start one. (Trust me, it has crossed my mind many times - to bring my experience to a network has always intrigued me. Maybe I'll do it some day!) I think in advertising the real power, the real voice, comes from the agency and not the director. It comes from the writers, like in the theatre. Maybe that's what advertising really is, a kind of reality theatre. Of course, the director can influence the voice, and now and again this happens. I worked in advertising agencies for four years. Three years at Collett Dickenson Pearce, several months at Lowe Howard-Spink and a few months at Hedger Mitchell Stark.

I personally went into advertising to use it as a door. I was following Andy Warhol at the time. I wanted to be a fine artist - that was my first calling - but I had no real idea of how to get there. I applied for jobs in galleries all over the world for a job so I could learn how that clock ticked. I always eagerly awaited the postman for months and months, but I was always turned down. So I just carried on making it up as I went along. In a way, I still am. The scope and potential of an advertising agency in 2012 is so great and so amazing, in my opinion, that it boggles the mind into a scrambled insanity!

You have been quoted as saying you are "the best English director since Alfred Hitchcock". Do you stand by that? I started to think of myself as a director in, or around, 1983. I had to find work somehow. I had no regard as a film major. I had been thinking in terms of slogans and words and headlines and, of course, pictures for the previous four years. I was also a massive fan of Cassius Clay and then Muhammad Ali. One day, I scribbled the silly slogan: "TONY KAYE IS THE MOST IMPORTANT BRITISH FILM DIRECTOR SINCE ALFRED HITCHCOCK." And I designed a logo and placed it underneath, which read: "TK, A TONY KAYE IDEA." (In hindsight, I wish I had put an exclamation mark after the word idea!) I ran it in the Evening Standard as a half-page ad. Honestly, in reality it was an in-house message to a very scared and insecure young man (I was 30; OK, maybe not so young) who felt he needed all the encouragement he could get!

Who are your heroes? My heroes are Moses and Jesus and The Beatles and Vincent van Gogh and, of course, God.

What inspires you? Every day and every night inspires me as if it was my last. Nature inspires me.

How did you become an outcast in Hollywood? I did not become an outcast in Hollywood. Hollywood became an outcast in me. (I'm not saying I was right, I'm just explaining what went down!) In reality, though, Hollywood is the 1 per cent. The world and the universe and what is beyond is the 100 per cent. That aside, I love Los Angeles topographically. The skies. The buildings. The randomness of it. Of course the people, the world of entertainment. I watched it as a kid on TV in the early 50s in London. I fell in love with it. That love affair continues. OK, so it's a bit one-sided! But the relationship continues and will in the end, albeit by the grace of God, be consummated!

What have you learned since those days? To be proactive and not reactive.

The making of American History X has gone into cinematic legend - a highlight being the meeting you had with the producers where you brought a rabbi, a priest and a lama. Do you look back and laugh now? The meeting was with Bob Shaye and Michael De Luca of New Line. I was trying to expand the consciousness in the room. I recently received an out-of-the-blue e-mail from Shaye complimenting me on my new movie Detachment. He wrote to me about how good he thought I was with actors in getting the best performances from them. He apologised!

Do you regret walking round New York straight after 9/11 dressed as Osama bin Laden? What were you hoping to achieve? I did this to show I had no fear. George Bush made an address to everyone in America STATING CLEARLY that we should not change the way we live. We should not cower to the threat of terrorism. Because if we did, then they had won. To me, this was purely a performance art piece. I have not changed, I am not frightened of ridicule, I am investigating performance (I was soon to begin working with Marlon Brando on an acting workshop, but that's another story!). I am acting up, playing the fool in the face of adversity in the greatest city on the planet.

What do you want to bring back to the UK advertising scene? I want to be fired by the seriousness of it and the importance of it. I feel like the alchemist - the story of the man who went looking all over the world for something else, only to realise in the end that it was right under his nose in the first place. London.

Why should we watch your new film Detachment? Hah! You should do what you want. Detachment is a very humble little movie that I made for one-tenth of the budget I had for American History X. It's not about education. It's a simple little parable about caring for people. It's about love. It's about reaching out and putting a suit on and giving. That's it. It's dressed as bleak but designed with a search for happiness at its heart.

Have you any film/ad projects in the pipeline? The future seems good - I'm holding my breath!

What advice would you give to young film-makers? Be original. Work hard. Work until you fall asleep. Pray. Be cool. Don't be scared of anything. Value your own ideas. Keep healthy. Don't take drugs. Don't drink alcohol. Don't eat hamburgers. And/or French fries. Wear a coat if it gets cold. Eat porridge in the morning. Watch as many movies as you can all the time. Learn to play the piano. Do some acting. Run for 45 minutes every day. Make angels (up for interpretation). Listen to the ten hours of Beatles music.Listen to it over and over again.

Know that family and environment is everything. Don't kill anyone. Don't rob any banks unless you're gonna invest it in a surefire hit movie and give the money back to the bank immediately afterwards. Don't break into anyone's home for any reasons whatsoever. Keep out of jail.

Read a lot. Write a lot (even gobbledegook like this!). Paint. Draw. See every movie by Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and Tex Avery.

Keep out of the sun in the middle of the day, unless you are wearing a hat and have a very strong sunscreen on. Like a factor 50 or something. Listen to Beatlesradio.com.

Try to see things my way, or run the risk of knowing that our love may soon be gone. Kill your ego!