Tuesday, August 18, 2009

James Toback Interview

Directed by James Toback
On DVD August 18, 2009
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Tyson and Toback
Although he’s been making movies for 35 years--his debut film, Fingers, starring Harvey Keitel, was a darling of critic Pauline Kael--James Toback is best-known for his Oscar-nominated screenplay of Bugsy, the movie that brought Warren Beatty and Annette Bening together.

Although he’s been critically acclaimed for his low-budget explorations of the ever-changing culture of teens and 20-somethings, from 1987’s The Pick Up Artist and 1999’s Black and White to 2004’s When Will I Be Loved, it’s his latest project, the documentary Tyson (out this week on DVD), that has given Toback the biggest spotlight of his career.

Tyson had a bit part as himself in Black and White, and the director found this rather tragically wasted man a fascinating character, and was slowly able to convince him that his life--both in and out of the ring and prison--was worth showing onscreen. In a recent phone interview, Toback discussed working with Tyson on Tyson.

Kevin Filipski: How easy was it to talk Mike Tyson into agreeing to do this documentary about his life and career, both the highs and the many lows?
James Toback: I would say that he was pretty eager to do it. We had a lot of interesting conversations over the years, and our experiences with the earlier films we made were good from a cinematic point of view, so he was eager to jump in. The idea was if we’re gonna do it, we’re gonna do it–there’s no point in doing it in a half-assed way.

KF: When did you first meet Tyson?
JT: We met in 1985 on the set of The Pick Up Artist, then we made Black and White in 1999. He came by the set of Pick-Up Artist to meet (Robert) Downey (Jr.), and he and I hit it off right away, and we spent a lot of time together after that.

KF: You said that you invited women who were anti-Tyson to see the movie and you would pay them $100 if they hated it and wanted to leave--but no one left. They were riveted by your frank and unapologetic look at him. If anyone had been disgusted by your film, would you have made any changes to appease the naysayers?
JT: I would never alter what I want to do or believe what I should do in a movie. It would never occur to me to do that. It’s very much against the grain the way most people in marketing think. You have a product, as they so elegantly refer to it, and it’s something you’re selling, and if you find out that more buyers want one thing then you change it. I can’t imagine Dostoyevsky writing The Brothers Karamazov and being told that some readers want to him to cut this chapter and others think he should do this differently. It’s as if it’s perfume. The idea that people would do that would movies--I don’t get it. In this case, ironically, I was perversely curious, but I expected that a third of the women would remain firmly antagonistic, and I was shocked that all of the women were deeply moved by it. I was glad that it happened, because it was so surprising. You take a subject about which people feel very passionate and they find out they were way off base and the reality is something quite different--that has an interesting and dramatic effect.

KF: For the DVD release, in addition to your audio commentary, you also included footage of the day of the movie’s premiere and a short interview with you about the film. What’s your take on DVD extras?
JT: Well, actually, at first I felt that I can’t really do a commentary with a movie like this because Mike’s talking all the time. I’ve done commentaries on my other movies, but I usually speak when there’s no dialogue. But here I couldn’t do that, obviously, so I just discussed what I thought were interesting points about him in general. I’m always eager for there to be as much interesting stuff as possible included on the DVDs--outtakes aren’t interesting to me, but I like to include supplemental stuff that wasn’t in the movie, like the features on the Tyson disc which can be quite interesting, since they give viewers a sense of the whole process.

KF: You made a documentary, The Big Bang, nearly 20 years ago, and then you made Tyson last year. Any interest in doing more documentaries?
JT: Not really, because I don’t think of them as being separate from my other films, I think of them as very similar. In fact, because of the way I make films which are very stylized visually but the language is documentary, either improvised or natural in some way. I hate the feeling that there’s a kind of forced structure or formality to it. I’m trying to get it to feel like a documentary, that you happen to be there to watch them.

KF: Do you think that your film is the last word on a complex individual?
JT: I think that this is the definitive documentation of not just Mike Tyson, the person, but also of a character who is fascinating beyond his own world because of the cultural resonance he has. As he says himself in the movie (when he talks about being revered in Russia, among other places), he’s one of the 5 or 10 most famous and recognizable people in the world, so that gives this movie a dimension far beyond itself.

originally posted on timessquare.com

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