The Fresh Air Interview - 'Tyson' Director James Toback In his new documentary, the director of Two Girls and a Guy turns his camera on Mike Tyson — who's been his friend since the former boxer was 19.
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Talking 'Tyson' With Filmmaker James Toback

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Talking 'Tyson' With Filmmaker James Toback

Talking 'Tyson' With Filmmaker James Toback

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TERRY GROSS, host:

My guest, James Toback, directed the new documentary "Tyson" about the former world heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson. Toback's films usually reflect his obsessions with masculinity, race, sex, gambling and the meaning of life.

His films include "The Pick-up Artist," "Harvard Man," "The Big Bang" and "Black and White," which featured Tyson. Let's start with a clip from "Tyson," in which Tyson's talking about the period of his life after reform school, when the famous boxing trainer Cus D'Amato took him in and became his guardian trainer and mentor.

(Soundbite of movie, "Tyson")

Mr. TYSON: So I was staying at Cus' house. You know, I come from a really poverty-stricken area, and when I came to live with Cus, they live in a 14-room Victorian mansion. And when I first come here, I said wow. I could rob these white guys, just being hip, not thinking - I'm not knowing this guy been around the world a bunch of times.

I never knew he was like me. He was from a bad neighborhood. He was a street kid like me. And then one day, he just said listen. You have the chance to change your life, your family's life. You could be something very special. Don't you want to be champion? You could be champion of the world.

And I didn't pay no attention to it. He said, really, you could be champion of the world. You could devastate the world. No man can take what you did. You just got to believe it.

I looked at this guy, and then I started thinking. It just really - and I said this guy's really crazy. This guy's crazy. He said you do what I tell you to do, and if it doesn't work, then you can leave.

So I said okay, bet. So I did everything he told me to and I won. I won every championship from the amateur championships. I won all the championships. I got - I'm going to cry. And so I won every championship that he told me because he told me what to do.

GROSS: That's an excerpt of James Toback's new documentary, "Tyson." James Toback, welcome to FRESH AIR.

You know, one of the things that really fascinated me about this film, people have always made fun of how Mike Tyson talked. And I never really followed either boxing or Mike Tyson's career. I just assumed Tyson would sound really stupid if I heard him talking, and he's actually a really good speaker. And I guess you knew that about him when you decided to make the film. You knew that he was very articulate.

Mr. JAMES TOBACK (Director, "Tyson"): I knew that from the first night I met him when he was 19 and we walked through Central Park for an hour. I'd met him on the set of "The Pick-up Artist," and we talked and talked and walked and talked, and I was amazed at how fresh and direct and free of jargon his language was and how intellectually curious he was. And one of the things that fascinated me was how open he was to any new ideas, any new way of looking at things.

When I talked about my LSD flip-out when I was a sophomore at Harvard when I was 19, which was his age then, he was absolutely obsessed with finding out what I meant by madness in saying that I'd gone insane.

What does it mean to go insane? What does it mean to lose the self? How can you lose the self? If your body is still there, how can you say that the I doesn't exist?

In fact, the curiosity was so intense that I assumed that at some point in the future, he would susceptible to an episode not unlike that himself. And indeed, after 19 months in prison years later - we remained friends during that time leading up to his incarceration - he said that all of a sudden he realized, lying in a six-by-eight-foot cell in the corner that he was now experiencing what Toback had told him about when he was 19 years old and announced to himself that he was now insane.

GROSS: He talks about that a little in your documentary.

Mr. TOBACK: Yeah.

GROSS: What was your goal when you made this movie? What did you want to get to about Tyson as a boxer and as a man?

Mr. TOBACK: Well, he himself said when I showed him the movie for the first time, it's like a Greek tragedy. The only problem is I'm a subject. And I think he has had a tragic life in the classical sense -that is to say starting from nothing, with an overwhelmingly improbable and hugely successful rise then a catastrophic fall and crash triggered by his own hubris, his own megalomania, his own grandiosity. And then it's really a double tragedy because the same dynamic repeats itself.

He comes out of prison, regains the - two championships, has himself re-established as this icon and then again crashes. And I thought that this is a inherently, tremendously dramatic story.

GROSS: When you shot the interviews that you used for your documentary about Mike Tyson, he was in rehab, right?

Mr. TOBACK: He was. He was in rehab, and in fact had he not been in rehab, I doubt whether we would have been able to do the movie.

GROSS: Why?

Mr. TOBACK: Well because rehab enabled him, first of all, to open himself to one of the many sides of his personality, which is to say the self, analytical, meditative side. So he was in an environment which helped to keep that as the current, predominant reality. He has many other realities that are more fragmented. And also because it meant that I knew that he was going to be in one place at the time that I needed him. Otherwise, Mike tends to travel.

GROSS: So you're saying, like, if he was hanging out with his entourage during the time that you were shooting the movie, he maybe wouldn't have been so introspective?

Mr. TOBACK: Maybe not so reliably concentrated in his appearances. I mean, when we shot "Black and White" - I used him in "Black and White" in a great scene with Downey and Brooke Shields and then another scene after that - he did exactly what I asked him to do, and we shot it over a two-day period. But had I asked him for 10 hours a day for five days, I don't think that would have been remotely possible.

GROSS: Is that what you shot, 10 hours a day for five days?

Mr. TOBACK: With this movie, yes.

GROSS: So what did the people who were running the rehab facility where he was - was he, like, living in the facility or just going…

Mr. TOBACK: He living in the rehab facility.

GROSS: So they had no objections to you coming in and shooting?

Mr. TOBACK: No, they didn't. I think they felt it would be very good for him and therapeutic, as indeed I think it was, because he has a confessional nature. And this was a chance in a sort of quasi-psychoanalytic environment to get back into the recesses of his consciousness and articulate a lot of the things that had been buried.

GROSS: So how did you get him talking? What was your interviewing style like?

Mr. TOBACK: It was psychoanalytic, as opposed to therapeutic. It wasn't question-answer, question-answer. It was suggestion and then allowing him to go on for 40 minutes with two cameras running with no response on my part. I was standing behind him, so he couldn't even see me. And I, for instance, at the very beginning said so what are your earliest memories? And then I shot for 40 minutes while he responded.

Probably 15 of those minutes or so involved his talking, some of it absolutely stunning, with some interruptions. But maybe a good 60 percent of the time he was silent, and we got a lot of great facial shots, reactions, because he was thinking, and you can read his mind while he's thinking.

GROSS: Why were you standing behind him? Didn't you want him looking at you so he'd have something to focus on?

Mr. TOBACK: No. I wanted him to feel the way someone engaged in a deep psychoanalysis feels, which is that his voices are coming out and provoked by some mysterious voice behind him.

When I was in psychoanalysis in my 20s with Gustav Bychowski, a famous Polish analyst, I found myself saying things in the first three or four months that shocked me. In fact, I used to jump off the couch and say I didn't mean that after most of what I said, and he would sit there and shrug. But I know that I never would have come out with that stuff if I'd been sitting facing him.

GROSS: So you didn't want him to see you. So how did you even know - did you have a monitor to see what he was looking like when he was talking to the camera?

Mr. TOBACK: I did not see his face at all when I was talking, no. I knew…

GROSS: So you were surprised whenever you'd go and look at the rushes.

Mr. TOBACK: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I knew his face well enough to know that I was getting a lot of great stuff. And Larry McConkey, the cinematographer, was telling me, you know, after each long, long, long take, you know, we got some great stuff here.

But I was much more interested in creating a climate in which he could allow himself to liberate these buried voices and have them come out and say that he otherwise never would have said.

GROSS: Compare how you see Tyson in the ring and out of the ring, because, you know, in the ring he's really fierce. And out of the ring, he has a reputation for being fierce with women. The fierce side of him wasn't coming out when you were shooting him, but you've hung around with him a lot over the years. Do you see him as, like, having a lot of different personalities?

Mr. TOBACK: Many, many personalities. He's got multiple voices, multiple personalities, and his shifts are mercurial and unpredictable. And I think that…

GROSS: Give us an example of a time you've seen him make a shift like that that surprised you.

Mr. TOBACK: Well, you know, just even in the last few weeks, as we've done some interviews together, he either can be slightly sullen and uninterested in talking at all and seems to want to just get it over with and not really want to talk about himself, or he can get very animated and laugh a lot and feel as if he's having a great time and be very open and communicative. And those shifts can be almost as sudden as happening in the middle of a sentence.

GROSS: You know, in terms of his different personalities, during his life he's been both, like, the weakling and the boxing champion. You know, he talks about how he was a fat kid. He was bullied as a kid. He didn't know how to fight. And it wasn't until he was in prison, you know, in juvie when he was like 13 that he learned how to punch.

Mr. TOBACK: That's right. Well, he talks about his first punch being landed when he was younger than that. I think when he was about eight or nine, when he - the bully broke the neck of his pigeon. He used to collect pigeons, and this guy broke the neck of his pigeon, and he knocked the guy down.

But basically, he was an asthmatic. He was short, fat, ungainly and frightened. So he was, on a certain level, the most unlikely person to become heavyweight champion of the world. But it was what he did with those limitations that made him heavyweight champion.

He quotes Cus D'Amato as saying it's not just the physical strength or the physical force. It's the psychology. It's the mind. It's having the soul of a warrior. It's using your fear to overcome the other person's will and convert and transmute your fear into him and infect him with it and take the suffering that you've had and the limitations you've had and become intimidating and triumphant by transcending those weaknesses and fears and using them.

GROSS: And that's one of the interesting contradictions about Tyson. He seems to have gotten his trainer Cus D'Amato's message about, you know, as he puts it, the more kind of spiritual aspects of the fight and the importance of building character when you're a fighter - but outside the ring, didn't necessarily get the message.

Mr. TOBACK: Well, that's the thing. That was an incomplete education. Cus sort of ran an almost military-school-type environment in which certain disciplines were stressed rigorously, but the psychology that was needed to deal with the outside world in a way that did not involve boxing was left conspicuously absent.

Mr. TOBACK: James Toback will be back in the second half of the show. His new documentary about Mike Tyson is called "Tyson." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with James Toback, the director of the new film "Tyson" about the former world heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. The film is essentially a monologue by Tyson, edited from interviews he recorded with Toback, while Tyson was in rehab. Tyson reflects on his early life, his boxing career and the controversies that surrounded him.

Some of the greatest disasters in his life involve women. And he talks about them in the movie and, you know, the two specific women I'm thinking of are Robin Givens, to whom he was briefly married, who accused him of abusing her and then Desiree Washington, the Ms. Black America contestant, who filed charges against him, criminal charges, for raping her. And he was convicted for rape and deviant sexual behavior and was sentenced to a maximum of 10 years and spent three in prison. And he basically denies a lot of this. He…

Mr. TOBACK: Well, he, I mean, I think anyone who looks at that case would be at the very least highly suspicious of the accusations.

GROSS: You're talking about Desiree Washington here?

Mr. TOBACK: Yeah, I mean Robin Givens is sort of all over the place I think, she says. And Mike actually speaks much more fondly of her than she does of him. But anyone who announces about her husband that she's scared of him and he is abusive on national television. In effect she was announcing that she was going to divorce him on national television, which struck me as a bit self promotional.

GROSS: What you're referring to here is a very kind of bizarre interview with Barbara Walters…

Mr. TOBACK: Right, yeah.

GROSS: …in which she talks about how he seems to be what, manic depressed, that he has…

Mr. TOBACK: Right, she…

GROSS: …he has incredible mood swings and that he is…

Mr. TOBACK: Yeah, she psychoanalyzes him in his presence without having told him she was going to do it in an interview with Barbara Walters. And in fact, Mike sat there shocked and says that the only way he can explain it is that they were hoping that he would behave like a psychopath and start throwing furniture and act crazy and that it would be dramatic television, good for publicity and good for the ratings of the show. But it certainly doesn't, to me anyway, speak well for Robin Givens as a way of handling a personal problem in what I would regard as a sort of not even tabloid way of exhibition but more of a almost glaringly self promotional way.

The Desiree Washington case was one in which, you know, who knows - the only two people who know what happened between two people are the two people who were there. And I wasn't there, so I don't know. But I do know that Mike, over the years, has insisted to me when we've talked privately that it was a complete lie. Not an ambiguous case, not I guess there is a way that she might have thought this, but just an out and out lie. And…

GROSS: Now, is she saying that it's a lie that they had sex and rough sex or is he just saying it's a lie that is wasn't consensual?

Mr. TOBACK: No - yeah, a lie that it was rough. It was apparently in his taste not even remotely rough, not even - he said, at one point to me, he said if that was rape, then every act of sex I've ever had with every person I've had sex with was rape. He said, then I've never had a sexual act that wasn't rape.

GROSS: Let me quote something our film critic David Edelstein says about the film, well about Tyson. He says, Tyson is candid, though not detailed or specific about his mistreatment of women. But he still maintains he was wrongly convicted of rape and on the basis of this movie, I believe he believes that. But I also believe he had no way of knowing back then what a woman wanted or didn't want. He had zero capacity for empathy and way too much power. What do you think of what Edelstein says?

Mr. TOBACK: Well, I think that you know he certainly had a hugely expansive and self-centered notion of life. And to be in that position when he was 19 and 20 where the world is - he is getting parades in (unintelligible) Moscow and being worshipped around the world. It would be hard for that not to go to the head of a kid in that case and it certainly went to his head. He talks rather shockingly and originally about what he wants in women, and what his relationship to women has been.

In the movie, it's kind of very uninhibitedly bold. I would say that women come on to Mike on a ratio of about 50:1 as opposed to his coming on to them. I mean if you spend any time around Mike, women are chasing him and pursuing him, not the other way around. But, you know, this -the rape case, he had tax lawyer from Washington, D.C. representing him in an Indiana court, with an Indiana judge and an Indiana prosecutor who were friendly with an all white jury, with a black guy from Brooklyn accused of rape.

You know, and to say convicted - I mean rape is obviously an atrocious and unpardonable crime. But to say convicted rapist, the word convicted means nothing. I mean who thinks that because someone is convicted, he is guilty. It's like saying O. J. Simpson was an innocent murderer. Who thinks O. J. Simpson was innocent just because an all black jury found him innocent?

GROSS: Well, that doesn't - that doesn't throw out every single conviction…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Or…

Mr. TOBACK: Not but it, not but it…

GROSS: Or claim of innocence ever made, you know, but…

Mr. TOBACK: Of course it doesn't. But it doesn't mean that conviction means guilty. And what conviction - and when people say he's a convicted this or that, the assumption is that convicted means guilty. Because when the word, the word convicted means that 12 people said, we think he's guilty. And maybe they're right. I mean, who knows what the percentage is? But we all know that people have been sent to death when they didn't commit murders, that people who have been rotting away on death row when DNA has proved that they didn't commit murders.

GROSS: Let me get back to something you said about Tyson's, the rape case. You said he had a tax attorney for his lawyer. How did he ended up - how did he end up with a tax attorney?

Mr. TOBACK: Don King picked him.

GROSS: Oh, because Don King was managing Tyson then.

Mr. TOBACK: That's correct.

GROSS: And Tyson has a very…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …very low regard for Don King as he made it clear in the movie.

Mr. TOBACK: Correct, yeah. I mean, once one actually studies…

GROSS: Oh, he sued on him - sued him for basically stealing money from him.

Mr. TOBACK: Yeah, and won.

GROSS: Tyson sued King. Yeah, and won.

Mr. TOBACK: Yeah, and won. I mean, once one actually looks at the circumstances of that case, nobody can come away with the same conclusion you started with because there are too many thing about it that are absolutely unbelievable, where you just say, what? What? How did this happen? How did that happen?

GROSS: My guest is James Toback. We're talking about his documentary "Tyson." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is film director James Toback. His new movie is a documentary about Mike Tyson. It's called "Tyson." One of the things Tyson is famous for, or infamous for, is having bit his opponent Evander Holyfield's ear twice in one fight.

Mr. TOBACK: Right.

GROSS: This is a very famous rematch. And what Tyson says is that Holyfield head butted him. And he was so angry that he bit him.

Mr. TOBACK: Well, you see in the first Holyfield fight that Holyfield was intentionally butting him in the eye and opening a cut. And then Mike warned the referee and said, watch out because he was afraid Holyfield was again going to try to open that cut with head butts. And you see very clearly in the movie that he does exactly that. And Mike looks to the referee after he does it twice in a period of 20 seconds, and the referee warns Holyfield the first time but then ignores Tyson's reminder of what's happened the second time. And he just snaps and he does a very dramatic voiceover.

And actually watching that, I think you sort of feel that he would have been justified in biting a third ear if Holyfield had one. Certainly he says - it's quite startling. He says he has no remorse whatsoever for having bitten the ears. His remorse is for having lost his discipline. He said the fighter is worth - a boxer is worth anything only to the extent that he has discipline and that the warrior needs discipline. And he lost his discipline and went crazy in the ring, not just then but after the ring where he's still trying to get at Holyfield.

And I think that's in effect when his career ended, when his love of boxing ended, when his belief in himself as a boxer ended. Not because of the ear biting but because of his complete psychotic response after that.

GROSS: Were you there for Tyson's final fight?

Mr. TOBACK: No. At that point I didn't want to watch him fight. I knew what he was doing. I knew he was just fighting for money. That was humiliating and degrading and not something that I enjoyed watching. And even putting it in the movie, I know it's painful for him to watch. It's also painful for me to watch. I mean, it needs to be in the movie and you need to see him having him be - getting beaten up just to make the horror of it felt. But…

GROSS: Describe how the fight ended. And this was what, in June 2005?

Mr. TOBACK: Yeah, I mean, the big Pride fight. I think, my theory is that he secretly at least unconsciously wanted to lose because he had a six fight deal for $80 million if he won the fight. And I don't think he on any level he could - face with having six more fights after that. And the only way he was going to get out of it was to lose. So, I think he literally was hoping he would lose, certainly unconsciously. And - but the, I mean he cut up McBride. He landed a lot of very strong punches and actually McBride looks far worse at the end of the fight than Tyson does.

But Mike was - he literally sat down at the end of the sixth round and didn't want to get up. And the referee is basically standing there waiting for him to go up and get back into his corner and Mike sort of slowly gets up, as if to say, I don't even know where I'm and I don't care where I am. And then one of his handlers, who was an Australian fighter who loves Mike just said, that's it, we're not - he is not coming out for the seventh round.

GROSS: And when he talks about calling off the fight, like just ending it in your movie, he says, you know, he was just fighting to pay the bills and that he didn't have the fight and the guts anymore.

Mr. TOBACK: Yeah, he doesn't have the fighting guts anymore.

GROSS: And he says actually - I think this is actually a clip from the time, like an interview from the time right after the fight. And he said, I'm not an animal anymore. I don't love this anymore.

Mr. TOBACK: Right, right. And he says, I'm sorry I disappointed the fans that paid to see me but I just don't want to do this anymore. I mean it's - it was a sad ending and not any atypical one. Boxing is a brutal, brutal sport and almost every ends in a horrible way. Jack Johnson by getting knocked out, John L. Sullivan by getting knocked out, Joe Louis getting knocked through the rings by - the ropes by Rocky Marciano, who idolized Joe Louis and he knocked him right out of the ring. It's a very, very dark, brutal sport.

GROSS: Your movie ends with Tyson basically on camera not speaking. Like the final few seconds, he's just reflecting and breathing.

Mr. TOBACK: And breathing, and breathing…

GROSS: …and you hear him breathing. He has like a little wheeze in his breath. And…

Mr. TOBACK: Yeah…

GROSS: …we learn early in the film that he had asthma as a child.

Mr. TOBACK: That's right. That goes back to…

GROSS: Does he still he that? And did he fight with asthma?

Mr. TOBACK: He did. Yeah, he fought with bronchial problems and he says he was always hoping that he could end the fights early because of his breathing problems. And you can imagine what kind of panic he was in as a kid. I was an asthmatic kid and, you know, you're terrified of these bouts where you can't breathe. It feels if your head's being held underwater. And I think it always stays with you. I think it's very powerful in forming personality. I think people who've had asthma as a kid, there has never been an adequate understanding of how deep-rooted that fear is and how it carries through the rest of your life. And I think it's one of the key things in seeing Mike Tyson and understanding him, that he was this asthmatic kid.

But what happened was, when I put my earphones on at the beginning, the first morning of shooting, there he was sitting on the couch and I hear this…

(Soundbite of breathing)

Mr. TOBACK: …and I looked over, thinking, is there something wrong? And I thought, no, he is just sitting there breathing normally. But it wasn't normal breathing, it was labored breathing. And I actually said to myself at that moment, that's what the last sound of the movie is going to be, that breathing. And we found a great image for it and a great moment for. And it's quite haunting at the end.

GROSS: Yeah, agreed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Tyson has this famous tattoo on his face. It covers the whole side of his face. And in the movie, he explains that it's a warrior tattoo from the Maori tribe.

Mr. TOBACK: Right.

GROSS: And I'm wondering what that offered to you a filmmaker because the camera is on his face just about the whole time…

Mr. TOBACK: Absolutely. It's a great image. I mean it's a - he loves the tattoo and I think it's a - it marks his face in a very distinguished way. And also his other tattoos, which are Mao and Che, you know. He says that he hated America for putting him in prison unjustly when he didn't do what he was convicted for. And his protest against being falsely incarcerated was to have himself tattooed with symbols of anti-American fervor.

GROSS: So, when you were interviewing Mike Tyson for your film, what interested you most in what he had to say about his approach to boxing in terms of how he prepared mentally and what went on his mind when he was in the ring just before he went into the ring?

Mr. TOBACK: Well, there's a fascinating passage in the movie where he talks about being consumed by fear during training and leading up to a fight, fear of the other fighter. And that only as he's walking towards the ring the night of the fight, does he start to feel that he can summon up enough ferocity in him to purge himself of the fear and inflict it on the other fighter. And he does it through his eyes, through his gaze, staring at the eyes of the opponent, walking towards the other opponent - and the opponent.

And you see it happening as he describes it very dramatically. And it's as if he's looking straight into the terror that he's creating in the other person. And the other fighter looks away. As soon as he looks away, they both know Tyson's going to knock him out.

GROSS: He never gave you that look, did he?

Mr. TOBACK: No, but as a matter of fact we were having - posing for photographs a couple of weeks ago. And we were - the photographer said, face each other. And I looked into Tyson's eyes and he cracked up. He said, you would terrify almost anybody with that look.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: James Toback, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. TOBACK: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: James Toback directed the new documentary "Tyson."

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