Q&A with James Toback, director of Tyson

James Toback's career seems to suffer from bipolar disorder. In the beginning, he was treated as a wunderkind thanks to his screenplay for The Gambler, a tough-nosed 1974 James Caan feature, not to mention his 1978 directorial debut, Fingers, a Harvey Keitel vehicle he also scripted. But despite the admiration of Hollywood heavyweights such as Warren Beatty, for whom he wrote 1991's Bugsy, he's only had a relatively few chances to get behind the camera again -- and efforts such as 1997's Two Girls and a Guy and his most recent feature, 2004's When Will I Be Loved, were treated as interesting misses by most critics and failed to catch on at the box office.

All of which has to make the reception for Tyson, which opens in Denver on Friday, May 29, at the Mayan Theatre, taste all the sweeter. The film is hardly an objective documentary; Toback, who's known Mike Tyson for years, focuses on the controversial boxer's thoughts and words to the exclusion of other viewpoints. But this intensive tack allows the director/interviewer to plumb depths in Tyson that most observers wouldn't have found (or even guessed at their existence). The result is a psycho-biography, not a puff piece -- which helps explain why reviewers and audiences have been so effusive.

What's Toback got to say about this late-period success story? Read the transcript of an extensive interview by clicking "Continue:"

Toback, who chatted weeks before Tyson's most recent tragedy (the death of his daughter in tragic home accident; he wasn't present at the time) begins by discussing his love of boxing in general, as well as its popular decline, which he likens to the deterioration of interest in classical music, of all things. Then he delves into Iron Mike -- Tyson's preference for participating in a dignified documentary as opposed to a cheesy reality show; his cooperation with an upcoming feature in which he'll be played by Jamie Foxx; his strangely compelling way with words; his comments about sexual predilections, and whether or not they can be equated to rape accusations levied against him (he continues to proclaim his innocence of a crime for which he was imprisoned); and the connections, or lack thereof, between him and football legend Jim Brown, about whom Toback has written. Toback also talks about his future projects, which probably won't include more documentaries, despite the acclaim he's received for this one. Maybe he's suspicious about too much of a good thing....

Westword (Michael Roberts): How old were you when you first became a boxing fan?

James Toback: I was about six. Both my father and my grandfather were real boxing fans. I used to watch fights with them, and Rocky Marciano used to have breakfast at the Alcott Hotel, right down the block from the Majestic, which is where I lived, the morning of every fight he'd have in New York. So I'd go and sort of find a way of getting his autograph every time, and saying hello and shaking his hand. And then Sugar Ray Robinson's son went to my school, and later on, Jack Dempsey's restaurant, which was on Broadway and 49th, I would stop by and just so I could see Dempsey and sit near him while he was staring out the window.

WW: Was it these specific personalities that attracted you? Or was it something about the sport in general?

JT: Both, it was both. I loved the sport, but I also hooked into them in particular, and a few others.

WW: Who were some of the others?

JT: I liked Kid Gavilan. I liked Roland La Starza, who Marciano actually beat twice. I liked Archie Moore and Sandy Saddler, Willie Pep. That was sort of my pantheon.

WW: In recent years, it seems that boxing has almost fallen off the map from the standpoint of being a mainstream sport - the sort of sport that every fan follows, as opposed to it being a niche sport. Does that surprise you? Or given the encroachment of political correctness, does it make perfect sense?

JT: I think it's a combination of political correctness from one extreme and Ultimate Fighting from the other extreme. Because Ultimate Fighting is even more politically correct than boxing.

WW: Although Ultimate Fighting isn't something that every football or baseball fan is into. It also strikes me as more of a cult phenomenon, albeit a big one that's growing all the time...

JT: Right. I think boxing, like movies, has passed its heyday.

WW: Movies have passed their heyday as well?

JT: I think the central place in American life of film has peaked. I hope it's not true that movies are fading in a serious way. But they certainly don't have the central place they had historically because of the competition from other mediums. First, television, and carrying all the way through now to the screen on the phone. There's such a huge competitive array of alternatives that it's very hard for film to maintain its central significance, and I think something very much like that happened with boxing.

WW: There's certainly a lot of sports in general out there right now, and, as with UFC, plenty of boxing-plus kinds of sports as well.

JT: Right. And then the question is, does a sport or an art form have a birth, a growth, a senescence and a death the way individuals do. The novel, too, is clearly on the wane. The novel will never get back to where it was. The symphony will never get back to where it was. The symphonic form, you started with Haydn and Mozart and carry it through to Schubert and Beethoven and then Brahms and then Mahler and Bruckner and Tchaikovsky. But Mahler, in particular, sort of carried it to its logical conclusion. And basically, you have a few practitioners in the 20th century: Bernstein, Copland. But essentially, the form had already peaked and was going to deteriorate.

WW: When it comes to the decline in popularity of boxing in the past ten or twenty years, do you think that Mike Tyson and his story might have played a part in it. Did the rape conviction and the ear-biting and so forth make it too easy for people who had a problem with what they saw as boxing's brutality to say, "This has gotten out of control?"

JT: I would think certainly some of them did. I don't know how much of that took place, but it's certainly got to be partially true.

WW: How did you meet Tyson? I understand that you've known him for quite a number of years now.

JT: Yeah, 24 years. He came by the set of The Pick-up Artist when I was shooting it in 1985. We hit it off immediately.

WW: Did you then go to see a number of his fights in person?

JT: I did. I saw several over the next few years and I watched the others on television and I stayed in contact with him. And then our whole relationship really got closer and closer when he got out of prison. I used him in Black and White.

WW: Why do you think the friendship grew so much closer after he got out of prison?

JT: I think it deepened him. It got him more in touch with the tortured complications of who he was. He experienced madness, which had experienced myself under LSD for eight days when I was a sophomore at Harvard. For anyone who's experienced madness, there's an immediate extra dimension of connection to someone else who has.

WW: In recent years, as Tyson's boxing career became less successful, he was portrayed in popular culture as something of a joke. People would satirize his voice and his use of language. But one of the things your film makes abundantly clear is that he's not a joke, and he's never been a joke. Is that one of the secret weapons of the film? That people come in thinking they know all about Mike Tyson, and they discover that there's a lot more going on than they ever had imagined?

JT: I would think that has a big role to play in its impact. Anytime the sort of monolithic media impression of somebody or something is proved to be off-base, there's a kind of excitement in the receiving audience. It sort of reminds them that there's not a predictable, guaranteed way of understanding anything. That life is constantly shifting and unpredictable, and I think ultimately that excites people in some ways, because they know it's true, but they're always led in many ways to believe the opposite.

WW: And in this case, you're dealing with someone who's hardly an unknown. This is someone who's among the more famous people in the United States in the last twenty-five or thirty years. And yet watch you show us is a side that perhaps the people closest to him know about, but most people don't...

JT: Right. And that's one of the services of the movie, I think. André Gide has this great phrase: "Don't understand me too quickly." I think it's one of the unfortunate aspects of the media explosion, the Internet explosion. That it's enhanced the stereotyping capacity people have to give people the illusion that they can figure complicated things out quickly and simply when it fact they often can't.

WW: Was the idea for the film yours or his?

JT: It was mine.

WW: Did you have to talk him into it?

JT: No. He responded with great enthusiasm as soon as I mentioned it.

WW: These days, celebrities who are down on their luck often go on reality-TV shows. Did Tyson have these kinds of options? Or is he still considered too dangerous to put on, say, Celebrity Apprentice, as happened with Lennox Lewis?

JT: I don't think the network would be afraid of it. I know he wouldn't do it. He has a sort of ongoing sense of his own importance, and I think he would consider it too undignified.

WW: So from his perspective, being part of a documentary film maintains his dignity, as opposed to him being perceived as desperate for attention and shilling himself based on his past reputation?

JT: Right. And without being too unduly presumptuous, a documentary as long as it was made by me. Or a fictional film, which he's now cooperating with, which is going to have Jamie Foxx playing him. I would make an analogy, actually. Just as he wouldn't be willing to let anyone else do the documentary about him, he wouldn't be willing to let anyone else play him other than Jamie Foxx.

WW: Tyson's words carry the viewer through the words, and over the years, I suspected that he was using terms that were more highfalutin than necessary because he was imitating Muhammad Ali. But your film suggests that he's simply trying to express the complicated thoughts in his head, and he's a lot more verbal and articulate than a lot of people give him credit for.

JT: He is. I think he's an autodidact to a degree, and I think he's fascinated by reading, by learning and by language. It's just sort of taking things as they come and grasping at the next level whenever he can and in whatever way he can.

WW: He talks a lot in the film about fear being a driving force. Is there still a lot of insecurity in him? Or do you think that's something that he's largely overcome?

JT: No, I think there's always insecurity in him. I think he's pretty much still the person whom he describes in the movie in most ways. With a sense of uncertainty and fragility and fear.

WW: You've talked about your approach to interviewing him, bringing up general topics and waiting for him to expound on them rather than questioning him in a more straight-forward manner. Was that strategy a way to get him to consider subjects in a fresh way, as opposed to allowing him to go back to talking points and discussing things as he's done in past interviews?

JT: No, it was an attempt to get him to get his unconscious voice activated. A stream-of-consciousness style where he wouldn't feel he was giving limited, rational answers to limited questions. Instead, it would give a feeling of those varied voices being unleashed.

WW: And there are varied voices, even though he's the one who's doing all the speaking. For me, one of the real jarring elements of the film for me was the juxtaposition of his comments about the rape accusation, when he talks about being completely innocent, and his remarks about his sexual life, and how he likes to completely dominate his partners. Was that a contradiction that leapt out at you during the interviewing process, or something you discovered in the editing bay?

JT: I think by dominate, he's not talking about rape in any way, but about control. It should be a pretty thick line between one and the other. I don't know that it is for everybody, but I don't think it's any kind of code word for rape or force, actually.

WW: I can only speak for myself as a viewer, but that's something that immediately leapt to mind. That wasn't a point you were trying to make?

JT: No, but I determined early on that I was just going to let him come off as he comes off. As soon as I'd start censoring stuff strategically or editing because I thought he'd be better served with this rather than that, then it was going to be a disaster. So I just decided not to play that role at all.

WW: How difficult was that considering that he was a longtime friend? Was it difficult not to protect him in a certain way?

JT: Not at all, because that would have violated the whole principal of the thing and the whole reason for doing it.

WW: One thing that's clear from the film is that Tyson is an incredible camera subject. Did you find in looking at the footage that the expressions on his face added layers of depth to the words he was saying?

JT: Absolutely. And often when I'd just let the camera roll waiting for the next thing he would say, I'd realize that even though he wasn't saying anything, I was getting a lot of great facial expressions that would serve me well.

WW: A lot of boxers after their careers are no longer as expressive as they once were, just because of the punishment their faces have taken. Was it a happy discovery on your part that his face still spoke volumes.

JT: Yes. I think it's remarkable how intact he is.

WW: In your view, what are the connections between this film and the others you've made over the years?

JT: Well, they all deal with central characters who are ambitious, extremists, as Tyson calls himself, risk-takers, defiant of convention, in love with some form of death, articulate. But the dynamic to the death is probably the key. Because if you're really ready for your own death, you're ready for anything.

WW: How about connections on a person level between Tyson and Jim Brown, who was the subject you wrote about in a book [Jim: The Author's Self-centered Memoir on the Great Jim Brown] that's just been reissued?

JT: They're actually quite different. Tyson is much more impulsive, mercurial, unplanned, improvisational, and Jim knows what he wants, know what he's going to say, knows what he's going to do, and is far more organized. They're both icons of the sports world, but I'd say there's that fundamental difference between them, and I don't think they're reconcilable.

WW: Given your experience with this film, has it whet your appetite to make more documentaries?

JT: No. I'm not against it per se, but it doesn't make it any more likely. Once I've done something and I think I've done it well, my instinct is not to repeat it, but to do anything but that.

WW: So what's next on your agenda, film-wise?

JT: I'm going to do either the Victoria Woodhull script that I wrote for Faye Dunaway and George Cukor thirty years ago, or I will do a movie called The Director, which I've been cooking up for the last five months.

WW: Any start date on either of them? Or are you in the development process?

JT: Whichever one gets set up first, I'll do.

WW: And fiction retains the appeal for you that it always has?

JT: Yes. This was aberrational. I'm not saying it won't happen again, but it's not my normal path.

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