James Toback interview, Part 2

Now that we've taken a breather we can go into round two with that relentless verbal onslaught known as James Toback.

At the end of round one he was telling how Mike Tyson, the subject of his new documentary, choked up as he explained his willingness to kill people.

A sensitive guy


PK: In your 23 years knowing [Mike Tyson], have you ever felt physically intimidated or threatened?

JT: Never for a second, and the only abrasive moment we had was in this restaurant on Columbus Avenue in the upper sixties which used to be owned by DeNiro and Paul Herman and Baryshnikov and Regis Philbin, it was a hotspot for a while, actually it was the night that John Gotti was there playing on the jukebox over and over and over and over again that, it wasn't called ‘You're My Hero', that Bette Midler song where you know, what was the name of that song she keeps saying ‘you're my hero'...anyway. Well, John Gotti got deeply upset when somebody tried to put another song in because it was, as Anthony Fargas says, Antonio Fargas in "The Gambler,"  "you're fucking up the sequence of my songs," when a similar event takes place with a jukebox in a Harlem bar [in that movie]. 

But in any event, I was meeting Mike for dinner that night, he was just about to hire Don King as manager, and Jose Torres, who was a friend of Brian Hammil's and mine, was very upset because he expected to be the manager, and Mike, you know, we said that, you know, he'd never hire Don King, he'd never go to Don King, and Brian called me and he said "don't forget to remind Mike that he's the one who always said he would never hire Don King."

And I ended up bringing it up and pressing it a bit and after a minute or two Mike said, "I don't wanna talk about it, I'm going to Don King, don't mention it again." And I said, "you're the one who said you would never hire Don King, I'm only quoting you to you." "I don't wanna talk about it, I'm gonna hire him." "Why would you wanna do that now, when you insisted only an asshole would ever do that, and someone who didn't think and didn't know what he was doing." "I don't wanna talk about it" "Well what else is there to talk about of even vaguely similar significance when you're making a decision, if I'm your friend it's something that obviously I have to do." "Well you don't have to do it 'cause I don't wanna hear it, I'm not gonna listen to it."

At that point I said "Well then we have nothing to talk about" and he left and that was it. But that was the closest we came even to an unpleasant, and I certainly wasn't physically afraid.

In fact a funny thing happened when he talks in the movie about the eye thing, you know, that fear is the overriding theme of the movie, he talks about being consumed by fear all the time, everything stemmed from acknowledging his fear but allowing his fear to express itself and then exorcising his fear by infecting his opponent with it, coming into the ring still with some fear, staring into his opponent's eyes, and when his opponent looked away both of them knew it was all over, the opponent was now the one overwhelmed by fear, and Mike with complete confidence.

That drama of how to deal with fear, how to take fear and put it into the opponent, I think is the thing that made him champion, it made him great, it made him the human being that he was, the champion that he was. But I think, see... [loses his train of thought]

This is an interesting thing. This happens, I always, it's like my brain goes on a track, and it's like when you're doing, when you're playing contrapuntal music and all of a sudden you lose one voice of the three. What was the point I was making that led me into this? I was coming from somewhere...

PK: You were talking about whether you ever felt threatened in his presence physically...

JT: Oh yeah, here's what I was... thank you for reminding me. We were doing a photo session for the cover of the "L.A. Weekly"... "The Boston Phoenix" isn't owned by the "Village Voice," they're not...

PK: No.

JT: Yeah, yeah wow, well hang in...who does own the "Phoenix?"

PK: Stephen Mindich...

JT: Wow. So what happened was we were doing a cover thing and at one point the guy, the photographer said "ok, stand opposite each other"...

No, I'm sorry, it wasn't that, it was Brett Ratner was taking these pictures for the "Guardian" in London. I'm wrong. It was a different session [photographic session with Tyson promoting the film]. But anyway, he said, "Look straight into each other's eyes." So we're belly to belly both of us with stomachs that could use some serious chopping at this point, but we're looking into each other's eyes and he cracked up. And I said "what are you laughing at?" And he said, he got crazy, he said "that look right now." He said "that's crazy" and he really cracked up and he said "you could scare anybody with that look in the ring."


And I knew what he meant because there is with psychotic people or closet psychotic people, there is an inability to hide the psychosis when you really let it go. And I wasn't intending to let it go, I just did 'cause we were eyeball to eyeball like that. And instead of coming back at me and giving me the look that he used to have, which is really not part of his personality anymore, I mean I think he's lost that as he puts it "warrior soul." I haven't. I'm not a boxer, but I'm still, I think, closer to being homicidal than he is, you know.

PK: Thanks for the warning. I should've patted you down before we started talking. This is kind of a kinship you had from the beginning when you met him back at "The Pickup Artist" I guess and he was fascinated by the fact that you had this mental breakdown after taking LSD at 19 years old.

JT: Right. He didn't know what it meant. "What do you mean mad? What do you mean insane? What do you mean by mad?" And I knew anyone this eager to find out what madness is will find out soon enough. And he found out when he was in prison ten, twelve years later curled up on a concrete floor in solitary confinement. And when he got out he told me that the first thought he had was "now I know what Toback was talking about that night in Central Park, I am now insane." And the difference is that he didn't have Max Rinkle who was one of the guys who synthesized LSD in his laboratories in Switzerland to give him an intravenous antidote.

PK: There is an antidote for LSD?

JT: I got one.

PK: Yeah? Do you know what it was?

JT: He gave me a compound of thorazine, mellaril, heroin, morphine and [indecipherable]

PK: And you lived.

JT: I did, and he thought I wouldn't. He actually made me sign a statement that if I died, I was responsible because I fully understood what he was giving me, that it was likely to kill me, but I was taking it anyway. This is all dramatized in "Harvard Man,"  in that scene where Adrian Grenier has the voices and the hallucinations and then can't get rid of the voices and goes, and John Neville plays the doctor, gives him the antidote. And I signed the document and I said to Dr. Rinkle a couple of weeks later when I was ok, I said "how did you know that had I died you wouldn't have gotten in tremendous trouble, because even though I'm 19 and capable presumably of signing something and did you..." He said, "Oh, I would've been in tremendous trouble." And I said, "Well how did you do that?" He said, "You had to have it, you needed it." He said, "I had to think of you first." He said, "You were the person I had to save, not myself." He said, "Anyway I'm an old man. You have your whole life ahead of you, if it caused me to lose my license then so be it."

PK: That's supposedly the biggest LSD dose that anyone ever took.

JT: No one's ever claimed to take more. And he actually wasn't sure that I had until I told him where I got it and what form I took it in. Because there were blue sugar cubes and I had know LSD was legal then. You could come in with LSD into the country. I came in, I gave a cube to the customs official. He asked what all the sugar cubes were and I said "They're pure lysergic diethylamide 25 which I got at Sandors Laboratories in Switzerland." He said, "Oh what's that?" And I said, "Aldous Huxley took it, Cary Grant takes it, Robert Graves has taken it, it's fuckin' phenomenal." And I gave him a copy of "The Doors of Perception" that I had, and I said, "This is the answer, this is the truth." And he said, "Well, how often have you taken it?" I said, "I've never taken it." He said, "Well, how do you know?" I said, "I know."

PK: Customs agents were different in those days.

JT: Herman Melville was a customs agent.

PK: That's true

PK: It must have been from that tradition

JT: The Melvillean tradition.

PK: You have no other points of view in the movie except for Tyson. Why is that?

JT: I didn't want any other points of view because as I say it is a self portrait, if you take the metaphor of Gaugain presenting a portrait, a self portrait it isn't a photograph, it's not what you would be getting if there were, well, first of all there's no way of getting the accuracy of a photograph in a documentary because you've got a whole bunch of different people's views. But it's not a photograph. It's his version of himself orchestrated by me and presented by me.

 But basically the idea is to give in an almost clinical way Tyson's version of his life. And to do it in a style that I wanted to use for ten years. The last part of "Black and White" has the split screen moving images, the multiple voices, and hallucinations and shifting images. The opening credits of "Harvard Man" are in that style. I wanted to go for it with the whole movie, to make a movie in that style. And there was no movie ever, that I can think of, that needed it or called for it more than this one did. Multiple voices, the chaos of the brain, voices that won't stop.

So what he says earlier in the movie is that you're looking at different images of his face and um his face calls for multiple images. It is a face that separates itself, almost cubistically, when you look at it. There are so many different personalities at work in the face.

PK: Plus the tattoos.

JT: Yes, exactly.

PK: He sort of draws you into his point of view in an almost claustrophobic way.

JT: That's right, and that's the intention. I mean, you have one of the most recognized, most intriguing, I hate to use the phrase that "People Magazine" uses or Barbara Walters whoever ... But, let's say the, let's say more people are interested in Mike Tyson around the world than practically anyone who's lived in the last hundred years. If you see, for instance, the response he gets in cities in Europe and in Black communities here and in Asia and South America --- it's bedlam. And what they are looking for is the truth about this guy. "Who are you?" "I want to pay homage to you whoever you are. I'm drawn by you." To say nothing of the people who hate him and revile and most of whom are white and here in America. But to take that figure and his fascinating presence seems to me a very interesting task particularly since his life calls into question all of the themes that are obsessing me and in my work and have been since the beginning: race, sex, madness, love, money, crime, and death.

PK: That covers it, I think

JT: It does. Yeah, I left out baseball. But you can't have everything.

PK: Basketball, too.

JT: Right basketball too. I use Ray Allen [in photo of "Harvard Man" above, with gun] and I use Allen Houston so I'm taking a vacation from basketball for a film

PK: Tyson, the way you described him, is almost like the anti-Obama.

JT: That's right. That is right and you know, I'll bet you without being able to prove it unless we get him on the phone now, that Obama is massively fascinated with Mike Tyson. A lot more fascinated than Mike Tyson is by Obama. By the way do you know who Mike Tyson's ex-wife's brother is?

PK: No

JT: The wife, the ex-wife in the movie that he speaks of quite lovingly is a great mother to his children. You know who her brother is?

PK: I don't know.

JT: You won't guess this in 10 trillion tries.

PK: I won't even try.

JT: Michael Steel, the chairman of the Republican National Committee.

PK: It must be interesting getting together for the holidays.

Next: He said, She said.

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