James Toback's documentary Tyson comes out today, but the director's relationship with the iconic boxer actually goes back two decades, to when Iron Mike was just a 19-year-old up-and-comer. The movie has moments of humor and sadness—sometimes at the same time, as when he calls Don King a "wretched, slimy, reptilian motherfucker" who "would kill his mother for a dollar." (But how does he really feel?) We sat down to talk with Toback to talk about whether he's scared of the champ, Tyson's curiously strong knowledge of 19th Century poetry, and the perils of the eight-day acid trip.
Kempt: So, Mike Tyson: Crazy or misunderstood?
JT: Certainly misunderstood. Crazy, only in the sense that he’s not a conventional, linear person, and is on his own channel, in a kind of uncompromising way.
K: So why do so many people think this guy is nuts?
JT: Primarily the ear-biting and the rape conviction. I think if you take away those two things, the perception would pretty much be gone.
K: You’ve known Mike for 20 years. Has it ever been scary working with him?
JT: No, [but] he said something interesting after seeing the movie: "You know, I always used to wonder why people said they were scared of me. [After] watching the film tonight, I’m scared of that guy."
K: At one point in the movie, he reads from Oscar Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol." Your idea, right?
JT: I asked him if he knew the poem, he said no. I said it’s by Oscar Wilde. He said, "You know who Oscar Wilde’s boyfriend was?" I said, Lord Alfred Douglas. He said, "You know who Douglas’s father was?" I said, Yes, the Marquis of Queensbury. He said, "You know what the Marquis of Queensbury did? He started the Queensbury Boxing Rules."
K: Did that surprise you?
JT: It did. I have to say, if you’d asked me to lay odds on whether or not he would have known that Lord Alfred Douglas was Oscar Wilde’s boyfriend, I probably would have put it at 10-to-1 against.
K: We heard you once had an eight-day LSD trip; Mike slowly lost it in prison. Did those experiences help you bond?
JT: Well, I told him about it the first night we met. And the idea of being out there, over on the other side—which is something only someone who has been can understand—was something he was fascinated by. But it was from a distance. When he got out of prison, he knew it first-hand because it had happened to him when he was in solitary confinement.
K: What is this “other side,” can you describe it?
JT: No, that’s the thing. Imagine trying to explain what an orgasm feels like to someone who’s never had one. This is a negative orgasm, multiplied exponentially.