“Wow, this looks good,” writer-director James Toback said of a cheeseburger brought to him as he began his interview for “Tyson,” the documentary about the ex-heavyweight champ, which features extensive interviews with the fighter, as well as archival footage, and was screening at Dallas’ AFI Film Festival. “This is not fair. Excuse me for doing this in front of you,” he added as he began adding condiments to the burger. But between bites he was happy to talk about the film.
Why Tyson? “He’s a fascinating figure, period. I mean, he has great stature and wide existence in the worldwide public imagination. And the subject forces one to deal with all the subjects that have interested me in life and in film anyway—race, sex, madness, crime, money, death and art—and boxing. So by doing the movie about him, one is necessarily addressing all those other issues.
“And in addition, he’s fascinated me individually. I like watching him and listening to him. I’ve known him since 1985. He came by the set of ‘The Pick-Up Artist,’ which I was shooting at the time…and I started talking to Mike, and we became friends fast, we had an immediate rapport. At the time he was almost a wide-eyed innocent. All the things have happened to him and changed him hadn’t yet happened. And he’s one of the few people I’ve known over the years whom I’ve found intriguing whenever we have spoken on the phone or in person. There hasn’t been a boring minute, never a time we’ve been together when I’m thinking, ‘Okay, ready to move on.’
“So for all those reasons, I thought it would make a fascinating film. The question was when, because I’d done two other movies with him, one rather substantial, ‘Black and White,’ with [Robert] Downey, Ben Stiller, Brooke Shields, and Tyson, among others, and Mike has some great scenes in that movie,” including one in which he reflected on his own prison experience. “It was that meditative, self-analytical Tyson that made me think, even as I was watching and listening to him while the scene was being done, [that I thought] I should do a whole movie with Mike which would be a portrait like this [one]. And I just have to find the right visual style. And I brought it up afterward, and he said, ‘Anytime you’re ready, I am.’ And then nine years later, after he’d crashed and been arrested for cocaine possession and put in rehab, I thought, this is the time to do it—when he’s in this meditative state, when he’s not fractured in terms of time commitment, and when I could just get him alone for ten hours a day for five days and shoot him non-stop. Five days of shooting, one year of editing.”
Toback shot the film with two cameras in high-def. “The notion of shooting high-def was inevitable, because in order to get what I wanted to get from him, to be interrupting after four or ten minutes with a mag running out would have been lethal. Shooting in high-def allowed us to just go minutes, sometimes seven, eight, nine minutes at a time, of silence, and continue without any pressure to say anything. And then allow him to pick up and start again. Most of the breakthrough moments in the film took place after he had been sitting there saying nothing for several minutes, where in an ordinary circumstance the next question would have come or there would have been a break in the mood. But there was an almost psychoanalytic atmosphere on the set, which allowed for some of these varied voices to come out.
“I wasn’t thinking of this as an investigation whose goal was to get at the factual truth of specific situations—which is an unknowable task anyway, unachievable task, because who will even know what happened between two people in a room, or at any event where you weren’t present? In fact, all you do often even when you get people who were present is get different versions of the same event. So ultimately it’s a question of believability. And to the extent that that was at work at all—what really happened here of there—it isn’t that one’s asked to take everything Mike says at face value. It’s that you make your own judgment about whether it feels like the truth or not. And that’s as far as I thought I needed to go in finding out what did or didn’t happen.
“What interested me much more was an unadulterated, unadorned portrait—self-portrait—of Mike Tyson presented by me, so if you wanted to take if you wanted to take a painter’s analogy, it would be a self-portrait, say, by Gauguin, which would not be the same as a photograph of Gauguin, but it would be Gauguin’s version of Gauguin.”
So in “Tyson” one hears the fighter himself recalling his bullied childhood, his introduction to boxing, his father-son relationship with trainer Cus D’Amato, his sudden jump to fame and fortune, his brief marriage to Robin Givens, his relationship with aggressive promoter Don King, the excesses that led to his rape trial, conviction and imprisonment, and his sad post-jail career, symbolized by his notorious bouts with Evander Holyfield.
And Toback intercuts it all with fight footage, clips from early television interviews (including the amazing one with Givens), newsreel clips and stills, using his considerable technical skills to present his subject as a complex, contradictory and oddly sympathetic. “I felt that the first task for me as a director was to find a style for the movie, because just to shoot a regular interview would have been lethal. So I thought that this technique I’ve been using for a while…the split-screen and the multiple voices, and use them throughout the movie. That seemed to be most suited to this subject, because Mike, of all people, is so fragmented a personality, or let’s say contains so many people within him, that this fragmentation of imagery and layering of voices allow a lot of these persons and voices to come through simultaneously. He’s got voices going on all the time, and it’s almost as if what he says is a kind of involuntary choice, to let one speak instead of the others. It’s why he’s constantly contradicting himself…it’s an unconscious that is constantly pushing things up to fight with whatever’s at the top, and often overcoming it.”
Having known Tyson for so long, was Toback surprised by what he learned about the man in making the film? “Quite a bit. Not only was I surprised, he was surprised. When he first saw the movie, I know that he was quite shocked at some of the things he said, because there was this sort of quasi-psychoanalytic atmosphere, very quiet, where the voice just sort of came out. And I think in particular what I was struck by was his level of fear that he confesses to. It’s as if not just his boxing life but his entire life was a response to fear, and to admitting to his fear, and at least in the case of boxing, transmitting his fear to the opponent. He doesn’t in any way try to hide the fact that fear was the motivating force and pervasive psychic reality.”
That fear extended to the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. “I think whether to inure himself from the humiliation and pain of being ridiculed that he’s kind of shut himself off from concern about what people say or think about him…and is prepared for almost anything negative. In fact, when we had our first screening, which was at the Cannes Film Festival last May, we had a ten-minute standing ovation. I wasn’t expecting that, but I certainly would have been surprised if we didn’t have a positive response. He, on the other hand, had no confidence whatever that people were going to like the movie at all, or like him at all. And in fact I later found out that [he and] his two managers had been standing outside the theatre in the lobby where you could hear what was going on in the theatre and the movie was close to over, and Mike said, ‘Do you think Jim would mind if I went back to my hotel?’ And they said, ‘No, you’ve got to go in there.’ And he said, ‘Well, what if they hate it and they hate me?’ And they said, ‘That’s not going to happen.’ And he said, ‘How do you know?’ And it wasn’t until he started to hear all the applause, the welling up of applause, that he came into the theatre and went up on the stage, perfectly prepared and I think half-expecting to hear the opposite. In which case he would have just left and wiped it from his imagination.
“And I was just reading an interview that he did with the LA Weekly…and he was saying that during the ovation, when we were standing up on stage, I thought that what he was thinking was what I was thinking, which was ‘Wow, this is terrific.’ And he was thinking, ‘They don’t mean this. This is just a phony reaction, they’re just putting this on.’ And he then was saying, ‘No, that’s an evil voice telling me that. It really is legitimate.’ And then going back and saying the opposite again. I had no clue that there was this odd argument going on in his brain. I was just enjoying the moment.”
And he was enjoying his moment in Dallas, too. “I have to say, this is one of the best cheeseburgers I’ve ever had. One of the all-time greats, unbelievably delicious,” Toback, a man large in appetite as well as talent, it appears, remarked contentedly as the interview drew to a close.