The Dark Romance of James Toback

SR: Have you felt backlash from producers and such?

JT: Not among producers, say, because Spy goes after Ovitz and Simpson like crazy. See, if you have two elements of truth in a list of thirty, you can give a story authenticity. For instance, if I know that you took two girls to Chicago to an apartment you had there in 1975 while you were married, I can nail you by saying: "Every weekend he goes to Chicago where he keeps that apartment." All your friends now say, "I didn't know you were doing that." And your wife says, "I didn't know you were doing that." And you're not. But how would "they" know about Chicago if you're not doing that? I have been so controversial since I was at Harvard that I long ago stopped trying to correct other people's opinions of me. Most people would assume that I take drugs. I haven't had drugs since I was 19. Except from 1979 to 1983, when I drank.

SR: You were something of a world-class drug-taker.

JT: I took drugs in my teens to get a 24-hour buzz. I was always high. I flipped out on 1000 micrograms of acid when I was 19 and knew that I could never take another drug. I obliterated my "I," my socalled identity, for eight days. It's one thing to have it obliterated when you're in a trance for a few minutes, but eight days and nights is a long time to be missing. To have nobody home--or nobody that you recognize home. In fact, The Big Bang, which is a wild and funny excursion into the question of identity, comes from that experience. I mean, we're sitting here, each carrying a name, an identity. We have voices, a consciousness we walk around in.

Secretly, we know that there is a chaotic swirl behind that, a void, an absolute nothingness that echoes the nothingness that is space and time. In one second, the overdose of acid I took shredded this facade of an identity and forced me to admit that the only thing that was there was the void. To have everybody else walking around with the ludicrous misconception that they actually existed made it much too frustrating to bear. The only reason I didn't kill myself was because, on the first night all this was happening, I felt that if I died and still felt this way after I was dead, I couldn't have the fantasy that killing myself would end the agony.

SR: How did you come back from that zone?

JT: I clung on for a week. Then, miraculously I found my way to this doctor who had, with another doctor, synthesized LSD by accident in a Swiss laboratory in 1938. The doctor who gave me the chemical antidote made me sign a statement that were I to die as a result of the medication, he would be absolved of all responsibility. He wouldn't tell me for a year what was in it till he was sure that I was totally away from any possibility of experimenting with it.

SR: What was in the magic bullet?

JT: A compound of heroin, mellaril, Stelazine, morphine and Thorazine injected IV. I went from unspeakable agony to such ecstasy that I thought: "I wonder if we couldn't just sustain this a little bit more?" Apart from bringing me back into my projected self, my external "I," it also served the extra function of giving me three or four minutes of unutterable ecstasy.

SR: Spy or no, your name has been linked to some wild days and nights.

JT: That's why, when I read this stupid, feeble shit in Spy, I said, "I can see doing an article that's interesting or shocking or unusual or bold, but this is fucking fraudulent, nonexistent pigeon shit." I mean, I've been in love with Stephanie [Kempf] for years now, but when I look at my life as a sexually obsessed phenomenon, it's the period with Jim [Brown], two solid years of real Boschian madness, that wasn't about picking up people, but total sexual immersion.

SR: I've heard you may do a movie about those years. Conjure it up for me.

JT It was two years of utter abandon. I don't think people dream about the stuff that went on there, which was truly unlike anything that goes on a regular basis anywhere else in America, maybe anywhere else in the world. I was a complete psycho. If I ever do a movie about sex, raw and direct, that would be it. The movie would take place almost entirely in a house. You put 15 people plus a revolving seven or eight others every day in a totally uninhibited environment in a house that's gated off and isolated from the rest of L.A. and the world. Part of the intensity of that experience came from a feeling that the house was the world. What you wanted of the outside world came to you.

Therefore, you could design your own rules, your own morality, your own code of behavior with no need to justify or explain.

By definition, anyone who came to the house was subscribing to that or would leave. Basketball, swimming, as well as endless sexuality, went on in a completely relaxed, unhurried, leisurely way. It wasn't like, "We're doing this now because we're on vacation." One's job was to be there and explore these things. There was always somebody's limb or organ within three inches of your eye when you woke up in a room that you didn't quite remember was yours. There was a sense that every subliminal violent or erotic thought was capable of taking shape. There was also a kind of psychologically complicated hedonism at work all the time. There was also a kind of consciousness, if not pressure, because of the racial aspect. Jim suggests in his book [Out of Bounds published in 1989] that I was more conscious of racial difference than others. If that's true, and it might be, I would say it's for the same reason that one black person with a bunch of whites is going to be more conscious of it because you're the minority.

SR: How did you pull out?

JT: In America, that was about as far as you could go. That's what drew me to it, because, when you really get into it on that level, you're really dealing with the psychology of a person's racial attitudes, his whole psychic makeup, your fears, your homosexual longings and undercurrents, competitive instincts, deep-rooted attitude toward women. When you enter that deeply into another guy's being and he into yours--because there was no homosexuality there--but because of the endless, chain-letter randomness and openness, it was as if there were. You felt as close to the guys sexually as you did to the women, even though by some code of behavior, you were only actually sexual directly with a guy--with a girl. But in your dream life, everything was turned inside out and upside down.

SR: How do your acid flip-out and life with Jim Brown inform your work now?

JT: I've been thinking a tremendous amount about acting since making The Big Bang. The idea, which came out of the LSD experience, is, essentially: Does the "I," the self that one presents to the world, have any fundamental integrity or is it just an invention created with the collusion of family, educational system, religious system, social context? Left to one's own wiles on a deserted island, an infant is not going to grow up with a developed "I" but be much closer to that fundamentally chaotic state that I believe the "I" covers. It took me awhile to assimilate it all.

Then, as with many things in my life, I had a delayed reaction to it in work. The real goal of anything I do now in movies is to get a sense of what that void is behind the roles. The Big Bang is a full-scale attack to get at the preconscious void-centered state of 19 totally diverse individuals. After making movie after movie in which I was going along with the normal actors' goal--let's get a moment of reality, a moment of truth--I now think: Let's do nothing else. Let's make a movie in which all we're doing aiming at stripping away.

SR: Although Fingers is regarded by many people as a classic, and your most recent film, The Big Bang, is respected, you're aware that your track record as a director scans something like, "Smart guy, dumb choices." How good a moviemaker are you?

JT: I'm better than I've demonstrated. I've wasted a tremendous amount of time. I started drinking right after Fingers and during Love and Money and Exposed was in a buzz 24 hours a day. On the one hand, I'd say I've done a body of work that--at its best and even at its worst--is remarkable, given what could have happened in a negative way. In the next five, 10 years I can do some great work. When I work, I'm a fanatic. It's the periods in between when I let too much time go by. More than I've needed to. I lull myself into believing that I need this period of gestation.

SR: You say you don't spend your time pursuing women. What are your addictions?

JT: From eating everything my mouth would open itself to, and drinking 25 to 50 diet sodas a day, I have gone to being the most boringly fastidious being. I now eat beans, rice. It's dreary. I've converted. I quit drinking in 1983 because I was a chain champagne drinker. I'd drink four or five, then six beers, three or four rum punches. Then, much to my surprise, my liver started hurting. My doctor told me that if I wanted to avoid a slow, painful death from either cirrhosis or cancer of the liver within the next couple of years, "I would suggest you quit." I haven't had a sip of alcohol since. Same with smoking. I am aware of time running out, but I have no interest at all in old age. I don't even want to live until late middle age. I'm 46 now. Death I'm not at all afraid of. Pain I'm not interested in. Some people would much rather live in discomfort, with all kinds of compromises, then die. I would much rather die than live with any kind of compromise.

SR: How did the suicide of Jerzy Kosinski, whom you knew well, affect you?

JT: Suicide has a bad reputation and this whole issue with Jerzy has brought all this up again. His wife had dinner with us right after he had committed suicide. She and Jerzy were old friends of Beatty's. She showed us the letter [Jerzy] wrote to her. It was the letter of someone in complete control of his faculties who had simply decided that it was a burden on her and a lack of pleasure for him to continue to live under the reduced circumstances that were inevitable. I would have done the same thing and would feel affronted if anyone tried to stop me. You're born and you know one thing: that you're going to die. That's the only inevitability. The mystery is when and how. On some level, seizing the means and the time is an enviable outcome. To be able to say, "I'll tell you when," because every second you let go by NOT doing it, you've given up that option. There might be a truck around the corner that has different ideas.

SR: Have you planned your own grand finale?

JT: I have a very clear scheme worked out. I've always loved the ocean. I almost feel I have a biological memory of having been a creature of it. I would take a boat as far as I could, then shoot myself. I've almost drowned twice and it's very unpleasant and I wouldn't want to go through that again. I would shoot myself and then go down. Then, let me be absorbed into the ocean through whatever sea creatures wish to absorb me. That would be a kind of ideal death. I don't want to be buried in a box. I'm claustrophobic.

SR: How would you spend the week before you die?

JT: I feel it's essential to bring good to the life of the people you care about and to redress grievances. I have a list--which is short but very precise--of people whom I plan to do away with, if and when I do away with myself. In the week before I would end my own life, I would certainly plan on ending theirs.

SR: You were once accused by the film critic John Simon of harassment through obscene phone calls and the like. What happened?

JT: I am, to my own suffering in most cases, incapable of not settling scores. When someone maliciously and unnecessarily tries to bring misery, failure, or pain to my life, I think that simply to accept it is not a good medicine for the soul. If somebody comes up to you on the street and spits at you, smacks you and kicks you, and now expects you to walk away, I believe it's a mistake to call the police because that's basically a weakening activity. To invite in daddy to fix the problem. It's better to take a bat and bash the guy's skull in.

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