Interview: Tyson director James Toback

April 1, 2009 at 6:04 pm Leave a comment

James Toback, right of Iron Mike

Director James Toback (above, center) has only one indisputable classic under his belt: the anguished 1978 character study Fingers, starring Harvey Keitel as a man torn between being a pianist and a loan shark for his father. The rest of his career has been about polarizing audiences like few other filmmakers. From the studio-hijacked The Pick-Up Artist (1987) — his first of many collaborations with Robert Downey, Jr. — to Two Girls and a Guy, Black and White, Harvard Man and When Will I Be Loved, Toback’s films tend to be unwieldy and unpredictable, in both the good and bad sense, as though he was just throwing a party for his many famous friends (which, in a way, he is). Among those pals is Mike Tyson, who in Black and White memorably put a beat-down on RDJ after his character hit on him at a party. Iron Mike is the sole — and I mean sole — focus of Toback’s latest film, Tyson — an unapologetically sympathetic documentary featuring what amounts to Tyson’s view of himself (and his take on certain, ahem, legally questionable segments of his career). PW very briefly sat down to speak with Toback while he showed Tyson at this here film festival.

You’ve been friends with Mike Tyson for over twenty years. How did your perception of him change while making Tyson?

“I was not aware of the degree to which fear was the ongoing trigger to al of his behavior — that he was carrying around this sensitive, self-assured, easily-humilated kid who couldn’t handle things after awhile. As a result he was fearful all the time. And he consciously looked to immerse himself in his fear. While boxing he would infect his opponent with this fear through his eyes, so that all of a sudden the opponent would be the one who was afraid of him. All that was new to me, and fascinating not only in and of itself but to the degree to which he experienced it.”

What do you say to those who criticize the film’s lack of objectivity?

“Well, it’s not intended to be an objective portrait, or a dialectical movie. It is intended to be a self-portrait of Mike Tyson, orchestrated and presented by me. There’s no pretense that this is the guaranteed truth. There’s no ‘I was there, I saw everything and he’s right and I’m telling you that he’s right and demand that you believe he’s right.’ I’m simply saying, ‘Here is Mike Tyson as he sees himself to be.’ That, to me, is a far more interesting movie to see than a movie where twenty people are telling different versions of the same story.

“And ultimately, who cares? What I’m interested in is the dynamic of his personality. There’s a reason Mike Tyson came from nowhere to become the greatest fighter in the world twice. It’s not just that he was strong. It was his character, his will, his intelligence, his discipline, his personality. So why would you want to have someone with such such complexity and substance share screentime with people who are infinitely less interesting? I’m just saying, here’s a human being who’s one of the most famous people in the world about whom people have all sorts of views, and here’s his view of himself. That was always in my mind to do it that way. I’m glad I did. I wouldn’t even want to see the other movie.”

This is your first documentary. In what ways is it different doing a documentary than doing a fiction film?

“It was, in a way, more fun, because I could sort of luxuriate in the control of the circumstances and not have that fractured ADD sense when you’re making a larger movie. You’re always asking yourself if you should be doing that, are you giving enough focus to that, and so forth. On the other hand, it was much more nerve-wracking because I had no idea where I was going with it. So when we got in the editing room there was every possibility that it would never come together. A lot of movies don’t come together when you have them written and you shoot them exactly as they’ve been written. And when you see the finished movie, you say, ‘How did that happen?’ Fortunately I have never had that happen. But look at the number of movies with scripts done as written, and you think, ‘Why didn’t they fix this stuff? Look at this shit.’ So you never know until it’s done. When you start from where I was starting, anything was possible. I could have had a first cut and could have been in total fucking shock and said, ‘What am I going to do?’ But I’m excited by stuff like that. Rather than that be a reason not to do something, that makes me eager to do it — the fact that there’s a potential for disaster.”

Tyson will return to Philadelphia for a theatrical release sometime in May. My capsule review is here.


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