'Tyson' is knockout look at boxer on ropes

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"Tyson" talk: The old line about "if only we could see ourselves as others see us" comes to mind watching "Tyson," James Toback's knockout documentary about legendary heavyweight boxing champ and convicted rapist Mike Tyson.

Actually, that's exactly what Tyson, himself, was able to do thanks to this movie. After the film's Sundance Film Festival premiere last January, he observed, "I never used to understand why people perceived me as such a monster and then I saw the movie and it all made sense." It's a quote that would work well in marketing the film, which opens Friday via Sony Pictures Classics in New York and L.A. and May 1 in Chicago, Boston and San Francisco before expanding May 8.

Written and directed by Toback, whose many films include "Two Girls and a Guy" (1997), "Black and White" (1999) and "When Will I Be Loved" (2004), it was produced by Toback and Damon Bingham. Its executive producers are Tyson, Harlan Werner, Nicholas Jarecki, Henry Jarecki, Carmelo Anthony, David Haines and Bob Yari.

Not being a big admirer of Tyson, I approached "Tyson" expecting not to like it, but that wasn't the case. By letting Tyson reveal himself to the considerable extent that he does, Toback enables moviegoers to respond to the "monster's" newly perceived vulnerability. While that certainly hasn't turned me into a Tyson fan, it did leave me with a much better understanding of how events shaped his life and how little he made of the opportunities he had. In a way, "Tyson's" a contemporary Greek tragedy and as genres go that's been an audience grabber for quite a few centuries.

In any case, I was happy to be able to catch up recently with Toback, who called from the Harvard Club in New York. When I began by telling him that I liked his movie, he replied, "This is the first time I've had an almost 'Shrek'-like response to a movie that one would have thought would be incendiary and very dividing."

Asked how he got Tyson to agree to sit there and open up so completely on camera, Toback told me, "We've known each other since he came by the set of 'The Pickup Artist' in 1985 and (we've) kept up over the years, including, of course, using him in 'Black and White' as himself in a memorable role.

"There's that scene in 'Black and White' in which he meditatively and self-psychoanalytically describes the notion of murdering someone who's out to get you and also (talks about) the horrors of his time in the penitentiary, from which he had recently been released. It was that meditative, reflective Tyson that made me think this should be expanded into a film if I can find the right visual style and do a whole portrait -- a kind of self-portrait through the prism of my own aesthetic."

That was about nine years ago, he added, "and it didn't really come to fruition until my mother died and I felt at my wit's end and I had to get going on something. This was something I could finance myself and jump into immediately. And it was the right time for him because he had just crashed, literally and figuratively, in Phoenix and had been arrested for cocaine possession and put into rehab. I thought this would be a good time to get him in a meditative and reflective state. So we jumped in and shot five days, 10 hours a day, and then I spent a year editing it."

Clearly, there had to be a strong degree of trust on both their parts, with Toback believing Tyson would open up in a way that would make for a good movie and with Tyson believing that Toback wouldn't manipulate what he said to serve some other agenda. "Absolutely," Toback agreed. "And there has been that mutual trust since the beginning and (there was) never a cause for either of us doubting the other, so this was just another example of it. But there was no real hesitation on either part. The one thing, of course, is that since I did it in a somewhat psychoanalytic fashion as a voice off camera provoking and raising certain questions it is true that he was somewhat surprised when he actually saw the results. When he saw the movie he was quite taken aback and the first thing he said was, 'It's like a Greek tragedy. The only problem is I'm the subject.'

"It wasn't until the third time he saw it -- the second time was at the Cannes Film Festival (in May 2008) -- at Sundance (in January 2009 when) we had a huge ovation as we had, in fact, at Cannes and he started to realize people were actually responding in a way that he hadn't anticipated. He said to me at the dinner afterwards, 'I always used to wonder what people were talking about when they would say they're scared of me and they think I'm crazy' and he said, 'Having watched the movie for the third time tonight I realized I'm scared of that guy.'"

Recalling the film's "10 minutes by the clock standing ovation" at Cannes, Toback contrasted that to negative responses he'd had to other films he's made over the years. The reaction to "Tyson," he pointed out, "has been uniformly incredibly good. I expected at least a third of the people to be negative because there's a lot of negative feeling about him going in. The movie, without trying to, defuses it. That's what's quite remarkable. There's no effort to do that and, in fact, that may be why it happens, because there is no effort to do it. But you just get a sense of him and he has a personality that finally gets people disarmed so I've had none of what I've expected."

How did Toback and his DP Larry McConkey shoot Tyson? "I stayed off camera -- not just off camera, I stayed out of his eye line," he explained. I wanted to get this guy in a psychoanalytic atmosphere so I really stood off to the side and just threw lines out -- hints, suggestions -- and then let him just go with them. Because we were shooting in hi-def we weren't going to run out (of film and have to reload). I had two hi-def cameras -- a Panasonic Genesis and a Panasonic Vericam -- and they were fairly well concealed. Not concealed in the sense that he didn't know he was being shot, but they weren't obtrusive at all. He was either walking on the beach alone in the kind of sunset glow or sitting in a comfortable position in that house or wandering outside in the pool area.

"He was in this really kind of calm, open, confessional state. Knowing that it was not normal conversation (where) I ask you a question, you give me an answer, but rather I throw out an idea or a hint and then just let him go and not be afraid of long silences in between responses so that there's a chance to brew and for surprising things to come out. To say nothing of those great facial expressions in those moments of meditation."

Toback wound up with about 30 hours of footage from his five 10-hour day shoots with Tyson. "We took small breaks, but basically (kept shooting) because the atmosphere was so relaxed there was a kind of continuum that one felt," Toback said. "Often when he was sitting on the couch he didn't know whether he was being shot or not."

Having all those hours of Tyson on camera, he added, "will make for some rather fascinating DVD features because I had a good extra hour, at least, of really good stuff that I just didn't use because it didn't fit the structure, not because it wasn't as inherently interesting as what's in the movie."

Toback and editor Aaron Yanes worked for about a year editing the film. "It took three months just to go through everything," he said, "so around the fourth month we started in earnest, really getting to the editing process. But the first three months we were just going over everything endlessly."

Besides the footage that was shot of Tyson, the film also includes archival visuals of Tyson in the ring. "It was relatively easy to find," he explained. "It was not relatively easy to make deals and get the right to use the stuff. There was a kind of endless legal-financial nightmare trying to organize everything so that we got everything in place legally.

Although first cuts of documentaries often run hours longer than the finished film, that wasn't the case with "Tyson," which is being released as a very tight 88 minutes. His first cut, Toback recalled, was "probably no more than seven or eight minutes longer. I had loads and loads of footage, but it was not in addition to what I had, it was instead of stuff. So once I had the structure (figured out) the shape was pretty much what it is. It was just using alternative things to illustrate the same points."

As to how the film came to SPC, he told me, "They were excited from Cannes. We used to sit on the Carlton terrace and talk about making a deal and, in fact, they were ready to make a deal at that point. But I had financed the movie up to that point myself and I had to take in first one and then a second investor in order to make everything work. Sony Classics hung in there for months and months and months with their offer, but we weren't able to (accept it yet). I would have taken it right away because they were always the ideal distributor for the movie, but I couldn't take it right away because I had to satisfy to the letter the contractual obligations to one of these investors, who was very unyielding about that."

Resolving that situation held up Toback's deal with SPC for months: "Despite my efforts to get him to be flexible, he was pretty dogmatic about (it) saying, 'I know what I'm entitled to and I'm getting it.' That need for his part, which he put above all else, kept us from being able to close the deal for (many) months because I had to get more money if I wanted to make the Sony Classics deal work. To make it work in terms of their offer and the first investor's requirements, I just needed more money. I had already put in the majority of the money myself so I couldn't really afford to do any more on my own. Luckily we finally got it at the last minute from Carmelo Anthony, who is a great basketball star with the Denver Nuggets. He came in at the end to be the final investor."

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