Tyson (2008): James Toback’s Documentary about Controversial Former Champion

Cannes Film Fest 2008–In James Toback’s Tyson, which world-premiered at the Cannes Film Fest (in Certain Regard series), the former champion looks at his own life in and out of the ring with a candor and eloquence that is by turns shocking, funny, hair-raising and never less than brutally honest. The following is an interview with the director about the making of “Tyson.”

How long have you known Mike Tyson?

James Toback: About 23 years. Anthony Michael Hall brought Tyson to the set of THE PICK-UP ARTIST in the Museum of Natural History to meet Robert Downey, Jr., and everybody ended up together in my camper at 4 in the morning: Gary Hart, whom Warren Beatty had brought along and who was the frontrunner at the time for the Democratic nomination; Downey; Molly Ringwald.

Tyson had just been to Jim Browns house, and wanted to know all about the activities there. I fed him a fair menu of detail and found his wide-eyed, innocent fascination amusing given his large size and incipient fame. He was actually about to sign a Pepsi contract, to be the black spokesman for Pepsi, and Gary Hart was trying to get him to be his liaison to the black community. But he was more fascinated by my description of my LSD flip-out at age 19, and was obsessed with the idea of madness: what did it mean, what did it mean to lose oneself, to have the I disintegrate, and to feel disembodied, as if there were a void inside I went into the Heideggerian and Kierkegaardian notions of dread and nothingness, and I was waiting for him to lose interest but the more I talked about it the more fascinated he got. He kept saying, But what do you mean that you felt as if there was no I How can there be no I when there’s still you

Finally, as we were walking through Central Park at 6 in the morning, because this had spilled over to a walk that we took from the camper, I said, Unfortunately, you have to experience this phenomenon to understand it. To go on endlessly with words trying to describe it is ultimately futile.

He called me a lot over the next couple of years to discuss these questions, and I could see that they were clearly an indication of a sort of pre-dread consciousness in him. When I look at the movie and see how often he talks about fear and, you know, that practical fear is the cousin to dread its different from it and much easier to manage, but he was no stranger to it I feel how intensely this first encounter between us was the beginning of a journey leading to this film.

Self-consciousness and intellectual exploration?

No, because it was clearly something that he was feeling viscerally. He has a very curious mind and he’s interested in all sorts of things, but not obsessively so. And I think that when I described my own acid madness, I was in turn describing something that he felt brewing in him.

Did you see Tyson through that period?

I saw him use his almost unparalleled fame and wealth and obsession with girls and the accoutrements of his fame as a way of avoiding the eventual crack-up into that madness. I know that those are the things that one can use to narcotize oneself. Temporarily. I think sooner or later, it tends to catch up with anyone whos prone to it.

When Tyson got out of prison after that 3-and-a-half year stint for the false rape conviction, I was walking down Columbus Avenue and I saw him in the City Grill. I went in and he said, You know, I now know what you meant. I was about halfway through my solitary, and when I was lying in my cell I thought, This is what Toback was talking about. The difference is you got an injection and it ended, but mine is still going on.

So theres always been that bond, which I think is probably the deepest and most powerful one people can feel. Then there are all these corollaries of it, because of the way you live, the way you handle life, money, the recklessness. If you know youre doomed in some way and that youre ultimately going to lose yourselfyour inner self, your identity, and then ultimately your physical selfand die, really know it, not just as a fact thats happened to other people and what you secretly think may not happen to you, but as the central truth and destiny of your life once that knowledge is in you, there is an almost cult-like connection with others who feel intimate with their own mortality.

Making film about Tyson

It jumped into my mind right then standing there in the City Grill. I was about to start BLACK AND WHITE, and I thought, Im not going to derail those plans, but maybe I can use this new dimension of Mike in the film. So I created the role for him and gave him the leeway to riff on the abyss of prison misery which he does with great power. People always talk about the choking scene with Downey, but there’s also that harrowing description of prison guards pinning you down and sticking the noses of German Shepherds up your ass and playing with your balls. He sort of circles around it, getting into the external misery without the void and dread.

It wasn’t quite the essence of the real thing. I said, We really have to do a whole movie, and he said, Thats what I want, lets do it. We kept saying it over several years. Then when my mother died a year and a half ago, I thought, The only way Im going to be able to deal with this at all functionally, as opposed to just going completely psychotic, is to start a movie right away.

You were thinking of different things

Yeah. The reason this emerged above the others is [1] the fact that I could do it, because I was going to finance it, which meant that I didnt have to wait for anybody elses approval, and [2] even more importantly, at the same time, he had crashed. Hed been arrested again, he could possibly have gone to prison, then it turned out he went to rehab and things started to change. We just became aware that if we were going to do it, this was the time.

Painful for him

Absolutely. He was committed to going all the way. There was no point in doing it otherwise. He keeps saying in the movie that hes an extremist by nature, and that people who arent extremists dont understand the mind of an extremist, where its always everything or nothing and nothing in between. And I think that once he decided to do it, there was no way he was going to be calculated and think of what he should or shouldns say or how he would come across.

Resistance about time

None. He just showed up and went on as long as the camera would allow.

Moments where he was crying

No, he understood that was part of it. I didnt have to say anything. The good thing was that there were only a couple of people around, nobody obtrusive. The first five or ten minutes of each day he would be aware of the environment, and then he would slip into his own zone. I was speaking to him in kind of a quiet, hypnotic voice. At least I thought it was hypnotic. I tried to lull him into a state. I remember when I was in psychoanalysis, with my octogenarian Polish analyst Gustav Bychovsky, he would spend the first 3 or 4 minutes just kind of throwing out a few phrases, and that was all that was needed.

Involved in the editing?

He didnt want to see anything until I was done. When he saw it, he wasquiet. He was wearing a white t-shirt, white pants, white sneakers and white socks, and sitting on the floor in the corner of the screening room. There were a few other people there. When it ended, they kind of talked a little and leftit was almost as if they hadnt been there. And he finally said, Its like a Greek tragedy. The only problem is that Im the subject.

Recording the written material

He recorded most of that when we were shooting, but I had him come in to do the Holyfield fight, for instance, and the Barbara Walters interview.

Legal obstacles

We pretended that there werent. When we finished, the movie was, to use Hillary Clintons favorite word, vetted sufficiently, in order to insure that no one was going to crawl out from under a rock and try to cause trouble.

Greek Tragedy?

It does. The only mitigating circumstance is that theres a mystery about whats going to happen in the future. But it does in the sense that you have somebody who starts with nothing, from very humble origins to put it mildly, who goes on to reach heights that are inconceivable, and then crashes through his own hubris. Then, of course, its a double Greek tragedy because he comes back, and reaches the heights again and crashes again, again through hubris. It reminds me of my grandfathers favorite proverb: The man who makes the same mistake twice is like the dog who returns to eat his own vomit.

Tyson has awareness of what hes doing

Absolutely. From the first night when I met him, it was very clear that he had a self-analytical consciousness. When you hear him talking in the movie about what was going on in his mind when he was at Cus DAmatos, you see that he was always a very cunning character with a lot of complex thoughts going onmost of which no one around him would have been aware of.

Ability to articulate when he says he realized no one was going to beat him up again

ever going to fuck with me again. And then he can barely breathe, and he says, Oh, I cant even say it. And then he waits another 30 seconds, and says, Because I would fuckin kill em.

Thats the moment around which the movie pivots

Absolutely. Its the moment that explains him. Because you see someone consumed with fear and humiliation and doubt, who overcomes it by stirring up the homicidal rage thats been provoked by it.

The movie is aria with rhythm of language and heartbreaking delivery of language

Tyson has a completely poetic sense of language, and a physical sense of language. The thing that is true of almost all famous peopleathletes, actors, politiciansis that they have this programmed, functional speech, or academic speech, which has its own predictable structure. But this is speech that comes from some inner sense of rhythm. Here and there hes reaching for a word that he thinks will express his intended meaning better, and sometimes it does, or sometimes it does inadvertently, because even though its the wrong word, it makes you feel what he meant better than if hed chosen a different word. He uses skullduggery twice in the movie, once accurately and once inaccurately, and it works both times.

Ending the film with Tyson’s breathing

I felt from the beginning, it was central to his lifehis respiratory problems as a child, the fact that he had to combat it as a fighter because he couldnt go long distances in a boxing match without the breathing becoming a problem. And it was very clear to me from the way he was breathing throughout the shoot that respiration was a particular burden for him. I believe breathing disorders come from an underlying sense of panic, usually from when youre very small. He gives evidence of that, and at a certain point I knew that when he gives his last statement in the movieThe past is history, the future is mysterythe coda to that would be his breathing. The breathing, and the breathing problems, seem to be fundamental to the whole sense of who he is. As in, Id better get this over with quickly or else Ill be in trouble, because I cant breathe.

Existential moment

Right and its all unexpected, given who he is. None of these things would be remotely predictable. If you looked at his history or the particulars of his almost completely distorted image, it becomes even more fascinatingly contradictory. Which is one of the side benefits of the movie, a sort of ongoing shock, disabusing the viewer of expectations. Its almost the opposite of what most movies set out to do, which is to satisfy expectation. This is a movie that starts with the assumption that the audience has a preconception and then attempts to invert it, distort it and discard it.

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