The truth is, no one can see what's going on in your head. You really just have to commit and get it out.
It seems entirely appropriate to ask, “How does he come up with this shit?” Tom Kuntz is a commercial director (mostly), perhaps best known for imploding the Internet with his Old Spice campaign, “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like”. For his effort, the ad took home an Emmy Award for “Commercial of the Year” and helped Kuntz elbow his way through the competition for DGA’s “Best Commercial Director” honor. And unbeknownst to most of us, we had already witnessed his unique brand of comedy long before the Old Spice guy came along, for his work with such brands like Skittles, Axe, Cadbury, Altoids, Virgin Mobile, and Got Milk?
With his razor-sharp eye for detail and unrivaled prankster wit, Kuntz has zapped his sure-footed vision into our cultural space while casting off all logic-based constraints, continually taking us on a hilarious ride of absurdity. And as odd as some of his ideas can get, there’s perceptible genius and brilliant undertone to his work that somehow holds everything together. Even the characters in his ads seem to be in on the fun, which is strange considering things end up quite disastrous for them, more often than not. Anthem caught up with the funny guy in Barcelona to find out more…
Do clients pretty much know exactly what they’re getting into when they hire you now? And is that a good or a bad thing?
I don’t think anyone knows exactly what they’re getting, including myself. Of course, as you continue to build a body of work, it speaks for itself and people will come to you for what they know you do well. This is a blessing and a curse, of course, because most creative people like to push themselves and expand their talents. It’s very easy to get pigeonholed. I’m constantly trying to find things that work within my strengths, but also push me into places that are new for me. It can be tricky finding the sort of project that does both.
Are your ideas wackier going into a project than what we see in the resulting piece? I’m just wondering in the event that you’re used to having people ask you to water things down.
Oh man. “Wacky” is such an awful word! I hope my ideas aren’t “wacky”. I mean, I know what you mean, but for me, when I hear wacky, it means the bad side of “weird”. But to answer your question… Usually, the ideas I really want to have end up on the screen, do. I’ve learned to fight for the ones that matter more than the ones that don’t.
In terms of your creative voice working in commercials, are you at a place now where you’re doing exactly what you had set out to do or did your style sort of develop into what it is now over time? To put it simply, was this at all preconceived?
I certainly hope the work has evolved. When I started directing, it was all based on instinct with no formal training. All I knew was what I liked and didn’t like, and just tried to get the work to that place. Now I have a much more refined set of tools, which makes the process easier and more liberating. As for the body of work itself, there has been nothing preconceived about it, beyond continuing to try and keep it entertaining and amusing, while making it feel like it’s coming from me and my personality.
What do you find funny in your day-to-day life?
Hmm… My kids are very, very, very funny. I have a lot of friends that are very, very, very funny. The clothes I wear are occasionally funny.
Are you very precious about your ideas? Do you keep an archive of unused treatments?
I wouldn’t say I get “precious”, but once I’ve solved something in my head, I can definitely become attached to that solution and sort of steamroll it through. This is generally a positive thing. It just means I don’t waver and get cluttered. But having done this for a while now, I’ve become much more accepting and interested in other people’s ideas because there are often plenty of great bits of wisdom to be gleaned from the people around you. I’ve learned to keep my ears open more. As for an archive… I’d say the closest thing I have to that is many, many folders of inspiring imagery and film stills. These can be very helpful when you are trying to communicate to your crew what you’re after, but obviously detrimental if you find yourself a professional plagiarist!
Although statistics say otherwise, I think most people would be hard-pressed to admit that they purchased a certain product because they liked an ad for it. How do you think commercials affect our consciousness?
I think advertising and design are hugely powerful… Far beyond what we perceive in our own behavior. Everything we think about, just about everything, is shaped by how it is presented to the public: the way it’s packaged, it’s name, the advertising that is created for it, etc. Our entire world is, frighteningly, a big insane concoction of messages and marketing. The music we like, the food we eat, the clothes we wear… It’s all decisions made based on how these things are presented to us and the associations we make with them. Advertising is a huge part of that puzzle, whether we really feel like it is impacting us or not. It’s quite creepy!
Have you ever turned down a job singularly based on the fact that you didn’t like a certain product or a brand?
Yes, very often. I don’t advertise meat, fast food, or cigarettes. I won’t advertise corporations I find creepy like DuPont or oil companies. Of course, this is a slippery slope because somewhere behind every company that can afford to advertise is probably some dubious entity. But I tend to draw the line on the face of it.
Everyone works on, and approaches, things quiet differently, but is there an essential skill that you think all directors need to possess that might not be so obvious?
The thing I tell students or people seeking advice when they speak to me is to push themselves to make things that they truly find amazing, interesting, or groundbreaking. As long as you truly please yourself and your taste is decent, I feel like audiences will show up.
When I look at the work of people like you, Keith Schofield and Quentin Depieux, I’d like to think that you all have so much fun making stuff. Would you ever quit if it stopped being fun and what might you resort to doing?
This comes back to my last answer, which is to say yes… You have to be having fun or find what you are doing interesting. Of course, it’s hard work and it’s not “fun” at every moment, but at the core of it, there needs to be an idea or a quality that got you excited about it in the first place. My job is to keep that original buzz present all the way until it actually gets seen. As far as what I might resort to? I am addicted to making things and the buzz of creativity. Film is an amazing medium, which I love and have made a career out of, but I’m happy doing basically anything where I get to conceive of ideas and realize them… It could be food, drawings, clothes, anything!
Tell us about your most recent rendition of the BUGS installation at SONOS Studio. Are you putting a different spin on it while touring it?
Well, it’s not currently on “tour”, so to speak. It was just up in Los Angeles and we are currently looking to show it in New York City. The new spin at SONOS was new music via Dan Deacon and new bugs designed by me and a new technology infrastructure via The Mill. It was like the souped up cousin of the original installation.
When you work with collaborators like Lucky Dragons and Dan Deacon on the installation, what kind of parameters do you give them?
Those two instances were very different. With Lucky Dragons, they simply offered me access to their archives because they weren’t able to commit the time to create custom music. So that project was much more akin to me “sampling” Lucky Dragons. With Dan, it was the opposite. He worked from the ground up to create an audio personality for each bug. I had already pretty much designed all the bugs, so I fed him those designs and he got working to realize what each would sound like. That process was much more intimate and, for that reason, much more fun!
What are your plans on the feature film side of things?
I have two films in development now that I am very excited about.
What about music videos? I’m sure it helps that you can be quite choosy if you’re still invested in that world.
I love music videos and love doing them, but it’s a hard realm to work in right now because the budgets are very limiting. When I do one now, it means rallying all my friends and relationships and resources together to deliver something I can be proud of. For this reason, I have to be sparing about how often I do that.
If you were given free rein to direct a video for any artist or band of your choice, who would that be and what would the treatment look like?
Probably “Stop Bajon” by Tullio de Piscopo because it’s just like the best jam of all time. No idea what the video would look like, but it would be a challenge making visuals as good as that song.
You also put out mixtapes via Pinchy & Friends. Was it meant to be as mysterious as some bloggers led us to believe in the beginning?
I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about…
I don’t know if I ever brought this up, but Charlie White mentored me in college. How did you guys end up working together on “Music for Sleeping Children”?
He is a great, fascinating guy. He created this project and, as part of the concept, wanted to outsource the music video. Exactly why he chose me, I don’t know beyond us having a bit of a friendship prior. We have been sort of “mutual fans” for a while, so that must have been how I was on his radar. It was both interesting and challenging to do a project where your client is another visual artist. I found myself channeling him and almost making the video I’d imagine him to make for the song, instead of totally doing my own thing. But that was inherent in the project I think and it was part of what made it interesting.
Going back to commercials, are directors pretty open with their peers when they’re working on something new? For instance, do you like to run an idea by certain people or is it completely shrouded in secrecy?
I can’t speak to the general state of things. I have a few friends in the business who I respect and love to sound things off of, but I’m actually not in the huge habit of doing it. I find it’s more important for ideas to work for me personally and not for third parties. The truth is, no one can see what’s going on in your head. You really just have to commit and get it out. When friends pitch me ideas they like, I’m usually like, “Does it feel great to you? If it does, I’m sure it’s good.” It’s hard to see why other people’s ideas are great. They need to be realized first.
What are you inspired by at the moment? It doesn’t have to pertain to any one thing.
Kid Creole and the Coconuts, and Coati Mundi.