Creativity: You just got back from Vietnam where you did an AT&T spot for Ted Bell at Young & Rubicam. Is this the first thing you've done with Y&R in a while?
Joe Pytka: Yeah, in a long while. I did this because of Ted. I've worked with the same guys over and over, and Ted is one of the guys I like to work with. He asked me to do it and I did it. I haven't worked with Y&R for the simple reason that I've been busy somewhere else.
Us: Have you thought about expanding on your usual axis of BBDO, Wieden and Burnett?
Him: I'm actually trying to retract a little bit, but the circumstances are such that Ted went from Burnett to Y&R, and this was the kind of thing we've done successfully in the past, and he asked me to do another one for him and it worked out. And I actually just worked with Lee Clow at TBWA Chiat/Day for the first time, on Infiniti. It was great. I'm kind of sorry I didn't work with him a lot sooner.
Us: What was the experience like?
Him: He's a great guy. I've worked with Rob [Siltanen] and some of his other people, and Lee was supervising. He's a very supportive guy for his people, he's a sweetheart of a human being. He was a revelation. The circumstances over the years were such that we never got a chance to work together. He'd be doing California Cooler and I'd be doing Bartles & Jaymes, or he'd be doing Reebok and I'd be doing Nike.
Us: At awards shows, people always seem to complain that the work is not as good, especially when you go to Cannes.
Him: Yeah, they always do, but now it's true (laughing).
Us: Maybe, but now you've got campaigns like Nissan, Levi's, Polaroid, ESPN and Snickers-there's a lot of work that people seem to like now. What's your take on all this stuff that's going on?
Him: I don't want to seem like sour grapes, but I think most of the work now is technique-oriented rather than concept-oriented. I don't see the level of writing overall that used to be around, and I think a lot of the work has a familiar quality to it. I think a lot of the work you mentioned has been influenced by Pepsi. Virtually all of it has been.
Us: In what way?
Him: The kind of surreal, outrageous quality that Pepsi has always had in its advertising.
Us: Are you talking just about entertainment value here?
Him: No, more a mixture of special effects and wit. I mean, if you run down that list . . .
Us: Well, there's a couple of things that have none of that in it; the Snickers work, for example, those spots are hysterical.
Him: The Snickers stuff was very, very good, but I don't think it was hysterical.
Us: What about ESPN?
Him: Same thing. I hate to say this, but I think the ESPN work is great for what it is, but it's not to the level of the best Nike work. And I would say the same thing about Snickers; as good as it is, and it's as good as anything on television, it doesn't break through to be brilliant. But the wit that Hal Riney put into the writing of Bartles & Jaymes is far funnier and more conceptual than anything you've mentioned. What you've mentioned is good, but none of it is great. I'm not trying to be critical here, and I understand the problems with ESPN, in terms of budget and time and all that. But on the other hand, you have complete freedom there. So I don't know. It's not a problem, I just don't share the enthusiasm that other people have for all that work. I think it's very good, I don't think it's great. But I don't think there's been a great commercial for several years now, for anybody.
Us: What's the best spot you can recall having seen over the past year?
Him: I don't think I've seen a great one. What's the best one you've seen?
Us: We're quite fond of the Levi's "Doctors" spot from Spike Jonze.
Him: That's a very well done commercial, I think it's terrific. I don't think it's great. When Mike Koelker was alive, Levi's did great commercials, especially in the late '70s and early '80s. They did stuff that was monumental. That spot is a very well-done commercial, very well-directed, but I don't think it's great. Plus, the message of that spot is totally confused. It's pure entertainment, but that has nothing to do with the product.
Us: Sure, but when you consider the generation it's appealing to, that seems to be a valid way to go: To be all about entertainment, image and attitude.
Him: I think you're treading on dangerous ground here. The entertainment part has to deal with the product. Why is Levi's changing that campaign if it's so successful? You can entertain and entertain and entertain, but it has to connect with the product. I would venture that a lot of people who see that commercial and are entertained by it haven't the slightest idea of who it's for, whereas everybody knows what a Pepsi spot is.
Us: What's the best job you've done all year?
Him: Ah, boy. It's hard to say. From a standpoint of purity and satisfaction it might be this Vietnam spot. It's going to be a powerful piece of work. Whether conceptually it's on the level of Levi's, well, it's a different kind of commercial. It's the kind of commercial that I like to do, and I think it's going to be vastly popular. I've enjoyed the Infiniti stuff, and I've enjoyed the Pepsi stuff. I kind of enjoy everything. But of all the things I've done, the best is the Beatles video, "Free As a Bird," by far. But that's not a commercial. I think I did what I had to do for that song and for the history of the Beatles, and I think I was able to use technology properly without imposing it, where all you do is see that and go, "Oh, that's cool." I think I added a nice balance of concept and technique.
Us: Whose concept was it?
Him: It was mine. I was hired by the band, and I dragged Michael Patti over there with me and we met them and we came up with the idea. That was ours completely.
Us: Was all the footage of them historical footage?
Him: Yeah, I insisted on that because I didn't want to use a double for John. I wanted to make sure there was huge integrity to the thing. I know there was going to be some controversy about the so-called cloning of the song itself, and I didn't want any controversy to come with the making of the piece. So I didn't use the guys there. It's a Beatles thing, and I didn't want to intrude on anybody's notion of who the Beatles were.
Us: What effect has Space Jam had on your career in features?
Him: I've been offered a lot of other films. I've not liked any of them. I've been offered everything from big huge action/adventure things with tons of effects to somewhat similar things that are more psychological. Until I get to the point where I read a script I like I can't say it's done anything for me. And I've read 50 scripts since I did the movie and I've not chosen to do any of them. A couple were interesting, in a way, but I didn't want to put forth the effort for them, and I have my own things I want to do. I don't want to get involved in something that's going to take another two years and put my own program back that long.
Us: Were you happy with the film?
Him: Generally, yes. I was very pleased with the whole thing. The reason I did the film was that I wanted to do a movie for kids, something my children would enjoy. At first I thought it would be a big boondoggle, because it was such a hard thing to do, and I knew it was going to be difficult. It turned out to be excruciatingly difficult. But the film is monumentally successful, and every kid in America has a cassette of it. And it's been a breakthrough film. No other non-Disney animated movie has succeeded, ever. Even Steven Spielberg has tried, unsuccessfully. So I feel proud to be part of something that's been so successful, at every level.
Us: What have you got in the works that are your own stories?
Him: I have about five scripts that I've worked on through the years, they're in various stages of completion. Unfortunately they're all very counter-cultural and abstract, based on art movies and things, and they have very little commercial appeal.
Us: Are you planning to do any more movies anytime soon?
Him: I'm hoping to do a movie this fall, and get started around this summer.
Us: That's pretty soon. You have something that you've committed to?
Him: I can't talk about it now for fear of jinxing it. But I would like to do a film this fall, a small film. I had a little glitch in the process recently, which upset me, a flaw I found in the material, which I'm trying to resolve. If