Director James Toback has always been somewhat of an enigma in Hollywood, considered by some to be a recluse. Even so, he has many fans among cinephiles despite being far less prolific than many of his peers, directing a mere ten movies in the thirty years he’s been making films. While Toback’s reputation certainly grew by leaps and bounds in 1991 when his screenplay for Warren Beatty’s biopic Bugsy was nominated for an Oscar, years later, he had turned his back on the studio system to make independent films that deal with difficult subject matter.
To his credit, Toback was one of the first filmmakers to see the potential in Robert Downey Jr. as a leading man when he cast him opposite Molly Ringwald in 1987’s The Pick-up Artist; the two would collaborate again on two of Toback’s most controversial films, Two Girls and a Guy and Black and White. In the latter film, Toback convinced boxer Mike Tyson, fresh out of jail on rape charges, to play himself in an unforgettable film moment with Downey (who would be serving his own jail time shortly later).
It’s been five years since Toback’s last feature film When Will I Be Loved. In that time, there’s been a documentary made about him (Nicholas Jarecki’s The Outsider), one of his early films was remade (the French thriller The Beat That My Heart Skipped) and he made a cameo in a movie by his friend, rap mogul Damon Dash. It was a surprise to no one, however, when he turned up at Cannes last year with a new documentary about his long-time associate, merely called Tyson.
While one might think that spending 88 minutes listening to Tyson talk about himself might get tiring, in fact, Toback has created a perpetually fascinating and cinematically artistic film that allows us to experience Tyson’s way of thinking, often to equally good and bad results. Besides talking about his past as a street hustler, coming close to tears when talking about his former trainer, Tyson also opens up about the rape charges that put him behind bars as well as the controversial and infamous match with Evander Holyfield that got him suspended from boxing.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Toback earlier this week to talk about the doc. Toback has a reputation for being outspoken and unfiltered, and inevitably, our conversation turned into an analysis of his former collaborator Robert Downey Jr., who is doing slightly better these days than he was when they last worked together.
ComingSoon.net: I know you’ve known Mike for many, many years. Did you know him a long time before having him appear in “Black and White”? What was your first meeting with him like?
James Toback: Yeah, since 1985. He came on the set of “The Pick-up Artist,” which I was directing at the time, to meet Downey. Anthony Michael Hall introduced me to him. He was a mutual friend he had brought along, and Mike and I started talking. He was 19 at the time but we just hit it off in a very strong and immediate way.
CS: When you started making “Black and White,” what made you think of having him go before your camera for the first time? Did you just think he’d make an interesting character for your movie?
Toback: Well, it was really a collaboration with Wu-Tang Clan and he was (and still is) an interesting icon of the hip hop world. He was a sort of natural person to have at the center of the film as a kind of mentor-slash-guru and they were thrilled when I mentioned that I’d probably be able to get him to do it. He’d just gotten out of prison and we decided to take a shot and write him into some fundamental scenes and then I had Downey improvise and hit on him relentlessly. Also, Brooke Shields–Downey played the gay husband of Brooke Shields–and then after he disposes of Downey, then Brooke hits on him and sort of completely discombobulates him.
CS: Over the 20 years you’ve known him, had you talked to him previously about making a movie about his life?
Toback: That oddly enough grew out of the scene after the one I just described in “Black and White” in which he’s talking in a gym in a very meditative, self-reflective, self-analytical way about murder and prison and humiliation and just speaking about it so movingly and interestingly in a way that’s still with contradictions that I felt this Mike Tyson could be expanded into a full-fledged cinematic portrait. I mentioned it to him and he thought it was a great idea and said, “Whenever you’re ready.” And then, seven years later, we were.
CS: Was it matter of doing a similar thing, where you just set up the cameras and let him go? Or did you have a lot of specific questions you wanted to pose to him?
Toback: I did it in an intentionally sort of quasi-psychoanalytic way. Rather than asking questions and waiting for answers, I would throw out an idea or a theme or a subject and then just let him go and riff on it as far and wide as he wanted to and not cut, just let him keep going, because my feeling was that if I did that, I would get a hell of a lot more than if I tried to inhibit his response by looking for a concrete, rational answer and then moving on. I think most of the valuable stuff in the movie came from allowing him to meditate, to think about stuff, to let other stuff to just go from his mind and then come back to the original subject. It was sort of a stream of consciousness revelation and I thought, “Well, we’ll worry about how to put it all together when I’m in the editing room. I don’t have to worry about it now.”
CS: It’s amazing because documentaries really are made in the edit, but there’s a number of times where you watch this movie and realize you’re watching an entire section from one camera, completely unedited.
Toback: I was using two cameras, but I was just letting each one run for 40 minutes or so, precisely so that I could allow him to go on without feeling pressured to come up with a conclusion or tie his riffs together. I just wanted to structure a layer and get as much as I could from him while I was shooting. I had two cameras running all the time–well, not all the time, most of the time–but I was aware that the way I would use it would be with split screens. I wanted to use a split screen effect and give a sense that the entire movie was sort of going on in his head almost. That there were multiple voices, multiple fractured consciousness, and try to make it as close to the way he thinks as I could.
CS: When he was doing these things, did he every just stop and say, “I don’t want to use this. Can we just stop?” Did he ever stop himself while talking about something and not want to go on?
Toback: He did, but I just let the camera go. So, he might say, “When are we gonna have some lunch? Wait a minute, I gotta make a call. Hold on a second.” I would let that happen and shoot it just to try to erase any blind between shooting and not shooting, so that it would never feel as though we were making a movie and he had to be on at a given moment. The idea was that he would be on all the time in reality, but feel as though he was on none of the time. I think it was the reason that it was possible for him to be so forthcoming. There was no sense that pressure or tension or need to deliver, just the sense that he was going on and his internal voices articulating themselves at random.
CS: All these interviews were done after his last boxing match in 2005?
Toback: This was all done two years ago.
CS: How many sessions did you do before you knew you had enough?
Toback: We had a little less than a week. Essentially it was really just a question of letting him go. It was a question of letting the camera go and sort of a joint effort. We both decided to give ourselves to it and we’d been talking about it a great deal so it was a build up of several years, not that we were obsessing over it, but there was enough time for it to brew. I think both of us were kind of looking forward to it and from time to time he would say, “When are we gonna do it?” or I would say, “We gotta do it.” There was this feeling of vague anticipation.
CS: Having been a subject of a documentary yourself, how did you feel about having him see an early cut of the movie and giving any input? Did you want to just finish it up and then wait till the very end to show it to him or was there more collaboration on it?
Toback: No, the idea was that he would have no control over what the movie became and that he probably wouldn’t see it until it was done. There was no hard and fast rule about that, but I think we both felt that that would probably be the best way of doing it. In fact, he really didn’t want to look at it until it was done. I think he didn’t want to be tempted to come up with suggestions or ideas that I might not adhere to, but for whatever reason, there was no pressure or talk about it. It was just, “Okay, now I’m gonna come in and take a look.”
CS: What was his reaction when he first saw it? Did he believe that you really captured him?
Toback: Silence, a lot of silence and then he said, “It’s like a Greek tragedy and the only problem is I’m the subject.” That was pretty much the way I felt.
CS: Has he seen it more than once or is it kinda something where he can’t watch himself in that way?
Toback: He saw it several times and in his subsequent viewings, the most remarkable thing he said to me was after Sundance, he said, “I was confused because people said they were scared of me, but what would they say that for? Why would they be scared of me? What is there to be scared of?” And he said, “This was the first time seeing it I thought, ‘I’m scared of that guy.'”
CS: It’s interesting because when you tell people you’re going to see a movie about Mike Tyson, you get some interesting reactions to the name and his legacy, because people do have opinions of him. Do you think your movie successfully changes people’s perspective on him?
Toback: I have never witnessed a movie in which just about everybody who sees it is surprised. First of all, there are loads of people who have totally negative anticipation because of him and don’t like him going in and then are shocked that he moves them the way he does. Then in addition, there are just these constant surprises in the movie even for people who did come willingly and have a favorable idea of him. They too are surprised by much of what they see and hear, if not most of it.
CS: Having come from the world of narrative storytelling, how do you see Mike in terms of a narrative role? Calling his story a Greek tragedy is an interesting analogy, but do you see him as some sort of anti-hero?
Toback: I see him in moments as a kind of fascinating subject much in the same way that when I was using Downey a lot, I looked at him as a friend and also a kind of fascinating case who is both intriguing and also useful as a version of himself which is what I’m always trying to do with all actors, take the fundamental reality of who they are and use that to try to make that feel like a real portrait, whether it’s fictional or not. Using that sense of reality, just that you’re actually witnessing something real about someone real whether or not it’s Mike Tyson playing Mike Tyson or Robert Downey playing the so-called fictional character in “Two Girls and a Guy.” There is a fusion of role player and role, and it’s just personal taste that feels far more intriguing to me than an actor acting a role.
CS: Do you think Mike has a future doing more acting? I know he’s in a movie this summer, but he’s once again playing a version of himself.
Toback: It would be interesting to see. I think it’s kind of tough to imagine him playing a character who is clearly not Mike Tyson because he so clearly is Mike Tyson. I don’t know how one would go about that. I would love to use him in that way as a version of himself, but fictionalized. I just think he’s probably one of the most 15 famous people in the world. I mean, who doesn’t know who he is anywhere? It would almost be like having Bill Clinton play (another character). I think that as a result, they’re talking about Jamie Foxx playing Mike in a fictionalized version of Mike’s life. Of course that’s not Mike playing another character, but I think it’s similar reality of how do you take a guy who isn’t Mike Tyson and have him be Mike Tyson? How do you take Mike Tyson and have him be someone he isn’t? You can say that to a degree about actors who are well known, period.
CS: In some ways you can say that about Robert Downey also. He’s hit another level in his career this past year, but when you see him in a film, he does have this presence of being himself, even if you do believe him as the character.
Toback: Well, there are certain actors like Downey who are so mercurial and fluid as personalities that you don’t really get a strong sense of individual identity at all, you get a sense of someone in transition from one spot to another, from occupying one self to another. The other extreme would be the sort of John Wayne syndrome where it almost becomes like Mike Tyson where that is John Wayne–and of course he did play only fictional characters, he’s never played John Wayne–but there’s a real difference I think in film between seeing John Wayne playing a character who’s not called John Wayne or Downey or Christopher Walken or Sean Penn or guys who have such a fluidity of personality that you feel they’re kind of slipping from one role into another.
CS: You’ve made so many pivotal films with Downey, so have you been in touch with him in recent years?
Toback: I haven’t talked to him in, I don’t know, about four months, something like that. It’s a different situation now because he’s not an individual anymore, he’s a unit with his wife, so basically you’re dealing with two people not one. So, any time that happens… you have couples that are couples and there are some couples where you’re dealing with the same person–fundamentally, it’s the same person, it’s just that this person is now married or has a girlfriend or a boyfriend or a husband or whatever. Then there are cases where the “I” becomes a “we” and his is a “we” so it’s a different situation.
CS: He did so many indie movies early on and then he came back and did some more indies after jail, but one wonders if he’ll do more now that he’s making bigger movies.
Toback: I think he’s always wanted to get rich and he likes luxury; I think he likes fame. My guess is that it would be kinda tempting for him to stick to “What’s the biggest budget? What’s the biggest salary? What’s the biggest gross?” I think all of that is very much seductive to him and certainly she’s an underling of Joel Silver’s originally so she certainly comes from that way of thinking. I would think, at least for a while, he’ll cash in on that for as long as it lasts and there’s no reason to think that it won’t last for five or 10 years, so my guess is that’ll be a pretty full card for that period of time.
CS: It’s a great comeback story if nothing else, and that’s something people always love to hear.
Toback: He was definitely headed for an early extinction and now, I would say from what I observe, he’s in a massively fortified and protected environment in which he’s willingly and gladly accepting protection from himself.
CS: Have you been working on any scripts since “When Will I Be Loved”? It seems like it’s been a while since you’ve directed one of your own scripts.
Toback: Yeah, I have been and I hope I’ll get done in the next couple of months and then go through the normal unpredictable steps that one goes through to achieve the ability to make the movie. I mean, I’m always confident that it’s gonna work and it always has. I’ve always made every movie that I’ve wanted to make. Not easily, it’s usually taken time, but I don’t feel rushed. I think that early on and when I hadn’t made many movies, I felt, “God I have so many movies I have to make.” I got a push, but it always felt unnatural to do that because I always feel I need a couple of years after finishing a movie to kind of percolate and get myself heated up to do another. So, my sense of urgency about starting a movie is tempered by my realization that it’s just not in my rhythm to do that, particularly because I’m conceiving, writing, directing, editing, doing everything and that makes it far different from a director who’s moving in with a script, the idea which came from somebody else and having it written from somebody else. That’s more like, “Okay, use the script. All right, well, we need a little of this, a little of that, then let’s go.”
CS: Before I let you go, I was curious what you thought of “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” a French remake of your film “Fingers” that you made 30 years ago? Did you see it?
Toback: Yeah, I did, and I became friendly with Jacques Audiard. I thought the French version was an excellent film. (Spoiler Warning: He goes on to kind of spoil it in the rest of his response.) I also must say that I didn’t believe the ending in which he sort of gets away with banging around that Russian gangster, instead of shooting him and then I certainly didn’t believe that he’d still be around a year later to enjoy his wife’s concert, because I know that no Russian gangster I’ve ever heard of or known would allow himself to be beaten up and brutalized and then the guy who did it is just happily existing in the same city a year later.
CS: How did you feel about having someone else revisiting yourself or you revisiting your own stuff?
Toback: I was flattered, very flattered. On a practical level it brought back a lot of attention and interest in “Fingers” which certainly was welcome. In fact, Cannes Classics showed it. It was shown in this section, Cannes Classics, last summer, which was great.
Tyson opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, April 24.