“Tony Kaye is the Greatest English director Since Hitchcock”. Well, that’s what he thought when he took out a full page advert in the Evening Standard at the start of his career. It probably wasn’t the best way to ingratiate himself with the film and advertising community but having seen Kaye in action at the recent D&AD Q&A session I’m pretty sure he doesn’t actually care whether he’s liked or not.
You could describe Kaye as a moving picture polymath. Starting out in advertising he moved on to features and has thrown his hat in to the music video ring as well, directing Johnny Cash’s God’s Gonna Cut You Down and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ Dani California.
The piece from his feature film repertoire that you’re most likely to know is American History X. Whilst the film is widely regarded as a classic, at the time Kaye was not so enamoured with the finished product. He felt that his creative vision was being compromised by the studio and Edward Norton stating that wanted cuts to ensure that he was in the film all the time.
The Q&A kicked off with Kaye singing a song followed by the screening of his short Humpty Dumpty. It was immediately obvious Kaye has to have 100% creative control over anything he does. He stood at the auditorium making it plain to the sound and lighting guys exactly how he wanted things to be done, in front of the whole audience. This to-ing and fro-ing went on for so long that I started to wonder if any rehearsal had been done.
Humpty Dumpty was a documentary filmed by Kaye whilst the studio was touting American History X around festivals. Not happy with the final cut, Kaye made it known to the studio, others involved in the film and the head of the Toronto Film Festival; asking him 15 minutes before the screening to pull it. With the studio ultimately having final say Kaye didn’t get his way. So he changed tack and threatened to take his name off the film. Alas, the Directors Guild would not allow him to do so. A film that is released must have a name attached to it… so Kaye proposed Humpty Dumpty.
As a first introduction to Kaye the man I can’t say I liked him and he didn’t really enamour himself to me any further throughout the Q&A. I felt that his behaviour throughout Humpty Dumpty was abhorrent. I’m not creative so perhaps I will never fully understand why it’s acceptable to behave like a bully in the name of creative ownership? Following the short Kaye read some poetry and sang another song. He then played his showreel of adverts and music videos followed by another song.
Finally Kaye was asked some questions by D&AD and the audience. It was then that things clicked into place. I’m pretty sure Kaye isn’t well. When asked whether he’ll ever release his cut of American History X a vague answer was given, followed by a proclamation that he doesn’t hate the current version. This is at complete odds to the feelings expressed in Humpty Dumpty and makes you wonder if he’s a malcontent for the sake of it. All Kaye’s answers were quite short and the Q&A was cut short following him breaking into tears when discussing his current project about a Native American who didn’t follow his dreams. It seemed a disturbing and uncomfortable end to a disturbing and uncomfortable two hours.
I may not have liked him much as a person, but it’s hard to deny that he produced some of the most memorable work of the 90s.