Kaye sera sera
Even from the early days, maverick director Tony Kaye had a reputation for instability – but he’s right on track now. ‘I am going to get a lot of things done,’ he assures Donald Clarke
WHAT ARE WE to make of Tony Kaye? Few directors have caused quite so much trouble for the industry. On at least three occasions, following some weird outburst or other, the financiers have exiled him to an outer moon of Saturn. But eventually he claws his way back. Next week he returns with an occasionally dazzling, sometimes overheated study of the American educational system entitled Detachment. It is his most highprofile release since 1997’s acclaimed American History X.
One feels obliged to politely ask how Kaye made it back into the tent. We could fill this page with nothing but mad anecdotes that argue for his instability. Initially achieving fame as a commercials director, he took a video of his famous Dunlop tyre commercial – the one with the big gold bloke – to the Tate Gallery and lobbied for inclusion. Even before he’d achieved proper success, he was making an exhibition of himself. He burst into the offices of Saatchi and Saatchi, the top advertising agency, and distributed leaflets promoting his own work. He staged the kidnapping of a secretary.
There is a long, long pause at the end of the phone. Then Tony answers.
“I think that is all behind me now,” he says. “I was in the wilderness for years. But whatever I have done, I have always managed to get back. They know I amgoing to work my heart out for the right reasons. They don’t listen to these stories – all that kind of stuff.”
We’ll get back to those stories in a moment. But let us first consider how we got here. Tony Kaye was born to a Jewish family in London some 59 years ago. A nervous fellow, who has had to fight a serious stammer (that’s seems to be the reason behind his mighty pauses), he initially wanted to become a painter, but soon stumbled into commercial design. It was, from there, a short hop into commercials.
After winning an award at the Cannes advertising festival, he somewhat lost the run of himself and began the first of several campaigns in aggressive self-promotion. The industry was, however, sufficiently impressed with his talent to permit a degree of oddness. He made his name with a famous British Rail commercial that suggested train travel always took place in sepia. Then came that coal advertisement in which the cat, the dog and the mouse snuggle up in front of the fire. With his shaven head and forbidding piercings, Tony gained superstar status.
After that success, he began to cause yet more trouble. He allegedly shot enough footage for an entire feature when making a Volvo commercial. For another car ad, he insisted that a complete bridge be built.
“Those things weren’t a problem. That was about trying to find a solution that is original,” he reasons. When you are trying to break new ground, you have to go different ways. If you are looking for a colour that nobody has ever mixed then you have to use a lot of paint. I enjoyed the attention. The crazy aspect? ‘Crazy’ in terms of art is just being different. That’s just thinking outside the box.”
For all his irregular behaviour, Kaye was sufficiently admired to attract the attention of Hollywood. Featuring long sections shot in monochrome, American History X starred Ed Norton as a Los Angeles hard nut with an interest in neo-fascist politics. Though much celebrated now, the film garnered all sorts of negative publicity before release. It is said that, frustrated by Kaye’s behaviour, Norton seized control of the production and imposed his own edit on the final cut. Kaye failed in his efforts to get his name taken off the picture – he wanted it credited to Humpty Dumpty – and, once more, found himself categorised as a dangerous eccentric.
“I blew that up much bigger than what it was,” he says. “Ed didn’t take over control. But I was very unhappy at the end of it. I wasn’t happy with the cut. I don’t really think about it that much.”
He must occasionally wonder how a more mature Tony Kaye might have approached the situation. “No. I am too busy doing other things.” The Kaye myth states that, following the American History X punch-up, he found himself propelled into the wilderness. Tony has already used that last word in our conversation, but he now seems to accept that, rather than being cast out, he essentially isolated himself. The belligerent bruiser of legend is nowhere in evidence. He seems to bear little ill-will for any of his former combatants
“To be honest, I didn’t really want to get involved. I’d go past the gym in Hollywood and see these directors reading scripts while on their walking machine and I’d think: I don’t want to do that. I ran the other way. But, yes, I did waste a lot of years. I was running around in circles.”
So he now blames himself for spending so long in the shadows?
“Of course it was my fault,” he says. “It is always your fault if something goes wrong with your life. You have to blame yourself.”
Kaye explains that, despite filing for bankruptcy and suffering endless bad press, he always managed to secure work on commercials andmusic videos. But the route back to features was studded with potholes. He eventually secured two films, but was fired from both.
In 2006, he delivered an extraordinary, impressively balanced documentary on abortion entitled Lake of Fire. The film won fine reviews and Kaye – now often seen with wild grey hair and biblical beard – found himself being taken seriously again.
Black Water Transit, a thriller starring Laurence Fishburne, emerged in 2009, but barely received a release. Detachment is, thus, the first of Kaye’s dramatic features to receive a decent release in a decade and a half. Adrien Brody stars as a substitute teacher running up against all sorts of trauma in a tough school. As if to prove that Kaye still has a reputation (or charm), Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Christina Hendricks and Lucy Liu have all taken smaller roles.
“Listen, it’s funny. I’ve done a move about racism and about abortion and about education. But am not a political or sociological director. I am not a film-maker who . . .”
A long pause. So long I begin to think he’s been cut off.
“Oh, maybe I am. But I think my view on education is not visualised or played out in this movie. I am very proud of the performances. I think it’s kind of like an action painting. It’s like that. Intellectuals can’t see it. It’s about feeling.”
He sounds a little nervous. But he sounds happy. Is he back on track?
“I have always felt that I’m doing the right job. I do feel now particularly that there is a good road ahead. I am going to get a lot of things done. That is my feeling.”