A talented yet tormented man, he is both feared and admired for doing what he does best. His reputation as a womanizer with an addiction to excess precedes him. I am describing both the director and the subject of James Toback's latest film: an unexpected, frightening and oddly refreshing look inside the mind of boxer Mike Tyson, called simply Tyson. Here's part of a Q&A I hosted with the director at a screening for Women in Film.
CS: You knew Tyson for a long time before approaching him about making this film?
JT: 23 years of occasional personal encounters, two movies and many late night conversations. We would talk about the same subjects the movie deals with: sex, identity, boxing, madness, love, crime, and death--which doesn't leave much out.
At what point did it gel for you that his recollections and his musings could become a documentary that an audience would actually want to sit through?
The last day of shooting of Black and White with Mike, he was in some notorious scenes with Power of Wu Tang Clan [where] he talks about being humiliated and strip searched and having his balls played with by prison guards and having the nose of dogs shoved up his ass to search for drugs and the reflective, dead pan, self-analytical tone in which these highly jolting events were recounted and advice was given, made me feel that this Mike Tyson could be expanded into a non fiction film. That night I said to him 'let's make a whole movie that is an expansion of that version of you, and we'll find a stylistic way to do it.' He said he'd do it any time. In the next 7 or 8 years his time was fractured,--he was in a quasi-ADD reality,--and it was only when my mother died and I had to get anchored in a movie or I was going to get in serious trouble, and the only thing I could do was a movie that I could finance myself and Mike crashed-literally and figuratively - in Phoenix and was arrested for drugs and put in rehab [that] I said this is the time to do it. So I organized the production pretty quickly- I think 3 weeks later we started shooting. I rented a house in the Hollywood hills for a week and then also we shot on the beach north of Malibu so we shot for 5 days and got over 30 hours of film. Then it took a year to edit, so probably that's the most radically out of whack ratio of shooting to editing in the history of movies.
He's one of the executive producers--did he set any of the ground rules?
Actually what we did was get clear on everything in advance. I said I'm going to put up the money for the movie but two things: I'm not going to pay you any money now to do it and I have to have total control of what's in the movie and not in the movie and I'll listen to advice but I have to be the one who decides. The first thing he said when he saw the movie was: "It's like a Greek tragedy, the only problem is, I'm the subject." ... He had a strange relationship to the movie: we had a premiere at Cannes in May and we got a massive ovation, but he was standing outside the theater in the lobby and asked one of the managers: "Do you think Jim would mind if I don't show up --what if they hate me and hate the movie." He really had no idea what they were going to think. I was surprised [when he was later asked what going on in his mind] while getting this huge ovation. I thought he would say what I felt, which was exhilaration and pleasure that we were getting this response. He said "I had two voices in my brain; the evil voice saying 'these white mofos are just pretending to like me and they really they hate me and the clapping is pretense.' The other voice was saying 'just take it at face value', but the evil voice was winning out."
Were you expecting such a positive response as you were making the film?
I was expecting what I usually get which is a third of people flipping out, a third trying to end my career, and a third of the people sort of mixed. With Mike being an incendiary character to begin with , if anything I thought I'd have more negative than usual, but half way through editing it became clear to me that there was something about the humanity of the character of the Mike Tyson that came across and I was in tears when I was editing it. And I bet that even women who don't like him and don't like boxing were going to like it. So I went on a survey tour to Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Hollywood, and Malibu and I would say 'I have three questions: do you like boxing? do you like Mike Tyson? and would you like to see a movie about Mike Tyson?' and if I got vehement negation on all three, I then made a proposal which was to come to the editing room and if after 5 minutes you don't like the movie I'll give you $100 to leave. If you stay, I won't give you anything but I want to hear what you think. When it was over, 35 out of 35 stayed. No one took the $100 and all were deeply affected by it, many in tears, and at that point I thought something odd is at work here which is different than anything I've experienced before.
As a journalist watching this documentary I was looking for some balance, for instance we don't hear from, his ex wife, or Desiree Washington [the woman who accused him of raping her] ...
The idea was not to make a documentary in any conventional sense. The idea was to do like a self portrait as Gauguin painted himself, or Van Gogh painted himself, or Rembrandt painted himself. Each artist in effect saying 'this is my notion of who I am and why I am' so I was finding a style in which to convey this self portrait.....I don't expect that everyone is going to believe it's all true because Mike Tyson says it's true. I know him well enough that with multiple voices in his head he has enough trouble keeping the others from interrupting and speaking simultaneously, which is why I have voices laid over each other in the movie. That's the one manifestation of madness that everyone who has gone insane has, by the way. I went insane on LSD for 8 days when I was a sophomore at Harvard, and you have multiple voices take over. When I met him we talked about that. I got into the subject of madness and he had an inordinate curiosity about what it meant to be crazy. After he got out of prison, he said to me 'I was 19 months into my prison stay and I was lying in a corner on the concrete and all of sudden I started hearing voices and I said to myself this is what Toback was talking about. The only difference is you had an injection that brought you back, and I didn't.' So he still has that going on.
Does he really consider himself insane?
Mike says at the end of the movie 'I'm an insane person' and it's not said lightly. People think insane puts you in a mental hospital but there are people who know they are insane. Robert Lowell, one of the great poets of the 20th century was a teacher of mine at Harvard and in the middle of a lecture he said, without changing his tone, 'sometimes I click onto other channels and I just have to go somewhere else. That just happened, so I won't be able to continue this semester.' He walked out and checked into [a mental hospital] for the next 11 months. And I think Mike right now has a lot of things going on and I felt the real truth you are getting is the truth of what's in his consciousness. Part of the joy is you meet a complex iconographic figure and you make up your mind yourself-- you feel he's heroic, he's pathetic, he's truthful, or he's lying. I feel a certain way about all those things but I'm not asking the audience to agree.
This film became an elaborate confession of sorts but perhaps also a tribute to you and your friendship.
He wouldn't have done it with anyone else. But after 23 years if you can't get someone to open up, you are a pretty pathetic friend. What I wanted to do was stimulate his unconscious--which was easy since it's so close to the surface--so those voices would have a chance to surface and be articulated. I took a psychoanalytic stance, I was hardly ever in his eye line. The first morning he sat down on the couch and I asked him what his earliest memory was and then said nothing else for 45 minutes. Actually he was speaking about 10 of those 45 and the rest of time just sitting there breathing.
We see him choked up a couple of times and really about to cry at one point...did he actually cry on camera?
He doesn't sob but he gets choked up; he is clearly resisting crying. Its like when you are a kid, and you have that moment and your face starts to change and you can cry or not cry and he just barely stops himself a couple of times. He's clearly a person whose emotions as well as thoughts are not blocked in any way once he gets going. His normal way of dealing is to clam up and be evasive, not untruthful, just not responsive. But once he gets going, here it was five days of non stop revelation and he is a performer and something of an exhibitionist and once he realized he has a chance to be seen and known as who he is, that excited him in some way. I think all of us on some level have felt about some people that they just don't get me or who I am...it's very difficult and frustrating to feel you are misunderstood. I thought the idea of having this complicated person come across as who he is and shock people because of that-- it's a fascinating thing to achieve. It made me think about this idea of being completely misunderstood and of someone being sure he understands you. I think of things that were written about me and they are so far off ...Mike said to me the third time he'd seen movie, 'I always hear people saying they are scared of me and I wonder why they scared of me-- there's nothing to be scared of-- but tonight I realized I'm scared of this guy.'
Tyson is opening in theaters nationwide.