What does Mike Tyson think about? Rising from a difficult childhood to global fame as the world's youngest heavyweight champion and finding notoriety outside the ring — including a 1992 rape conviction, drug abuse and the tragic loss of his 4-year-old daughter this week — the man once known as "Iron Mike" is difficult to decipher. In the documentary Tyson, director James Toback offers a striking portrayal of the icon in his own words, exploring everything from his early years with trainer Cus D'Amato, to his darker times during marital problems with Robin Givens, the ear-biting of Evander Holyfield and the three years in jail that changed him forever.
Using a split-screen style, audio looping and hands-off interview technique, Tyson is a visually compelling glimpse at an enigma. As the film goes wide in theaters, TVGuide.com spoke with Toback about his long friendship with Tyson, why he made the film at this juncture and what he thinks of the media's view of the boxing champ variably as a hero and a monster.
TVGuide.com: What was your intention when you set out to make Tyson? You've said it wasn't to change people's opinions of Mike Tyson.
James Toback: I had two things in mind: One was aesthetic. I've been experimenting with this split-screen moving-image process for quite a while.... I thought that Tyson would be a valid subject for the use of that technique all the way through the film.
And the other reason was to present a guy who is iconic in the world — probably one of the five or 10 most famous alive — whose life, by examining it, raises questions of, centering on all the subjects that are near and dear to my heart: identity, sex, love, madness, crime, boxing, money, death. I may be missing a few.
TVGuide.com: Why now? What was going on that allowed you to do it?
Toback: Well, we had talked about doing it since I finished Black and White [(1999), in which Tyson had a cameo]. Then, what happened was, in particular, he got arrested for cocaine. He crashed in Phoenix, and I thought he'd be in a very useful, meditative state, which he normally isn't, as opposed to the quasi-ADD consciousness that he usually had, where he's jumping from one subject to another.
And the second thing was that my mother had died. After a couple of months of living a very death-provoking experience, [it] made me feel that if I didn't start a movie, I'm not going to be around much longer. I thought the only movie that I can start right away is one I finance myself... . And the third reason was that Bennett Miller, who is a friend of mine, who directed Capote, was obsessed with doing a Tyson movie... . And finally Tyson said he liked Capote a lot, but if [he was] going to do it, [he'd] do it with [me], and I sort of felt obliged to do it under those circumstances.
TVGuide.com: You've known Tyson for years, but it seems like you two are unlikely friends. How did you get to know each other?
Toback: Right, 24 [years]. I was directing The Pick-Up Artist... he came by [the set]. We started talking, and ended up taking a long walk to Central Park at 5 in the morning and hit it off. We always have very intense, intimate conversations, which pick up with an awareness of what happened most recently in our lives, that relates to the kind of life we've had together... and the things that it denied us.
TVGuide.com: Has the positive response to the film surprised you?
Toback: No. What surprised me is the unanimity. The unconventionality and the incendiary nature of the subject made me think that there would be more antagonism and anger regardless of what the movie turned out to be, because Tyson has had that effect on people, and I've had that effect on people too, although Tyson to a far greater degree.
People who have gone in with all sorts of negative preconceptions have been open to altering them —particularly among women, who have gone in with a radically angry view — have in many cases, almost come to a deep affection. A number of different women have said, "I went in with anger and I ended up wanting to give him a hug." That was not my intention. I'm not trying to make a movie to induce affection.
TVGuide.com: What is it about your portrayal of Tyson that you think got people to feel that way?
Toback: Well, film is such an unadulterated medium, and uninhibitedly honest, there's such a sense of uncensored self-awareness, which is, in many cases, highly self-critical. I think that it disarms people. What's been remarkable is, from the beginning of the shoot, [Tyson] had this, it was almost an evenness to address whatever complicated and often negative feelings he's had about himself. I didn't need to bring any of them up. In fact, I intentionally decided to do the movie in a quasi-psychoanalytical way. Instead of asking questions directly, and sitting across from him, I [sat] behind him and raised [topics] rather than asked questions. I would say, for instance, on the first morning, "What are your earliest memories?" And he went on for 40 minutes.
TVGuide.com: I think the biggest surprise was Tyson's level of introspection and capacity for candor. Having known him so long, what was surprising about the process of making Tyson?
Toback: I was surprised about how fearful he's been his whole life about so many things, and about his admission of fear ... and how pervasive it's been. That shocked me. I had no idea he had this kind of ongoing, fearful state. And then, also the fact that he had these breathing difficulties when he was a kid. The effect that has long-term is huge.
TVGuide.com: Much of the writing on the film has viewed Mike Tyson as embodying both a heroic man and a brutal monster. What do you think about that dichotomy?
Toback: I think they certainly both have their place. Right now, the monster part is in [check]. But I also think, given his ongoing fear of relapsing into cocaine or alcohol, and if he did, anything is possible.
TVGuide.com: What was Tyson's feeling once he saw the finished product? Was he concerned about the way he's portrayed?
Toback: The first time he saw it was alone in a screening room, with me, and he was sitting on the floor, in a yoga-like position with his legs crossed, and he said nothing for about five minutes. And then he said, "It's like Greek tragedy. The only problem is, I'm the subject."