I recently sat down with writer/director James Toback to discuss his latest project, Tyson, an uninhibited portrait of the world famous heavy weight champion, Mike Tyson. Now-a-days people see the drug charges, the “ear” incident, and a man who can’t seem to do anything right. From 1987-1990, Tyson was the undisputed world heavyweight champion conducting a reign of terror in the prize-fighting ring and earning millions of dollars whilst doing it. After a number of failed attempts to get back in the ring, he is fighting both bankruptcy and a drug charges. Having known Tyson for over 20 years, Toback shares his experiences with Tyson on and off camera.
Check out what he has to say about making this documentary about his friend, the legend, Mike Tyson…
A large fraction of the film is original interviews. Was there a method to conducting them? Were there specific questions you needed to be answered for directorial purposes? What was the process like?
JAMES TOBACK: What I wanted was to get his view of everything in his own words. I felt the way to get him to say the most interesting things about every subject that came up was not to ask direct questions. Which would end up feeling so weird, given the nature of the way we communicate. But rather to let the camera just keep going, without cutting. And wait until he’d said everything he could possibly say about whatever subject was at hand. We had two hi-def cameras going, 5 minutes of silence, 10 minutes of silence..and then we’ll add something. And then another 3-4 minutes of silence, and he’ll add something.
So there was no real structure?
JT: To get into a kind of “what did you think about that? And what about this?” would’ve made him look at me as if I had three heads. And also, lose interest in doing it. Because basically the appeal was to be confessional in the same way that I think somebody who’s a Catholic goes to Catholic church because confession is a transforming ritual. And the idea is not to get a priest grilling you on the details of what you’re saying…it’s to give you an opportunity to speak as if you were speaking to yourself. And that was the kind of purgative idea behind it.
Was there anything of particular interest you needed to cut for the sake of the overall piece?
JT: There were a lot of things that were interesting that I cut because I needed shape. But that was really my only editorial concern. Can I afford to keep this in and keep the rythm of the movie the way I want it to go? Most of the stuff I left out that I really liked will be on the DVD. I think I have a good hours worth of stuff that I think is just as good as what’s in the movie.
That’s one of the things I’ve learned over a period of time. There’s a mysterious personality to editing. You can’t learn it. You can’t be taught. You can’t study it. You have to have a feel for your own movie. You have to be merciless with your own work – you have to be able to say I don’t need that. You get to the bone. I don’t want any extra weight on my movie.
There’s a lot of split-screen chaos occurring throughout the film – what was the idea behind that?
JT: I knew that I wanted to do split screen moving images and multiple voices. That I absolutely had to have. There was no way I felt I could get across the chaos in the mind without using that. It was just a question of how much to do, when to do it, when to stop it, and just let that very powerful tight image of the face do it’s work. But those were the things that actually made it take twelve months to make. Five days of shooting, 12 months of editing. An insane ratio.
Was there anything that Mike specifically asked you NOT to include in the final cut?
JT: No. That was the agreement. The only comment that he made he said, “Do we have to have me beaten up so many times at the end of the movie?” and I said, “We have you triumphant and being at the peak of power, and we need to make that horrible ending felt…I did cut out the Danny Williams fight!” and he said “Gee thanks.”
I felt it was important to have the brutality and humiliation of those last fights, and really have it register. Not just a knock out here, a knock out there. To see the kind of beatings that he took after having been so dominant and so confident, to go into the fight like a lamb to slaughter, really knowing he didn’t really want to fight, just fighting for money…didn’t think he was going to win. But going ahead with it anyway. Which has been the fate of almost every great fighter. The fate of Ali, of Sugar Ray Robinson, the fate of Jack Johnson. Only Marciano escaped that. He took such beatings in the fights that he won, he might as well lost some of them.
Was it difficult to juggle the chronology of events that occurred throughout Mike’s life?
JT: That, again, was something I kind of felt my way into. It wasn’t going to work as just straight chronology. This was the hardest movie to edit, but the most fun, because it was the most ambitious. Any movie you start editing with a script is 50 times easier because you have a blue print. So even if you change things, you know generally where you’re going. This is only the second documentary I did, I did one called the Big Bang, which was difficult. I had 20 people talking about sex, love, crime, and death. The shape was hard to find. Here I was dealing with new footage and this array of archival footage, primarily the fights, but even then – what fights to put, what fights to leave out, the post-fight interiews…In the McBride fight, he says, I don’t want to embarrass the sport, I want to apologize to the fans for fighting this way, I don’t have the heart for it anymore, I lost the heart for it..I’m just fighting for money. All the stuff that no fighter never says, and actually sticking to it. Probably the only fighter in history who has retired once and that’s it.
Was there a specific story you were trying to tell? Or just an honest portrayal of this Mike’s life?
JT: Basically a kind of structure of a tragic figure. Someone who starts with nothing and elevates himself to unimaginable heights, and brings himself down by his own behavior and flaws… In the case of Mike a double Greek tragedy because he then did it again, he got back up and AGAIN brought himself down.
Is there a visible shift in recognizing the Mike you knew 20 years ago to the Mike illustrated in this film?
JT: He was a different person after getting out of prison. That’s when he went through madness. When you go through madness, that’s it. How many of you have gone insane? I went insane under LSD for eight days, which ended my drug career when I was 19. Sophomore at Harvard. You can explain it to somebody else, but no one is going to get it like someone who has been there gets it. The first night we met when he was 19 I told him about my LSD experience. And he didn’t get it then. He listened to something that sounded intriguing to him, but he didn’t know what I was talking about because he hadn’t been there yet. And when you have been, and you manage to stay functional, you almost have to use it if you’re an artist of any kind. It has to be a subject of your work. Or you have to do your work through a prism of that.
Arnie Lang said it, “Sanity is a cozy lie.” And we all kind of subscribe to it, because it enables us to function. And once you lose faith in it, which is what madness is, and the voices are unleashed you cant believe in it again…that’s what happened to Mike in prison. And the first thing he said to me when he came out, he said, “you know I was lying in solitary confinement in the 19th month of my incarceration, and all of a sudden I said to myself ‘this is what toback was talking about, I am now insane.”
It seems like the stories you often tell tend to be very meditative in terms of examining these types of people and these complex ideas…
JT: On the one hand it’s the only thing I feel I can really do well, and is important enough to spend my time doing. And the other hand, by doing it, I get a deeper and deeper understanding of them. And the connections among people who experience it. I always felt I had an understanding of mike because he understood that [insanity].
TYSON hits theatres this weekend! And it’s awesome. So go see it.