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Not Your Average Joe

  • May 31 2011

You won’t find anyone more passionate about the process of making commercials than Joe Pytka. If you work in, around or anywhere near the ad business, you know that Pytka has directed some of the most memorable spots of all time: Bo Jackson’s “Bo knows” for Nike; Larry Bird and Michael Jordan doing “Nothing but Net” for McDonald’s; Ed and Frank for Bartles & Jaymes; and too many Pepsi commercials to list. This month, Pytka received the 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award from the CLIO Awards. Accepting his award, the visibly moved Pytka mentioned just three ad guys: Hal Riney, Phil Dusenberry and Mike Koelker because, “I wanted to remember the guys who have passed.” But don’t think Pytka’s gone soft. The famously temperamental director wants you to know why he respects the idea more than you do, how technology hurts creativity and why making movies is “torture.”

Give me three words to describe yourself.
I need four. I’m not that bad.

Three words that others use to describe you.
A big asshole

Speaking of which, do you think your reputation is justified? 
Here is what people don’t understand. When you are doing a piece of work that millions of people are  going to see, you want it to be the best that it can be. By the time the idea gets to me, it’s hidden under a bunch of crap and if I scrape away some of that, people’s egos are going to be bruised. I respect the idea, and sometimes I respect the idea more because they’ve been beaten up during the three, four or five months it’s in development before it gets to me.

What are you most proud of recently?
The Budweiser Super Bowl spot of a few years ago where the soldiers are coming off the plane. I told [Anheuser-Busch] I wouldn’t do it if the product was in it and they had to use real soldiers. They agreed completely on both.

If you weren’t a commercial director what would you be doing?
I have a big house in Sante Fe that I’m restoring. It’s an adobe compound. I really enjoy architecture and art and things like that.

Are you a tech junkie?
Not to the extent that most people are. I think [technology] can hurt creative work because you can easily pull up stuff that other people have done. The most powerful thing is still a pencil or pen and being able to draw or write. You need to look at things in a fresh way. Google is a great as a reference point. It’s an easy way to get to the library.

How do you stay in touch with what’s new and hot?
I’m very inquisitive. I read a lot. My favorite magazine is The New Yorker, the essays are brilliant. When I fly, I load up on 100 bucks worth of magazines. Wallpaper. Stuff like that. My friends and I bash this stuff around. And I have an assistant cameraperson who keeps me abreast of all the new technology. I’ve always been interested in modern technology as it relates to helping the process.

Do you watch TV?
Not so much. I watch sports and I like to go back and forth between Fox and CNN and laugh at both of them

How would you characterize the business today? 
The process of shooting is harder than it’s ever been. I had dinner with Ed McCabe the other night and we were with these young creatives. Their jaws dropped at the stories we told. They had no idea how good it used to be and how much you could get away with then. But I still love the process.

What about the current state of creativity? 
I don’t like to judge publicly anymore. I respect the process and getting it done these days is very difficult, so I’ll (critique work) personally over dinner but not in public anymore.

Are you mellowing?
No. I’m worse than ever because I see missed
opportunity everywhere and I’m upset that our business is being corporatized and standardized.

What advice would you give to young creatives?
You should be aware of the past but keep your mind open about how to do something in a new way. You  an’t be too dogmatic. That’s why I’m not crazy about film schools because they teach dogma and reativity is all about breaking rules. You have to leave room for spontaneity.  Film schools set a  Curriculum and it doesn’t change. Citizen Kane is the number one film, Godfather is number two. And that never changes.

Who or what influences you? 
That’s a tough one. You know, I grew up in a small industrial town in Pittsburgh. Going to the movies, the air conditioning, the popcorn, the big screen. It was a big deal...You look at all the great stuff that’s been done and you want to add to that in a little way. Maybe you do a 30-second gem and someone says, ‘Hey, someone knows what they’re doing.’  I still think, ‘What would Hal do?’  ‘What would Phil say?’ Or I try to do something completely different so they would be shocked.

Who or what is underrated in the business today? 
Truthfully, I don’t think anything today is underrated. If anything, it’s the opposite.

Describe your experience making movies.
Two years of torture. No sleep. Anxiety. It’s terrible. Ridley Scott told me before I did my first film that it would be the hardest thing I’d ever do. I didn’t think of it. I thought it would be the same process as  making commercials. But you’re dealing with the studio system and listening to idiots, people who ask  questions that a 3-year-old would ask.

What’s the best movie you saw recently? 
A Serious Man, by the Coen Brothers. I thought it was incredible. I was shocked by the casting and writing and their bravery of making fun of their faith in a way. And a little fable called A Screaming Man about civil war in Chad. Absolutely compelling. Mainstream movies kind of leave me cold.

Comparing film to commercials. . .
In a way, commercials are more powerful. A commercial on the Super Bowl is seen by 100 million people. They can have great influence. Ray Charles said to me one day—by the way, working with him was one of the most pleasant experiences—he’s a saint. Anyway, he told me that in all his years in the music business no one ever came up to him in an airport until (the Pepsi commercials). He didn’t say it in a positive way. He kind of resented it. But that’s the power of what we do

Single biggest accomplishment?
My daughters

Biggest disappointment or regret?
I don’t have any. I’ve been very fortunate to get to places I’ve never been in a way I could have never  imagined.

Read the sidebar, "Pytka on His Peers."