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James Toback interview, Part III


What would an interview be without an annoying digression about misogyny? In this case it might be more germane than usual, what with Tyson spending time in prison on a rape conviction. Toback, though, proves more than up to the task. We don't even get a chance to talk about ear-biting.

PK: One of the criticisms of the movie is that you don't offer any other point of view than that of Tyson when it comes to the accusations of abuse in his marriage to Robin Givens and his conviction for raping Desiree Washington. Any response?

JT: Well, we show Robin Givens giving her side to Barbara Walters and on national television and basically accusing him of abusing her and brutalizing her, not physically but she says verbal abuse or emotional abuse and she's terrified of him and he's bipolar and he's psychotic. I mean, you can't go much further than that, you know, you might say he doesn't like chicken.

Desiree know the idea is all through the movie to get Tyson's view of things and either you believe him or you don't. Ultimately he's told me how despicably untrue it is over the years and he'd have no reason to invent this to me. I mean, what was the point? What, am I going to go and run to the press and say "guess what Mike Tyson admitted that he was rightfully convicted of rape." I assume that's true anyway because most people are stupid enough to think that convicted means guilty.

It's funny because there isn't the same reverse assumption. One assumes, correctly, that O.J. Simpson was guilty, even though he was "innocent." But rarely do people think convicted means anything other than guilty because the social framework, even after all of the cynicism that is there and should be there about the criminal justice system, still gives the law the benefit of the doubt and I don't know whether anyone's ever remarked on this. I have and I can almost prove that the worse the crime the greater the assumption that the person is guilty, which, of course, also is absurd, because if it's going to be wrong, the criminal justice system x percent of the time, why would it be wrong any less frequently or more frequently for severe crime than for petty crimes?

It's going to be wrong because human judgment is wrong very frequently when you weren't there, when you don't know, when you don't have real evidence. And here, where you have two people who had different versions of the same event whatever that event was. But my point here was not to ask Don King whether Mike Tyson did what he really said took place. Or whether Desiree Washington says, yes, it happened exactly the way I testified.

By the way, why do we need to ask her that? What's she going to do, contradict her own testimony? Have her say exactly what she said when he was convicted? I believe one of the ways of knowing, at least thinking you know whether something is true, is not necessarily to hear five people give there versions of it. Listen to one person give their version of it and you can feel whether you believe that person. I believe someone watching Mike Tyson and listening to Mike Tyson speak can make up his or her own mind about the whole case just based on him. Is he lying or is he not lying? I've watched people talk about things and have no other view and know that they're lying. I don't know what the truth is. I know that person telling me this. I don't need to speak to anybody else. I know he's lying; I can feel it. Well I would say, here's Mike Tyson: let the audience make up its own mind. Is he lying or not? If you think he's lying then you think he's lying. If you say there's no way he's lying, that's the closest you're going to get to the truth anyway, you know. It's Bob Evan's famous phrase, "there are three versions of every story: your version, my version, and the truth."

PK: He's a wise man. He's still alive, isn't he?

JT: Yeah, very much so.

PK: I was thinking about an issue that's been in the news a lot lately, views on violence against women in connection to the Rihanna/ Chris Brown thing. What's frightening is that they did a survey of high school students and around half of them said that she "deserved it." I'm just wondering how this movie will play in that kind of environment.

JT: I don't know. I think it's such a volatile subject. It's such an incendiary subject.

I was shocked, by the way, at that statistic. It's one of the rare cases where what I would have predicted was so far off from what happens that it makes me feel completely out of it.  I think you know once you get into subjects where people's deepest personal responses to their own lives are involved, it's very hard to get any kind of sense of rationality, because who knows how close people are to doing things like that themselves, or are afraid of it happening or suspicious that someone's about to do it. It's such a horrifying and frightening part of personal relationships because you're talking about the person who's supposed to love you and it's like with parental abuse, which is a tremendously underestimated and under talked about subject. Spousal abuse is talked about all of the time, parental abuse very infrequently, and yet it goes on all the time.

It gets in the news every now and then because of a particular case, that famous case where, that guy, what was his name? He was beating up his wife and their little daughter and they finally killed the daughter. In New York there was that famous case a few years ago and I can't remember that name. This was an upper middle class guy who had some... I can't remember whether he was a doctor or a lawyer. He was a fairly prominent, successful guy and the woman was too and they had a little girl and they just brutalized her horribly and he was also brutalizing the wife.

But the thing is when you're supposed to love and care about somebody and you do show love and affection but you also show violence, it's such a horrifyingly shocking, incongruous, twisted, perverse dynamic that no one can enter a subject like that rationally. You can pretend to and get clinical about it, but that's a false stance, you know.

Obviously you can say, which any sane person says, that rape is an atrocity and it's always a disaster and it's always catastrophic. But the closer you get to situations of violence when there's people who are supposed to like each other and love each other and it's within the family...that's I think why "Capturing the Friedmans" had the hold that it had on a lot of people. This gruesome, horrifying, twisted, demented story -- and, by the way, this was a case where you had everybody's version of everything and you didn't have a clue about who was ultimately telling the truth and wasn't. No matter how many times you get different versions of the same story because you never really knew whom to believe, or at least I didn't. I always felt everybody was suspect. But here was this family that was actually close on some level and yet filled with this horrifying, vile, odious, loathsome anger and twisted sexual longing. It's never something that can be resolved because it's so aberrational and yet it's so potentially part of any dynamic. You go back to the Bible, you go back to the mythical stories of that kind of demented behavior, you look at half of the great original Biblical stories and you have some kind of crazy twist within the family.

PK: I think this is going to be the last question so I'll make it a compound question. This film, as with your films with Robert Downey Jr, may have the effect of getting Mike Tyson back into the limelight and I don't know what kind of career he'd go into now that he's not into boxing. But also it kind of jumpstarts your own career. You haven't made a movie for 4 years or so. What do you foresee in the future for yourself and for Mike?

JT: Mike I think is .. he's got a big sort of Wii type game, a video game of some kind or virtual game with Mohammed Ali, which I'm sure people will get interested in and I'm sure he'll make appearances. Eventually, I think he should work with kids who have backgrounds similar to his because he'd be great with them. They'd look up to him. He'd be a terrific influence on them. That's something, I think, when he gets his financial life in order, he will do.

Um, I want to make a movie called "The Director," which I've been working on for a while and I'm excited about it. I'm writing a movie about John DeLorean with Brett Ratner and Bob Evans, actually.

PK: Who's still alive.

JT: He's very much so, very much so, and a great guy, by the way, and very smart with a phenomenal sense of humor.

PK: Don't tell him that I thought he was dead.

JT: You know. King Vidor, whom I directed in "Love and Money" ...Stanley Kauffmann referred to him as "the late King Vidor" in a review in the "New Republic" and King called me up and he was so upset and he said "Who is this person Stanley Kauffmann?" and I said "He's the critic for the ‘New Republic,'"  and he said, "I know that, but who is he?"  and I said, "What do you mean, who is he? I don't know what you mean." and he said, "he said that I'm dead." So I said, "Well I didn't know about that," and he said , "Listen to this." And he read it to me. He said "The late King Vidor." He said, "Who is he?" And I realized after a while that he meant who is he in the way that I would like him to be dead for telling me that I'm dead when I'm still alive.

PK: Kauffmann is about a hundred years old now, isn't he?

JT: Yeah, I know.

PK: And now Vidor IS dead. So who had the last laugh there?

JT: Right. So I want to do "The Director," and maybe five or six more movies before I finally do move on to the next plateau.

PK: The next plateau being?

JT: Meaning atomic separation, meaning wherever my atoms are going from here.

PK: It's kind of like the long view. Is this film opening wide, by the way?

JT: It's opening wide in the third week. It's opening New York and LA on the 24th of April and Boston, Chicago and San Francisco one week later, so I guess that's the first of May, and then everywhere else. They're going very wide with it, I will say, without trying to sound too hyperbolic, self-congratulatory or too grandiose. We've had, starting with Cannes last year, insanely good responses,  including from women who went in with a real anger and expecting to despise Mike Tyson in the movie. We've been getting almost "Shrek"-like responses to the movie, which is a good turn out. Which has been true now in about 15 different cities, and I'm thinking, how did this happen? But you know.

PK: Tyson is the Shrek of heavyweight champions. You think you have a future in documentaries?

JT: I had a great time making this. Yeah, I I'll tell you what, the older I get the more I'm interested in non-fiction as opposed to fiction, generally. I read more non-fiction than I do fiction now. Actually, "Sight and Sound" ask a bunch of directors and critics every ten years to pick their ten best films of all times. On my last list five years ago or four years ago, whenever it was, I had number one "F for Fake" number two "Hotel Terminus." So, two nonfiction films. And number four was "Shrek 2."

PK: You blur the boundaries between documentary and fiction.

JT: Yeah, and this is good.

PK: What was Mike Tyson's response to the movie?

JT: We were in my screening room with the screenwriter and he said it's like a great tragedy, the only problem is I'm the subject. The second time, he said he really liked it, it was fascinating. The third time was at the Sundance. We were at the dinner and he said, "You know,  people always say that 'he's crazy, I'm scared of him' and I never really understood what they were talking about. I always said, 'Why are they saying that about me?'" He said "Seeing this movie tonight, I actually said to myself, I'M actually scared of that guy."

PK: The opening shots when he's knocking out Trevor Berbick  -- that is scary.

JT: And Ali, as you later see in the movie, saying to him "Get him for me," because he had humiliated Ali. You know what happened to Berbick?

PK: No, I don't.

JT:  Berbick, about a year and a half ago, was involved in a drug deal with his nephew in Jamaica, which is where he's from, and he was macheted to death in the parking lot of a church where they had their drug transaction.  Berbick was the mad guy. He was half gay and before the [Larry] Holmes fight --  He was sitting next to Joe Lewis on the last night of Lewis's life; he died later that night. Lewis was in a wheelchair, completely senile, and all through the fight he kept saying to me, which boy you got ahead? which boy you got ahead? And they're standing in the ring, Holmes and  Berbick. Holmes was a 6 to 1 favorite and  Berbick takes his mouthpiece out and the referee says, come up, buddy and he [ Berbick] spits in Holmes's face and Holmes was shocked and the whole first round  Berbick is screaming "You're a punk, you're a faggot, suck my dick, suck my dick you faggot you sissy." Holmes is, like, terrified, he's, like, in the ring with a psycho and he's backing off and Berbick is screaming "Faggot!" and throwing punches and I thought he was going to knock him off in the first round.

Third or fourth round, Holmes hits him with one punch and it kind of startled Berbick. Fifth round, he hit him with a good combination. And then they were in a really close fight and he [Holmes] got a majority decision. But I thought,  Berbick is a tough, frightening guy. And then he humiliated Ali in Ali's last fight in the Bahamas. He just brutalized him. Ali just took punishment and that's when he said to Tyson, "Get him," and Tyson really went after him.

PK: And then the machetes.

JT: And then the machetes, yeah. Macheted to death at a church.

PK: There's a movie there, I think.

JT: Yeah, I think you're right.   


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