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James Toback vs. Mike Tyson

James Toback vs. Mike Tyson

Articles - Directing

My earliest cinematic memories are familial—my father, Irwin Toback, shooting my mother, Selma Toback, and me at age four with an 8mm camera in Manhattan, Atlantic Beach, Long Island and Hollywood, Florida. Whether I was sledding on what seemed from my diminutive perspective to be imposing mountains in a snow-covered Central Park, jumping waves with my mother in the ocean or learning tennis from pros Martin Buxby and Fred Perry, there was a natural continuum uniting creator and subject, role-player and role.

Those rich Kodak colors on a pull-up screen illuminating my dark bedroom, silent except for the clicking of the projector, have taken on the quality of dreams while influencing profoundly the very idea of what film should be. The idea of moving pictures as a source of intimacy, revelation and permanent record was born.

The next plateau of awareness introduced actors playing parts: Doris Day, Gordon MacRae, James Stewart, Donald O’Connor, Alan Ladd—all seemed knowable and known through their performances. There remained no sense of separation between the part and the person, the one I felt sure I knew.

With time came news: Actors were not coterminous with the roles they were playing—they were acting in roles written for them by writers and doing what directors directed them to do. By the time my own life as a moviemaker began I had come to accept this conventional view as a given.

My initiation was splendid—the equivalent of a one-on-one film school—collaborating on The Gambler (my first actual screenplay) with Karel Reisz, whose skills as a director were matched only by his personal charm and generosity. Karel’s creative universe was founded on classical sequence and structure: Conception, elaboration, script, analysis, revision, casting, technical preparation, rehearsals, shooting, editing and post-production refinement. I came to Karel with the first three elements prepared and remained with him for the next two years as the other stages evolved.

But everything sprang from the script. It wasn’t so much a blueprint as a bible. Even when I, its author, felt intuitively that moments or whole scenes might benefit from adjustments—sometimes even between takes—Karel would rigorously defend my text from me. It was a Hitchcockian notion of moviemaking, based on the premise that if everything were to be prepared properly in advance—the dialogue, the staging, the dramatic psychology—then shooting could become an exercise in execution rather than invention.

Through Fingers, my first film as writer and director, Love and Money and Exposed, I played largely to those well-learned rules. But there was a personal event during Exposed which ignited a radical shift in my thinking.

After laboring (with the aid of cue cards) through a scene in which I was also an actor, I approached my next scene—an angry break-up scene with Nastassja Kinski—with a recklessly open and subversive mind. I veered off my own prepared dialogue (sacrilege!) from the first line and continued inventing—with aggressive provocation—until the end.
Kinski, who needed no coaxing to summon up her own rebelliousness, came back at me with an improvised and lacerating antagonism of her own. The essence of the scene—the fundamental intentions—were realized, but with a live, responsive connection to each evolving moment.

The exhilaration of that experience—and another scene which features Nastassja alone in her apartment and which similarly broke with the original plan—forced me to question all my basic assumptions. If life itself, despite our often desperate efforts at control and management, is brimming with twists of surprise, why should the process of making a film be any less open to the ongoing freshness of uncertainty?
The Big Bang—a nonfiction film in which 20 people with radically diverse backgrounds, personalities and looks give their takes on life and beyond—followed and registered with haunting clarity, yielding a lingering sense of transparent accessibility. Without this transitional “documentary,” it is unlikely that the notion of fusing role-player and role in fictional films would have evolved in my head as it did.

Two Girls and a Guy stands both on its own as a portrait of a classically split dissembler—melding Blake Allen (role) and Robert Downey Jr. (role-player) into one multiple-personality—and as a bridge to Black and White, in which half of the movie is delivered as written (Ben Stiller, Joe Pantoliano and Robert Downey Jr. playing their scripted parts) and the other half (Mike Tyson, members of Wu-Tang Clan and Downey—again) clearly embodying themselves.

It was while watching Tyson “perform” in a scene with Oli “Power” Grant and Raekwon in a downtown gym—a scene in which Tyson speaks with a refined degree of complex and meditative self-awareness about prison, humiliation and murder—that the idea of making a film about Tyson (and Tyson alone) was generated.

I proposed it to him at the end of the day and we agreed to go ahead, but apparently both of us needed to take an oblique path to its fruition. Tyson needed to descend into a series of painful losses and retirement from the ring and I needed to make two more movies (including When Will I Be Loved, in which Tyson appears—as himself—in a scene in which he insists he is not Mike Tyson at all but rather “Buck, the pimp from Minnesota”) before we were actually close to ready. And it was not until the death of my mother (to whom the film is dedicated—and my consequent awareness that any ability to function at all would be possible only by immersing myself in the making of a movie) and the crash of Tyson (literal and figurative—his arrest on drug possession after a car accident) that we finally leapt forward into a one-week, quasi-psychoanalytic journey, photographed with two cameras (the Panavision Genesis and the Panasonic VariCam) by the great Steadicam operator and cameraman, Larry McConkey.

Using every imaginable interior and exterior of a rented house in the Hollywood Hills and an ocean/beach location near Malibu, the intention was to allow a kind of surrender; to let the cameras roll without pressure or interruption from an array of angles, to create conditions in which Tyson (or the Tysons), being shot, could emerge in the full breadth of his mesmerizing complications. Nothing anticipated, nothing ordained—just a moveable field on which to play out the faces, voices, emotions and linguistic flourishes through which we can connect, admire, resist, withdraw or simply witness this bold iconographic figure acting the role of himself.

In carrying to its logical conclusion the impulse to treat film—and “acting”—as a portrait of the person, the style will necessarily reflect the subject and, in seeking to do justice to the Whitmanesque multitudes contained in Mike Tyson, the display of multiple moving images—shifting shapes and sizes—and dialogue overlapping, densely laid over itself, felt organic and even inevitable.

What is especially satisfying for me about Tyson is that it ends by leading to questions about the future. What format and subject are next? Where does this Tyson exploration lead? Fiction? Nonfiction? A mix of both? The great joy is that the answer to each of these questions (and all others) is, at least possibly, yes.

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