Joe is a dominant force, and creator of some of the best television commercials ever made. He's a Pittsburgh guy with a certain amount of life's fundamentals deeply instilled-a jack-of-all trades guerilla filmmaker who scrounged to slap together documentaries and various programs for the fledgling Public Broadcasting Services (PBS) in the 1960's and 70's.
"We had no money for one project. This was 30 years ago at WQED in Pittsburgh," Pytka recalled. "I knew how to run sound equipment and we needed a mix. I knew a guy who worked at a place where we could do it, and it didn't have an alarm system. I came late in the day and stayed in the third-floor bathroom. They closed up and I came out, ran the sound system and did the mix. The next morning while they were opening, I snuck out. For those QED projects, we worked our asses off."
Pytka grew up Catholic in Braddock, Pa., a steel mill-rife suburb of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela River.
"My grandmother and grandfather lived kind of an aristocratic life in Poland. She was very elegant, very refined," the director said. "He came to America before her, and when she got here and found out the only work he could get was as a bartender, she was shattered."
The future director was also an aspiring painter and athlete. At the University of Pittsburg he began studying chemical engineering because his father suggested it was a way to make a practical living. He despised it but it gave him an opportunity to play basketball at the collegiate level. Pytka decided to drop out of Pitt and found a job at WRS Motion Picture and Video Lab in Pittsburgh.
At WRS he became well versed in editing, shooting, and recording techniques. The director started shooting shows for WQED and working on documentaries in various capacities. He worked on Steeltown Blues, Maggie's Farm, and a documentary on air pollution narrated by Orson Welles. He shot a forerunner to music videos called High Flying Bird, featuring Steve McQueen in a four-wheel-drive truck traveling Mexican landscapes. Soon, he began shooting commercials to finance the documentaries. He shot some Iron City Beer spots in actual taverns, including one that recreated a Polish wedding.
When Pytka's commercial work caught the eye of a San Francisco based rep, it was a major turning point in his life. "I had done these documentaries that were fairly emotional, but which I had to manipulate to get my point across. I wanted to get to that point in my commercial work, working with real people in real situations," he said. "At the time, no one was doing it. Commercials were real theatrical. As good as Howard Zieff's commercials were and are, they were very theatrical. For about two or three years in Pittsburgh, I was doing these commercials for a local brewery where we'd go somewhere with real people - and they were very successful."
Today, Joe Pytka is a director who's made billions of dollars for the largest corporations on the planet. Directing more than 5,000 commercials that have earned him many awards and nominations ever conceived for such endeavors, including three Directors Guild of America Commercial Direction Awards and 15 nominations-the most for that category. Over the past three decades, his stylized images have wedged themselves into the American consciousness.
As he began to juggle shoots all over the world he decided to open his own production company, PYTKA. The director, who shows up practically everywhere in worn jeans and a black T-shirt says, "This is a down-and-dirty business, and I dress for it. I'm crawling on the ground, operating the crane, trying to get the best stuff I can. I like to get my hands on some of the equipment myself." He once described himself as "an irritator and an agitator-I have no charm." "I use fear and intimidation," he once said, "it works for the Catholic Church and it works for me."
The "magic" that Pytka gets, the stuff in the camera, is a variation of fellow Western Pennsylvanian James Stewart's description of his own value of filmmaking: creating "little pieces of time" that people remember.
Those pieces of time include: Madonna's infamous Pepsi commercial, "Make a Wish," a frying egg demonstrating "This is your brain on drugs"; Ray Charles' "Uh-huh" for Pepsi; an archaeology dig discovering a Coke bottle for Pepsi; Larry Bird and Michael Jordan doing "Nothing but Net" for McDonald's; Bo Jackson's "Bo knows" for Nike; chimpanzees yelling out famous movie lines, like, "I'm mad as hell and not going to take it anymore!" for HBO, and who could forget Ed and Frank of Bartles & James saying, "thank you for your support." There's a husband and wife in bed whispering sweet nothing in Donald Duck voices for Disney, Cindy Crawford's famous Pepsi commercial, a public service announcement promoting child hunger-awareness, "Ketchup Soup," and following 9/11, his New York City Miracle spots featuring Woody Allen ice skating and Henry Kissinger sliding into home plate at Yankee stadium.
"We've shot in practically every nation in the Northern Hemisphere and half of the ones in the Southern-we have crew contacts everywhere," Pytka said. "One time they were holding us up in some country. Austin McCann, who's been my 1st AD for 25 years, keeps a folder with photos of us with people like Madonna and Michael Jordan and other celebrities. Austin opens the folder, shows them to the authorities, and they said, â€˜Oh, you are celebrities; OK, you can go ahead.'"
Celebrities or not, a Pytka shoot is just that, a Pytka shoot. "There is one guy who is great to be around when you're making commercials: His name is Joe Pytka," former Boston Celtics Larry Bird wrote in his autobiography, Bird Watching. "He organizes all the shoots, and he treats everyone like crap, and both me and Michael Jordan love himâ€¦ Pytka hadn't finished his basketball game yet. People were all ticked off because this director was keeping Michael Jordan and Larry Bird waiting, but it's why I absolutely love the guy. To him we're all the same."
Pytka categorizes himself a filmmaker rather than commercial director, knowing how much the lines have blurred over the years. Pytka directed Let It Ride with Richard Dreyfuss and the hit Space Jam with Jordan and Buggs Bunny. He's also made music videos such as The Beatles Free As A Bird, John Lennon Starting Over, Michael Jackson Dirty Diana and The Way You Make Me Feel. Pytka notes, "If anything, the definitions between the kinds of directors aren't as profound as they once were and I've done a little bit of everything."
Pytka's commercials have shown more than 30 times on the national launching forum, the annual Super Bowl telecast. Pytka's reoccurring Super Bowl client's are Pepsi, McDonald's, Budweiser, Nike and The NFL
"The History Channel did a program on the 10 best commercials of all time," Pytka recalled. "One of my commercials on there was a Pepsi commercial where the Coca-Cola delivery guy comes in and takes a Pepsi, and all the cans crash out of the cooler. The original idea was for him to take the can out of the cooler and a little old lady sees him, and, embarrassed, he puts the can back. In prep I said, â€˜I think we should come up with a better idea.' We did shoot it once with the little old lady, and it was a dog. Then we went and put the cans up.
"The guy says, 'No, no, we're out here for production, this thing has already been approved.' So at the last minute, we got a special effects guy to rig all of these cans to fall out at one time. Now it's a big joke. We shot it in an hour. Two takes. It took an hour and half to set the cans up. I told them, 'I don't want to wait around. I'm tired. Take one or the other. They're both perfect.' In one he does this. In the other, he does that. The special effects guy was a genius. It became the most popular Pepsi commercial of all time."
Pytka strives to capture a sense of verisimilitude in his dialogue, and sometimes that means changing whole lines, following an actor's contribution or wholesale rewriting.
"There are writers and art directors who feel that it is as good as it can get when it's on the page. But sometimes I like to put more personality into it. For better or for worse, I put my own stamp on the work. Although I respect the idea, I still want to do it a certain way. Lots of times I write my own commercials. I'll write and rewrite, yet I don't consider myself a writer. But I do know what dialogue should sound like. That's the hardest thing for people to write in a real way."
Pytka claims, "It's important not to lose sight of the overall goal, which is to capture those "real" moments and performances. That's what I try for in commercials. I'm not comfortable as any sort of labeled director. I'm not necessarily a commercial director, even though I make a lot of commercials. I'm not an actor's director even though I like actors. I'm a filmmaker."