Pytka, Part II

We revisit his Q&A (too much good stuff on the cutting-room floor), and then there’s the roast

In a traditional roast, deep down, you really love ’em—but tonight we break with tradition.” With that, VCU AdCenter chairman Rick Boyko kicked off last week’s spirited five-hour evening of barbs hurled at legendary director Joe Pytka.

“He bit his tongue and got food poisoning,” quipped former BBDO chairman Phil Dusenberry, who introduced the speakers at the fund-raiser for AdCenter, held at Gotham Hall in New York.

Pytka’s salty speech and notoriously difficult demeanor provided plenty of fodder for participants including Ogilvy & Mather worldwide vice chairman Steve Hayden, BBDO chief creative officer Ted Sann, Young & Rubicam New York chairman and CEO Michael Patti and Cindy Crawford, star of BBDO’s 1991 Pytka-directed Pepsi spot “Two Kids.”

“He said, ‘Get out of the car and drink the fucking soda,’ ” Crawford said, recalling Pytka’s response when she asked for acting advice. “And it worked.” Crawford credited Pytka for helping her pull off a splashy commercial debut. “Thank you for making me look so great,” she said. “And thank you for not casting me in Let It Ride.”

Pytka’s 1989 comedy feature got skewered by Patti as well. He collaborated with Pytka on the Pepsi spot “Dancing Bears,” of which Pytka said in Adweek’s Nov. 3 interview with the director, “I can’t believe I’ve sunk so low.” Patti noted the quote and asked, “How about Let It Ride, baby?”

Describing Pytka as “a Yeti having a bad hair day,” Hayden won laughs from the 300 attendees with a video of a psychologist brought into the office for “Pytka therapy”—involving the use of dolls resembling Pytka—to help creatives with post-traumatic stress after working with the director.

Sann noted Pytka had brought two innovations to the production world: postponing preproduction until after shooting has finished and creating the “shootless shoot day,” when you show up, have a breakfast burrito and don’t shoot anything.

Leo Burnett chief creative officer Cheryl Berman sent in a video in which she fondly remembered trademark Pytka lines: “Who wrote this shit?” and “Just go home and I’ll send you the film.”

“You still wanna be in advertising after all this?” Pytka asked the AdCenter students in the crowd when it was his turn to respond. He took pot shots at all his roasters, comparing BBDO under Dusenberry to Yugoslavia under Tito and telling Hayden to put the therapist video on his reel because it was better than anything else he’d done. But in the end, the man Patti had accused of having a heart of “pure black coal” let down his guard, telling the people with whom he’s made hundreds of notable commercials that they have “a special place in my heart.”

For more perspective on one of advertising’s most refreshing personalities, we’ve compiled a sequel to last week’s On the Spot interview. Here, Pytka talks about the two actors who have managed to make him nervous, three ads he did where “I didn’t have the slightest idea what I was going to do when I got the job” and what keeps him motivated.”

Q. What’s the last commercial that made you say, “I wish I had done that”?

A. I don’t say that ever, because when they’re that well done and I like them, the person did it in a way I wouldn’t have. My style is my style, and if somebody does something unique, I say, “Oh, wow, that’s cool.” Nothing recently that I can think of. I’m seeing more and more stuff that looks like film school stuff. And there’s too much derivative stuff like a Tarantino movie. They might be clever and everything, but you’ve seen it before.

What’s the last movie you enjoyed?

Finding Nemo. Technologically, it’s a masterpiece. It’s like when you were a kid and you go into the movie theater and you get this huge image on the screen. It’s like nothing else in your life, right? The care and love that went into the technical execution of the movie, the authenticity of the flow. Movies should engulf you. When you think of Greta Garbo with her limpid eyes at the end of a movie, she engulfed you. I was watching recently Ninotchka—fantastic, beautiful. I could see this movie a hundred times.

Everyone talks about Hollywood and advertising coming together—say, BMW Films becoming a feature. Will advertising have anything to do with creating that content?

What content is there? Have you seen those films? You know, Ridley Scott was a genius at the long-form commercials for the British cinema. When I first saw his reel in the early ’70s, I’m looking at all these two- and three-minute commercials. I say, “What are these things? These are great.” BMW Films are the same damn thing. There’s nothing new there—it’s like a long infomercial.

What advice would you give a young director starting out now?

Learn as much about everything as you can, ’cause going to film school might be a mistake. Because what do you do? You watch films, right? See, films are vapid. They have no honest content. As funny and as entertaining as Pulp Fiction is, it doesn’t say anything about the human condition, because they’re all pasteboard characters. The acting is very stylized and interesting, but it’s not real. Even in commercials, I try to make people real. I try to use good actors—I try to make them behave in an intelligent manner so people can believe them.

Were you ever nervous directing anyone?

Physically, George C. Scott, because he was infirm when I was working with him [on an HBO spot]. And Brando [for “HBO Chimps”], because he was Brando. I was awestruck. He looked at me and says, “Why are you staring at me?” I says, ” ‘Cause you’re fucking Marlon Brando. Why else would I stare at you?” He started to laugh. And I put my foot in my mouth with George C. Scott, because I asked him a personal question about Dr. Strangelove and I shouldn’t have. That pissed him off.

How do you approach working with actors?

I give them complete freedom initially to interpret whatever they want to interpret. Usually I know going in what kind of actor they are, or I work with a friend. Usually they have a fantastic take on the character, then we’ll adjust here and there. I hate to give specific notes. Occasionally you have to. I try to use actors that don’t need that kind of help. Most of the time, the most direction I’ll give is say, “Don’t look at him,” or “Look here instead of there” or, “Don’t move your head.”

Was any one spot particularly challenging for you?

[Pepsi’s] “Archeology.” “The Wall,” which is the Nike thing where the people kick the ball from picture to picture. And this last one I did for Michael [Brand Jordan]—”Jump Man.” All the same reason: I hadn’t the slightest idea what I was going to do when I got the job. I didn’t know how to do the “Archeology” job because there were a lot of special effects I was not familiar with. “The Wall” was a brilliant idea. I hadn’t the slightest idea how to get it done so it would look like something. And this “Jump Man” stuff—I didn’t know what the effect was that was going to take the commercial to a special level, and all I did was—it came out of research. It came out of hard work. They all did. And they all turned out pretty good.

Do you ever get fearful when you’re handed a project?

Not fearful but anxiety. Because you’re given an opportunity. And you’ve been favored over other people, so you better do your best job. You’re always concerned about doing your best and the things that could go wrong. I have to answer to everybody—it’s a public medium. Directing is almost a performing art. And I may shoot a piece of film and the colorist may screw it up.

You stay away from mean-spirited humor. Why?

I want to express an idealized world as much as possible to give some kind of hopefulness. Now this may sound stupidly naive or pretentious, but I love to see the positive nature of people. It’s easy to be cynical, and it’s easy to make fun of things we don’t understand.

Does your job ever wear you down?

No, it doesn’t, because I’ll tell you why. The process, still, is amazing. The Brand Jordan stuff we did. Charles Hall’s a writer I worked with years ago in Pepsi. He and Adrian Hilton, his partner, came to me—they wanted to do something fresh, simple. They didn’t have a lot of money, and they didn’t have a lot of time with the athletes. I worked as hard on that as I could for a month and a half, shooting tests because we didn’t have enough money to play around on the shoot. We were looking for some little technique that would give it a little of its own cachet and originality. I found a very strange piece of equipment that I thought might be interesting, where you could shoot two shots of the same thing through the same lens—one at high speed and one at a very slow speed. I felt that if we could dovetail these images, we could save some money in postproduction. They took it to a post house, and the guy came up with a phenomenal little technique that set the tone for the whole thing. So the combination of the guys, the editor—the whole process came up with a tiny piece of magic, something I’ve never seen before. And as long as you can keep doing that …

Why would you want to do anything else? That’s what keeps you going. I worked with a couple of kids the other day in something for Cisco Systems. The kids turned out to be fabulous little actors. We played around for an hour or two just with improvisation. It was fabulous to be there and see the instinctive feeling these kids have for these characters they’re playing. This is great stuff— it’s fun.