request | Filmmaker Magazine
OFF THE ROPES
Close friends for decades, James Toback and Mike Tyson are both the most improbable of pairings and the most likely. With Tyson, Toback drew on his own demons as well as his relationship with the boxer to create a gripping account of the rise and fall of one of the greatest fighters who ever lived.

BY JASON GUERRASIO

TYSON DIRECTOR JAMES TOBACK. PHOTO BY: BRETT RATNER

He was known as Kid Dynamite. A 5'11" fireplug of speed and power with a devastating uppercut, his ferocity and domination of the heavyweight boxing division is something that has never been seen before or since. He became a marvel to sports fans as he knocked out opponents before you could even make a dent in your seat, an idol to kids around the world as his in-ring mannerisms were imitated in school yards and immortalized in a legendary Nintendo video game.

But Mike Tyson was jolted back to reality when he hit the canvas for the first time in his pro career in Tokyo by Buster Douglas in 1990. By the time he finished crawling around on all fours to find his mouth guard he had lost the bout, was no longer the undisputed champion, and most damagingly, his aura of invincibility had been shattered. Things would only get worse as two years later Tyson would be charged with raping 18-year-old beauty-pageant contestant Desiree Washington, and was sentenced to three years in prison. When he got out Mike Tyson was far from Kid Dynamite. His life became a Greek tragedy highlighted by a drug arrest, biting a chunk out of Evander Holyfield's ear in their second fight and getting a tattoo on his face.

James Toback first met Tyson in 1986 on the set of his film The Pick-up Artist. Tyson hadn't yet become the champion, but Toback didn't care - he was simply intrigued by this megastar's darker side. The two formed a bond that has lasted more than 20 years with Tyson appearing in two of Toback's films, including a memorable cameo in 1999's Black and White. As legend has it, Toback developed a scene with Robert Downey Jr. where his character would hit on Tyson. Unfortunately for Downey, Toback never told Tyson what was going to happen. The scene ends with Downey on the floor as an enraged Tyson chokes him out.

On the surface the Tyson-Toback bond couldn't be more unlikely. Tyson was born and raised on the streets of Brooklyn, taking occasional stints to juvenile prison until trainer Cus D'Amato took him in at age 15. Toback grew up in a life of privilege in New York City, graduating from Harvard magna cum laude and creating one of the seminal wiseguy films of the '70s, Fingers, followed 13 years later with an Oscar nomination for writing the screenplay for Bugsy. But, having insatiable appetites for a few of life's pleasures - women, booze and gambling - Toback understood Tyson's flaws.

Toback transfers his intimacy with Tyson to the screen for his latest film, Tyson. The documentary covers the boxer's rise-and-fall career with no buffer or talking heads, just archival footage and Tyson uncensored, unabashed and sometimes even poetic. Through the 90 minutes the "Baddest Man on the Planet" veneer we associate most with Tyson evaporates to expose a shy, insecure person who for most of his life was scared or taken advantage of. Toback uses split screen and overlapping dialogue to highlight Tyson's state of mind, which he himself admits in the film isn't normal: "Insanity is the only sanity I know."

The film ends with Tyson in a redemptive light, a man trying to survive in a world where he is considered a rapist thug (in the film he vehemently denies raping Washington), and where drug and alcohol relapse is always dangerously close. In many ways the film is also a comeback for its director. Along with a thunderous ovation at its premiere screening at Cannes, Toback is receiving some of the best reviews of his career.

Filmmaker sat down with Toback for lunch at the Harvard Club in midtown Manhattan to talk about the film a month before it screens at Sundance (Sony Pictures Classics opens the film in April). Never shy to say what's on his mind, he pontificates on everything from his own personal demons to how he got women to change their perceptions about Mike Tyson.

TYSON. PHOTO COURTESY OF: JAMES TOBACK

Do you remember the first time you saw Tyson fight? My friend Brian Hamill, who is a photographer and a sort of former amateur boxer, spent a great deal of time up at Cus's and knew Mike well from the time he was 13 or 14. He had been telling me that Cus from the start was saying that Mike was going to be heavyweight champion of the world. But somehow I didn't feel compelled to seek out his fights along the way to the championship with one exception. He was fighting some journeyman in Queens - it was one of his early pro fights. I went with Brian and watched Mike knock this Polish fighter out fairly easily but not so devastatingly easy that I was aware yet of how good he was. He was sort of still capable of being bothered by holding, clinching; he didn't just dispatch the guy. He knocked him out probably in the fourth round, but it wasn't the spectacular quick knockout that I expected to see. Then two years later, Brian brought him over to the set of The Pick-up Artist. We were shooting at the Museum of Natural History and that's when I got really interested. We hit it off incredibly fast and after a long conversation we had walking through the park at five in the morning after shooting ended I had a desire to see all of his fights. I went back and looked at a few and I started to see how good he was and how sure his domination of the heavyweight division was going to be. And the next fight he had was the Trevor Berbick fight [for the heavyweight title], and that's one of the reasons I wanted to open the film with the Berbick fight - it was my real boxing introduction to Tyson. That fight showed me he was going to be the greatest fighter of all time unless he sabotaged himself.

How did your friendship with him progress after the first meeting? There was a very strange combination of a casual surface friendship involving accidental encounters with a profound communion which we felt from the minute we started talking. What we were going to do with the friendship was never articulated, though as far as I was concerned it was almost certainly going to take the shape of my using him cinematically. He was so dramatic a figure with a combination of physical traits that were fascinating and a mind that was extremely original and direct; it was completely fresh. But there was no rush to work with him. I didn't think, "I better do this now or we'll never do it." It was the death of my mother that got me to do it. I felt I had to do a movie right away to avoid engaging in behavior that was going to hasten some serious unfortunate consequences.

How long ago did your mother pass away? October of 2006. When you are forced to concentrate on something that engages you in an active and powerful way, it's not that you forget for a second what else is going on, it's that you transfer into some degree the intensity [of your life at that moment] instead of allowing yourself to be overwhelmed by it. I thought, "This is the sort of movie for me to do right now," because just to do any movie was not the point. It wasn't to just have a job and be forced to go to work everyday, it was to make a movie about identity, madness, death, frustrated romantic impulse, sex, language, sports, fear - all of the things that one has brought oneself into intimate unavoidable contact with after the death of someone who gave you life. Those were the thematic inevitabilities of any movie that I would do with Tyson.

So it seems like the starting point of your professional relationship with Tyson was through the exchange of painful moments in both of your lives. Absolutely. And neither of us ever shies away from [the painful memories] for a minute. All of our late-night conversations over the years dealt with death, madness, murder, revenge, love, frustration, sex. We might not speak for six months and then at three in the morning the phone would ring, and it didn't matter if I was calling him or he was calling me, and it would be as if we were picking up on a conversation that ended three minutes earlier.

Do you see the cause of Tyson's self-destruction being the loss of that father figure he had in Cus? Has he finally figured out how to live his life without someone, a la a trainer, guiding him through it? He entrusting me with this movie and entrusting his ex-wife with his money because I think he's 100 percent on his own. He actually has a very good guy managing him now, Damon Bingham, who is the son of Howard Bingham, Muhammad Ali's best friend. Damon has Mike's interests at heart, but Mike is not someone who is seeking advice. He makes up his mind quickly, whether it's about entirely something self-generated or something he's hearing at that moment, and often acts completely impulsively. But all of that comes from his complete readiness to die and his total disbelief, which he expresses in the movie, that he's still alive in the first place.

As you have also stated in talking about yourself. Absolutely. In his case everyone around him was likely to be dead at 20, 25. In my case it was more certain behavioral patterns that I was engaging in, particularly in my late teens and early twenties, that made survival past 26 look like an underdog. But what that state of mind does is allow you to try things and do things that most people would freeze at the thought of doing because the inhibition most people feel, if you trace it to its origins, is ultimately the fear of death.

How did you convince him to tell these intimate details about his life on tape? It required no convincing at all. I think it's because he is a natural performer. I think he would have only done this film for me, which he has said on a number of occasions because of the nature of our history together, but there was no hesitation in doing it. The hesitation would have been doing it with someone who didn't get it.

Is he still in rehab now? What's his current state? He's been in and out. He's been very good, good for himself, in being restrained from indulgence, but I think at this point he is aware that a) relapsing is potentially catastrophic on a number of levels and b) he can't wait to relapse. He has to be on guard against it. So when you know that about yourself you have to find a system which prevents you from doing this.

For him is it staying close to his family? It might be. I think you might even have to improvise your way. I don't know if his is organized thoroughly but I think he's intuitively aware. It's not organized the way Downey's is where he's got his wife, he's got his team, he's got his meetings. It's almost like metaphorically having an ankle bracelet, only it's a head bracelet because you just don't allow yourself the option.

Since finishing the film do you see Tyson in a different light? There was a lot that was new, but no, it was all in harmony with my overall sense of him.

Does he see himself in a different light? I think he was shocked at how overwhelmed people were by the movie. He kept saying, "But I'm just myself." He did not realize he would have that impact on people. Warren Beatty and Annette Benning were both in tears after seeing the movie and called him and me afterward. He was startled that they were overwhelmed. Then the response in Cannes was a shock. Not only was he not prepared for it but he sensed something else entirely would be the case. His manager Damon told me that when the film was ending Mike said to him, "Do you think Jim would mind if I just went back to the hotel?" And he said, "You can't do that," and Mike said, "Yeah, but what if they don't like it? What if they don't like me? I don't want to just stand there." And he didn't have to worry because we had something like an 11-minute standing ovation and while hugging each other and with tears coming out of his eyes, he kept saying, "I've never experienced anything like this before."

What did you learn from making your pervious doc, The Big Bang Theory, that you incorporated into making this doc? Well first, shooting on HD gave us the freedom to just continually shoot and not have to worry about interrupting the flow of the conversation because we had to change the mag. That was important. But that being said, the thing that The Big Bang taught me was that editing is an infinitely more complicated, interesting, ambitious and demanding process when there is no script preceding the editing process. The options are infinite, and in both cases there was no preordained structure, there was only a general idea of what the movie was going to be about. The idea of shooting without a preordained structure I recognize to be inherently risky, but as usually is the case in my life the risk of disaster excited me. In fact, it made me all the more determined not to try to solve the danger once I had identified it.

Why did you decide on a split screen style for the film? From the very beginning I wanted to use the application of a style that I had used on the opening and closing credits of Black and White and the opening credits on Harvard Man, which is to say moving rhythmically altering multiple screen images developing into an actual musical rhythm of movement of shots and an interesting juxtaposition of full screen, half screen, partial screen. I thought I could sustain that general style throughout most of the movie. I'm dealing with a fractured consciousness, so the idea of multiple voices overlapping is partly what the movie is about. The movie is about madness and having experienced madness myself that is absolutely endemic to it. So the idea of multiple voices absolutely struck me as essential and then the other part was to have these images work in conjunction with present and past in a way that gave you a sense as him as a boxer, as a human being in a prior incarnation and then most of all as Tyson as he is now. The result of that incredible Greek drama. That's the person who really engages you in the movie. Without the modern-day Tyson, who has survived all of that, the rest doesn't have the impact or the power. In fact, when I showed Tyson the movie for the first time he said, "It's like a Greek tragedy, the only problem is I'm the subject."

Did you find difficulty getting permission for the archival footage? That has been a major time-consuming element. There are so many different sources. Don King and Tyson own a bunch of fights, HBO, ESPN, CBS, ABC, the guy who shot the Cus stuff, so it took a while, and [a lot of] legal fees. The only way to do it, or the only way I could think of doing it, was to forget that I didn't own all of it myself to begin with. I assumed that we could get everything, and in fact we did. There wasn't a single compromise we had to make. There isn't a single fight that we wanted to use that we didn't end up buying. So we just started with what we liked and just went out and found out who owned it.

Though Tyson's rape conviction is not a major part of the film, it's one that audiences will have preconceived notions about, and that part of his life will affect audiences' feelings about him. In the film Tyson emphatically says he's innocent, so it perhaps feeds that fire. Is that alright by you? The only two people who know what happened are the two people who were in the room. Almost everyone who has seen the movie believes him when he says he didn't do it. Before I started the editing process I assumed that what you said would be true, that there would be a controversial mixed response, and in fact I saw no way of avoiding that. But I started thinking women, no matter what their [thoughts] going in, are not going to respond the way they think they are. For about a six-week period I looked in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills for women between the ages of 15 and 40 who looked as if a) they did not like boxing and b) would not like Mike Tyson. I would go over to them and ask two questions: "Do you like boxing?" and "What do you think of Mike Tyson?" and unless they said totally negative things about both I excluded them. But if they gave me vehement double negatives I invited them to my editing room to show them the film. About 44 women came in during that period of time. There wasn't a single woman who didn't stay until the end, there was not a single women who did not feel a tremendous impact. Half the time they were in tears, half of the time they were just overwhelmed and in every case [they were] shocked to the point of personality alteration. “I can‘t believe how this happened, I can‘t believe that I really feel for him, you don‘t seem to be trying to convince me of something.” All of a sudden they got drawn in.

Seeing you‘ve known Tyson for more than 20 years, was there ever a thought to interview someone like his old trainer Teddy Atlas or Don King so as to not make it look like two old friends in a room talking? No. That to me would be totally boring. Why on Earth would I want to waste any film time when I have Mike Tyson, one of the most fascinating and significant figures in the history of sports and opening up for once in his life to one person, me? I have a chance to show that and edit it and I‘m going to waste time on some third-rate trainer or some bombastic hot air overly exposed boxing promoter? I mean who gives a fuck?

Just to stay objective. That would be me doing, which I wouldn‘t want to do at all, a man-on-the-street thing. Let‘s stop the first 50 people we see on the street and ask “What do you think of Mike Tyson,” who cares? What I‘m saying to the audience is “Okay here he is, what do you think?” I‘m giving you his history as background, I‘m giving you a context and now here‘s Mike Tyson. It‘s giving the audience credit for being able to make up their own minds. Otherwise you have 30 people with their own axe to grind. I am shocked so many people have connected with the film, and am still shocked because the prejudices going in are so strong and the movie is so uncompromising of its presentation of the homicidal streak that he has and the brutality. The film doesn‘t hide it at all. I mean about the ear biting he said, “I was insane, I wanted to kill him, I wanted to kill everyone in his corner.” He calls Desiree this “wretched swine,” I mean there‘s no attempt to soften him any way whatsoever, I don‘t think you could but I didn‘t want to do that anyway.



VOD CALENDAR

Filmmaker's curated calendar of the latest video on demand titles.
Free Men Sensation Restless City
See the VOD Calendar →
© 2020 Filmmaker Magazine
All Rights Reserved
A Publication of IPF