The Rumpus Interview with James Toback

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tyson_face_rumpusJames Toback started his career in 1978 with a movie called Fingers, starring Harvey Keitel, about a gangster who succeeds in following his more spiritual, delicate side and becomes a concert pianist. In a similar way, Toback’s latest film explores the complicated psyche of Mike Tyson, who turns out to be much more introspective, intelligent, and spiritual than most people have imagined; plus it tells an incredibly dramatic story of personal transformation. Tyson started out as a tough kid in the Bronx, breaking into houses and stealing from stores, and then got into boxing in the reformary. Soon he was discovered and adopted by the trainer Cus D’Amato, who took him in and started him on his spectacular boxing career. That career was interrupted by a conviction for rape (which both Tyson and Toback insist was false), and followed by an equally spectacular decline into drug addiction. Toback caught Tyson in a confessional mood after he emerged from rehab, and the result is a startling film.

Toback was in San Francisco to receive the Kanbar Award for Excellence in Screenwriting from the San Francisco International Film Festival, so I met him in a room set up for the interview in a Union Square hotel. He was imposing, over six feet tall and very broad, and dressed sharply in a black suit with a black collarless shirt. He spoke with a gentle lilt – but it was the somewhat menacing lilt of New York City, where he was born. When he sat down at the interviewing table, it suddenly seemed very tiny with his bulk behind it.

james_toback_rumpusThe Rumpus: Has Tyson seen the film? What does he think of it?

James Toback: The first thing he said when he saw it was: “it’s like a Greek tragedy; the only problem is, I’m the subject.” The second time he saw it, which was at Sundance, he said, “people were always saying they were scared of me, and I always was bewildered: why? Actually, seeing the movie this time, I’m scared of this guy.”

So I think he looks at it as both a version of him, and somebody who is a stranger. Because when he looks at the lost early period of his life, and even his early period as a boxer, he’s so removed from that now that it’s like looking at a photo album of a childhood, almost. There’s such a distance between him now and him then. Boxing was almost everything, and now it’s been nothing for four or five years. He’s on the other side of the river now, looking back, and I think it’s a very strange experience for him, because the movie is basically his commentary from this side of the river talking about himself on that side.

Rumpus: It really surprised me, how present the past is for him. He has an extraordinary ability to just drop himself back into the moment.

Toback: Yes. When he’s telling stories, he’s seeing them and hearing them, as if he’s putting a DVD in his brain and watching it play. If you tell a story about something that happened between you and him, and you get one detail wrong, or a word wrong, he will contradict it and correct it. He has almost a photographic memory for the detail of events. Like that time when he was 19, and he goes into the bank with Jimmy Jacobs after his trainer, Cus D’Amato, dies, and he’s standing there at the window depositing money. You can see the whole event. He’s pushing the money in, and he’s sobbing, and the teller is asking him what’s wrong, and he’s saying I have a friend who died, and Jimmy Jacobs is standing there, as Mike puts it, “cold and without any emotion.”

Rumpus: It’s so obvious that Cus D’Amato was a kind of father figure to him, but in this cut, Tyson never refers to him as such. Has he ever done so in life?

Toback: No. Mike looked to him as a mentor, but at the same time, he was very much aware that Cus was a kind of militarist who, as he says, turned him into an animal. It wasn’t just that Cus was a great trainer, it was drilling in the idea that your opponent is your enemy, he’s out to get you, he’s out to ruin your life, you’ve got to kill him. Which was not normal boxing training, and was even a little living vicariously through Mike.

So I think Mike understands that the part of his personality that got him in trouble later on was actually stoked by this training. So Cus was not so much a father figure as a teacher, but then Mike was left on his own without the tools to deal with anything but what was in the ring. It was great for the fights, but not really good preparation for anything that wasn’t part of the ring.

Rumpus: You’ve known Tyson for almost 25 years, but even a long friendship doesn’t guarantee the degree of honesty and introspection you got from him. Did he take much convincing to do this?

Toback: Well, he wanted to do it, and I think he has a confessional streak, and he trusts me, which is very unusual, because there are only a handful of people he trusts at all. But first that trust was there, and also he believed in my ability, because we’ve done two other movies. But it was also timing, because he was in rehab. He had just gotten arrested and crashed.

It’s interesting — this sounds kind of ghoulish, but it’s true – some people, if you get them right after they get out of jail or out of rehab, they will do their best work then. Because when people of substance and talent have been broken down, and now they come out, there’s a chance they’ll just drift off, or they can use this. It’s a good moment to catch someone, because they have nothing to lose. And also other people are not pursuing them. Other people are writing them off, the way people wrote off Downey as just a degenerate drug addict, when he got out of rehab, and Downey’s best performance ever was right after that, in Two Girls and a Guy. And when you give people of substance a chance, they will rise to the occasion, and I think for Mike this was a perfect time to do it.

Rumpus: And it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tell his story.

Toback: Absolutely. He says, and I think he half-believes, that he doesn’t care what people say about him. But I know that it bothers him, for the world at large to continue reading him in a way that he knows bears no resemblance to the reality. Particularly on the scale that it is. Even people whose circle of acquaintances, and people who are aware of them, is very small, get upset if they’re misunderstood. But to have six billion people on Earth, two billion of whom are carrying around a warped view of you? That has to register.

Rumpus: Well, I had that view going in, to some degree. It’s a very moving film, but because most people think of Mike Tyson as a thug, it sounds almost like a sick joke to say I went into a movie and was moved half to tears by his life story. When I told my wife about this film, she gave me this look like, “why do you want to watch that?” But I did know that Tyson has this other side, because I read somewhere where he offhandedly mentioned he was reading through the Count of Monte Cristo and really reflecting on it.

Toback: And he’s read Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. He’s a very complicated and unusual person. You mentioned your wife; has she seen it?

Rumpus: Not yet.

Toback: I’ve found that women who go in with a totally negative view of him have been responding to the movie as well or better than anybody else. I had an instinct that this was going to happen, so out of perverse curiosity — not out of any marketing strategy, which I totally am uninterested in and don’t know how to do anyway — but just out of curiosity for myself, I thought, I wonder if I’m wrong about this? So I went hunting for women who looked as if they would dislike Mike Tyson and boxing. And I don’t think there was a single person I approached who said, “no, I like Mike Tyson!” So I asked three questions: do you like Mike Tyson, do you like boxing, do you want to see a movie about Mike Tyson. And if I got some seriously negative response, I said, “Okay, if you come to my editing room, I have a proposal. I’ll give you a hundred dollars if you leave after five minutes. But if you stay, you get nothing. And then I want to hear what you thought about the movie.”

And out of 35 people, 35 women, all 35 stayed, no one took the hundred dollars. Half of them were in tears at the end, and most of them said, “I can’t believe the transformation — I can’t believe that this is who this is.” And I wasn’t intending to do that, and I couldn’t have done it if I’d been intending to. But that effect has carried through to the point where the theaters where the movie has really soared, in the first week in New York and LA, where it’s playing, are the crossover theaters where half the audience for the movie is intelligent, young women.

Rumpus: One of the great pleasures of the movie, beyond the dramatic story of transformation, is the innovative editing and the beautiful photography. How much of that did you do yourself?

Toback: In this movie I had two really great collaborators. My editor, Aaron Yanes, was a first-time editor. I just had an instinct. Like what I was saying about using Downey and Tyson after getting out of jail or rehab, it’s the same thing giving people their first shot. It’s a chance when no one else is giving you a chance, either because you’ve already humiliated yourself or because you’ve had no chance to prove yourself. If you don’t have anything going for you, that’s when you’re really up for it.

My instinct was that Aaron could be a serious collaborator. He’d been the assistant to my editor on When Will I Be Loved. He was not at all eager to express his own opinion on that film, but a couple of days when the editor was out sick, instead of just mechanically doing things, he came up with a few suggestions, and I kept encouraging him more and more, and then we had a great relationship. I mean, on this movie, I was very clear on the structure and how I wanted it done, but a lot of the refinements and the inventiveness came in this kind of ideal collaboration. Which also happened with the cameraman, Larry McConkey.

These kind of collaborations are tremendously important. The collaborator has to be someone who understands that his role is to help you articulate what you want, but at the same time is not just going to be mechanically obeying, but adding to, supplementing, and coming up with stuff.

Rumpus: Some reviewers have criticized the film for being ‘just’ a monologue.

Toback: Well, I’m not going to complain because some of the reviews you mention have been really great. But it’s not at all ‘just’ Mike Tyson talking! That’s factually not true, first of all, and secondly, the movie wouldn’t have even worked if that’s what it were. One of the reasons it does work is the way it’s presented, with the split screens, the multiple voices, the moving boxes — it keeps it lively and intense and quick; it’s constantly moving in very subtly organized ways.

Rumpus: Why did you choose that method of presentation?

Toback: His mind is filled with multiple voices, and he has multiple personalities, and you have no idea where the fuck he’s coming from, from minute to minute. Nor does he. I mean, anything can come out of his mouth, because anything can be in his mind. And if your mind is constantly all over the place, so too will what you say, and what you do, and how you behave be all over the place. And that’s again something that makes him so fascinating, because you never know what’s next. And he doesn’t know what’s next himself. That’s why there’s that great line at the end of the movie: “the past is history, the future’s a mystery.”

Rumpus: Is that a line he likes to bring out?

Toback: He’d never said it before!

Rumpus: It’s like he was channeling Muhammad Ali.

Toback: They’re very good friends, you know. There’s that moment in the movie where Ali comes up in front of Berbick and says, “get him for me.” Because Berbick had humiliated Ali in his last fight, where for ten rounds Berbick just pummelled him, and Ali wasn’t even defending himself. He didn’t throw a punch, he just got hit. It was as if he wanted the payday, he needed the money, and instead of just going down, which any other fighter would have done, he was too proud to get knocked out. So after you see him come up to Tyson, you can see the terror in Berbick’s face.

I mean, the number of fighters who are in the ring, looking as if they just don’t want to be paralyzed or killed — if you could say, as a promise, “all that’s going to happen is you’re going to get knocked out in the first round, and you’re not going to be permanently damaged and you can get your paycheck,” most of these guys are saying, “good, that’s fine, I’ll settle for that. I don’t want to win, I don’t have to land a punch, just let me end up neither in a wheelchair nor dead.” Bruce Seldon, it’s as if he goes down from fear; Michael Spinks, it’s as if he’s passing out before he’s even hit —

Rumpus: Right. I remember that sequence, where he’s talking about staring his opponent down, and if they break eye contact, that’s it.

Toback: Yes. He takes his fear, which he admits to, and stares it into them, and the minute they look down, both of us know that it’s over already.

Rumpus: Is Tyson still where he was at the end of the movie? That is, is he still continuing his spiritual journey?

Toback: Yeah, he is, but he’s started to have less of an urgent, passionate removal from drug addiction. I think it was so recent that he’d been arrested for it, that he was charged up with the anger and energy of rejection. Now it’s more an awareness that it can bite you at any given moment. For instance, the other day he said to me that for the first time in his life, he’s been consistently monogamous. And he said the reason is, “if I gave in, and I were unfaithful, I’d have to tell her, and then if I told her, I’d feel guilty, and my guilt would make me feel so bad that I’d go out and get high.” So he has worked out the whole sequence that would result in this disaster, which he sees as the enemy. I think he’s looking at, whatever is good or possibly good in his life, isn’t going to happen if he gets back into cocaine. When he was fighting, for fourteen years, he didn’t do drugs. He might have smoked some joints and he would drink, but he was not using drugs. But once he quit the ring, being an addictive person (which he calls being an ‘extremist’ in the movie), it didn’t take him long to become a serious addict, almost immediately.

Rumpus: Have you ever had problems with addiction?

Toback: No, because I took a massive dose of LSD when I was nineteen and completely flipped out, and that was the end for me. The real reason I flipped was not just the amount, but that I was unafraid of death, and acid makes you aware that you’re going to die, that you’re nothing. And I wasn’t ready to handle that. But death is a part of life, and eventually I assimilated that completely. I’m not eager to die, but at 64, I mean, I’m really ready to go. I was ready to go at 20, and when I made a couple of movies I thought, well now I now actually have left something behind. And now my body has started to deteriorate. I mean, if a guy walked in with an AK-47 now, and said, you know, it’s time, I’d —

Rumpus: Maybe you could block the fire for me!

Toback: Yeah. Spare him, he’s not ready yet, I’m ready! What am I hanging around for? But I’m hanging around because it’s still fun.

Rumpus: Well, your accomplishments are being recognized. You were just honored last night with a lifetime achievement award for screenwriting, alongside awards given to Coppola and Redford. How do you feel about that?

Toback: It’s long overdue. Much as I like getting awards in Oldenburg, Germany and Torino, it’s nice to get one in America.

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Illustrations by Richard Parks.


Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →