Interviews No God But the Unknown Pietro Marcello and Maurizio Braucci on Martin Eden by Jordan Cronk I See a
By Rob Nelson
Subtitled A Film About James Toback, The Outsider (2005) is a somewhat odd name for an admiring portrait of a guy who hangs out at Brett Ratner’s house, who graduated magnum cum laude from Harvard University, whose grandfather was a tycoon, and whose mother was president of the League of Women Voters. The man behind Exposed (1983), The Pick-up Artist (1987), Two Girls and a Guy (1997), and countless other such propositions, this “outsider” may well have been inside more other people than anyone aside from Warren Beatty, the buddy for whom he wrote Bugsy in 1991–which marked the end of Beatty’s life as a bachelor, for whatever that’s worth (lots, probably).
Tyson, on the other hand, is not at all an odd name for another admiring portrait–Toback’s film of former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson, whom the writer-director has known since the two met during the shooting of the more-than-semi-autobiographical Pick-Up Artist. Albeit a tad high-concept, with split-screen images that mirror the subject’s “chaos of the brain,” Tyson is Tyson more than anything else: Only he is interviewed in the documentary, and, half an hour of archival footage aside, only he appears. Thus the doc is essentially written by its subject, who, because of his years of violent behaviour in and out of the ring, has been deemed by critics an unreliable narrator on subjects including his 1992 rape conviction, if not as an undeserving narrator of any well-attended movie.
Not to say that Tyson is Warholian, but Toback, who worked as a journalist until the early ‘70s, could be describing his doc while talking in our interview about Interview, or at least the magazine in its early incarnation: “Everything was potentially art, everything was potentially repeatable, and everything was potentially saleable.” Tyson, an old-news-is-new art film, was scooped up by Sony Classics after a Cannes screening bracketed by long standing-Os for the 41-year-old fighter–now a self-made spiritualist, complete with Ché tattoo. As different as the movie is in some ways, its primary connection to the Toback oeuvre dates even further back than the director’s classic debut feature Fingers (1978)–which, like Tyson, ends on the heavy breathing of a tough guy who’s down but not yet out.
Cinema Scope: Your book Jim: The Author’s Self-Centered Memoir on the Great Jim Brown (1971) has long been out of print. Would it delight you to know that in the basement of a Lutheran seminary library in Minnesota there is a literal blow-by-blow account of your lavish sexual escapades in the “totally black, orgiastic world” of the great Cleveland Browns running back?
James Toback: It would and it does. I’m guessing it would delight Martin Luther, too. But I think Jesus would probably say I belong in the desert.
Scope: The book has obvious parallels to Tyson, not least in its being a portrait of a well-known African American athlete with an admitted sexual appetite. Less obvious and more striking is the fact that Jim starts with a fight scene–not from Brown’s life, but from yours, when you were a rather aggressive six-year-old white boy encountering black kids in New York. Can you connect the dots?
Toback: Well, the idea of taking this toy gun and smashing it over the boy’s head just appealed to me. Part of it came from watching Westerns. Now, of course, it’s video games: I see my eight-year-old beheading his opponents on the TV. You could say it was simpler in my time, but on one level it’s always been the same. Think back to your own grammar school days. Weren’t there three or four boys who seemed to get into fights a lot more than the others? At my school, I was one of those four.
Scope: Where do you think it came from?
Toback: I don’t know. It excited me to fight. I was quite good at it. It stayed with me longer than it should have. I was always interested in boxing, too, because of my grandfather and my father, who were very avid fight fans. I remember watching boxers from the time I was four or five years old and getting really excited about it as a sport. Black athletes were the most interesting and talented by far–because in those days, if you were black, you had to be three times better than a white player if you wanted to get a chance. Growing up I saw Willie Mays, Sugar Ray Robinson, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton–they all had this tremendous power, a rhythmic grace and speed. Watching Willie Mays was exhilarating. I used to go out to the polo grounds and just stare at him. The way he moved, everything he did was so graceful and commanding.
Scope: But in the childhood fight that you describe in the book, you felt not only awe at the sight of these two black kids, but rage–followed almost immediately by a desire for friendship. There’s a bipolarity of extremes in that scene: love and hate.
Toback: That’s what you get in boxing–it’s what you get in a lot of sports. In hockey, the players are forced to shake hands and say congrats in an arch, formal way. But in basketball or football, you can see spontaneous shows of respect. Or in boxing, where after fighting like crazy, saying the most vicious things to one another, the boxers will hug and say sweet things. I experienced this first-hand when I was living in Jim Brown’s house. There was always this mix of friendliness and competitiveness–an edge of anticipation, followed by mutual enjoyment and pleasure. You were either getting charged up sexually, physically, or athletically, or you were relaxing and joking around. It was a very pleasant atmosphere. Only once in a while would it break into some kind of hostility, and then only briefly. There was always something interesting going on within one extreme psychic form or another.
Scope: Extremes play a major role in your movies–if not in your own psychology, your everyday life.
Toback: It’s certainly in all of the films. Tyson says that if you’re not an extremist, you can never really understand the mind of an extremist. The behavior seems aberrant, bordering on insane.
Scope: Does your bond with Tyson pivot on this shared extremism?
Toback: Most of all, our relationship has to do with a mutual appreciation of the elimination of boundaries, with a sense that anything is possible. There might be a temporary period of compliance–a temporary restraining order, let’s say. But what we share is that desire for a kind of open-endedness to life that is somewhat dangerous and exciting, mysterious and uncertain. As he says at the end of the movie: “The past is history, the future is a mystery.”
Scope: It’s like Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, which you quote at the start of Jim. Tyson–in your film, at least–gives himself license to transgress. He’s a classic Toback character, right?
Toback: No question. He’s a great actor playing the part of Mike Tyson. In When Will I Be Loved, he played Buck the pimp from Minnesota. He played a side of himself in Black and White (1999). In the documentary, he’s allowed to be the fully dimensioned Tyson, a figure that’s astonishingly close in many ways to potential viewers–male and female. One of the startling things about the response to the movie is how women with no interest in boxing and a negative view of Tyson have been just as moved by the film as die-hard boxing fans. The movie doesn’t just provide a view of Tyson that’s different from what you’d expect; it provides an expression of the surprise of human personality. This is the great challenge of art: Take something difficult to prove and see if you can pull it off. Take someone who’s morally ambiguous or suspect and show what is inherently moving about him.
Scope: Or leave him suspect on some level. Because you could say that Tyson isn’t merely another example of your cinema of extremity so much as it’s a film that takes your whole project to its extreme, and asks, “What are you really willing to forgive?” Where, say, Harvey Keitel’s character in Fingers is a killer, he’s a fiction, operating within this clearly marked psychological fantasy realm. We don’t have that safe distance in Tyson. He’s an actor in the documentary, yes, but he’s real, too. Maybe the movie elicits pure love and admiration in some viewers, but it left me feeling very unresolved about Tyson, and that’s what I like about it.
Toback: Right. As André Gide said, “Don’t understand me too quickly.” You might think you have a sense of Tyson, and then all of a sudden he startles you again. The movie makes no effort to soften those edges. In fact, what I find most extraordinary about the character Tyson plays is the endless contradiction springing out in every direction. It’s like boxing–a highly strategic sport, but one with a real brutality that borders on the homicidal. In the movie, these paradoxes sometimes appear to surface along with a subtle self-awareness on the part of Tyson, and sometimes with no awareness from him whatsoever. When he basically says that boxing well means needing to drive a fighter’s jaw through the back of his head, that’s…you know…
Scope: For me, the great moment of utter irresolution is when he’s talking about his childhood discovery of fighting and says, “I knew physically no one was gonna fuck with me again. I knew I’d fuckin’ kill someone if they fucked with me.” And he’s saying this through tears!
Toback: Yes. And the great perversity of that moment, which I probably didn’t get until I had seen it ten or 15 times, is his subtle expression of desire for a bully–so that he’ll have a reason to flip out and deliver the payback. Anyone who gets into fighting has that desire on some level.
Scope: As much as Raging Bull (1980), the movie gives you a strong sense of the psychological component of fighting. And yet, watching Tyson, I find that while I can track the arc of Tyson’s rise, understanding his narcissistic hunger, I can’t fully grasp the psychological dimension of his repeated falls. It’s more complicated than either having the “eye of the tiger” or not having it.
Toback: It has to be–because he’s more complicated than that. In Cannes, almost every single interviewer would ask, “So what’s next for Mike Tyson?” I took it as a sign of people’s inability to sit with irresolution–which in the movie realm is one of the more regressive traits of reviewers and audiences, the wish to force an ending. One tries to impose order on the chaos of the day, but finally one knows that it’s impossible. Or as R.D. Laing says, “Sanity is a cozy lie.”
Scope: After Cannes, the New York Post ran a story about how Tyson is convinced that he’ll be murdered–because he has made “so many enemies in life.” You have a sense that the media wants to put some kind of cap on this ambiguous chapter of Tyson’s life, and that he refuses it.
Toback: That’s Mike, yeah. And it’s the film, too. If you look at the documentary as a kind of drama, you understand that in this story, anything is possible. It would be wrong to feel either hopeful or despairing about his future. As always, ambiguity in art is closer to life.
Scope: The film does offer a certain superficial appearance of closure, at least visually. The images of Tyson walking on the beach are so exaggeratedly and desperately beautiful–like if Douglas Sirk was shooting a doc in digital. It’s a picture postcard DV nirvana: the sky is too blue, the waves are too strong, the sun is too bright. Tyson’s body looks too perfect, too sculpted. Someone who isn’t inclined to read an image against the grain would simply say, “Well, this is Toback saying that Tyson is reformed, reborn.” Or, more, that this is the picture of Toback deigning to resurrect Tyson from the living hell that his critics and accusers and prosecutors put him in.
Toback: For me it comes down to the aesthetic. I always have an insistent need for my movies to register on a strong aesthetic level for me to want to be identified with them. I had never shot on hi-def before. I used the Panasonic Genesis and experimented a lot with the DP, Larry McConkey–the great Steadicam operator of all time, who shot When Will I Be Loved and who helped a lot on Black and White. What I had in mind was Godard’s Eloge de l’amour (2001), which really opened my mind to what could be done in HD, particularly with colour. I thought it would be crazy not to take advantage of that. And I always felt that style was going to fit, that it would be right for Mike. I also liked the challenge of being restricted to the confines of one house and the beach, seeing how many varieties of light and shadow and color I could impose on that.
Scope: When Tyson is seated on his couch, you’re asking him questions, but you never emerge as a character in the film. In fact, your voice isn’t heard at all. It’s yet another extreme, and the extreme opposite of Jim. Even in your absence, you’re excessive–which reminds me of your description in The Outsider of having quit alcohol and cigarettes cold turkey; that method is easier, you say, than moderation, because at least “nothing” is excitingly extreme.
Toback: Yes, for me it was one or the other, either I’m in the movie or out. If I’m in, then I’m all the way in, and it becomes a movie about the relationship between this white writer-director and his…let’s say his cabinet member. I just felt that to impose myself on the movie would be a fundamental mistake. In Cannes I saw Kusturica’s movie about Maradona. I don’t think it was a great choice of his to put himself in it, as he ends up overwhelming his subject matter.
Scope: You could argue that Tyson is more than big enough to fill the screen–or the many sides of him are, I should say. For the film’s critics, the problem is that the movie isn’t journalism–that Tyson is co-authoring or even authoring the film. The implication is that, despite having served time for his conviction, he doesn’t deserve this privilege of a movie that’s so much his own.
Toback: Let me ask you a question. What do you think will be the ultimate dispensation on Mike Tyson?
Scope: I think it depends on the movie, actually–on how the movie meets its public. I think the movie could do a lot to rehabilitate Tyson. And that’s been the source of its criticism, I think. Your stated goal has been to change the public perception of the man–even, or especially, among those who’ve been really reluctant to accept him at all.
Toback: Absolutely true. I’ve observed the movie flip people 180 degrees on Tyson.
Scope: And yet you’re still curious enough or uncertain enough about the fate of his reputation to ask my opinion about it.
Toback: Yes. Because the obstacle to the acceptance of Tyson is the kind of prejudice that has evolved out of a deep-seated fear. When one’s antagonisms are based on lighter forms of distaste, it’s often possible to modulate them, to be persuaded through fashion and social pressure or even just revision of taste into a different way of thinking. But it’s hard to accommodate oneself to fear–it’s such an unpleasant state. Most of us will do anything to get rid of fear, because we feel we can’t function otherwise. And I think Tyson has, over the years, created fear in a lot of people. I don’t mean that they’re afraid of him jumping into their living rooms. But he’s intimidating in the minds of many. And that’s what’s intriguing to me. I’m wondering if and how the movie can get more people to give up their fear of him, to accept him in a way that includes a kind of love.
Scope: The applause in Cannes is one measure of how well it’s working.
Toback: What I felt at that first screening was the audience’s real expression of connection with the subject. I felt it during the movie, and I felt it in the immediate, spontaneous applause after the movie. And I felt it in the degree of the intensity in the room while we were on the stage. While I would like to think that some of the audience’s love was directed toward me, I would probably have to say, in a cold, icy, detached fashion, that it was primarily directed toward Mike.
Scope: And this is what you wanted–or more than you wanted?
Toback: I was hoping that the movie would create that reaction. But while I was making the movie, I suspended my desire to be helpful to him. I wanted to be helpful to him because I think he is a fundamentally good person who has suffered immensely and who is, well, a tragic figure in many ways. But I was very conscious about not trying to be an advocate. My priority was to create a compelling and original stylistic framework, out of which Mike could come across as who he is. I figured it would be good if he had the effect on people that I thought he would, but I didn’t stack the deck in any way. In fact, there are several things that I would have done differently if my intention had been to stack the deck.
Scope: Like what?
Toback: Well, I would have cut out or at least modulated the parts where he admits to some real brutality and homicidal rage. Those things aren’t glossed over in the film. When he’s talking about the lies of Desirée Washington and about the injustice of his incarceration–which I believe fully and know to be true–he also refers to his having been a jerk in other sexual situations, which leaves a lot of speculation open.
Scope: Are some of Tyson’s comments potentially risky in the realm of libel? Are they risky to the extent that the form of the film doesn’t allow Washington to answer?
Toback: No, it isn’t risky, because she knows she lied. Anyone who examines the case and its circumstances is appalled. No one will ever know for sure what Don King’s role in it might have been. The only thing you need to know is that he got a Washington tax lawyer to represent Mike in a rape case in Indiana. And Don King is not a naive guy. You could say that King’s thought was, “Well, if this lawyer exonerated me of tax evasion charges, maybe he could exonerate Mike of a rape charge.” But it would be a pretty naive leap to make.
Scope: So the things you’ve been working on lately with Sony Classics don’t have to do with their concern about the content of the film?
Toback: No. Tyson is the only one in the film who says that Washington is a liar, and he’s entitled to say that. The movie doesn’t corroborate that view. There isn’t a narrator who comes in and says, “I agree with Mike Tyson, and, what’s more, I have proof.” It’s just a person, Tyson, who was accused, who maintained at the time that he was falsely accused, and who continues to say so. That’s something that people who have been incarcerated have done throughout history, regardless of whether or not the accusation has been false. It’s not at all uncommon for someone to get out of prison and say, “I never should have been there. I didn’t do the crime.”
Scope: You’re not occupied with getting the film ready for release, working with lawyers who are telling you to be careful?
Toback: The only instance where caution was advised by anyone was with the scene of Mike’s description of Don King, which we kept very clinical. Tyson obviously has very personal and negative feelings about Don King, and he’s entitled to articulate them. But in terms of the description of what actually happened between the two of them, we limited it to the dispensation of the court case.
Scope: And you were just as careful in the Desirée Washington section?
Toback: Well, in the Desirée Washington section, it was just a case of Tyson giving his opinion–not his opinion, really, but his claim that she’s lying.
Scope: He calls her a derogatory name, though.
Toback: He says she’s a “wretched swine.” You can call anyone that. Someone accused of being a wretched swine could certainly say, “I’m sorry, your honor, I beg to differ–I’m not a wretched swine.” But that would be a tough one to argue in court.
Scope: You mean it would be a tough one for Desirée Washington to argue?
Toback: I mean it would be tough for anyone. In terms of the film, we don’t have to provide an opportunity for Desirée Washington to say, “I’m sorry, I beg to differ with that description of Mike’s.” I mean, in a film I assume you’re not allowed to make false criminal claims about someone without there being some chance for the accused person to defend himself or herself. If you falsely accused somebody of rape in a movie, you’d have a problem. I think libel laws are such that you have to prove that the person was intentionally libeling you, and that because of that libel you lost a certain income–and then you sue for that income. I believe that’s the law. I know it’s much, much tougher in America than it is in England. Which is why when a book comes out in both countries, people who sue will sue the British publisher. It’s easier to collect.
Scope: But you’ve been saying you’re in a state of total chaos these days.
Toback: Well, there are still a lot of questions about distribution, about exactly how the film is going to go out and when. The financial and structural details of the movie are probably not all that unusual, but they’re maybe a little more complicated. There’s one investor who came in late, for example, and there’s the fact that the movie presents such an unusual challenge from a marketing perspective. Movies tend to be presented and marketed in terms of previous successes. What similar movie worked, so we can follow it exactly? In this case, there is no similar movie. Is it a sort of European art film with Mike Tyson as its subject? In style, that’s what it feels like. Or is it a movie that will play effectively at Magic Johnson Theatres? Both? That isn’t just a marketing question. The answer is, it isn’t one kind of movie at all–so one can’t make generalizations about it. That’s fine with me. I didn’t set out to make a movie that would be one thing, the other, or even both. I set out to make a movie that would invent its own style, and that would accommodate the subject in a style that would be different than anything I had ever seen.
Scope: Did you test the film before Cannes?
Toback: Yes. At first, I tested it primarily on young women who either didn’t know anything about Tyson or disliked him, or women who didn’t know anything about boxing. I tried to pick the most antagonistic audience possible. And then I decided not to change a thing in the editing that I wouldn’t have done anyway, but the tests gave me a greater sense of confidence and enthusiasm. I realized the film was altering people’s minds, including those least likely to be changed. Later on, when I was pretty much finished, I showed it to my friends in Wu-Tang Clan and they got all excited. And when I was staying at Brett Ratner’s house, we showed it to Janet Jackson and Jermaine Dupri, who brought a whole group of people around, and they just went insane. Puffy and 50 Cent and Spike Lee saw it. It became a cause célèbre–for two reasons, one having to do with the love of Mike Tyson, and the other having to do with the original stylistic conception, the use of split screen and the multiple voices.
Scope: I thought you’d say the second reason for the film being a cause célèbre was an excitement about a movie in this election year that pays tribute to African-American male heroism.
Toback: That has been remarked upon by a number of people, yes–particularly people who are central to the movie business and who think about marketing films intelligently. I’m normally either naïve or retarded in terms of making those connections and thinking that way. Once it was mentioned to me, though, it did make sense. However, I felt the appeal would not be limited to this election year, that it would have an ongoing effect and could even increase when Obama becomes president, an event which will have a profound effect on American life, and even on the world, in ways that will tangentially affect the movie.
Scope: In other words, you and your marketers don’t feel a great political or economic need to get the film out before the election? You mentioned Spike Lee, whose film about African-American soldiers in World War II is slated for October.
Toback: I suppose you could say we’re taking the long view. As part of this ongoing change in American consciousness around race, helped in no small part by Obama’s presidency, there will be an openness to and an appetite for movies that broaden the public interest in culturally significant black figures. Maybe I should be clearer in saying that the Obama presidency will be part of a phenomenon that’s been in place for years. Black and White certainly grew out of a sense that the dynamics of race relations were changing in a profound way. Ever since Jim, I’ve been of the opinion that you can’t understand anything about race in America without connecting it to the sexual realm. I’ve always thought that miscegenation is the answer to the American racial problem. There was a whole change of consciousness among young white women about interracial sex. For them, it was not a big deal, whereas ten or 15 years earlier, it had been a very big deal to white women, including those who eagerly and even obsessively participated in mixed race relationships. That’s vanishing. You ask a young woman today about her sexual history in racial terms and in many cases you get a sort of bewildered look–as if you’re asking what percentage of her partners have been over six feet tall. This sort of post-racial sexual consciousness was the harbinger of other things to come.
Scope: Including Obama?
Toback: I wouldn’t say that Obama is going to be become president because of it. But I will say that it is an element in what’s going to allow him to become president. The resistance to interracial sex that existed in vast numbers for years would’ve negatively affected his prospects if it had still been true. Instead, these changes have opened up all sorts of opportunities that weren’t there before. Sports also play a huge role in that–as does sex. If you deify athletes for being of a different race, it’s a short jump from there to sexual fantasy and fulfillment. And from there you have the end of race through miscegenation. In 75 or 100 years from now, if there’s still life on this planet, there will be a much more blended colour on the spectrum–not “black” and “white,” which will come to seem outmoded and silly terms.
Scope: How about the term narcissism? It comes up a lot in the critical description of your work, and often erroneously–and unflatteringly.
Toback: Well, to say that a filmmaker takes preoccupations from his own life and exploits them cinematically is to charge a filmmaker with narcissistic filmmaking, I suppose. But a lot of filmmakers do it, and that term is used more often with me than it is with other people. Maybe it’s true that, compared to other filmmakers, I’ve lived in ways that more vividly resemble the worlds I’m writing about.
Scope: The reason I think it isn’t unfair to call your movies “narcissistic” is because narcissism–which isn’t a bad thing, by the way, it’s more like a common ailment–is very possibly your key subject. How does the wounded man restore what he has lost?
Toback: The characters are narcissistic, yes. They flirt with the temptation of narcissism. But I think the only pure narcissist in my films is Bugsy Siegel. In real life, Bugsy was self-absorbed to the point of ignoring everything else.
Scope: More often than not, your films are celebrations of self-absorption that become critiques of self-absorption. In Fingers, the Keitel character ends up naked, alone, afraid–like an animal being stalked.
Toback: All the movies I’ve ended the way I wanted them to end–not The Pick-up Artist, in other words, and not Love and Money (1982)–have ended similarly. The only truthful ending is, yes, a guy like Keitel in Fingers, gazing out from his own void, as Deleuze would say.
Scope: And it applies to Tyson, yes?
Toback: Yes, for sure. But there are actually two things going on at the end of Tyson. One is acceptance–Tyson’s acceptance of his lot in life. And the other is his sense of the uncertainty of the future. You get that in his shrug, his sigh, his deep, heavy breaths at the end.
Scope: At least a couple of people have taken issue with the film since Cannes. Steve Lott, Tyson’s assistant manager in the late ‘80s, has complained that your narrative cuts him out of the story.
Toback: Steve Lott is a deeply embittered and rejected suitor. I should leave it at that, because that describes him accurately and in full.
Scope: And Barbara Kopple, director of Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson (1993), has raised objections.
Toback: What exactly has she said? Just last night, at the party for Warren Beatty, she actually came over and greeted me and we had a nice chat.
Scope: She has said that while the archival footage that your films share is available elsewhere, there are sequences in your film that have been lifted from Fallen Champ.
Toback: This is what’s misleading. I think the length of the portion that could be said to be hers is one minute and six seconds–with our acknowledgement that it was used. In other words, yes, there’s a sequence that was not shot by her, but was arranged by her, and she’s given full credit for it–and it lasts a minute and six seconds. The other footage that she found and used I also found and used, and I don’t use it in the same way that she uses it. So it’s an absurd allegation. Her manager called me and said, “Half an hour of your movie has Barbara’s stuff in it.” I think at the most it’s four minutes, one minute of which includes the same arrangement of material–and that’s acknowledged in the credits.
Scope: I really like Fallen Champ. What do you think of it?
Toback: Well, let me say that I like Barbara very much, and she’s obviously done very good work. I think when you make a documentary about someone and it does not have anything like the same impact as another documentary on the same subject, you can feel mixed emotions about it–you can feel a proprietary interest in the subject. I’ve known Mike Tyson since he was 18 years old. I hardly need Barbara Kopple to help me with Mike Tyson. She has some footage that’s useful in depicting Mike in a certain period of his life, but the idea that there’s anything untoward about giving credit to her for one minute of footage in a 90 minute movie is absurd. The wording in the acknowledgement is far more generous than it needs to be–legally speaking. As for what I think of her film, I think it’s okay, but not exactly great looking in a visual sense. And it was made before most of the interesting stuff in Tyson’s life had taken place.
Scope: Tyson talks in the film about having trust issues. But he trusts you. How come? Were there times during the making of the film when you felt you needed to try to keep his trust or re-earn it?
Toback: He has trusted me 100 percent since the first night we met, and I’ve never given him one reason not to think he could. Which is obviously why he still trusts me. I don’t think anyone else would’ve recommended to him that he trust me to this degree. But he knew he could.
Scope: In The Outsider, you say Tyson is the “best natural actor I know.” You say he writes his own dialogue and conveys “more complexity of thought through language than anybody, anywhere.”
Toback: Well, that might be a little hyperbolic, but it’s headed in the right direction.
Scope: Certainly Tyson writes his own dialogue in Tyson, which partly explains how the film works to subvert the expectations of people who don’t expect him to have a poetic side to his expression. What I think the movie reveals more clearly than anything is the nature of the bond you have with him. Both of you express yourselves in a very extreme, rhythmic, flamboyant sort of way.
Toback: Yes. He’s a writer in spoken word. The other thing we share is in the realm of action–the need to propel ourselves not just to extremes, but to flirtations with dangerous consequences. That’s the more unusual thing, and I think we’ve both demonstrated it–not always consciously.
Scope: “Flirtations with dangerous consequences” reminds me of Two Girls and a Guy, particularly the scene of Downey with fake blood on his face, waving a gun and talking to himself in the mirror. He says to his reflection, “Is this how you want to live your life? Damaging yourself? Damaging those around you?”
Toback: Dustin Hoffman said to me last night that Two Girls and a Guy is the best movie ever made about an actor. Christopher Walken has said that, too. And I’m told Daniel Day-Lewis likes it a lot. The film really is a classic actor’s movie. Acting is the professional outlet for extremist, dangerous expression. As Downey’s character in the film says, justifying his behavior to the two girls, “Actors lie.”
It’s the idea that you can justify almost anything–in the realms of experimentation and duplicity–because you’re doing it in the service of your art.
Scope: And “art” is a subjective term, right? Maybe the serially duplicitous experimenter isn’t a professional actor, but one who, as David Thomson writes in his entry on you, merely lives as though he’s in a movie.
Toback: That mirror scene with Downey really does summarize it. It’s the state of contradicting one’s own emotional response, of going halfway in one direction and then pulling a U-turn–earnestness followed by self-ridicule, commitment and affirmation subverted by provocation and destruction. “Yes, I mean it–of course I mean it!” And then there’s a wink and a smile. What are the wink and smile for? That’s the need to provoke and subvert. It’s not so much about trying to gain something; it’s just the natural consequence of a recklessly broad personality and a complicated consciousness, with a lot of selves at work. One of the difficulties of understanding people who function with free rein to the release of their multiple selves is that most people by a certain age are forced into corralling or containing the more obstreperous self so that they can at least appear to be living a life that’s on track. Of course everybody has his own secret sides, some fewer than others. But the question is: How many are you going to have and how many are you going to repress? Or: How many are you going to nurture and feature? Because there’s a certain kind of exhilaration that comes with playing them all out.
Scope: For people who are tied down in whatever way, your movies–your narrative movies, I’d say, not Tyson–are fantasies of full philosophical, physical, and sexual expression. Not that you have to be a murderous debt collector or a philanderer necessarily, because a lot of the appeal has to do simply with an exaggerated way of thinking and talking–or writing or whatever. Boxing, too, I suppose.
Toback: After a certain point, it’s almost as if one doesn’t have a choice–the path one has staked out is the only path. No mater how many disappointments and frustrations come with this kind of freedom, ultimately, if it brings understanding and satisfaction, there’s no motivation to change it. People have said to me, “Why don’t you make a big studio movie? Why don’t you incorporate all the things you’re trying to do, but within a structure where you’re gonna get decent marketing and distribution?”
Scope: Go straight Jim! Be an adult! Grow up!
Toback: That’s really what it is. What I say in response is, first of all, a career in big studio movies is just not a path that I could make a case for. In cases where directors have tried to do that, it has either been embarrassing or disappointing. But I don’t even have a choice. To be humble about it, I don’t have a lot of people waving $100 million in my face. But I have had opportunities from time to time that I’ve passed up. And it’s not so much because I have fear and contempt for the kind of process I’d have to be involved with in order to do a big movie, it’s that it would force me to give up the kind of thing that I know I can do best. I still have a bunch of movies that I want to make in that fashion. And the idea of surrendering my own realm before I have exhausted myself within it just makes me feel that depression and regret would be right around the corner.
Scope: You wouldn’t want to do a movie for money, with which you could do other things?
Toback: I’m certainly seduceable by material things. I’ve lived a luxurious life about half the time. I prefer it to other forms of life. But I’m not about to cheat or compromise even a little on what I know is the right way for me to go artistically. As Bugsy Siegel says, “Money is dirty paper.” It’s a commodity that can be replaced. Whereas time, energy, and the movies you really want to make are a finite and very delicately contained and maintained substance at the centre of your life. If you tamper with that, I think you’re only bargaining for disaster.