Too big for his ads: profile: Tony Kaye

Loose cannon or the genius he says he is? Geraldine Bedell on a restless talent
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN A converted garage, open to the elements, a naked woman, Gret- chen, sits on a leather sofa - or rather, since it's so chilly, hangs off it over a tiny electric heater. Passers-by wander in from the street, look at photographs on the walls and eye Gretchen uncertainly. Some speak to, and touch her. Gretchen is HIV-positive, and an art exhibit.

She - or her presence in this garage - is the creation of Tony Kaye, an Englishman aged 43, now living in Los Angeles, who is better known for making stunning television commercials. In the eight years he has been directing, Kaye has made some of the most arresting commercials in recent memory: the sepia-tinted Relax film for British Rail, complete with chess-playing rabbi and sleepy Penguin logo; the kissing dog, cat and mouse for the Solid Fuel Advisory Council; the Volkswagen advert in which a curly-haired blonde girl wanders through a whirling New York.

He filmed Lionel Bart at the piano surrounded by children for Abbey National, the Volvo in the tornado, and the conference of babies being addressed on the merits of the Vauxhall Astra. One creative team at Saatchi and Saatchi recently described him as the "spiritual leader of young creatives today - truly a visionsmith". The enthusiasm of younger people in advertising is particularly focused on his fetishistic film for Dunlop, with buddhas, falling pianos and, somewhere in there, tyres.

Kaye is weighed down with awards. "The most difficult to win and the most respected are D&AD [Designers and Art Directors'] pencils," he explains from Los Angeles. "In advertising you're pretty high up if you've won two. I've won 23, more than anyone else, ever." He has also become extremely rich: he has homes in LA, and Maida Vale and Soho in London, and recently spent pounds 2m of his own money making a feature-length film about abortion.

Other British commercials directors have moved from supermarket products to Hollywood productions - Hugh Hudson, Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne, Ridley Scott and Tony Scott, the director of Top Gun - and it may be that Kaye has ambitions to do the same. Before he had ever made a commercial, he placed an advertisement in Campaign, the advertising trade paper, announcing that he was the most important British director since Alfred Hitchcock. The industry was not impressed. It took him six years to be recognised as more than a self-promoting eccentric.

Kaye's talent is to coax subtle performances out of people and capture them with painterly attention to texture. Unusually, he insists on operating his own camera, and he has made it his business to know everything about light, film stocks and lenses. Yet a number of eminent people in advertising see him as a dangerously loose cannon, insistent on having his own, slightly mad way. Even his close friend Tim Mellors admits that when they worked together on a Pepe jeans commercial, it was difficult to cope with Kaye's determination to include a bear, despite its total lack of relevance to the script or the product. "In the end I managed to cut it out at the final edit."

It may well be that great wealth has allowed Kaye to indulge this slightly unhinged side of his personality. It has allowed him, for example, to employ his friend Damien Hirst as a commercials director. Hirst has made one film, on behalf of the television station TNT, for which the brief was to be weird ... resulting in a film so weird they couldn't use it. It has allowed Kaye to put on another exhibition, this time of a homeless man, Roger Powell, who spends every day at the Tate (or so he and Kaye claim). Mr Powell, at once visitor and exhibit, is for sale.

Don't Be Scared, the Aids show featuring Gretchen, has already been seen in Los Angeles and New York, and is in London until the end of the month. It is a hotchpotch of things that interest Tony Kaye - photographs of prostitutes, newspaper cuttings about the Israeli elections, images of anti-semitism, his daughter eating spaghetti, and excerpts from his diary which look as though they've been scribbled in the car: "May 1st 1996. On the way to Don't Be Scared. Please G-d can you make this the most important exhibition in the history of mankind."

It is unlikely it will be that. Quite apart from the question of whether it's actually worth going to see conceptual art once you've grasped the concept, the exhibition is all over the place. But perhaps really creative people do find it difficult to settle down and stick to what they're good at (in Kaye's case, short films). And if it were not for that restlessness, that willingness to expose weakness and look ridiculous, he probably never would have made the commercials in the first place (or the pounds 5m or so that came with them). Earlier on, the odds didn't exactly look promising.

TONY KAYE left school with one GCSE grade one in art. He failed to get on to the photography course at Medway College of Design, and his applications to study fine art were turned down by every college to which he applied. He worked as a lavatory cleaner, shop assistant and messenger, and tried to flog his paintings and collages on the railings of the Bayswater Road in London, home of schlock art.

Eventually, jobs in design studios led to a position as an art director at the advertising agency Collett Dickinson Pearce, where his boss, Tony Brignull, remembers him appearing daily in his office to demand a company car, though he was too junior and there were others ahead of him in the queue. Eventually, the agency caved in and got him a car on condition he stopped submitting astronomical taxi bills. The next day he was back, wanting driving lessons. "Funny?" asks Brignull now. "Not really. He didn't want a car, he wanted one over the other art directors."

People do move from agencies into directing, but they usually have more of a track record than Kaye, who tried to do it after a mere three and a half years. "Tony has an ego the size of the Empire State Building and the self-assurance of a gnat," says Mellors. Perhaps this mixture of arrogance and insecurity is what has made him the world's most successful commercials director. Perhaps it's his stammer, which has forced him to express himself visually. Perhaps it's something to do with his evidently complicated feelings about being Jewish.

Kaye was born in Highbury, north London, and grew up in Potters Bar. His father was in the rag trade; his mother worked in the local courts. "It's very important to me, being Jewish," he says. "It's the brainwashing factor, isn't it? They feed this information into you and you become that product. I'm very proud of it." In the early 1980s, when he left advertising agencies to launch himself as a director, he founded a company called Wandering Jew and went about in fingerless gloves, like Fagin. The number plate on his Lincoln Towncar is JEW ISH; he once advertised this vehicle for sale in British newspapers for pounds 2m, which prompted abusive telephone calls from people who thought the advert was anti-semitic. He recorded these, and hopes eventually to exhibit them, with the car, "which I think of as a sculpture", and his daily photographs and drawings of it.

These days Kaye attributes his success to the mixture of his father's artistic talent and his mother's "emotionalism-stroke-craziness". And the almost childish attention-seeking which is the obverse of his talent does often seem crazy. In the six years between leaving advertising agencies and becoming a successful director, when "a lot of people said I had a mild nervous breakdown", he almost ruined his best chance of work by throwing leaflets about a woman with whom he was having a relationship off the top of Saatchis' offices.

Ask him now whether he considers himself a commercials director, a maker of feature films or an artist, and he is unhesitating. "I want to be thought of as an artist. I want to produce great art. I don't know whether I've done that yet, or whether I ever will."

David Lee, editor of Art Review magazine, says: "If you define art as that which embodies the ideology of the state, advertising is where great art is. When the BBC ran its Poster Project a couple of years ago, putting the work of contemporary artists on billboards, it was noticeable how much crisper the advertisers were at communicating." It seems quite likely that commercials will be the closest Kaye comes to being a great artist.

He wants to make feature-length films, but admits that he lacks narrative skills. And given that when he made a British Airways commercial he shot 38 miles of film, enough to make Gone With The Wind four times over, a feature film might take some time. He is, however, currently considering two films, one with MTV and Paramount about a 16-year-old girl with Aids, and one with New Line about racism.

He calls the abortion film "conceptual documentary expressionism" and is currently trying to get distribution. That it will be expressionistic in the sense of emotional is not in doubt. When Kaye was 25 the woman with whom he was then living had an abortion against his wishes (though the film is not anti-abortion). That it will contain startling shots and finely crafted moments is not in doubt either. Whether it will all hang together is another matter.

Tony Kaye is probably more stable personally now than he has been for a long time - happily married to a former model from Romania who studied at Yale, and with two children, Betty and Ruby, five and three. And he has proved everyone wrong before. But it is difficult not to feel that if he wants to be a great artist, in whatever medium, he will have to find himself a really strong, trusted producer, someone who can discipline him and get rid of the bears. Even Mozart wrote to a brief.

Comments