Sunday, November 09, 2008

"He always had this innate sense of live or die, minute by minute, second by second in the ring" - An interview with James Toback

When Mike Tyson visited the set of James Toback's film The Pick-Up Artist in 1985, the pair struck up a friendship that has endured to this day. While dealing with the extraordinary ups and downs that have marked his tumultuous life, Tyson has also taken small roles in two of the director's films – Black and White and When Will I Be Loved – and now the pair have collaborated for a third time, but on this occasion the fighter himself is the star of the show. Tyson is a one-man film, a fascinating documentary in which Toback allows his subject the time to tell his own story in his own words. It is a remarkable piece of work, and I met James Toback recently to discuss it.

I see a lot of documentaries and most of them are structured in the same way, with various interviews cut together to offer different perspectives on a subject, but you've chosen to give us this single monologue. When you first thought about making a film on Tyson, did you always intend to follow this format?

Well, I thought I had two options. One was to be part of it myself and to make a movie about the two of us, but given the history of our friendship and how personal it has been, you'd either have to go all the way in that direction or not at all, and to just pretend that I'm an interviewer would not have worked. I toyed with that idea for a while, but I thought it would be much more powerful if I just went all the way and tried some of these technical things that I wanted to do, like split-screens and overlapping voices. That just seemed the best way to go. You know, I love Kusturica's films and I saw his film about Maradona, and he is very much in that. You could almost say it's a movie about his relationship with Maradona, and even though I love Kusturica and I like Maradona, I have to say it made me glad I hadn't done that. I guess you have to ask who's the subject, and how much can you get from this one person, and Tyson is a massively fascinating person. There is a movie to be made about the two of us, but that's a different movie and it would have been a less impressive one and ultimately a less challenging one for me.

In the film, Tyson talks about how hard he finds it to trust people, but this is a remarkable show of trust in you, to open up to your cameras like this.

I couldn't have done it otherwise, and if I had any doubt whatsoever that he wasn't ready to go 100% I wouldn't have gone ahead. But listen, I've known him since the first night we met 23 years ago, and I know what our relationship is, so it never crossed my mind that he would be coy or resistant. I knew he wouldn't do it unless he was ready to go right in.

Did he take any persuading when you first came to him with the idea?
No, we had been talking about doing it for quite a while, and it was definitely the right time for both of us. At many other junctures along the road it would have been difficult to work it out, but this was just one conversation and we were shooting two weeks later.

Were there any subjects he was reluctant to talk about?
He was ready for anything. There was one story, which I promised him I wouldn't tell, for the same reason he wouldn't tell it in the movie, because it was sort of embarrassing to Brad Pitt, and Mike said, "I like him, there's no reason for me to embarrass him".

Were you worried about getting Brad Pitt's lawyers on your back?
It wasn't the lawyers, he wouldn't have given a fuck about that, he just felt there was no reason to embarrass him. He had told me this story privately and I asked him to elaborate on it, and he started to but then he said, "I don't want to do that, he's a good guy and it's embarrassing". But that was his only inhibition in the whole 30 hours we did.

We're so used to seeing Mike Tyson as a figure of pure aggression, but when we see him so vulnerable and open here it's almost hard to believe he's the same man.

There's that great phrase of André Gide's, "Don't understand me too quickly", and there are certain people of whom that is powerfully true. Tyson is one of them. There's no question he has a very complex, fascinating and contradictory nature, so the minute you think you have him pegged you find something that subverts it. Certainly the conventional notion of him is completely misleading – partly because of certain things he's done, partly because of his physical appearance and presence, partly because of his profession – but he's a very sensitive, articulate and psychologically shrewd person.

One of the most revelatory parts of Tyson is when he talks about his penchant for violence stemming from his incredible fear of humiliation.

Absolutely, and you can see the direct correlation. You can also feel it within; it's a very human response to be driven to either rage or cowering fear by humiliation, fear or negation. You either take it and get whipped by it, or you rebel against it homicidally, and clearly that was his natural response. What comes as a surprise, of course, is the source of it, and seeing him in a very vulnerable state. Then you see him in prison under these very reduced circumstances and the effect that had on him, and how his whole life afterwards has been coloured by that humiliation. I don't know if anybody has ever made prison seem more horrifying than he does in his description of it. Basically, after seeing the movie you'd rather go to a labour camp in Siberia than a regular maximum-security American prison.

He is very moving when he talks about Cus D'Amato, and his death appears to be the major turning point for Tyson. When he died, Tyson no longer had anyone to guide him, and to show him the right path.
Right, and I think some people are never fortunate enough to have anybody who's as ultimately reliable, who will always be there for them, and who always has their best interests at heart. Anyone of exceptional skills is tremendously aided by that, because it gives you a field in which to develop, when you have someone behind you who is basically saying, "Don't worry, everything's covered, I'll take care of everything, just become what you need to become". Clearly he had it with Cus D'Amato and he took advantage of it, he flourished as a result of it, so when Cus died, there was a void and that's where his future was forged, both positively and negatively. It enabled him to succeed in a way he never would have succeeded otherwise, but on the other hand his early death and absence almost guaranteed the fall that there was as well.

It's as if he's a classical tragic figure, destroyed by his own flaws and doomed to repeat his mistakes.

Absolutely, and in his case it's a kind of double tragedy because he starts at this incredibly low point, then through his ambition he becomes unimaginably successful, he destroys himself through hubris, and then he is resurrected again through will and determination. You think "OK, this time he'll keep it", and then of course he subverts it a second time. You basically say, "How did I get this chance? How did I come from that and develop into this?" It's almost unreal, and something about the unreality of it drives one to destroy it, as if to say "I knew that was too good to be true, I knew I should really be down here", and then getting furious at being down there and striving to get back, before falling down again. It leaves a kind of shellshock, and the Tyson you see at the end of the movie is almost like someone who is a veteran of two world wars, and is now in a kind of post-death syndrome, like he went into death and came back.

The film ends on a very ambiguous note, with Tyson saying, "The past is history, the rest is a mystery", and we wonder where he will go from here. He's at the crossroads again.

It's literally on a day-by-day basis, he doesn't know. Obviously everybody is subject to fate, and I was noting with no small degree of satisfaction the sudden and untimely death of Jörg Haider, who had just shown up very well in that election in Austria. He was in his 40's [note-he was actually 58], and he certainly looked to be in physically good shape – and then boom! Dead. Do you know where he was headed? His mother's 90th birthday celebration. So what are the odds? He's in his forties, she's 90, and if one of them is going to die in the next 48 hours, what are the odds that it's going to be him? One in 5,000? It's not even a price. So there is this sense of ongoing uncertainty in everybody's life, but people make assumptions, like he's in his 40's, she's 90, so she's going to die first. But with Mike Tyson it's almost an asterisk case, because you can't make any assumptions, anything is possible, and if I made any statement imaginable about his fate you would almost nod in acceptance at whatever that may be.

You talked about Tyson living on a day-by-day basis, and I assume that's an effect of his rehab programme. How is he handling that?
Everybody in these 12-step process is taught to say and believe "One day at a time", so you never stop and think, "I'm great". As of today, everything seems to be ok, and you're going to say the same thing tomorrow and that's as far as it goes. I don't know what kind of fragility is there with him, but there's certainly some, and this sense of fragility of time and the potential of dying by some self-inflicted wound or something all made him such a liberated, great fighter psychologically. He always had this innate sense of live or die, minute by minute, second by second in the ring. To a degree, every boxer does, but he did it in the spirit of that and there wasn't any of the calculation or strategising that there is in most fighters. He talks about early knockouts and his bronchial condition, and he knew he had to get rid of them right away, he had to intimidate them and terrify them before they got in the ring, and he expected a knockout right away so every second is heightened. If it goes too far down the road he loses that advantage, and having that mentality is a way of overcoming fear, which is the underlying imprisoning notion that's lurking there all the time.

When you mentioned him intimidating opponents before he got in the ring, you reminded me of one of my favourite moments, when he narrates over his fight footage and we see him staring down an opponent, waiting for him to flinch.

Yes, we did that editorially. I had a great collaboration with my editor Aaron Yanes, who was my assistant editor on When Will I be Loved, and he totally got what I was up to and what I wanted to do, and he was a really terrific editor. I would almost say I'd never use anybody else.

It must be a major challenge to do that, to boil down all of those interviews and the hours of archive footage into a single coherent 90 minute feature.

First of all it was difficult to get a balance between the unique stuff that we shot now and the older footage, and we ended up having around an hour on him and 25 minutes of fights and stuff, so that was part of the task. Also we had to know what was great, as when you have a movie like this with so much great stuff, both archival and present, you want to avoid ever needing some dead weight. There's a phrase in movies which is "Shoe Leather" – we need this for exposition; we have to show that; this isn't the best part and I can't wait for it to end so we can get to that. You didn't need anything like that in this movie, it's all just highlights. We went through everything at the beginning and weeded out anything that didn't work, so there's literally nothing in the movie where you say "alright, this is 45 seconds I could do without, but we have to have it". There's really nothing like that and it keeps the movie at a certain pitch.

Having worked with Tyson on both Black and White and When Will I be Loved, what's his take on the filmmaking experience? Is it a process he enjoys?

He says he does. I think he enjoys the moments in it, and we've had a lot of fun doing all three movies at different times, but he also is restless and impatient, and I was lucky to get him as concentrated as he was during this movie. I mean, we did some great stuff in Black and White, but it was an hour here and an hour there, and this time we basically went non-stop.

We see in the film that Tyson was a keen student of the game, who studied footage of older fighters to improve himself. Has he any desire to get back into boxing at some point, perhaps in a coaching capacity?

No, he has none. That would be very easy for him to do, and an easy way to make money, but his boxing life is over. You know, he was offered a huge amount of money to fight Klitschko and Holyfield, but he doesn't want to do it anymore, and he doesn't want to do what a lot of old fighters do, like commentary and stuff.

I read a quote from you where you said Mike's plan was always to sell DVDs of this out of the back of a car...

[laughs] Yeah, on street corners in Harlem.

At what point did he realise this was going to be something bigger than that?

I think not until we got this ten-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, which he was totally unprepared for. I was not prepared for it; I thought we might get two minutes, but to get people to stand for ten or eleven minutes, you can't pay people to stand that long. Right up until the end of the movie he didn't know they were going to like the movie, he thought they might dislike both it and him, and even though I told him I'd screened it for a lot of people and there was no chance that was going to happen, he was not convinced. In fact – I didn't know this until his manager told me – he and a bunch of people had gone to dinner while the movie was on, and they were standing outside the theatre where they could hear it was coming to the end. Mike turned to his manager and said "Do you think Jim would be angry if I just went back to the hotel? What if they don't like it, what if they don't like me?" and his manager said it wouldn't happen. But you know the history of the Cannes Film Festival is littered with walkouts and booing and all kinds of negative displays, and had there been that kind of reaction, he would have just bolted. I think if there had been a tepid response he might have gone, he was literally waiting for the response, and when he heard this raucous applause and people yelling "Bravo!" that was it. Because they were responding to him and not his knocking someone out, I think he was genuinely moved, thrilled and shocked.

On the subject of France, your work is very popular over there, and I was wondering what you thought of The Beat that my Heart Skipped?

I thought it was very well directed, very well acted, and flattering to make a movie that has such an impact on someone, so he still has it on his mind thirty years later and feels a need to do his own version. The only two caveats I would have is that he changed a few things that I didn't believe. I didn't believe that he could have beaten up that Russian gangster and cried instead of killing him, and if he does cry you know that gangster's going to have him killed the next day. I mean, come on, what's he going to say, "Well, I've just got to live with it", you know the guy's dead in 24 hours. You see him a year later at the concert, but what happened to the Russian gangster, did he become a pacifist overnight? [laughs] The other thing was the scene in the bathroom with the girl, and the point of the scene in Fingers with Tanya Roberts is not to fuck Tanya Roberts, it's to fuck over her boyfriend – like, "Tell your old man I fucked you". She didn't know he was doing it out of some perverse payback, so there's an added dimension in that dynamic, it wasn't like "I think I'll take a break and fuck this girl in the ladies' room of this health club". So those are the two things, particularly the first one, that bothered me, but other than that I think it's very well done. I think Romain Duris is terrific – I mean, Keitel is the guy – but Duris does a very good job, and overall I like the movie. It's a weird thing to watch a movie that is a re-enactment of all the characters, the world, the relationships, the psychology that you devised, it's a strange experience.

I'd just like to finish by asking what you're planning on doing next.

There's a movie I'm trying to finish now that I'll hopefully be shooting in Paris in the spring with Alain Delon. You know, I've wanted to work with Delon for so long. The British Film Institute publishes this Projections series, and Projections 4 asked all these directors what actor they wanted to work with most, and I had Alain Delon. My three-page paean to Delon started with the sentence "I am not to my knowledge a homosexual..." [laughs]. So I met him in Paris about three weeks ago and he's a phenomenal guy, so I really hope this works out.

Shooting in Paris with Delon is probably as good as it gets.

I know, that's the way I feel. To me, from the first time I saw him I just thought, "That's the guy", and he did The Leopard, Le Samouraï, Le Cercle rouge, L'Eclisse, Purple Noon, Mr Klein, The Sicilian Clan, so many movies where he wasn't just good, he was memorable. Then you meet him and you know why – it's real, as it usually is with people who are really good over a period time at what they do in some exceptional way. It's not just that they happened to click at a given moment, it's a sustained thing in their life and their work.

Do you feel like you're following in the footsteps of Jean-Pierre Melville?

You know, the greatest thing anyone ever said to me about film, it was Henri Decaë who shot Exposed and who also shot Melville's films. He said to me after we worked together "You remind me very much of my favourite director" – and I was hoping he'd say it – "Jean-Pierre Melville". I gave him a big hug and said, "You couldn't have said anything to make me feel better".