“Write what you know,” goes the mantra. If you’re James Toback, you know writing, gambling and boxing. The Oscar-nominated scribe (“Bugsy”) wrote the screenplay to Karel Reisz’s 1974 “The Gambler,” an autobiographical account of a NYU lit professor who is also a compulsive gambler.
Following “Fingers,” his promising 1978 directorial debut starring Harvey Keitel as a hitman, Toback’s career has moved in fits and starts, including “The Pick-Up Artist” and "Two Girls and a Guy." His new documentary, “Tyson,” is a hit with critics and audiences alike. Streeting this week on DVD, this portrait of the former heavyweight champ in his own words is a compelling, shocking and ultimately moving character study.
Can you talk about the nature of your relationship with Mike Tyson? In 24 years, did you ever make him angry?
The only time I can ever recall having even a slight flare up with him was when he decided to hire Don King. I was reminding him of something that he had said, that he would never hire him and you’d have to be insane. I said, “You’re not listening to yourself.” So he sort of got paranoid and took that to mean I was not with him anymore. And it calmed down. We remained friends, but that was a tough year.
I think that the key thing with Mike is that we both have a channel of connection that had nothing to do with the rational exchange of information, feelings, normal conversation. There was always raw, direct, almost unconscious of one speaking to the unconscious of the other. That’s what made the prospect of the movie intriguing.
Do you think it’s grounded in the fact that he’s an addict and you yourself are a gambling addict?
It is a kind of launching point, but I would say it’s usually unarticulated except in a general way to refer to it. But it definitely is. As he puts it in the movie, “The mind of an extremist can only be understood by the mind of another extremist.”
There’s so much talk of fear and paranoia in the movie. Fear is commonly thought of as an obstacle to overcome. But in Tyson’s case it seemed to be a principle component of his success. Is fear, in this case, a positive force?
Yeah, I was astonished, when we were shooting, to see how many times fear came up in his dialogue as the motivating factor behind all sorts of responses in his life. I had no idea that he was carrying so much around with him. And I think converting it into the other person’s fear — transfer his fear onto the other person, it was probably responsible, to a large degree, for his success.
Fear also seems to be behind his reaction to the overwhelmingly positive response at Cannes. As you stood together on the podium, receiving all that applause, he was thinking, “You white people still hate me.”
I know, I was stunned by that revelation. I had no idea that that’s what was going on in his mind, and it shows you how complex his mind is. You could almost predict that any conventional response to anything is not the one he’s gonna have.
Can you talk about the rape conviction? Did he ever confide in you what really went on with Desiree Washington?
Only what he told me from the beginning is that it was ridiculous. I mean, he couldn’t believe that it was going to be taken seriously. He said to me, ‘If that was rape, then I’ve never done anything except rape my whole life, with everybody.’ He was like, ‘I think I know, after being with about five thousand women, what rape is or isn’t.’
He served three years in prison, released in ’95, and next thing on the menu is Holyfield’s ear. Tyson claims he was head-butted, opening a cut above the eye that went unnoticed by the referee. By the footage, it’s not so clear.
If you actually look at the footage carefully, it’s very clear that in both fights he butted him very hard and opened cuts. The fact that it was in both fights, the fact that Holyfield — I mean, he’s known as someone who has engaged historically in tactics like that.
The question is Mike’s reaction, which, as he himself says, he lost his discipline. Mike clearly was at a breaking point in his life. He’d come out of prison and experienced horror in prison and I think that, y’know, he probably responded in a way that he might not have earlier in his career.
There’s so much talk about paranoia and hearing voices. Is this guy schizophrenic?
I would say multi-phrenic. I would say there’s several personalities brewing and an on-going war that those voices are having. It’s hard to say what voice is going to gain prominence. But I think that when he was in prison he talked about having gone insane when he was in solitary confinement.
For six weeks.
When you think about it you’re in a six by six cell, twenty-three hours a day. What I find almost quaint in its innocence and its absurdity and gangbang media stupidity, they keep on about Abu Ghraib and torture and this prison and Guantanamo.
What about the American prisons? The naivete, the nuttiness of talking about the horrors of these other prisons, what do they think goes on in American prisons? Innocent people, American prisoners being put on death row for years with DNA proving they were innocent years later. Just the practice of solitary confinement is so inherently barbaric. If that isn’t torture, then what is?
Do you think, since he’s stopped fighting, Mike is more in control now?
I think that he has become, in the last year, more kind of calm and contained and under control than I’ve ever seen him before. There’s a meditative, self-reflective style.
What about doing the Tyson story as a feature?
I know Jamie Foxx wants to play him. This was the definitive way of doing it, to me. But I think certainly it could be. The thing is, y’know, he’s such a fascinating compelling person as himself, there’s something about him that inherently starts and stops with him.