The ego is the engine of death.
Tony Kaye, the former enfant terrible of the UK commercials scene, has a new production company for commercials called Above the Sea. Kaye is the master director, does shoots, and post-produces fantastic in-house work for Wieden+Kennedy and other top agencies. He recently also directed the critically acclaimed “Detachment,” starring Adrian Brody. It was only his second feature film after his problematic debut with American History X, directed in 1998. Now, he’s about to embark on the shooting of a big studio film called “The Merchant of Shanghai.” Hermann Vaske spoke to Tony Kaye in Berlin.
L.A.: You’ve just completed “Humpty Dumpty Part 1,” which is a making of American History X starring Marlon Brando, Mike Figgis, Michael de Luca, Edward Norton, and yourself. What is the big lesson to learn here?
Tony Kaye: The big lesson here is that there is a character of a man, basically me, who was obsessed with his own self. I had this desire for his self only, which is called the ego. And the ego is the engine of death. Of course I had to crash into a wall, fall off the wall, and brake, and then do a Humpty Dumpty. Thank God I’m not Humpty Dumpty ... probably even worse, I’m Tony Kaye, but I was able to put myself back together with some considerable help from other people, and I don’t mean psychiatrists. You can’t succeed in this manner. The beauty of filmmaking – or motion picture making, or digital, or whatever you like to call it – is that it’s a collaborative craft and it’s the collective effort of a number of people, of a number of energies. I do believe that there should be a conductor with a baton. But regarding the final cut, you have to be in a very special place to exercise that, or you work it from an understanding place where you try to do the best you can, and you understand the pain of others. As for American History X, I would do a final cut now if I had time for that but I’m very busy with other stuff. There will, however, eventually be a director’s cut for the twenty-year anniversary, which is in about 4-5 years’ time.
L.A.: You said film is a collaborative art form. I once talked to Larry Clark and he said: “I’m a final cut director and I make sure that I have the final cut because I don’t want anyone to fuck with my movie.” But can you protect the final cut contractually?
Tony Kaye: Well, you can do anything you want if you orchestrate it from the very beginning. Darren Aronofsky, he had final cut from the very beginning because he did it step by step, piece by piece, very cleverly and methodically, you know, carved his cause. So it can be done. There are some directors that you don’t want to give final cut to. The last thing you want to see is what they really want. Some people have to be protected from their own selves … some maybe not.
L.A.: How was the collaboration with Marlon Brando?
Tony Kaye: I went to America for one reason and one reason only. And that was to work with American actors. I personally felt at that time – I don’t feel that so much now but I did back then – for some reason American actors understood how to work with the camera. Where I was born, in London, it’s much more of a theatrical situation, where actors are primarily stage actors. In England, you’re not supposed to show your feelings; you are supposed to keep your feelings in, and I can’t do that if I feel upset. I mean, I can contain my feelings so I don’t behave like an idiot, but if I feel something, usually I show it. For camera acting, I wanted to work with people that were like Marlon Brando. Marlon was actually the actor I really wanted to work with. I managed to become not only his friend but also like a kind of son, you know, and I knew Marlon for five, six, seven years, and I just wanted so much to work with him, talk with him … He didn’t really produce anything because he was … you know, both of us were a little bit in the clouds at that time. But it’s given me the most wonderful foundation and passport to work with any other actors … I think he’s every single director’s favorite movie actor of all time.
L.A.: And he also spoke some words of wisdom. He said: “You got the conviction and New Line got the money.” Do you have to make a Faustian pact in order to be successful in Hollywood?
Tony Kaye: I don’t think you have to make a Faustian pact to get anything. If you make a Faustian pact, you gain only temporary pleasure. Not happiness, which is what we’re all born to be. We are born to be happy. Happiness doesn’t mean walking around with a big smile on your face but happiness means a kind of freedom from aggravation. I think you have to get yourself into a place where you accept what happens, and is meant to happen, and can deal proactively with that. The temporary pleasure doesn’t work, so the Faustian pact – selling your soul to the devil – sure, you might be getting satisfaction in that moment of time but it’s not going to last and it’s not that meaningful. You need to feel pain to make a gain. You know, you need to earn the local bread if you want to taste it. The kid who gets the job from the dad running the company without starting on the shop floor doesn’t really feel it, and that will never be any good.
L.A.: The Guardian said you were a fantastic pain in the ass at the time of American History X. But, looking now back, have you made your peace with the Hollywood system?
Tony Kaye: Well, I wasn’t fighting Hollywood. Hollywood couldn’t give a damn about me. I love to work, so it’s important to do the best I can.
L.A.: Okay, rewind! Tell us about your origins on the UK advertising scene.
Tony Kaye: You know, in advertising I got a job accidentally – luckily, in what was the greatest English advertising agency in Europe in the late 70s: Collett Dickenson Pearce. They really were the top place at the time. They won all the pitches, they won all the awards in London. They were the best in Europe. All the top directors were coming from that place: Adrian Lyne, Alan Parker, David Puttnam. It made me very arrogant. They were all very arrogant.
L.A.: How did you get into CDP?
Tony Kaye: Well, I had a terrible at speaking problem … I couldn’t talk on the phone at all. At that time, I went to some courses at the D&AD and I accidentally bumped into Neil Godfrey and he asked me to call him regarding a job in advertising. And I had to call the guy, so … and this is a classic ego thing. I phoned four times, and when somebody answered the phone, I couldn’t say: “Is Neil Godfrey there?” I couldn’t talk on the phone so I made a tape recording of my voice, which I thought was very clever … actually, it wasn’t because it was the ego … because why was I scared about it? I was scared about feeling the embarrassment, you know, my face going into these distortions: “Is Neil Godfrey there? It’s Tony Kaye.” So I technically recorded my voice: “Is Neil Godfrey there?” I phoned a few times, somebody answered the phone, they said: “Yes, what can I do for you?” and I pressed the tape and the voice came out: “Is Neil Godfrey there?” and they said, “Yes …” and I thought, aha, done it. Beat the system! And they said: “We’ll put you through,” and someone else came to the phone and said: “Yes?” and I pressed the button again and it said, “Is Neil Godfrey there?” and they said, “Yes. Who’s calling?” But I forgot to record: “It’s Tony Kaye.” So I stumbled and stuttered and blood shot into my face. I eventually got out “Tony Kaye,” thank God, and I got hired but that was the story …
L.A.: You worked with Adrian Brody on the feature film “Detachment,” which was highly acclaimed by critics. Adrian said something interesting about you: he said not only that you are a brilliant director, you are also a fucking great collaborator.
Tony Kaye: Well, I feel I protect other people’s ideas more … I mean, I don’t care whose idea. I protect what I think is the essence of the work, and in the past I’ve gone over the top with my protection. I think I’ve learned, in the wisdom of the years, that I experienced how far to go, and it’s all about the collaboration of people. You know, I’m a massive Beatles fan. I’ve studied that 10 hours of music that they made, and the way in which they made it in the collaborative spirit. It is the same collaborative spirit that applied to Steve Jobs and Jony Ive, and which made Apple brilliant. Jobs modeled his entire business on that collaborative nature – you know, brainstorming and coming up with ideas. Someone comes up with an idea and someone puts something else on top of it, someone else puts something else on top of that, and this thing grows and becomes what it becomes. Nobody, whoever they are, does anything on their own. Whenever you are working with a team of people, when there’s trust and there is love, of course, you know, the work is always better. With Adrian, we got on like a house on fire and it was a little tiny movie we made there but we did it in no time at all and we did it for the budget of a normal TV commercial. I never really knew what a fantastic actor Adrian was. I always thought that he was good but I didn’t realize how good he really was. We got out amazing work. I like to think that I helped him to give one of the best performances he has ever delivered.
L.A.: How do you get such amazing performances out of your cast?
Tony Kaye: Well, I think of myself as an actor primarily in the scene. I’m not in the scene but my camera is in the scene and I operate the camera myself when I shoot, and so I pick out the lens, the glass of the lens as a face in amongst other actors, and I never stop an actor from working. I never really tell an actor what to do; I might encourage them to turn left or turn right or whatever it is, and also to push it a little bit more, but I never get in the way, and they know that I am a massive fan of them, and that’s what I make quite clear before I work with them. That was one reason why I got so upset with Edward Norton in American History X – because I did so much for him and he turned on me in the end. With Adrian, it just worked out wonderfully well and it shows in his performance.
L.A.: What do you look for in a screenplay?
Tony Kaye: Well, I’m looking for truth. When I read the screenplay of Detachment, I felt that the research was great. It turned out that the writer, Carl Lund, was a teacher so he really understood what he was writing about. He actually lived it. I also made a documentary called Lake of Fire (2007) that was shortlisted for an Oscar. It took me 17 years to make that film. It’s about the debate on abortion in the United States. There were several murders of doctors that took place during the making of that film, and on one occasion I spent quite some time with a murderer who eventually murdered some doctors, and I interviewed a doctor that he later murdered. I shot at places where people were murdered. In fact, at one point the FBI wanted to take all my footage to look at it to see if I had any other potential people who might cause an issue. So, living amongst that for years, I really learned how to have a bullshit-detector of a really great magnitude. When I work with an actor, I can tell if it’s real or not, and so I push them and guide them to a place where it is …
L.A.: You will soon start shooting in Shanghai, a feature film called The Merchant of Shanghai. Could you tell us something about it?
Tony Kaye: It’s a story about a guy called Silas Hardoon. As a young man, he gets to go to Shanghai at the end of the Second Opium War, when Britain did not do a good job in China, keeping them in this kind of opiated state. Well, the story behind the Merchant of Shanghai is about the city of Shanghai, when it was run – badly run – by the British in the late 19th century, and when opium was a very encouraged thing. The use of opium was very encouraged by the British, and the film is about a young man who found himself within this world and wants to get out of it ... that’s the Merchant of Shanghai, and he had a love for the Chinese and the Buddhist philosophies and so he channeled that and did a lot of good for the city of Shanghai, and in the process made a ton of money as well. Actually, he became the richest man in all of Asia, and it’s very much a love story as well.
L.A.: It seems to be a good fit.
Tony Kaye: It’s a perfect fit. You know, I have a daughter who is called Shanghai and, yeah, my wife is from China. Quite a big part of my family is from China and I’m making a story about a Jewish man who actually fell in love with the culture, and I’m doing this thing at a time when this can potentially be the big breakthrough collaboration between Hollywood and China. It’s very big budget, it’s a studio film. I’m tremendously interested in Chinese culture, I’ve also got a company called Above the Sea, which is English for Shanghai.
L.A.: Could you tell us more about that new commercials company?
Tony Kaye: I love that name, “Above the Sea,” and I love the fact that the world of media and the world of everyday life, the reality sort of television of the whole thing, has become one kind of hybrid mass. There’s a platform there, there’s a stage there that is inviting you onto it, however you want to go up on it. Sure, there are differences in the format of making a television commercial: the way it is structured, what it has to do. But a television commercial it is still a jeweled thing if you have a paradise budget and an incredible amount of time. As a filmmaker who understands the advertising world, and who understands how to work with it, you get this incredible opportunity to really exercise a kind of control and to really make a beautiful thing. But there’s also this other thing now through online media, where it’s a kind of Wild West, and it’s the ultimate test because you live or die based on how good your thing is. Of course, this has a certain element of a lucky draw – it’s always that way, you know. You make something bad and it does very well, and you make something fantastic and nobody knows you’ve even done it – which is even worse.
L.A.: Hegel once said, “Nothing is ever accomplished without passion.” How important is passion in what you do?
Tony Kaye: You know, I am a creative person and once those engines begin, you know, my engines, they’re sometimes too powerful for my capabilities. I see and I hear something and I don’t have the ability to reach it, and that’s a very frustrating thing. And there’s like a bridge between cause and effect; it’s a balancing act. And the good thing about experience … you know, I’ve been fortunate enough to have a long working life and I hope much, much more is still in store. I mean, I sure believe that I’m at the beginning now. I have this kind of bank of experience showing me how to get to the other side of the bridge, to where it in effect lives. Advertising, any show business activity really, is a restrictive thing because it’s show business and you’re here, you know. Marlon talked about that in Humpty Dumpty, you know. It’s the business of entertainment and it’s all about the bottom line; risk has to be minimized completely, and I totally understand that. You don’t have enough time, particularly in the digital age, to really research things and try things out and experiment. You gotta to do it, bang, and get on to the next thing ...
L.A.: I remember our late mutual friend Paul Arden. He said you shouldn’t use the word creative if you are not willing to take a risk. That’s something he said many moons ago.
Tony Kaye: Paul was an incredible leader and a manager of talent. It would be wonderful to meet some people like that now.
L.A.: Don’t they make them anymore, those kind of ... ?
Tony Kaye: Well, I don’t think ... it’s not that they made them. I mean, Paul made him himself, people make themselves. I mean, maybe not quite so eccentric as that, or as experimental as that, but then you think about Charles Saatchi. Charles Saatchi has proven he is a writer and a businessman. He runs one of the most powerful art galleries within that world. He was much more advertising than art but Charles is life as art completely. Charles created, you know, the art explosion of the 70s. He was in the right place at the right time with the right expression on his face, As for Paul, I’m sure a number of things that he did, which were hailed at Saatchi & Saatchi, he might been fired for at another place.
L.A.: What attracted you to commercials in the first place?
Tony Kaye: Well, advertising is not something I thought about when I was a kid. It wasn’t something that I sorted out, it kind of sorted me out, and I just found myself involved in it. But I have this fascination for selling, being a salesman. And I love ideas but ideas are nothing until they are sold. I think cinema has become an extension of the TV. And the television is really where the best stuff is going on. If you’ve seen Breaking Bad, that’s incredible, wonderful. It’s not on the nose, and the depth of the writing and the acting and the cinematography and the editing, and the directors, changes all the time.
L.A.: You work the camera yourself. What is most important for you as a cameraman?
Tony Kaye: The placement of the camera is so important, such a major thing, and it’s not really what I’m talking about at all but the placement of a camera, with the decision which lens goes on the camera, is such kind of a phenomenally important thing, and it’s very overlooked and it’s a very delicate ... I’ve shot over 8,000 days now, so I have a lot of experience and it is very delicate. There was a movie on at the hotel today, it’s called Cloud Atlas, and I saw a bit of it. It is a very, very interesting film because the camera is in the wrong place all the time. It is never in the right place once and it’s really astonishing …
L.A.: Are commercials still a wonderful way to get into feature film?
Tony Kaye: It depends really. If you wanna make film … I mean anyone can make a film. I mean, anybody. You don’t have to have any experience at all. It does help if you do but anybody can make a film, and directing is something anyone can do. As for commercials, I personally am addicted to them. Other people say a 50-second commercial or a 60-second commercial is over, is finished. I’m still addicted to the form because restriction is the magic wand and, you know, commercials are so difficult to get right, so it’s such a challenge. It’s a wonderful thing for any director who has an aspiration to being a long-form storyteller – as long as you realize you only get to learn certain things largely in the form of long-form storytelling.
L.A.: I once spoke to Tony Scott about the difference between a commercial and a feature film, and he basically brought it down to saying commercials are sprints whereas features are a marathon.
Tony Kaye: Well, yeah, for sure. Tony Scott was an extremely talented man and he was right. When I made American History X, I had no understanding of how to really deal with a long-form working relationship, let alone the form of the storytelling whereas in commercials you go and it’s very quick – yes, it’s a sprint.
L.A.: Would you like to have made more Hollywood films, more features?
Tony Kaye: I can only look forward and I can only think that my own journey, and my own path, is absolutely perfect for me, for what I am and what I am about, and I like to think that I have learned a lot, and I like to think that I’ve been through this crazy movie school like no other, and that I embrace creativity in many forms. I have completed three films. One is about a teacher, a story of a man set against the background of the education world, one is a story about a really good debate on abortion in the United States, and then there is American History X, which is an exploration into hate and anger. To me, there is a lot of integrity in the three things I’ve done so far. And I hope now, with everything I’ve learned from that and from all the other formats I’ve worked within, I hope now to get the opportunity to produce many other works in all those different formats: commercials, documentaries, and features. Regarding Humpty Dumpty, I’ve got a half-an-hour cut after ten years, which means I’ve got a long, long way to go, I hope there will be a happy ending, so … we’ll see. I think of myself as being at the beginning. Every day is a new beginning. Wake up – it’s all a new start.
L.A.: Yeah, these are three masterpieces of integrity, plus your commercials, plus your music videos. So it’s probably better than if Jerry Bruckheimer had taken you under his wing and you might have gone on make Pirates of the Caribbean ...
Tony Kaye: I have a Jerry Bruckheimer story actually and, you know, Jerry Bruckheimer – I swear this is true – begged me to work with him. This was in 1993/94. There was a movie called “Con Air” and Jerry Bruckheimer wanted me to make this film, and Jerry Bruckheimer sent me to Disney for a meeting. This was before American History X, so I went to the meeting. Jerry didn’t go to the meeting and so he sent one of his top executives to go with me. It was a formality and I said to the executives from Disney that I wanted to do the film but I didn’t want to use actors, and they said, “What?!” And I said I want to go into prisons and get real convicts and use them. And they wanted to know why, they thought I was joking, but I wasn’t … sadly, I wasn’t. And when I left the room with the executive, he just said, “I don’t understand what you are doing and Jerry wants to see you immediately,” and so I went to see Jerry and Jerry sat behind his immaculate beautiful amazing desk, and it was a very impressive office, and he said: “Tony, let me explain something to you. Unless you do your first film with me, it will end in tears!”
L.A.: Filmmaking in the digital age: now that we have all this digital creativity going on, how does that influence you?
Tony Kaye: I think of all the media just being letters in an alphabet, and when you construct a sentence or a word you use different fonts sometimes, or you chose a font expressing a language or a color, or whatever it is you’re doing … I have the same relationship with formats. I’m not a technical person but I spent years learning how to work a camera, load a film camera, change the lenses, work the exposures. All of a sudden, I was faced with this thing all over again. But, you know, it was a struggle at the beginning, and I couldn’t deal with these cameras. They were covered in wires and all kind of stuff, but eventually I got through it and I found the different cameras and what felt like this, and what felt like that, and so it’s an incredible … I am obsessed with the tonality and look and the texture of things, just like you are working with print. It’s the same thing, so the digital age and the age we are in now is this incredible place where, you know, my young kids are mucking around with the iPhone and just shooting stuff, and I’m looking at it and it’s mind-blowing, and we haven’t even scratched the surface yet, so …
L.A.: Could you please elaborate on the issue of putting the camera in the right place?
Tony Kaye: There are a lot of people who work with motion pictures, motion cameras, and they are not as studied or trained as a photographer is. A stills photographer – or most stills photographers – have an innate sense of how to shoot and they position the camera perfectly to create an image that … one single image that has to convey a message. They take hundreds of pictures of whatever it is, they have made the picture for themselves or for whoever it is for, and then they painfully edit and they select the one image that is right, and that’s an incredible exercise. Stanley Kubrick was a brilliant photographer at 17 years of age. Stanley Kubrick was wandering the streets when he was 16-17 years old, taking pictures, and they were fantastic so when he elevated himself to motion pictures he knew exactly where the camera should be placed so I can only, you know … you look at all of his films and the composition is immaculate.
L.A.: What was the cheapest commercial you did, or the smallest budget you put in a commercial, and how did it influence your work?
Tony Kaye: I don’t think there’s any such thing as a small-budget or a low-budget commercial or a low-budget film. There are badly made commercials, badly made films, and these films are – whatever they are – ideas that should not be made for that amount because you’re not going to get very much out of it. You’re not going to get the beauty of it, and money is a very … You know, I’ve had a fear of money for many years. Money is energy, it is a very powerful thing – and it calls the shots. It’s a very practical side of moviemaking, and it’s not … there is no magic wand, there is a budget and there’s an amount of time. You have to be very careful and logical with how you are going to spend it. If you’re writing an idea or doing something, you have to have some idea of what the budget’s going to be, because then you can write accordingly and you can write something that can be made for a hundred bucks. You can make something for a hundred bucks. You can make something for a hundred bucks and make a profit and make it fabulously well but it has to be an entity that is exactly right for that. There are things that didn’t cost a great amount of money, and there are things that did cost a great deal. Some things you shoot you do need to have a big budget for, and sometimes you have to say to people: “Look, I can’t do it for that amount.” It’s not because I want a lot of money to make some films … That’s not what it’s about. You can’t do that brilliantly, beautifully, handsomely, unless you have that.
L.A.: What were your creative influences?
Tony Kaye: When I first started, Leni Riefenstahl … I loved her work. Not necessarily loved a lot of what it was about, but I loved the work, I loved the style of photography. Olympia was incredible. She really knew where to place the camera. If anybody knew, it was her, and she was the first influence. Stanley Kubrick was a massive influence, William Wyler, David Lean were other influences.
L.A.: Where do you feel creatively at home?
Tony Kaye: Well, I am English and I was born in England, and I have an English passport, so I’m English, I went to an English school. I’ve always felt like an immigrant. My family started all over Europe, in Eastern Europe, and so I’ve always felt personally like an immigrant wherever I am, like an alien. Here, in Berlin, I feel very much at home. In Los Angeles, I feel completely at home or more at home than anywhere because it is my home and it has been my home for twenty-something years, but you don’t know, do you? I mean, we’re all these emanations of other things, we’re all these kind of spirits and souls that maybe come from other things before, and there will be some other things after. So we don’t know really where we came from. I personally don’t feel like an Englishman. I’d love to speak the English language better. I love the English language and I’d love to speak better, but I feel like an immigrant in Paris. I feel like an immigrant in London. If I went to the moon, I’d probably feel like an immigrant there.