Banging Big With Iron Mike

Film still for Banging Big With Iron Mike

Who else would put Mike Tyson, Brooke Shields, Robert Downey Jr and the Wu-Tang Clan in the same movie but maverick James Toback? David Thompson talks to him about his two new films, and coming up with the idea for Bulworth

"Desire is life," James Caan as a New York English professor with a serious gambling habit tells his class in The Gambler (1974), quoting from Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground. The Gambler, directed by Karel Reisz from James Toback's debut screenplay, immediately announces a sensibility split between intellectual distillation of experience and the pursuit of that experience in the rawest of ways. A one-time college lecturer himself, Toback had entered the film world via journalism and creative writing, publishing an infamous memoir on the black football star Jim Brown. In his first film as writer and director, the now notorious Fingers (1977), Toback relayed the intense story of a classical pianist (Harvey Keitel) torn between his career and collecting debts for his mobster father. Toback's fearless approach to acts of mutual provocation between the sexes won him few votes from the politically correct.

The controversy surrounding Fingers hardly paved the way for a glittering Hollywood career. Toback's subsequent features were fascinating in embryo but flawed in execution, either through weak casting (Ray Sharkey in Love and Money, 1980) or over-ambition (an unconvincing Parisian terrorist cell in Exposed, 1983). But as Toback said at his recent master class at the London Film Festival, he is of the school of screenwriting that can only draw on personal experience, and even when the surface details feel wrong the underlying waves of compulsive behaviour ring true. After the disappointment of The Pick-Up Artist (1987), a project originally intended for Warren Beatty, Toback made the highly personal and hugely enjoyable talkfest The Big Bang (1989), in which a variety of interviewees are faced with the biggest questions about existence in a universe apparently created by divine orgasm.

The 90s found Toback back with Beatty as screenwriter of Bugsy (1991), on which he had to cede direction to Barry Levinson, now a close friend. But Toback was determined to make a personal film again, and his screenplay Harvard Man, based on his experiences on LSD while a student, looked a likely candidate. While that film remains unmade, he appears to be riding a new wave with his intimate three-hander Two Girls and a Guy, in which Robert Downey Jr plays a feckless actor confronted in his New York apartment by the two girls (Heather Graham and Natasha Gregson Wagner) he has been seeing simultaneously. Without quite recreating the intense lust that pervades Fingers, the film echoed its controversy (13 versions were submitted to the US ratings board to make palatable a fully clothed sex scene), and has re-established Toback as a writer with a fine ear for human indiscretion. Toback's next film (currently being edited), Black and White, finds him exploring the obsession of American white youth with the world of hip-hop as personified by top rap artists Wu-Tang Clan. The film also reflects Toback's past liking for casting real icons (Jim Brown, Rudolf Nureyev); in this case the idea of Mike Tyson playing himself immediately caused one actress to withdraw. Whatever the result, the film can hardly fail to be provocative.

David Thompson: In your published diary for 1994 you are optimistic that 'Harvard Man' is going to be made with Leonardo DiCaprio, before he became Hollywood's favourite. What happened?

James Toback: We went, Leonardo even in person, to 14 places. I had Leonardo, Harvard Man and a $6.5 million budget below the line. We got 14 out of 14 "No"s. His last film had been Total Eclipse, and that was the view on him - he's talented, yes, he's a wonderful actor, yes. But what they were secretly saying was, "So, who gives a fuck?" But that's not ever to be uttered, because you cannot publicly admit that you have no interest in talent, that you care only about who's going to make money for you.

'Two Girls and a Guy' seems to have been made with comparatively little trouble.

It was about as perfect a harmony as could be reached, probably because there were only three actors and a director to worry about. Downey was a given - The Pick-Up Artist was not so much a disappointment as a first step on a journey. Then when he got arrested and put in rehab, and I saw that image of him in front of the Malibu courthouse looking so stripped down literally and figuratively, I thought, when he gets out he's going to do great work, because he'll have a tremendous emotional rawness and connection to his own suffering along with the natural skill and talent he has in his sleep. So I was writing the movie for him while he was in rehab.

There was also an incredible comfort in the way the movie was shot, even though it was an 11-day shoot. We had the entire cast showing up every morning at six, we shot sequentially when we felt like it and we could rest when we felt like it - there wasn't even a formal break for lunch.

How did you decide on the actresses?

We saw 35 women in two days, coming in pairs to read with us or talk to us. They had to be different because the idea that a guy is saying exactly the same thing to two very different women over a ten-month period is wittier and sicker than a guy who's saying exactly the same thing to the same kind of women. We provoked them with our questions almost to the point of defying them to say to themselves, "Do they think I'm going to put up with this?" Not that that would have been an illegitimate attitude, it's just that if that was their response there would be no way the movie would work with them in it. Natasha and Heather spotted what was going on in two seconds and spent the entire session showing us they could pull it on us better than we could pull it on them.

The most remarkable scene must be where the two girls go for the Downey character around the bathtub.

There was a 22-page scene in the script but secretly I knew it was unshootable. On the way down to the set, all of a sudden I said, "Oh fuck!" Danny Bigel, one of the producers, said, "What did you forget?" And I said, "The scene we're shooting today." He said, "I have a copy of it." I said, "No you don't, because it doesn't exist!"

No sooner had I got on the set than Downey came over and said, "I'll do the scene as you wrote it if you want, but it's way below the level of everything else." I said, "I guess you're going to have to write a better one." And he wrote a single page, which was self-serving dialogue for his character.

I then showed it to Heather, who turned purple and said, "I would never let him get away with that!" I said, "Fine, don't." Then I said, "Natasha, you do whatever you want." We did 20 takes, ten minutes each, and it became a 200-minute scene which in the film is a 12.5-minute sequence. My favourite moment occurs after his bombardment, with these four mirrors behind him refracting his image, when he says, "I don't like this." It's the perfect fusion of actor and role: it's a guy who always has an answer to everything, and finally he finds he has no answer to anything.

You seem to have taken this method to heart in 'Black and White'.

Since that scene seemed so lively, and was so much fun to edit, and since I can't write dialogue for Wu-Tang Clan anyway, and I'm not going to write it for Mike Tyson, I thought, why not pick a few scenes I have to write and do the rest the way I did that scene? I think 60 to 65 per cent of Black and White is done that way.

How did you cover this, since you could never know what might happen in front of the camera?

I started with the intuition that about a quarter of the movie could be shot in single takes, so I always had a Steadicam going for four minutes. I was usually able to anticipate in the general staging where people would be and light accordingly. There's a party scene where Downey, playing a gay character, hits on Mike Tyson, and after he's been disposed of by Tyson, his partner, played by Brooke Shields, was supposed to take him aside. The scene was supposed to be over, but all of a sudden Brooke approached Mike and came on to him. He then moved, so half the first take was done in areas that were unlit.

I was almost going to yell out, "Move three steps to your right," but I felt I would blow it. And then we did four more takes and the level of spontaneity was almost the same. I'm sure she didn't know until the second she approached him that she was going to go through this journey of stripping away of resistance. When it came to the movie she was the aggressor - she called, said she wanted to be in it. I said, "You have to be prepared to do things you've never done before." She said, "That's why I want to do it."

Howdo all these different characters come to be together?

It's like La Ronde: it's each one leading you to another and then on to another. And visually that's the way the movie is designed. For instance, it opens with a very elaborate crane shot in Central Park where we eventually discover Power, the mind behind Wu-Tang Clan, against a tree with two 18-year-old blonde girls, each of them with his or her fingers inside the other, all three kissing passionately.

We then cut to the only opening title card and go back into a townhouse where a banker and his wife (played by Marla Maples, the former wife of Donald Trump) are having dinner with three of their four children. The fourth chair is empty, and finally Bijou Phillips shows up, one of the two girls we've just seen by the tree with Power. She says she's been at the library and that's why she's late and she has a run-in with her father. So right away the first world has both connected and clashed with the second. And the movie moves along with at least one character connecting us to the world we're about to be introduced to. The worlds include the world of the Wu-Tang Clan, the white upper-middle-class investment-banker world, the Manhattan DA's world, the Mafia world, the prep-school kid world, Mike Tyson's world, Brooke Shields' character's middle-America world and Robert Downey's gay world. There's one huge party for the opening of a club where they're all drawn together.

How did you get Tyson involved?

In 1986, on the set of The Pick-Up Artist, we were shooting the Museum of Natural History. At about 4am Brian Hamill, a friend who's a stills photographer, brought Tyson over and I ended up spending the last couple of hours of the night alone with him. I was tremendously impressed and felt a strange connection to him. He was desperately seeking answers to basic philosophical questions about himself in particular and life in general, most of them revolving around sexual obsession, homicidal impulses, fame, money - all things I like to include in movies. It occurred to me that he would be a great screen presence.

Then when I did The Big Bang a couple of years later I called him. By then he was heavyweight champion, probably one of the two or three most famous people in the world, and it was getting to him. I lost touch with him for a while, then he went to jail for three years and I was sure when he came out he was going to be an irresistible character on film. Once I decided on Wu-Tang Clan for Black and White I knew he'd have a natural function as an iconographic advisor, because all the hip-hop world looks at Mike in awe, male and female.

So he plays himself?

Absolutely. When Brooke Shields starts coming on to him, he says [imitating Tyson's lisp], "Oh man, mam, please don't do this, I'm on parole, you're white, I'm black, I don't need this shit." She persists anyway, and then he gets excited and you can see the transformation from caution to excitement to the abandonment of caution to sexual aggression in about four seconds. She does a bullfighter's job, gets him confused, plays with him. And you can see how under other circumstances the thing could have got completely out of hand and he would have felt it got out of hand through no fault of his own. She's doing a documentary on white kids obsessed with black culture and it affords her a chance to explore a world she hasn't explored before. She's using a camcorder, and one of the devices I'm using cinematically is to intercut the grainy footage she shoots with the widescreen image. There's a moment where she's telling Mike he has beautiful eyes, a gorgeous face, and the whole frame is a grainy shot of his eyes from her camcorder.

How did you become interested in the world of hip-hop?

I had zero knowledge of it a year ago. And this bothered me because it was increasingly clear that all contemporary social, musical, political, sexual, sartorial and linguistic life has been affected by it irrevocably. Racially and sexually there's a revolution going on - inter-racial sex is happening at such a casual and intense pace among people under 25 because hip-hop culture has hypnotised and taken over white teenage life. They talk and dress and think and want to be black. Fucking black is a natural corollary.

I'd been saying to Warren Beatty for years, "You ought to do a movie that's black, because you mixed with the black world would be great." Then he called me up and said, "I'm ready, are you?" He hired me to write on Bulworth for a month, though the idea was I'd be around for a year or two. But I made it clear that I wanted to direct the movie as well and I realised the chances of Warren not wanting to direct Bulworth were zero. I had to direct a movie after the frustration with Harvard Man so I went off and did Two Girls and a Guy. But later I realised the other thing that made me do that was that I hadn't done my homework, even though I didn't need anything like the hip-hop awareness for Bulworth that I did for Black and White, where it's the essence of the movie.

Still, to go all that way and be as disconnected to the hip-hop world as I was, was negligent to the point of incompetence. So I enquired as to how to get in at the top - in other words, which was the hippest, most extreme, most representative radical version of hip-hop life? And everyone said, "It's Wu-Tang Clan, how can you not know that?" I had a breakfast meeting with this new company Palm, and we agreed to make a movie about hip-hop life against white life and to use Wu-Tang Clan. A meeting was set up with Power, and it was such an immediate rapport - linguistically, psychologically, emotionally - that within an hour I felt I was already half way into the thing. He then introduced me to everyone else in Wu-Tang Clan and right away they started referring to me in the most flattering terms as a nigger, and said I was one of them.

Did they know anything about you?

The thing that got them was that I mentioned I was going to use Tyson, and then I referred to my life with Jim Brown, whom they had met and admired. So they checked me out with both Jim and Tyson and by the next day it was there. I said, "I'm literally coming from another planet, so I'm going to be attuned to everything you show me, but you've got to show it to me, right now I don't know it." But within two weeks I was suggesting things to them. When I didn't know what to do I would just ask them - when we were shooting I would ask them to stage a scene, where everybody would be sitting, how many people would be there. Always saying, "You decide what to say and how to say it." First in hip-hop life is the language - the behaviour, psychology, attitude, demeanour and even the sexual rhythms all follow from the language. So if you give them dialogue, as all the other so-called black movies have done, you've blown it.

What sort of response do you anticipate?

I think I'm going to return to something close to Fingers. I've been dreaming about these images, and my editor keeps calling me up and saying, "Boy, boy." Then he hangs up.

Every character is behaving to the extremes of possibility. The scene in Fingers with Jim Brown and the two white girls caused a major stir and still does, as much because of the violence as because of the race. This movie mixes sex and race so casually, so frequently and so naturally, it takes for granted a kind of blend and I think it'll have a very dark - if you'll forgive the pun - subliminal effect. Just when you think it's all black male and white female, you see this one character who's white in bed naked with two very beautiful black bodies on either side, and then he's interrupted by his stepmother who scatters the women. Then there's the iconographic effect of having these things being done by Mike Tyson, Claudia Schiffer, Wu-Tang Clan, Robert Downey, Ben Stiller, Brooke Shields - though it would be startling even if it was all unknowns.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012