In room 214 at The Soho Hotel, Tony Kaye is hunched on the floor, painting a picture of the Brussels sprout he used to live in.
Moments before, he was sitting on the bed, strumming his guitar while singing: "I am a lemon."
His eyes had fixed on the watching camera as he leant in to deliver his final raspy lines: "The stress of a choir heard in the cries of my eyes. I say I’m sorry to everyone I ever hurt, I apologise."
Stories about the controversial director’s outlandish behaviour are the stuff of Hollywood and Soho legend. He is held up as both a creative genius (D&AD’s joint-most-awarded director of all time) and a notoriously difficult person to work with – a trait that has culminated in a string of high-octane clashes over creative differences.
Rejecting boundaries in art is one thing. Doing it in real life has consequences and his theatrics have – in his own words – left him in the wilderness. He has not made many TV ads of late, he says: "Largely because I’m in corporate jail all over the world – Hollywood jail, Soho London jail, Madison Avenue jail."
But, now, he believes he has been released. His "complete utter fucking miracle" came in the form of Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, the owner of The Black Farmer.
The Black Farmer
When Emmanuel-Jones decided to create the first TV ad for his ten-year-old food brand, he was adamant that Kaye had to direct it.
Kaye was shocked that a client had specifically asked for him. But then Emmanuel-Jones is not a typical client. He is a former Conservative parliamentary candidate, one of very few black farmers in the UK and a former TV director who had "a vicious reputation". "I was a bastard, a real shit," he says.
Emmanuel-Jones is also a man who survived acute myeloid leukaemia after undergoing a stem cell transplant in 2014. He spent a year in hospital and promised himself that, when he recovered, he would take out an ad in the Outdoor Plus poster site he could see from his hospital room. This week, as the Kaye-directed ad for The Black Farmer, "this is my soul", breaks, he is going to run another ad on that same poster site to thank the staff at University College Hospital for saving his life.
If all that didn’t make him interesting enough, Emmanuel-Jones also has something to prove. He wants his new spot to demonstrate to the ad industry that handing control back to the creatives will result in a higher quality of work.
The Black Farmer campaign
Kaye and Emmanuel-Jones, together with Martin Galton, a co-founder of the creative agency Big Eyes, made a two-minute spectacle for The Black Farmer that will launch on Friday night (8 April) during Channel 4’s Gogglebox. It has all the hallmarks of a Kaye spot: unusual, artistic, eccentric. It is certainly unlike any sausages ad you’ve seen before. Teaser spots have been running since 1 April and the ad will subsequently be shown as a series of 30-second films.
Kaye calls it a collaborative effort: "Martin’s idea was to make a soul map of Wilfred. So I made a sort of documentary about him, his journey and the product with its audacious name. The Black Farmer is a fantastically brilliant marketing idea."
Kaye shot Emmanuel-Jones at his farm in Devon with the things he loves, including flamenco and morris dancers. The trio performed the "raw" soundtrack in one take – with Kaye on drums, Galton on the tambourine and Emmanuel-Jones reading the poem.
There are also plans for a US roll-out for The Black Farmer. "Launching a sausage brand in the Deep South called The Black Farmer? That’s going to be enormous," Kaye says. He has shown the spot to his agent, David Unger, at Three Six Zero Group to try to convince the rapper Jay Z (the owner of Roc Nation, which has a partnership with Three Six Zero) to help launch the brand in the US.
‘I have no political skill’
There is no doubting that Kaye is a creative maverick, but past tension has come from his inability to toe the line. He did not have such problems with Emmanuel-Jones, though, who says: "The reason why we got on really well together was that I trusted him to get on with it. When there have been problems in the past, people have tried to tell him what to do. That’s only going to lead to conflict. You can’t admire someone and then tell them what to do."
Kaye thinks the pair had "an understanding" similar to the one he had with his 90s clients at Dunlop and Volvo. He says this partnership was different because often "people hire me and then they don’t let me work. It doesn’t make any sense."
"I have no political skill. I have no business acumen. I can’t create an avenue in which to work. I can work and I work hard but I can’t create the room to do it. So if I don’t have the room, it’s a nightmare," Kaye adds.
But his message, which he stresses throughout the interview, is that he is a changed man: "It’s not a nightmare any more for anybody, because now I’ll do whatever you want. Confrontation – I don’t have time for that any more. It was silly and I was in another place then."
An absolute creative
Meeting Kaye is like watching one of his ads – every bit the interesting and surreal experience you had imagined. He may be at pains to stress that he is now user-friendly – "I don’t fight any more"; "I can self-edit" – but his artistic eccentricities are still evident.
He is an explosion of ideas – his mind buzzes and he flits quickly between topics. He’s spontaneous, unpredictable and difficult to pin down. At one point, the conversation turns to cabbages. "I used to live in a Brussels sprout," Kaye proclaims.
The sprout in question was made from plaster and was surrounded by three sprout "fields". It was put up in the hallway in the Medway College of Art, where he was a student.
"Tracey Emin told me – this is true – that I inspired her to be an artist," Kaye says. "Her brother was at my art school and he told her there was some bloke living in a Brussels sprout. She came to see it."
When asked to elaborate on his cruciferous dwelling, he jumps up excitedly, forages around for a fresh sheet of paper and starts to paint it. He spends the next ten minutes drawing while continuing to answer questions, then stops abruptly: "Brussels sprouts have nothing to do with The Black Farmer. I’ll come back to that later. Do you mind?"
Kaye's painting of the Brussels sprout he used to live in
Kaye summarises his creative philosophy as: "Trying to be original in some way." This is evident in the way he approaches the interview – as an opportunity to create, to collaborate. It’s a sort-of "happening". He has rehearsed a song. He is determined to provide good material. He calls after the interview to say he wants to create some paintings for Campaign before he flies back to Los Angeles. True to his word, they are waiting at the hotel reception the next day.
Kaye's paintings for Campaign
During the interview, there is a flash of his famous single-mindedness when a photograph is not turning out how he imagines. After giving specific instructions to the photographer, which include grabbing and positioning the camera himself, he gives up and takes the picture on his own phone while holding the lamp for the lighting in his other hand. Yet a moment later, he quietly takes direction during his musical performance from the video producer and does four takes to get it just right.
Kaye is contradictory. On the one hand, he says: "We don’t want another ‘Tony Kaye is mad’ article." And yet, everything about his behaviour screams the opposite. Indeed, he later adds: "You’ll put everything in, won’t you?"
He is self-deprecating about his painting and musical ability, claiming: "I have no confidence in my ability at all." This doesn’t tally with the man who once took out an ad calling himself "the greatest English director since Hitchcock".
"I’m a showman," Kaye says later – something he learnt from his father, who was in the rag trade. "The one thing that I’m good at, what I do, is I get performances. I’m a frustrated performer. My job is not in front of the camera but behind the camera."
And yet he is undoubtedly a performer himself. One of his more famous "incidents" was taking a priest, a rabbi and a monk with him to a meeting at the film studio during the American History X stand-off in the 90s (Kaye tried to have his name removed from his first feature film because he disagreed with the final edit). Although he now says the Coen brothers have aped this moment in their latest film, Hail, Caeser!.
Kaye tries to get the perfect shot
No room for eccentrics
When Kaye began his ad career, eccentricity was a quality to be nurtured and encouraged – the ultimate proof of a creative mind. But times have changed. The same tools that are providing new opportunities to create are strangling difference. People are afraid to say what they think for fear of ferocious public shaming. Throw in a difficult economy and it’s no wonder caution prevails.
Kaye summarises it as such: "It’s very tough out there. That’s why people are very cautious. You’ve got to look after your family. You’ve got to be very careful about what you say. You can’t do mad things. You have to minimise the risk."
He believes this shift has squeezed eccentric characters like himself out of the industry. Emmanuel-Jones argues that this is a huge failing of adland: "The industry is now being run by the fear merchants, who are the guys in suits saying to clients: ‘You’ve got to come through us, these creatives are odd.’ It isn’t a craft for absolute creatives any more."
Of course, Kaye also accepts his own past failings. When asked to explain the lyrics of the song he has performed, he says it is autobiographic: "I’ve lived to my own parameters of my own idiocy. There’s a lot of things that I wish I had not done, but I’ve done those things. You can’t look back. You have to keep going and pay back the miracle of life."
Despite criticism about his creative process, Kaye’s work has always been praised for its fearlessness. On the subject of bravery, he says: "When it comes to it, a lot of people are frightened to stand out. Their negative demons prevent them from really expressing themselves. You just have to not care about that sort of stuff. You have to take risks, but there is a certain limit."
How does he know where to draw the line? "I don’t know where the line is. I don’t think anybody knows where the line is," he answers. "You just have to pray. Work hard. Anything you do, try to make it the best you can and just don’t do anything daft."
Shortly after the interview, Kaye is back in Los Angeles to make a film with another controversial performer, Shia LaBeouf. Stranger Than The Wheel, written by Joe Vinciguerra, will be produced by Kaye’s company, Above The Sea. Kaye has "100 fucking per cent" creative control. "This will be the one," he says.
Another upcoming project is directing a film for Vice that will be executive produced by Spike Jonze. He is also immersed in the virtual-reality craze: "That’s going to change everything. It’s mind-blowing."
On a personal level, Kaye says he found new inspiration working with Emmanuel-Jones: "Everything that I’ve got going on now comes from a sense of belief in myself again. That belief came from working with Wilfred and watching how he conducts his own life with zero fear."
Kaye adds: "I just want to work. I want to create things in whatever form and help other people to create their things and just work and live."
There is a telling moment at the end of Campaign’s interview. Kaye is asked to pose for a picture with his sprout painting. True to form, he subverts the conventions of even a quick phone picture by lying on the floor to pose with his work. But when some of the paint drops on to the hotel carpet, he is aghast. He makes sure every last stain is removed. Out, damned spot! On this occasion, he succeeds.
Is Kaye genuinely the reformed character he claims to be? Can he really "self-edit" enough to fit in? It is hard to tell. But, at 63, with this new ad and film projects lined up, he has another chance to prove himself. The Black Farmer spot may be about Emmanuel-Jones’ soul, but Kaye will be hoping he can finally redeem his own.
"I don’t give a shit if we sell one packet of sausages or not"
by Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones
Everything about The Black Farmer is breaking the mould. Even the name is a double-take moment – people are not sure if it is politically correct.
During our pitch [run through AAR in May last year], we saw some really big agency names. What surprised me is that people are trapped by their own stereotypes. Nearly everyone went down the "black boy does well" route and talked about overcoming racism and prejudice.
All too often, white liberalists have a perception about what it means to be black in Britain. Roles for black people tend to be tame and uncontroversial. This ad could never have been made purely from the mind of a white person because they are so conscious of offending people.
The ad industry has a lot to answer for in terms of its under-representation of diverse Britain. It should absolutely be ashamed. It has not been called to task because there are not strong enough figures that can make a big deal about it.
I wanted to do an ad that was groundbreaking and, when people looked at it, they’ll think: "What the bloody hell was all that about?"
The person I wanted to direct it was Tony Kaye. I didn’t have a big budget and he has a difficult reputation. Everyone thought I was nuts. But the ads that I admire – Guinness "surfer", Tony’s Dunlop ad, Cadbury "gorilla" – were made in the days when creatives ruled the roost.
What I learned from this process is that the people in the industry are not craftsmen; they are people who facilitate a craftsman. I used to be a director so I’m not frightened of the medium. I like to work with the tradesmen – it’s all about trust. So I stripped out all the layers of management.
What I hope this commercial will demonstrate is that, if you leave the creatives to get on with it, you will create some fantastic work. Ad agencies will bore you to death with their planning and understanding of the audience. But research will only tell you what people are thinking today. Great work has to be ahead of the curve.
I’m starting from the premise that tends to be horrifying to most people: I don’t give a shit if we sell one packet of sausages or not. What is important to me is to do a great piece of work because then the sales will come.
I work on the philosophy that consensus breeds mediocrity. Genius is single-minded. I could never have come up with what Tony did. So I shut the fuck up.