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Exclusive Interview: James Toback for "Tyson"

By Paul Fischer Monday April 20th 2009 12:09AM
James Toback for "Tyson"

Director James Toback takes on one of the world’s most controversial celebrities, boxer Mike Tyson. A film that frankly explores power, money and celebrity through the eyes of Tyson in his own words, the film raises questions about a man who is defined by his personal life as well as his public persona.

Toback’s film is already garnering raves and was given a strong reception when screened at Sundance. The director spoke to Paul Fischer in this exclusive interview.

Question: I was surprised, actually, that prior to Tyson, it had been a while since we’ve seen a film from you. I mean, a number of years. Is it just simply tough for you to find something or to come up with something that really attracts you to this degree?

Toback: Well, part of the problem in making movies sort of more regularly and consistently, is that because I write and direct and I’m generating my movies from the chaos of my own life, I don’t have the ability or the structure to move from film to film with each one waiting, as a director who is directing other people’s scripts, which is the way most movies get made as. So, I have to invent the next movie, brew it, percolate, write it or prepare it, and then make it.

In addition, I sort of feel after each movie is over that I need a period of time just to indulge myself in drifting in whatever direction my impulse takes me. And that somehow that’s leading to figuring out what the next movie will be. But I have to get really excited, and know what I’m doing before I can make a film. Then I work extraordinarily fast. I shoot rapidly, and almost insanely fast sometimes. But to get to that point, I need long preparation. And I don’t quite know, sometimes, why it’s as long as it is.

Often, I’ll go through months and months where I’m actually saying to myself, “Well, you’ve really got to get to work.” And then I realize in a bizarre, oblique way, I am really working. It’s just that it doesn’t appear that way. I used to – when I was living up at Jim Brown’s house, before I started making movies and I was in this kind of hedonistic, orgiastic world, playing basketball and fucking around all the time.

My father would say to me – I was, you know, 27, 28. And I’d been this kind of golden boy at Harvard, and had all these benefits, and everything. He said, “When are you going to actually do something? I mean, you know, you’ve written some journalism and you’ve taught for a couple of years. But, when are you going to get your life together and actually accomplish something?” And I would always say, “I’m preparing.” And he’d say, “For what?” And I’d say, “For my art.” And he’d say, “Well, what is your art?” And I’d say, “Well, I haven’t figured that out yet.” And he would say, “Well, you know, if you want to just fuck your life away, just say that’s what you’re doing. Don’t say you’re preparing for your life.”

I could see his point of view, but I knew that I was leading to something, I just didn’t know what. Even after I started making movies, that same dynamic was in place, where in between movies, an outside observer might say, “Well, you’ve just been frittering away your time the last six months.” Somehow, I seem to need these periods of time to get to where I know what I’m doing, and actually get it in place.

Question: You’ve always resisted playing the Hollywood game. How have you been able to avoid being seduced by the mainstream industry?

Toback: Well, I’ve resisted the Hollywood game, partly because it’s resisted me. And I have – I have not – let’s say – I have not been seduced, because the number of seducers has been limited. I’d like to think that it’s all because of my purity of intention, and my single-mindedness of artistic purposes – and that may be true. But also, I exist on a parallel reality. And because I’m so kind of uncompromising and demanding in the circumstances under which I would make a movie, or will make a movie, which is that I have total control of it. That I decide what it’s going to be, and what it isn’t going to be. That I don’t have anybody intruding on the process, which I used to make a movie.

The only limit is budget, where I’m happy to say, I’ll make it very expensively. But that’s it. That already shuts out about 75 percent of the people who were involved in conventional mainstream filmmaking, because they want to have their fingerprints all over things. And very few people are given a lot of money, and just told they could go up and do what they want to do. I envy their – not their movies, necessarily, or what they’re doing – I envy the circumstances they have been allowed to function within.

But, you know, I’m not going to complain. One way or another, I’ve managed to get every movie I’ve wanted to make made. And no matter how difficult it’s been, the fact is, they’ve been made. I’ve done most of them the way I wanted to do, without any limitations. Except in a couple of cases, the budgetary limitations did really hurt the film. But most of the time, they haven’t. And most of the time, I feel I’ve just been incredibly lucky. And the place where I’ve got fucked has been in distribution. And one of the things that I’m hoping will happen on Tyson—and if the poster and the trailer are any indication, or the general attitude of Tom Bernard and Michael Barker – this is going to be a very unusual and propitious occasion, because they really seem to be very sharp. I mean, I’ve known them a long time, but it’s the first time I’ve worked with them. And they really kind of get the movie. They know what they’re doing. So I’m hoping that this will be – you know, a rare occasion where I’m actually getting some truly worthy distribution of the film.

Question: Why did Tyson strike you as being the ideal – almost symbolic subject matter for a movie?

Toback: Well, certainly given my own preoccupations, which are broad but specific, and therefore on some level limited, as well – namely, identity and the loss of it, madness, sex, boxing, sports, crime, love, and death – his life illustrates, in an extreme form, all of those subjects. And he’s also extremely original and bold in the way he talks about them. There is no jargon. There’s no sense that you’re getting a kind of rehearsed lip service genuflection to those subjects. You’re getting his – at that moment, direct, unadulterated version of them in relation to his life. He also has interesting anecdotes. He’s a good storyteller. He’s got a very fresh, original relationship to language. He has that very powerful physical presence – and I’m not just talking about being a boxer, or being a muscular guy, or some shit like that. I mean, he has a – he has a face and a presence that register in a way that film was almost born to accommodate. So, all these – and he’s a tragic figure. He’s a doomed figure. He’s somebody who – who wears death on his sleeve lightly. And as somebody who’s death-obsessed himself, and who doesn’t feel that it’s possible to make a serious movie about anything unless you take death into account – he’s a kind of ideal figure, for me.

Question: What surprised you the most about him when you began working with him?

Toback: Well, I’d known him for 23, 24 years. The two things that surprised me the most when I was actually making the movie were, one, his constant references to fear as overwhelming him, both before he would get in the ring, and also in between fights. Constantly consumed with a sense of fear, and how his whole life has been an effort to handle the fear in the ring, to pass it onto his opponent, and infect his opponent with it by staring it into him. And then the other thing that shocked me, and – I have to say, it took place from the first moment I put my earphones on, was his respiratory problems. When I first put the earphones on, the first thing I heard was [SIGHING]. And right away, I said, “That’s the end of the movie. That’s the last thing we’re gonna hear in the movie, that breathing.”

Sure enough, a few minutes later, he started talking about, in effect, being an asthmatic as a kid. Having respiratory problems from the time he could remember. And as somebody who was an asthmatic as well when I was a kid, I know how – what panic that induces in a four, five, six-year-old child. Because there’s no frame of reference. There’s no awareness of what’s happening. It’s just – you feel as if your head has been pushed underwater, and you can’t breathe. And you sort of feel you’re going to die, without really knowing that’s what it is. So, to have had to deal with respiratory problems his whole life, I think has to be a deeply significant driving force in his life. And one that I was totally unaware of, until those first few minutes of the first day of shooting.

Question: So, you have a personal relationship with Tyson. How does that determine the choices you make as a documentary filmmaker?

Toback: Well, I decided that the right approach was going to be a quasi-psychoanalytic one. Allowing him to speak freely by being out of his eye line, and just letting him go. Letting him say whatever he wanted to say, and not rushing him. Not coming in with – not coming in with questions after he appeared to answer or respond to the first thing I said. Letting it go. Letting the two cameras shoot him, even if it meant five, ten minutes of silence. And then letting a voice that was obviously hidden or buried come up again, and add to what was being – what had just been said. That process was the only one that I thought would work to allow him to reveal himself in all of his complexity, to be a kind of provocateur, rather than an interviewer or a documentarian. To be someone who allowed himself to construct a self-portrait, which I would then editorially filter through the prism of whatever aesthetic and visual style I decided to come up with.

Question: Is there anything you omitted from this – you know, after doing all these interviews, and after all the shooting you’ve done – presumably you’ve shot many, many hours of footage.

Toback: Thirty. Thirty hours of film, yeah.

Question: Was it hard for you to cup this into A, into a cohesive narrative and B, into one that might be perceived as being reasonably objective?

Toback: Well, the objectivity, I never worried about, because basically it was just Tyson unadulterated. And I was going to present that in whatever shape made it dramatically interesting, not because I wanted to prove a point, or make him look one way or another. It was basically a self-portrait that I was delivering. And – I mean, the key thing was getting a structure. It was getting an idea of what all this footage could be shaped into, as a dramatically-interested, coherent and surprising narrative. Once that was kind of laid out, the question became, “Can I use the kind of split screen, moving boxes, multiple voice style?” that I’d decided I wanted to use. And when it became clear that would work, the rest just kind of fell into place.

Question: Had you had any negative criticisms, from people who knew Tyson, who felt that there were things that he said that they felt were untrue, or were colored for the purpose of cinema?

Toback: You know, I would say the response to the movie has been so unimaginably positive, that I’m still dazzled by it. I’ve normally had, with most of my movies, about 1/3 of the people loving them, 1/3 sort of mixed, and 1/3 of the people trying to end my career with what they said. And this is the first time I’ve had a movie that – it’s as if it’s Shrek, you know? And for a film about a character as incendiary, and as many ways, negatively provocative as Mike Tyson, it’s been shocking to me that it’s been almost unanimous. The one thing people have asked at some of the many Q&As I’ve done, that – I won’t say it’s a criticism, but they’ve asked it a lot, is, did I ever think of doing a conventional documentary, in which he was not the only person, in effect speaking about himself? And it did never occur to me. Or if it occurred to me, I dismissed it right away. Because the whole idea was to have a self-portrait. Not to say to people, “This is the truth, because Mike Tyson is saying it.”

The movie doesn’t ask you to say that at all, or believe it. It’s basically a presentation of Tyson. And if you don’t want to believe something, then you don’t believe it. Or if you’re suspicious, you’re suspicious. Ultimately, things such as – let’s say, the rape conviction – which, I myself believe Mike, because I don’t know why he’d be lying to me nonstop for 15 years, when he told me this 1000 percent that it was a lie, and if 100 people had been watching what happened, every one of them would know it was a lie – it still is not something that I’m interested in getting into a debate over. Because I wasn’t there. So, that’s what he says. Do I want to have Desiree Washington? What for? So, she said what she said, and he says it’s a lie. She’s obviously gonna say that it happened. Or – you know, what is she gonna do? Say, “I just felt like lying then, but now I’ll change my mind.” And – I mean, “I felt like lying then, and I did. And now I’ll admit that I was lying.” I mean, it’s not a he-said, she-said kind of film. And I don’t like those films, anyway. I feel they’re all kind of scurrilous and cheap, and – you know, because they’re not getting you any closer to the truth.

The truth of any event is in some innate, irrational sense you have. Not of building up of evidence. Evidence can be made to prove almost anything. Or disprove almost anything. And Bob Evans’ favorite phrase, “There are three versions of every story. Your version, my version, and the truth.” And it’s always – I mean, listen. If somebody shot somebody in the back, that’s objectively what happened. But when things are at all ambiguous, and who is the villain in this situation, and who is the liar, and is that the real sense of what happened – you know, a marriage breaks up. Why? I mean, the husband and the wife tell completely different stories of the same events. You’re not necessarily going to get a better view listening to the both of them than you are listening to one of them. Or listening to ten friends of theirs, than you are listening to one of them. Or 20 friends.

Ultimately, it’s just talk. And it’s more than talk that’s gonna get you a sense of the reality. It’s that one person whom you either take at face value, you question some of the time, or you totally disbelieve. My own feeling about Tyson is, the way he comes across in this movie. I believe everything he says, that – at least that he believes everything he says. I don’t think he’s consciously lying about anything in the movie. Is it possible that he is giving versions of things that other people would give other versions of? I’m sure that’s true. You know. But, so what?

Question: As a filmmaker, are you interested in exploring other larger-than-life personalities, in this kind of non-fiction milieu? Or do you want to go in a different direction yet again?

Toback: No, I like doing everything once, and that’s it. I’m not going to do another film like this, about anybody else. Or at least, I can’t imagine doing it. I always want to do something different the next time from what I’ve just done, you know? And the last film was a movie, basically, about a character played by Neve Campbell. A portrait of a complex woman, fictionalized. So, Mike Tyson’s self-portrait was about as far away from that as what I could get. The next movie I’m gonna do is called The Director, which is a movie about a director going through a lot of crises in the middle of his career. And that’s quite different from this, and from When Will I Be Loved?

Question: And clearly that director movie is not at all personal or autobiographical in anyway.

Toback: God forbid that I would ever indulge in quasi-autobiography.

Question: How personal a film will that be?

Toback: Well, certainly very much so. I mean, they all are. Even this one is, in the sense that I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t have a real sense of fascination with the same subjects that Mike does. You know, I wouldn’t be interested in making a movie, with all due respect to the profession, about somebody who’d been a dedicated accountant his entire life.

Question: I take it The Director is going to be a fictional piece?

Toback: It is. And if you have $25 million in your back pocket, I’ll happily accept it, and you can finance it.

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