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Interview: James Toback, director of "Tyson"

The last time I interviewed somebody at the Liberty Hotel it was known as the Charles Street Jail. That was about 25 years ago and the subject of the interview was a white-bearded, sleight, elderly fellow known to some as "The Globe Man" -- not for any journalistic reason, but because he used to ride around Harvard Square in an old station wagon inscribed with countless cryptic writings and surmounted by a huge, papier maché world globe, about eight feet in diameter. He was being held pending a hearing after being arrested at Logan Airport where he tried to board a plane for the then West Germany without presenting a passport. His plan was to chip off a piece of the Berlin Wall as a symbolic gesture to eliminate national borders. Perhaps his plan worked: a few years later I bought a chip of that old Cold War symbol just as it was being torn down when I attended the Berlin Film Festival in 1990.

At any rate, things have changed at the old Charles Street Jail a/k/a the Liberty Hotel. Instead of the howls of penned-in felons echoing from the walls of the rotunda, the little conference room in which we are sitting offers muzak that is even more grating to the ear. After many requests it is turned off. And the person I am interviewing is James Toback, the outlaw filmmaker whose works -- including "Fingers" (1978), "The Pick-up Artist" (1987), "Two Girls and a Guy" (1997), "Black and White" (1999) and "Harvard Man" (2002) -- have explored sex, race, macho shitheadedness and other outré topics, and have earned both kudos and contempt from critics.

We are discussing his latest film, Tyson (you can read my review of the film in this week's Phoenix), a documentary in which Toback's pal, the former Heavyweight champion, confronts his controversial reputation as a wife-beater, rapist and ear-biter. As well as, in passing, Toback's own dicey reputation as a womanizer, addict and compulsive gambler.

PK: You know this used to be a jail right?

JT: I do know that, and I have to say you don't know anyone more paranoid about prison than I am. Particularly after seeing Tyson talk about prison, which I think is among the side benefits of this movie, because it's a cautionary tale about spending a single day in prison. Because if you think if Mike Tyson had that reaction to being in prison, how would I fare?

PK: So you've known him for...

JT: ...23 years.

PK: When he came out of prison you'd known him for...

JT: I'd known him for about ten years then and he was a different person, as he says: ‘prison changed me, I was never the same'.

PK: For the better?

JT: I think it was for the better in the sense that it deepened him and made him a more complex and fascinating person. It was certainly not for the better in terms of calming his... {interrupted by the phone] Yeah, so it made him...after he came out it made him a more haunted and terrified figure. As he says he woke up in the middle of the night thinking that the woman he was with was a guy who was about to stab him. And you know, I mean, it's interesting because I've been thinking of that in relation to [Robert] Downey [Jr, star of Toback's "The Pick-up Artist," "Two Girls and a Guy" and "Black and White." ], what's happened with him, and it's the Achilles Syndrome, you know, with his mother given the choice of a short, dramatic, exciting life or a long, middle-of-the-road, bland life, and she chose the short dramatic life. And aesthetically that's the best choice, but...

PK: How about the short, bland life?

JT: Then you get the worst of both worlds

PK: Downey was just out of rehab when you cast the two of them in "Black and White" in that infamous scene.

JT: Yes. Right. One out of rehab, the other out of jail.

PK: You're just kind of playing with fire when you do that sort of thing.

JT: I like to. You know, I think particularly in a movie you get some interesting effects when you have people at their, when they're sane, but when they have just been through an ordeal. And I think that that's what I was trying to, and I've said that about Downey now, because I don't know that he could ever do the kind of work he did in "Two Girls and a Guy" with the sort of smiley fame and success that's coming now. I don't think it has ever served anyone well in terms of art or talent, although it's nice to have money and be famous and have everybody cater to you and say nice things, but that's never been a spur to dramatic boldness. Particularly in movies, where people get less and less ambitious as they get richer and safer and more famous.

PK: So you're a fan more of Iron Mike than of  "Iron Man" then?

JT: I didn't even see it. There's a certain kind of movie I don't go to see, not because I have anything against it, it's just not what Leonard Koppett once referred to as ‘my dish of tea'. You know, I mean there's a limited number of movies one can see, and comic book movies, I never liked the comic books in the first place, so there's just nothing... I went out of curiosity to see one of the Batman movies just because supposedly it was different, but I just don't get it, you know it's not for me. It's not that I'm snobbish in taste, I go see stupid comedies happily. Like "Old School" and stuff like that that I can see two or three times if they're funny enough. And anything Will Farrell is in I go see, because I crack up just watching his face. But to see a kind of effects comic book movie has never interested me in any way at all.

PK: Have you been in touch with him... I mean he used to be your persona almost in what, three films I guess?

JT: Downey? Well yeah, I mean he's been like an alter-ego and I feel in a way I invented him 'cause I gave him his first role, and "Two Girls and a Guy" I think is one of the great performances in film history. In fact I know Chris Walken feels that way and Dustin Hoffman and Daniel Day Lewis, I mean there's a whole cult around his great performance in that movie, which is coming out again on Blu-Ray actually soon. You know, and I spoke at his wedding, it was a very beautiful ceremony. I think that, you know he's in a different place now as an actor and I think it's much better for his longevity. I think if he'd been going along indefinitely on the course he was on he probably would not have survived a hell of a lot longer. So if you want to make a case for longevity, he's certainly on the right track.

PK: So you think he's on the straight and narrow for good now?

JT: I think as long as whatever system is in place remains in place, whatever that might be, with a wife, who knows what's going on, and a twelve step program and maybe if there's medication, whatever it is it's working and I would think any time you get into that level of addiction and then you go off into an opposite direction, of escape from that addiction, it's not because you snap your fingers, it's because you put a whole bunch of elements in place in a very rigorous, strict format and you stick to that system. It's like getting in shape physically. You know you stay in shape if you continue to work out x number of hours every day and keep your diet; if you lapse you lose it. So I think as long as he's doing the steps, there's no reason to assume it can't go on indefinitely. The paradox is, as I was saying before, and I think this has always been true, that it's hard for an artist particularly who draws on his chaotic side, as Downey always did, to maintain that level of originality and inventiveness. That's not to say you've become dead as an artist, but you're just a different kind of artist without that. Tennessee Williams was terrified of going into psychoanalysis for that reason. And he said "if I'm cured of my demons will I have anything left as a playwright?" And the irony is that most people would have said  "no you didn't because once you got out of analysis your plays were infinitely less than they had been before." He actually thought his last plays were just as good or better than his earlier plays.

PK: You've been in analysis though...

JT: I was in analysis for three years.

PK: And you kicked some addictions.

JT: I stopped two addictions but only because they were killing me physically. I would not have stopped them otherwise. So I actually feel I cheated, because one of them was alcohol. I was drinking, I never get drunk, I had a buzz 24 hours a day which I maintained by chain-guzzling champagne as the production report on "Exposed" (1983)  put it.

PK: Dom Perignon.

JT: Dom Perignon absolutely, that's right. Only the best. My liver was speaking to me. And when I went to a liver specialist, the same guy that got Blake Edwards off alcohol, in fact Blake Edwards killed him in three movies as a punishment for making him stop drinking. He's the guy that is washed up on "S.O.B.," washed up on the shore, and he's blown up in "Victor/Victoria." Herb Tanney. Herb Tammy said to me, "can you cut down to one or two glasses of champagne a day?" And I said I couldn't cut down to one or two bottles a day. And he said "well then you gotta quit." And I never had another drink after that. He said "otherwise you'll have cirrhosis or cancer within a year, it's not a prediction it's a guarantee." So I stopped. Cigarettes, I was five packs a day, I stopped in one day because I couldn't inhale anymore. I was choking and gagging and I thought "ok, I won't quit but what I'll do is wait until I can inhale again."  And four days later I thought, "I think I might be able to inhale without gagging" and I put the cigarette in my fingers and I thought  "and then what'll happen, I'll gag four days from now." So I just stopped and that was it.

PK: It's like the scene where the guy with the laryngectomy, or whatever it is, is smoking through the hole in his neck.

JT: Yes, that's right. Yeah.

PK: What about gambling?

JT: Gambling, I don't feel the same confidence in saying that I am out of it, because gambling comes back and jumps in every now and then and when it jumps in it's in. So I don't feel the freedom from gambling. Cigarettes and alcohol are dead, gone and finished. Unless I knew I had x number of weeks or months to live and then I would drink again just for fun because I figure I'm gonna die anyway why not get back into champagne. Cigarettes have no appeal at all, drugs no appeal at all. But gambling's a tough one, because you know you win a few bets and you say "who's the idiot who tried to talk me out of this habit, look how easy it is." And then you're broke all of a sudden and you say "who allowed me to get back into this demented idiocy," but it's too late because you've been wiped out, which takes a day or two when you're really doing it addictively.

PK: Any tips on who to bet on?

JT I've been wrong on most of the games, but I will give you one insight I've had. One of the executive producers and co-financers of "Tyson" is Carmelo Anthony, and he hasn't told me this, but I think the Nuggets are gonna be a surprise team in the playoffs this year. I think the combination of him and Chauncey Billups and their overall cast is, I'm not saying they're going all the way, but I'm saying they're not gonna fold in the playoffs this year.

PK: So it's a long shot.

JT: Yeah.

PK: This extremism is something that is a common bond between you and Mike Tyson. When did you decide that this kind of movie would be something that you wanted to pursue?

JT: I was shooting [in "Black and White"], not the famous scene where Downey hits on Mike and then Mike smacks him and chokes him and slams him on the ground and then Brooke Shields hits on him and discombobulates him, but after that in the gym he's talking about being strip searched and humiliated by prison guards to Power of Wu-Tang Clan who was asking advice on whether to murder Allen Houston's character who was about to rat on him and have him put in jail. And Mike says both "yes you should kill him and no you shouldn't." He contradicts himself. And the way he talks meditatively and with a kind of Whitman-esque, paradoxical, double direction inconsistency, I thought "this Mike Tyson could be stretched into a very fascinating portrait." At the end of shooting that day I said "why don't we do a whole movie of that sort?" Then he said "whenever you're ready, I'm ready." Well I don't think he was totally ready then, because he was very fragmented in terms of time, behavior. And I probably wasn't ready or I would have been pushing it more. But then a couple years ago my mother died, and after a couple of months I knew that I wasn't gonna hang around too much longer unless I anchored myself to something, because I was doing too many things that were courting extinction. And I felt that I had to start shooting something right away or I would be gone.

PK: What sort of things were you doing?

JT: Well, swimming out in the ocean, without intending to put myself in jeopardy, swimming out without looking back for maybe twenty minutes and then looking back and realizing that there was an undertow, huge waves, and if that I was gonna get back it would be because I got lucky and a wave took me in. And I mean I'm too suspicious of the power of the unconscious because of my experience in psychoanalysis to doubt its existence. Therefore, even though I wasn't consciously swimming out to find out what it's like not to exist, I was suspicious that my unconscious was taking me there. So certainly anyone watching me would have said "I don't care what he says, he's swimming straight out for twenty minutes and never looked back, what did he think was gonna happen?" So I thought, "well what movie can I make now?" First of all it means I have to finance it myself, because otherwise I'm gonna have to run around looking for money and that is never fast or easy. Two, it has to be something that I can put together quickly, just structurally. So I thought. why not do the Tyson movie now? Literally at that moment he crashed. He got physically crashed in a car in Phoenix, and he got arrested for drug possession and he was put in rehab and I thought ‘now's the time for him to do it because he will be meditative, verbal, relaxed and eager to talk. So I called him and said "are you ready now?" He said ‘yeah, if you can get me out, you know, for the days you wanna shoot'. So that was worked out pretty quickly. I put the money up right away. Two weeks later we were shooting. And then I had to edit for a year, so that's how the movie evolved.

PK: You don't appear at all, and it seems like you appear in almost all your movies, and certainly are present in "Jim: The Author's Self-Centered Memoir of the Great Jim Brown" [ written in 1971 after a year spent having orgies with NFL great and Hollywood star Jim Brown].

JT: Yeah. That's coming out again by the way in a week. No, I thought about making it a movie about the two of us, that actually was for two days my plan to shoot both of us together. And then I thought that'll be interesting, it'll be funny,  but I will never get down to the nerve of truth about either of us if I do it that way. I could do either of us alone and get there, but not both of us. And since the world at this moment seems to be more intrigued and aware of Mike Tyson than James Toback I decided to give them what they wanted and go for him and not mix it, make a self-portrait presented by me so that it's as though I'm handing the world a Gauguin of Gauguin, a self-portrait. That's really what it became. And I decided to go to the other extreme, not only not be in the movie, not only not be on camera, not only have my voice not heard, but not even have an appearance on the set so that I was not in Mike's eye line and what I said was minimal to the point of non-existence. I would give a phrase and then let the two cameras roll for, since we were using high def cameras so there was no mag to run out and just keep going and going. Let it just go. Don't worry about long silences, in fact look for long silences. One of the things I was hoping, and all of those great shots of his face which are so expressive came from long gaps between his answers or his remarks. I would say something, he would respond, he'd be silent for three or four minutes, he'd say a few more words, I'd wait, he'd look around, he would think we'd stopped, then he'd get back on track, all the time watching him, then he'd say something else. This was the tone from the beginning, in fact that great moment early in the film when he says that he would never let himself be bullied again and humiliated again physically, he stops, the camera continues and he starts slightly hyperventilating. Then it's more than slight hyperventilation and he starts to get a kind of pre-asthmatic breathing mechanism going and then says ‘because if anyone did' and then he barely can get his words out and says ‘I can't even say it'. And the camera continues running. And then finally says "because if he did I would fucking kill him." And at that moment as his voice gets quieter and quieter, it's almost inaudible but the crescendo of emotion is radical, you feel he would like someone to be there at that moment who would try to bully him so that he would have a reason to kill him.

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