Tyson Director James Toback: 'I Wanted Those Voices to Come Out'

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On paper, at least, it's a perfect, polarizing storm: Mike Tyson as told to James Toback. A portrait of the artists as old men, hustler on hustler, mapless, searching. And upon their delivery from the sultry swamp of compulson, the record of their journey. Pull up a chair, you gotta hear this, ignore at your peril. Believe it, though? Maybe. Maybe. It's the most these two old friends could hope for with Tyson, as evocative and infuriating a documentary as they come, and as sincere an effort as either lost soul could command.

Presented solely from the point of view of its eponymous subject, yet dense with the filmmaker's own prodigious sense of myth, Tyson purports to detail the making and breaking of the champ. They start at the beginnning -- a dead end, really, in the petty crime epicenter of Brownsville, Brooklyn, breaking through to Tyson's reformation at an upstate New York youth center and eventual salvation in the gym sanctuary of legendary boxing trainer (and eventual guardian) Cus D'Amato. But for the 18-year-old heavyweight, imminent supremacy promises trouble as well: Exploitation (by future wife Robin Givens and promoter Don King), disappointment (his shocking 1990 loss to James "Buster" Douglas), incarceration (for the 1991 rape of "that wretched swine of a woman" Desiree Washington), and ear-chewing volatility (during his 1997 bout against Evander Holyfield).

Despite the one-man show, Tyson's whirring introspection -- and all the conflicting omissions and revelations therein -- echoes Toback's own. Like he did in his 1971 memoir of living with football great Jim Brown, the director captures the athlete in repose (professionally, anyway), harnessing the ravages of excess, appetite, extremes. It's the perspective that has earned Toback acclaim and trouble of his own since his 1978 directorial debut Fingers, but for better or worse, it's never anything less than his perspective.

The director talked to Movieline about bringing it to bear on a subject who, after 88 minutes, remains essentially as mysterious as ever.

So you're back in a big way. This isn't the kind of success you've been used to in recent years.

I was on the plane yesterday, next to [Capote director] Bennett Miller, and he showed me on Rotten Tomatoes that we're at 92. The next highest number was 80. The Soloist was at 40. Most of my movies have been far more mixed than that in response. This has been freakish to me. At Cannes they had a list of responses, there were 197 positive, three mixed, and two negative. Usually you get that maybe on Shrek.

This film was not a sure bet by any means. You've got a polarizing subject, and you're a pretty polarizing guy yourself.

I started to be shocked in my own mind when I was editing. It occurred to me one day that this movie is going to affect people emotionally and positively who I never would have dreamed would be a potential audience. Primarily: women who aren't interested in boxing and don't like Mike Tyson.

I thought, just out of curiosity, I would test it. Just for fun; it wouldn't have changed what I was doing. I thought, "I'll approach a bunch of women who look as if they don't like boxing and don't like Tyson. I would say three things: "Do you like boxing? Do you like Mike Tyson? And would you be interested in seeing a movie about Mike Tyson?" And if I got three definitive "No"s, I then would say, "OK. What I'd like you to do is come to my editing room and watch this movie. It's a rough assembly. If you don't like it after five minutes and want to leave, I'll give you $100 for having come. If you stay, you get nothing, but I want to hear what you think at the end of the movie." Over the course of two weeks I had maybe 35 women who saw it, maybe between the ages of 15 and 50. Everyone stayed, not one of them took the $100, and I'd say maybe half of them were in tears at the end. They were almost embarrassed about it; they said, "I can't believe the movie affected me this way."

And in several cases, they were almost weirdly determined to figure out why. It was as if they were asking me, "What happened? How did you do that?" And I said in each case, "I didn't intend to at all." I wouldn't have known how to do it anyway. I still don't know why. My intention was to present Mike Tyson as he is, and as he sees himself.

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He's obviously a very candid subject. But did you ever encounter a period where, as a documentarian more than his friend, you found yourself having to keep him honest?

No, because he's not capable of dishonesty. He's got too many voices going on in his brain. He's lucky to get one voice out. The others are all going on; you don't know it, but they're going on. There's not that self-censoring mechanism that most people have. Even when people get angry and upset, they're vaguely aware of it. They could they're spontaneously spewing it out, but they know what they're doing. I would say that half the time he doesn't have a clue.

Didn't you ever feel compelled to play devil's advocate or challenge his perspectives?

No. I didn't want to. I wanted those voices to come out. If I'd done that, he'd have clammed up. The idea of making it an interview -- I ask you a question, you answer it, if you don't answer it in a way that I feel fully satisfies my curiosity, I'll ask you another question... I would have had a very boring documentary. I wouldn't have had a documentary, because his answers would have been linear -- one level of his consciousness. It's the difference between therapy and psychoanalysis. Therapists never even get close to what's going on in the patient's mind. Whereas an analyst has you on the couch -- which Mike literally was -- and gives enough space to drift. The voices come out. Three minutes of silences, five minutes of silence. The camera's still running. And then you add something. I'd say a third of the movie is the moments that came out after four minutes of silence. It's not objective, factual stuff. It's who he is.

Did you and Mike ever discuss a time when his former trainer Teddy Atlas reportedly confronted him about an incident involving an underage girl, even putting a gun to Mike's head?

No. That's not the kind of documentary it is. It's a self-portrait. And even if he had, I don't know how I would have fit it into the movie. The point of the movie isn't, "What are the details of what happened when he was living up at Cus D'Amato's house?" That's at its maximum already, and if I had to re-edit the movie, I'd make that section shorter.

But that would have been a critical milestone in Mike's life. Atlas was out of the picture soon after that, and maybe Mike's lesson was that he didn't have to be accountable for his transgressions.

He wasn't held accountable ever. He did what he wanted to do from the time he was in that gang [as a teenager in Brooklyn]. He had no sense of imposition from the outside. Even the accepting of Cus's rules were his decision. He is basically his own rulemaker, and, as it would be with anybody, it's been the source of most of his troubles. Society doesn't accept that. They're constantly saying, "Here are the rules, and you will obey them." And Mike's instinct is to not even discuss it. Some people get away with it all the time, but it's very few. Robert Downey Jr. was like that for a long time. He never got away with it. It's like he was cursed. He got arrested for drugs more times than anyone in history. Whereas Mike got away with it a lot of times, but ironically, the worst consequence he suffered was for something he didn't do. And I think that's why he's so totally fucked up over the Desiree Washington episode: He wound up with the worst punishment of his life over something that wasn't any violation of the rule of law.

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Don't such omissions or elisions also compromise the complexity of your subject?

No, because it's not pretending to be the full, complex picture of Mike Tyson. It's Mike Tyson's view of himself. Look at a self-portrait by Gauguin or van Gogh. By allowing him to paint himself his own way, aren't you distorting the actual look of Gauguin or van Gogh? If I took a photograph of them, are you telling me that's the way it would look? They're going to say, "I'm not interested in showing you a photograph." Which I couldn't have taken anyway with Mike, because I'm not interested in being objective.

Still, you have your own vision as a filmmaker. To what extent do you -- or don't you -- impose that vision on Mike's version of himself?

It's always going to be mine to the degree I've made the selection. Mike isn't editing his movie, and one of the preconditions was that he couldn't change anything. He didn't even suggest anything when he saw it. So you could say it's my presentation of his self-portrait. Someone else could have taken the same footage I had, presented a self-portrait of Mike Tyson, and it would be a different self-portrait. So there my analogy of the self-portrait has a limitation. But that has to do with the nature of the process, unless I'm going to release a 30-hour movie.

Anyone who's seen The Outsider [the documentary about Toback's career and the making of his 2004 film When Will I Be Loved?] knows what a battle it is for you to get anything made.

Always.

Earlier we touched on your comeback of sorts. How do you plan to capitalize on this momentum?

It's still going to come down to the same thing. The next movie is called The Director, and I'm still going to get it made, but only if I get a leading actor who is valuable. Not just to me as an actor, either. It's too big a movie to get financed with either an unknown or even a known actor who doesn't have a certain level of commercial desirability.

What's it about?

It's about a director who's making a movie of his life, which he keeps chaning as his life is changing. He keeps doing things that affect the movie in order to rewrite the movie. He's doing things in his life that allow him to rewrite the movie in ways that are interesting to him.

Any sense of autobiography?

No, because he's getting himself into a lot of criminal stuff that I never did. What it's doing is giving me free license to commit half the crimes I've wanted to -- but haven't. But this not a good time to be an independent-minded filmmaker. This is a studio-run business, and the money that's around is being spent on movies that executives want to make. That's what's driving it. When I started making movies, it was a director-generated world. Then, in a weird way, it became an agent-generated world after Michael Ovitz took over everything. And now, it's the studios. They'll spend hundreds of millions of dollars this year, and hardly on anything that came to them from a director. With me, it's always a different source. For Tyson, it was myself. I was so disgusted with this fucking horrendous, boring chasing around after money, so here's a movie I can finance myself.

Did Mike Tyson have any financial stake in this film?

No. None. Though eventually, if the movie goes considerably into profit, he'll get something. It would be nice. You can't go the bank any day and take a loan against net profit. But let's hope.



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