“And then he said, ‘It’s like a Greek tragedy. The only problem is, I’m the subject.'”
You could call it a comeback of sorts. After years of mucking about in low-rent, half-baked Hollywood vehicles dealing with his favorite obsessions — cons, carnality, gambling, and risk-taking youths — New York-based filmmaker James Toback (Fingers) has finally muscled his way back into the spotlight with a vivid, high-profile documentary about his longtime pal, Mike Tyson. Winner of the Un Certain Regard Knockout Prize at Cannes 2008, and an audience favorite at Sundance this past January, Tyson opened in late April for a limited run, picking up an impressive opening-weekend bounty ($85.9K) for Sony Pictures Classics. Not bad for a doc, but it helps when your subject is a disgraced sports figure of Tyson’s magnitude. Once lionized for his formidable athletic prowess and indisputable ferocity, yet hounded by fans and the press for all of his troubles outside the ring, Tyson is a fascinating conundrum even now, at age 40, and an ideal match for the ultra-macho Toback, whose own bawdy extracurricular activities have ignited controversy over the years.
As even casual observers of professional sports may recall (just to be clear: my own interest in boxing doesn’t go far beyond Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, and Bugs Bunny), the former heavyweight champion’s brilliant career began to take a nosedive after the death of his mentor and surrogate father, Cus D’Amato. There was a disastrous, one-year marriage to Robin Givens, the ill-advised firing of longtime trainer Kevin Rooney, numerous run-ins with the law, and a 1992 rape conviction he still vehemently contests. Most infamously, in a title bout with Evander Holyfield, Tyson was ejected after biting a chunk out of his opponent’s ear. It was only a matter of time before his growing notoriety and personal demons swept him from his Olympian perch, which he’d formerly occupied with swaggering self-confidence. Since then, the legendary bruiser has kept a low profile, but Toback’s Tyson shows us a reflective side of the man we’ve never seen before.
Intimate and candid, though not wholly reliable (what self-narrated, first-person portrait could be?), Tyson is a fascinating blend of confessional autobiography and brutally honest self-analysis in which the heavy-browed, Maori-tattooed, dulcet-voiced ex-con recounts everything from his troubled Brooklyn childhood as a picked-on teen and recklessly violent thug-in-the-making to his piquant views on sex, psychology, Islam, fame, and Don King (“a wretched, slimy, reptilian motherfucker”). Employing eloquently framed split-screen images as well as electrifying old footage, Toback is clearly master of ceremonies, even though his gravelly voice is never heard. Instead, he allows Tyson to roam free conversationally, with digressions on “the chaos of the brain” that still consumes him, as well as plenty of explanations for his bad behavior. Some of these are convincing (he maintains that Holyfield was repeatedly and illegally headbutting him in that infamous fight, and slo-mo footage appears to support his contention), while others (especially his emphatic denial that he raped then–Miss Black Rhode Island Desiree Washington) are frustratingly ambiguous and left to hang in the air unchallenged. (Blunt to the point of self-abnegation, Tyson never gives the impression there’s anything he won’t discuss, so Toback’s most responsible for this gap, intentional or otherwise.) Nevertheless, what Tyson at its best depicts is a man attempting to come to terms with himself, to interrogate his darker motivations and patterns in life, his great successes as well as his most humiliating defeats, without once giving us the sense that he’s actually achieved the state of grace he undoubtedly longs for. And that failure, more than the professional ones, has an element of tragedy to it, a nearly mythic quality that Toback wrings for all it’s worth.
On a short break from promoting Tyson at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, the always garrulous Toback took a few minutes to speak with me about his intimate friendship with Iron Mike, the future of film, and why he once plotted to kill Barry Levinson.
You met Tyson on the set of The Pickup Artist. What is at the root of your friendship? What’s your connection?[Thinks] A total directness of thought, feeling, and language. An uninhibited, unadulterated curiosity about similar subjects, and an inability to pretend to invulnerability or smoothness or the rightness of things. “I’m doing fine, great, how are you? Good, what’s going on?” None of that. It is all based on an intimacy that one usually shares only with oneself or maybe a few other people. But very rarely with people one isn’t living with or spending a great deal of time with. Whether we see each other twice a year, talk on the phone once a month, twice a day — it doesn’t matter — the tone and the nature of it is established.
How did you approach interviewing somebody that you knew as well as him?
I decided not to allow myself, let alone him, to think about it as an interview. I stood off to the side, I made it as casual as this, and just engaged him in a certain kind of conversation. “What are your earliest memories?” And then I just let him go, rather than say, “Okay, now that we’ve covered that, here’s the second subject.” We let the camera run and run. The most interesting things in the movie came as a result of allowing him to zone out, reconnect, and all of a sudden get back into it. He’d come back with a line such as “No one will ever fuck with me again because I’ll fucking kill ’em.” That was stages to get to, of breathing, of “I can’t even say it,” of silence and more silence.
One thing I found so extraordinary is how nakedly self-analytical Tyson is. It’s fascinating to listen to him talk about his own psyche.
Has he always been that way?
Yeah. With Tyson, everyone would converge on [him], and that’s the way it is anywhere he goes. Everywhere he went, he could not walk. When he’d get in a car, the car couldn’t move — they were blocking it, knocking on the windows. And I think the unreality of that to him is ongoing. You get that sense in the movie, there’s still the sense of him and then [there’s] “Tyson,” who is out there somewhere. Last night [at the Sundance premiere], it was very interesting because they were asking him about the movie, and he said, “It’s the first time I ever understood why people were afraid of me and thought I was crazy. I used to say, ‘Why are they after me? What do they have against me?'” It was not real to him because that persona — and this has been going on 24 years, since he was 18 — an alternative identity like that becomes as real as your so-called real identity.
How did you arrive at the visual look of the film, the split-screen projection, for instance?
What did Tyson think of the film when he finally laid eyes on it? He wasn’t with you throughout the editing process, I gather.
The first time he really saw it all the way through, he was in a white T-shirt, white pants, white sneakers, and white socks. Somehow, you think of Tyson in black, not white, but he was dressed all in white, and sitting alone with me in the screening room, with his legs crossed in a kind of yoga position. He watched the movie and didn’t say a word for about five minutes. And then he said, “It’s like a Greek tragedy. The only problem is, I’m the subject.” Which is about as succinct a summary as one could make seeing that movie. He’s very self-aware, so he can be objective and analytical about the person up there, and I think probably proud and horrified simultaneously. Ever since then, I think it’s been a real issue with him to be exposed to the response — cuz seeing any actor is a bit raw up on the screen. Who knows what someone’s gonna say. “Wow, you think he’s attractive? That girl’s supposed to want to fuck him? Come on!” So obviously, actors are ready to be before a firing squad. But it’s ten times more [intense] when that’s your life. You can’t say it’s the director’s fault, it was a bad part, because it’s all you. So I think even with his ovation at Cannes, which went on for like eleven minutes, last night was a turning point. We had a 460-seat theater, packed, and there was a really — I would say it was an honest standing ovation. There are some ovations that are like for the state-of-the-union address, you know — everyone gets up, including the opposite party, and this piece of shit is standing there as they’re clapping. And then there’s this kind, which is really just a spontaneous overflow of real connection. I watched him while that was happening. He went through a conversion at that moment and said holy shit, this is really great, I’m thrilled, this is making me feel so good. He kept saying, “The only thing I worry about is I crash and get high and fuck myself up when I’m happy, not when I’m sad, so I really have to watch out for myself.” He kept saying it over and over again — “This is dangerous for me, because this is when I go off, this is when I get in trouble, when everything is great and going well.” It’s a minute-by-minute thing, and he knows it is. And that’s why he’s like, what can I do to make sure I won’t forget that?
It’s a negative pattern he recognizes in his life.
Like a gambling obsession, you never remember what you promised yourself when you’re winning and accumulating and you’re sending in for more. All of a sudden, you’re like, but wait a minute, which pocket did I have that in? And then you say, “Someone was supposed to tell me to stop!” There’s a great moment — one of the funniest moments in movies — in Wise Guys [Brian DePalma, 1986], with Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo. Joe Piscopo is trying to get Danny DeVito to take the money the wise guy gave him to bet on the horse and pocket it, thinking the horse will lose and then they’ll start a Jewish-Italian deli. And Piscopo goes in the men’s room and hides and finally grabs the money from DeVito and runs away and the race goes off. The horse they didn’t bet on is dead last, and Danny DeVito turns to Piscopo and says, “You see, look at this. We have the first Jewish-Italian deli ever, and all because I kept the money and you were gonna bet it on that horse, you moron!” Now the horse is coming up fast and wins at the wire, and Danny DeVito turns to Joe Piscopo and says, “How could you have let me do that? You know I don’t know what I’m doing!” [Laughs]
You came out of Harvard intending to work in journalism. What did the experience of writing and directing films for the screen bring you, in terms of storytelling, that you weren’t going to get writing a novel or working on a news story?
The Wagnerian notion of the synoptic art. Wagner talked about opera that way.
The complete art, the Gesamtkunstwerk.
Exactly. And music, which is my original passion, artistically — unfortunately, I was insufficiently talented to make it a profession — I can’t conceive of any movie without music being central to it. Language, image, photography, performance, theater, personal experience, anecdote, taking all of those elements and putting them together, one could only do in film. There is no other artform. Had I had the ability of Dostoyevsky, I probably would have chosen to be a novelist no matter what. But since that too was lacking, I felt film is something that I really can use everything in, and I think I will have a high aptitude for it. I didn’t really know, because I never went to film school, I never studied film at all. But I felt it innately, irrationally. Now that I’ve made a bunch of films, some people might agree with me and say wow, you were right — you are great. Other people might say oh, you should have tried music! But once I decided to do it, I fell into the arms of Karel Reisz, and that was the turning point for me because he was my film school.
How did he help you, specifically?
I never took a film course or read about how to make a film, I’d never been on a film set. He took my script [for The Gambler] — I didn’t even know how to write a script, I just wrote it out as I saw it and heard it — and he read it. He was probably, at the time, the most in-demand British director. It was a group — John Schlesinger, Karel Reisz, Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, though Karel directed Isadora, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Morgan! — and all the American studios wanted to do movies with that group, they were all being courted. And he said, I don’t know America, I don’t know this gambling world, I don’t know the university world or the gangster world, but this character you’ve written really fascinates me. And he read my book about Jim Brown. [Published in 1971, Jim: The Author’s Self-Centered Memoir on the Great Jim Brown detailed Toback’s experiences living with the football star — Ed.] And he said, “If I put together that autobiographical book you wrote with this script, my hunch is that if you come over here and work with me for a year or so, I might be able to make this into a movie. But if you feel that’s too much of a risk to take, I understand.” So I thought, what the fuck? And I went over and basically moved into the Londonderry Hotel. Every morning at seven o’clock, I took a taxi to Reisz’s house in Hampstead, and stayed till dinner, six days a week. And six months later, having rewritten The Gambler seven or eight times — we talked a great deal; the ratio of our talking to my writing was 20 to 1 — he finally said, okay, I can come to New York City. Now you can introduce me to these people and places, and then I might be able to do this. So that was the second stage. Then we went Paramount to cast and prepare the movie. That was the third stage. Then he shot the movie and edited it, so I was with him all those stages. And by the end of it, I said okay, this is it. Now, as much as I love Karel Reisz, I don’t need him for my next movie. I’m going to do them from now on.
Fingers, the film that came out of that effort, has really endured. It screened at Cannes last year, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center is running it again for their Positif series. There’s a lot of interest, still, in the European context.
They remade it as The Beat That My Heart Skipped, which won all these awards, and which I have mixed feelings about. I like the movie and I like Jacques Audiard, but it would have been nice if I had any of that going for me instead of the shit I took when it came out. Vincent Canby and Janet Maslin in The New York Times literally went on a crusade to kill the movie. You go back and read those reviews, they were the nastiest reviews ever written about a movie. It was like a gangbang. Now Canby’s dead, fortunately, and Maslin’s off to pasture writing book reviews. But Fingers was the real turning point, because as you say, first of all, it proved at least to me that I could do what I thought I could do. I mean, there are writers who would take what happened — wow, Toback, great screenwriter — and that becomes the thing, and they do it, and then maybe they have a directing thing they do ten years later, like Richard LaGravenese. But they’re considered writers, not directors. So I came out of the box with that, and for better or worse, as far as other people were concerned, they said okay, now you write and direct, now you do both.
But you’ve written scripts others have directed, haven’t you?
The only time I switched was with Bugsy, and that was a unique case. First of all, I thought I was going to direct it. And in fact I hatched plans to kill Barry Levinson in preproduction so that I could direct it. I backed off, cuz I like Barry. We speak on the phone every day and we always make jokes about it. So fortunately, we got along, cuz otherwise he’d be dead and I’d be in jail. That was a sort of triad. Warren Beatty, Barry Levinson, and I kind of collaborated in an almost — well, Barry says it’s unique. None of us had been involved in anything like that before. I don’t know of a case where you have three people who worked in such balance of harmony in terms of making a movie together. One funny story, cuz he knew I was getting a little pissed off: Warren did an interview with Dominick Dunne for Vanity Fair. They went to this pizza place and he pointed to a table and said, “That’s where Jimmy Toback and I wrote Bugsy together.” So when he got an advance copy, Warren said to me, “You know, there’s a mistake in the article. Dominick got something wrong. He has me saying something I didn’t say.” I said, so what’s that? “Well, there’s a moment where he has me saying ‘there’s where Jimmy and I wrote Bugsy together.'” So from that point on, I would always say, “Oh yeah, Bugsy, that’s the movie where Warren and I played Bugsy together.” [Laughs]