James Toback Gets in the Ring with Tyson

The director of this new documentary on the controversial boxer talks about the film, the fighter and future projects

James Toback has distinguished himself as a filmmaker by working on his own terms. Toback, who received an Oscar nomination for his amazing screenplay for Bugsy, has now put his unique imprint on the world of documentaries with Tyson, which will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on August 18. I had the chance to speak with this wonderful filmmaker over the phone about his wonderful documentary about the former undisputed heavyweight champion and here's what he had to say.

I watched the DVD and it's quite a wonderful film, I must say.

James Toback: Thank you, thank you.

I noticed on the special features that you said you had known Mike Tyson for about 20 years, so I was wondering how you first met him and how your relationship has grown over the years?

James Toback: Well, I met him, initially, on the set of The Pick-Up Artist. We became friends, or lets say we connected almost immediately, in ways you rarely do, but when you do, you know you have something. You know there's a fundamental connection with that person, and I found that out right away. So we'd stay in touch, not so much regularly, but occasionally, but enough that we had a very clear understanding that the relationship was going to be ongoing.

You said you got into the film after the tragedy with your mother and you wanted to get a new film going. So how long before that had you had this idea about doing this kind of movie with Mike?

James Toback: Well, we had planned on doing the movie pretty much from the time I did Black and White. That went extremely well and we were both up for doing this, but it pretty much started that day, that day we shot Black and White.

You had known him for so many years, but when he started talking, you said you asked him one question and he went on for forty minutes, so was there a lot that kind of surprised you about Mike, even after knowing him all these years?

James Toback: Absolutely. I was completely taken aback by the level of fear that he articulated. You have friendships that are friendships and you have friendships that are transformed into something else as well and I think that it was great for both of us to do that.

I believe you said the interviews were filmed in about five days or so and then it was another to edit the film, so can you talk about that editing process for this film?

James Toback: That was a process of endless discovery. You had no real basis or margin of how to do it. The editor and I, who, by the way, was a completely new editor, he's never been the chief editor of a film before, and I had a pretty definite idea of what I wanted, stylistically and structurally, but the actual shot-for-shot, minute-for-minute, line-for-line stuff was, of course, a vast task. It's not like a scripted movie, where you have that script to guide you, there was nothing, so it was almost a minute-by-minute process of invention. The writing was the editing (Laughs). The script was done on film.

It was great. I mean, you don't really see anything like this for a documentary, just hearing the subject talk and say what he feels.

James Toback: There's something about his voice that is inherently mesmerizing. It isn't that Tyson is trying to, and it isn't that he's always mesmerizing, but he's mesmerizing often enough that you can visually edit a full movie in which you can feel mesmerized throughout.

I was kind of confused at first, in some of the parts where you had the multiple voices going on and when I saw the special features, I kind of understood what you were doing. Is that kind of like his actual process? He hears these different voices all the time?

James Toback: Absolutely.

Yeah. When I finally understood that, I thought that was really great.

James Toback: Yeah. I wanted to give the sense that's fundamental to the consciousness of people that are on a multiple-personality track.

I was a huge Tyson fan growing up and you never saw anybody like him in the ring. Do you think if things like, if he would've stayed with Kevin Rooney or if he would've not gotten involved with Don King, do you think he still might be fighting today and still might have the title?

James Toback: You know, you never know. It's funny because my nine-year-old son was saying that to me this morning. He said, 'You know, Dad, right now, somebody is getting run over and killed and if that person had a different breakfast and taken one minute more or less to eat his breakfast, he wouldn't have been run over, because he wouldn't have been at that spot where that car was that ran him over.' So, I mean, literally, the same thing applies to anything. You could say, 'What would happen?' but you have no idea because you have no idea what would've happened as a result that has nothing to do with the subject. It's like, a lot of announcers in baseball used to do this, but I know Phil Rizzuto did particularly. Like lets say a runner would be thrown out stealing second and then on the next pitch the guy hits a home run. He says, 'Oh, if he hadn't tried to steal second, they would've had two runs, because they would've had the runner on first.' No he wouldn't, because the pitch would've been different. It would've been thrown at a different moment. So, you never know. Obviously, Don King was a totally negative, destructive influence, but maybe on the day he hired Don King, if he hadn't hired Don King, he would've been killed in a car crash? You just don't know, but you also don't know what would've happened in his relationships with people who he was still involved with. There's nothing predictable about anybody, but there's certainly not anything predictable in the life of Mike Tyson. There's no point in speculating.

When I was watching this I was also thinking about how boxing is really pretty dead right now and Tyson was pretty much the last person that people watched.

James Toback: The end of the sport, yeah. The sport is never going to come back and it's history. It was basically a 20th Century sport. John L. Sullivan came in at the end of the 19th Century and carried it into the 20th with Corbett, then you had Jack Johnson and Dempsey and Louis and Marciano and Ali and Tyson. You had great fighters at each weight class, but the heavyweights were the prime fighters, but that's it. That era is gone. Right now, we're in the post-boxing era. Tyson was the last. The last and the most dramatic.

You also talked about fights you cut from the film like the Williams fight and some of his other comeback fights, so can you talk about why you included certain fights and why you didn't include others?

James Toback: Well, we wanted it to basically show the inherent drama and a dazzling sense of what a really great champion he was. Then go from that to the transitional fights like Holyfiend and all the post-Holyfield fights, he said he was just fighting for money. There was almost nothing left at that point, for him, it was money. The fact that he would have to fight for money, at that point, is almost obscene. It's grotesque, if you think about it. The idea that Mike Tyson, with all the money he had, and he ended up getting battered around and humiliated to try to get one-fiftieth of the money that he had already had. Money itself is inherently grotesque, but it's part of the tragedy of Tyson. He's definitely a tragic figure.

Is there anything that you're currently working on or developing right now that you can talk about?

James Toback: Well, I have a movie called The Director, which I'm hopefully going to be directing before I'm dead. It's a pretty ambitious movie and I'm pretty close to being finished with it. Then there's the DeLorean movie that I'm writing for Brett Ratner and Bob Evans, which I think can be quite good. That's pretty much it. The Director is a movie I've been thinking about for awhile and working on for awhile and I tend to work slowly. I work very fast, but the gaps between movies is long. That's just the nature of something in me. I don't even understand it. Some can just go from movie to movie to movie and that's just not me.

Finally, for those who might not have caught Tyson in theaters, what would you like to say about the film to get them to pick this up on DVD?

James Toback: Oh, I would say that this is a movie ideally suited for DVD because it's filled with surprising and interesting moments and it's also not a plot movie. It's a movie you can kind of start and stop and see over and there's some really interesting features so I think it's very ideally suited for DVD.

Excellent. Well that's about all I have for you, James. Thanks so much for your time and the best of luck with your new films.

James Toback: Thank you.

Be sure to check out James Toback's amazing documentary Tyson, when it hits the shelves on DVD and Blu-ray on August 18.