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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

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.”

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