Q&A with Writer-Producer-Director James Toback on “Tyson”

Tyson Writer-Producer James Toback

“Tyson” Writer-Producer James Toback.

The film, which premiered last January at the Sundance Film Festival, prompted Tyson to say, “I never used to understand why people perceived me as such a monster, and then I saw the movie and it all made sense.” Now moviegoers can check Tyson out, warts and all, as the film starts going into theaters via Sony Pictures Classics. Apr. 24 saw it open in New York and L.A. It expands May 1 to Chicago, Boston and San Francisco and goes wide May 8.

Written and directed by James Toback (“Two Girls and a Guy” (1997), “Black and White” (1999) and “When Will I Be Loved” (2004)), “Tyson” was produced by Toback and Damon Bingham. Its executive producers are Tyson, Harlan Werner, Nicholas Jarecki, Henry Jarecki, Carmelo Anthony, David Haines and Bob Yari.

Q: I liked your movie and that surprised me because I’m certainly not an admirer of Mike Tyson. I understand I’m not the only one who’s feeling this way.
A: This is the first time I’ve had an almost “Shrek”-like response to a movie that one would have thought would be incendiary and very dividing.
Q: How did you get Tyson to open up so completely on camera?
A: We’ve known each other since he came by the set of “The Pickup Artist” in 1985 and (we’ve) kept up over the years, including, of course, using him in “Black and White” as himself in a memorable role. Not just the scene that everybody talks about in which he smacks, chokes and slams on the ground the gay husband of Brooke Shields, played by Robert Downey Jr., after Downey’s aggressive come-on to him, but also Brooke’s intimidating come-on to Mike in which he backs off and is discombobulated.

But, in addition, there’s that scene in “Black and White” in which he meditatively and self-psychoanalytically describes the notion of murdering someone who’s out to get you and also (talks about) the horrors of his time in the penitentiary, from which he had recently been released. It was that meditative reflective Tyson that made me think this should be expanded into a film if I can find the right visual style and do a whole portrait — a kind of self portrait through the prism of my own aesthetic. (That was about nine years ago) and it didn’t really come to fruition until my mother died and I felt at my wit’s end and I had to get going on something. This was something I could finance myself and jump into immediately. And it was the right time for him because he had just crashed, literally and figuratively, in Phoenix and had been arrested for cocaine possession and put into rehab. I thought this would be a good time to get him in a meditative and reflective state. So we jumped in and shot five days 10 hours a day and then I spent a year editing it.
Q: Clearly, you and Tyson had to trust one another in order for this work.
A: Absolutely. And there has been that mutual trust since the beginning and (there was) never a cause for either of us doubting the other so this was just another example of it. But there was no real hesitation on either part. The one thing, of course, is that since I did it in a somewhat psychoanalytic fashion as a voice off camera provoking and raising certain questions it is true that he was somewhat surprised when he actually saw the results.
Q: It’s something of an on-camera psychoanalysis.
A: In any kind of psychoanalytic situation one tends to say things one didn’t know one was going to say. I remember during my own three year analysis I used to jump off the couch in the first few months and say “I didn’t mean that” after practically everything I’d said. Tyson didn’t do that, but when he saw the movie he was quite taken aback and the first thing he said was, “It’s like a Greek tragedy. The only problem is I’m the subject.”

It wasn’t until the third time he saw it — the second time was at the Cannes Film Festival (in May 2008) — at Sundance (in January 2009 when) we had a huge ovation as we had, in fact, at Cannes and he started to realize people were actually responding in a way that he hadn’t anticipated. He said to me at the dinner afterwards, “I always used to wonder what people were talking about when they would say they’re scared of me and they think I’m crazy” and he said, “Having watched the movie for the third time tonight I realized I’m scared of that guy.”
Q: You had a ten minute standing ovation when you showed “Tyson” at Cannes. Have you had that kind of enthusiasm elsewhere?
A: (Unlike the mixed responses I’ve had to my films in the past the reaction to “Tyson”) has been uniformly incredibly good. I expected at least a third of the people to be negative because there’s a lot of negative feeling about him going in. The movie, without trying to, defuses it. That’s what’s quite remarkable. There’s no effort to do that and, in fact, that may be why it happens because there is no effort to do it. But you just get a sense of him and he has a personality that finally gets people disarmed so I’ve had none of what I’ve expected.

From the beginning with “The Gambler” (his semi-autobiographical screenplay in 1974) and “Fingers” (his directorial debut drama in 1978) I never knew from screening to screening whether there would be a terrific response, as there sometimes was, or particularly in the case of “Fingers” some genuine hostility. That sort of diminished over the years and now it was in Cannes Classics this year and people talk about it reverentially, but I remember all too well at the time every time I would go to a screening I would have no idea what I was going to face. There was one time when (film critic-historian) Arthur Knight had a class at USC Film School and after a screening of “Fingers” that was packed the audience was quite raucous. There were some people who really were excited and loved the movie and others who definitely didn’t. But there was a sort of angelic looking girl who was coming towards us as the evening was breaking up and I thought, “Oh, I’m going to get some nice flattery here from this very beautiful young girl. That’ll be nice as the cap on the evening.”

And she came up and stood over me with Arthur (where they were seated) and said, “I’m not a violent person, but I’d like to take a kitchen knife and stick it in your head.” Arthur almost fell off his chair. He was stunned. And I said — I couldn’t think of anything else to say — “Oh, that’s too bad because I was going to ask you out to dinner.” And she stormed off! So I have had all kinds of response.
Q: But the reception for “Tyson” has been very positive.
A: People admit in the q&a that they’ve had a really angry anticipatory response where they feel they want to condemn him for being a convicted rapist or barbarian and all the rest and then they’re completely overwhelmed by the 180 (degree turn) they do while watching the movie. It’s one of the real tasks (we faced) to find a way to get the people who think they’re going to feel that hostility to come to the movie and find out that it’s quite the opposite.
Q: How did you and your DP Larry McConkey shoot Tyson?
A: I stayed off camera — not just off camera, I stayed out of his eye line. I wanted to get this guy in a psychoanalytic atmosphere so I really stood off to the side and just threw lines out — hints, suggestions — and then let him just go with them. Because we were shooting in Hi-Def we weren’t going to run out (of film and have to reload). I had two Hi-Def cameras — a Panasonic Genesis and a Panasonic Vericam — and they were fairly well concealed. Not concealed in the sense that he didn’t know he was being shot, but they weren’t obtrusive at all. He was either walking on the beach alone in the kind of sunset glow or sitting in a comfortable position in that house or wandering outside in the pool area.

He was in this really kind of calm, open, confessional state. Knowing that it was not normal conversation (where) I ask you a question, you give me an answer, but rather I throw out an idea or a hint and then just let him go and not be afraid of long silences in between responses so that there’s a chance to brew and for surprising things to come out. To say nothing of those great facial expressions in those moments of meditation.
Q: It’s not just his facial expressions, but the tattoos on his face that make him so fascinating to stare at.
A: This is why I wanted to do the movie all along because I know him and I know what’s there and I know what’s there visually as well as in his mind and in his language. I thought this’ll be fascinating. It would be fascinating even if he weren’t a known figure, but to take one of the most notorious and fascinating figures over the last 50 or 100 years — certainly one of the two or three most intriguing sports figures over that period of time — and to be able to document his psyche and his physical being and history and tell this rather lurid wild story truthfully, I thought, how many opportunities does one get like that?
Q: I understand you ended up with about 30 hours of footage from your five 10-hour day shoots with Tyson. What were those shooting days like?
A: We took small breaks, but basically (kept shooting) because the atmosphere was so relaxed there was a kind of continuum that one felt. Often when he was sitting on the couch he didn’t know whether he was being shot or not."
Q: Interviewers sometimes save their toughest questions to ask late in the process so that if they anger their subject they don’t risk having him walk out or turn hostile. Did you do that?
A: I knew that wouldn’t happen. I wasn’t concerned with that. I just went with what I thought would be of interest to him at that moment, whatever it might be. For instance, I thought the easiest thing in the beginning was to start from the beginning. So the first thing I said was, “What are your earliest memories?” And then I just had a feel for what would interest him the most at that moment. So if off camera we’d be talking about something sexual, let’s say, I would start with, “What are your sexual feelings about women?” and then just let him go off. If it were boxing, “What do you feel about the nature of boxing?” (Having all those hours of Tyson on camera) will make for some rather fascinating DVD features because I had a good extra hour, at least, of really good stuff that I just didn’t use because it didn’t fit the structure, not because it wasn’t as inherently interesting as what’s in the movie.
Q: Tell me about the editing process that you and your editor Aaron Yanes went through for about a year.
A: It took three months just to go through everything so around the fourth month we started in earnest, really getting to the editing process. But the first three months we were just going over everything endlessly.
Q: Besides the footage of Tyson that you shot, there’s also some terrific archival footage of him in the ring. How difficult was it to come up with that?
A: It was relatively easy to find. It was not relatively easy to make deals and get the right to use the stuff. There was a kind of endless legal-financial nightmare trying to organize everything so that we got everything in place legally.
Q: First cuts of documentaries often are hours longer than the finished film. Was that the case with “Tyson”?
A: (The first cut was) probably no more than seven or eight minutes longer. I had loads and loads of footage, but it was not in addition to what I had, it was instead of stuff. So once I had the structure (figured out) the shape was pretty much what it is. It was just using alternative things to illustrate the same points.
Q: How did “Tyson” come to Sony Pictures Classics for distribution?
A: They were excited from Cannes. We used to sit on the Carlton terrace and talk about making a deal and, in fact, they were ready to make a deal at that point. But I had financed the movie up to that point myself and I had to take in first one and then a second investor in order to make everything work. Sony Classics hung in there for months and months and months with their offer, but we weren’t able to (accept it yet). I would have taken it right away because they were always the ideal distributor for the movie, but I couldn’t take it right away because I had to satisfy to the letter the contractual obligations to one of these investors, who was very unyielding about that.

Despite my efforts to get him to be flexible, he was pretty dogmatic about (it) saying,“I know what I’m entitled to and I’m getting it.” That need for his part, which he put above all else, kept us from being able to close the deal for (many) months because I had to get more money if I wanted to make the Sony Classics deal work. To make it work in terms of their offer and the first investor’s requirements, I just needed more money. I had already put in the majority of the money myself so I couldn’t really afford to do any more on my own. Luckily we finally got it at the last minute from Carmelo Anthony, who is a great basketball star with the Denver Nuggets. He came in at the end to be the final investor.