Writer/director James Toback is revered within Hollywood but largely unheard of outside its inner sanctum. Following on from the ten-minute standing ovation his Mike Tyson doc Tyson received at Cannes, Toback turns the cameras back on the festival for Seduced & Abandoned, made with pal Alec Baldwin. It sees the pair go to Cannes to pitch an implausible Gulf-war-set sequel to Last Tango in Paris called Last Tango in Tikrit. Their half-serious pursuit of funding for the project is the pretext for an essay-like conversational film that asks where all the rich, emotional, artistic movies of yesteryear have gone, and why they’re so hard to make in today’s movie industry. It describes what it is to be in love with something that ultimately rejects you, told through a cast of everyone from billionaire financiers to Jessica Chastain and Ryan Gosling.
Dazed Digital: How did you start screenwriting?
James Toback: I came to movies as a writer. It was my original strength. It was my circuit to complete filmmaking.
DD: What do you feel about screenwriting as an artform today?
James Toback: Screenwriting – in effect the ordering of what people say - has come to feel somewhat quaint and dated. Writing leads to improvisation and improvisation leads to invention. Of course, that evolution requires the use of actors like Alec Baldwin, who is innately articulate, witty and verbally intelligent, which is fine since it’s considerably more pleasant to be around such people anyway.
DD: How important is Cannes to what your new film says about the movie industry?
James Toback: With Seduced & Abandoned we wanted to create a picture in which the old and new Cannes come together. We have all the traditional Cannes figures – Bertolucci, Polanski, Scorsese. We have billionaires with their yachts, society figures like Taki Theodoracopulos – this guy has been a regular on the Cannes Riviera since the late 50s. He talked about being at Cannes among Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso, Matisse... It’s a completely different world now. It’s all in turmoil!
DD: You capture the moment when politics, art and the student resistance came together at Cannes. That seems like a long time ago now.
James Toback: Absolutely. In the movie Roman Polanski speaks very poetically about the student uprising of 1968 and the ambivalent relationship of French politics to the festival. A festival is a place to celebrate, it’s a happy occasion. He then makes a little fun of (Jean-Luc) Godard for taking himself very seriously as a revolutionary at the time, but he was, and a lot of people joined him. And who would have believed that Henri Langlois – a writer and film critic – was going to be the trigger to riots around the nation and the near toppling of (French president) Charles de Gaulle? That wouldn’t happen now. No way.
I ask everyone if they’re ready to die. It’s a metaphor for the death of writing, of movies,of everything. We’re all going to fucking go!
DD: Seduced & Abandoned is like a long conversation between friends. How did the concept take shape?
The idea grew out of frustration and a lot of lunches and dinners between Alec and me asking, ‘Is this a fictional film? A documentary film? Who’s going to be in it?’ Alec is more of a cold-hearted, cynical, perhaps realistic person. Whereas I’m always assuming that although the odds are stacked up against me I’m going to get everything I want. Which is why I’ve been a gambler all my life. Six to one is still good because there’s still one. What was most fun about Seduced & Abandoned was that Alec and I got the chance to walk through all those different worlds; one minute in the sales section, then with directors, actors, executives, billionaires, all in this one penned area. We wanted to create this ongoing sense of past and present, with a little hint of the future.
DD: There’s a scene in which Bernardo Bertolucci talks about exchanging poetry with Pasolini before being asked to help him out on set. Have we lost a bit of this romance?
DD: I think romance is over. Everything moves so fast and there’s no sense of permanence. It’s as true of human relationships as it is of movies. Movies, like most relationships, move so fast you can barely remember if they were ever there. The key thing with our film was to go through the movie being either on the absolute verge of rejection or thoroughly rejected. If we’d have walked into any kind of success you’d have wanted to kill us by the end of the movie.
DD: And this links in to the last question you ask each of your subjects: are you ready to die?
James Toback: For me, you’re cheating and you’re lying if you make a movie that doesn’t acknowledge mortality. There’s a moment when I ask Scorsese whether he’s ready to die, and his face has a different expression to any other that he has in the movie. He just says he hasn’t worked it out yet. All of a sudden you see the essence of a human being. This is a charade that we are all in on. The movie business is a microcosm of the world economy in that regard. It’s why the film leads to questions of mortality. It’s really why I ask everyone if they’re ready to die. It’s a metaphor for the death of writing, for the death of Cannes, for the death of movies, the death of art, of everything. We’re all going to fucking go! It’s the only reality we all share. As TS Eliot said, that is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper. With movies it might be a bang, who knows?
When Mike Tyson was with me at Cannes a few year ago, he was the star of the festival. Brad Pitt and Spielberg didn’t get a look in. When we were in the limousine we couldn’t move for people sitting on the hood just trying to get a look
DD: Do questions of mortality in this movie also become questions of market?
James Toback: Movies, like life, are all really just a Ponzi scheme. One of the crucial lines in the movie is this inadvertent phrase thrown in by (super-producer) Avi Lerner when he’s telling us who’s worth what. We’re talking about putting together this movie with Neve Campbell and Alec Baldwin and he says, ‘Get me what’s-her-name, Natalie Portman.’ There’s a world of difference between ‘get me Natalie Portman’ and ‘get me what’s-her-name, Natalie Portman.’ By saying, ‘what’s-her-name, Natalie Portman’ he’s revealing that he knows Portman is nothing but a flavour and that next year it will be somebody else. It’s a process where what gets made has nothing to do with the actual aesthetics, language or writing of the film. That’s what’s most destructive about this market mentality.
DD: Ok, so what hope is there?
James Toback: None. Or very little...
DD: You suggest that film and life need to fuse a little. Like Mike Tyson the fighter and Tyson the movie?
James Toback: Let me tell you, when Mike Tyson – blackest of black figures in the American national consensus – was with me at Cannes a few year ago, he was the star of the festival. Brad Pitt and Spielberg didn’t get a look in. When we were in the limousine we couldn’t move for people sitting on the hood just trying to get a look.
DD: He was also in your 1999 film Black & White, for which you collaborated with the Wu-Tang Clan. How did that come about?
James Toback: Having grown up in a radically mixed racial environment, my interest in the hip hop blend was inevitable. Wu-Tang Clan became intimate collaborators on that film. The most exhilarating and dangerous day involved Mike Tyson and Robert Downey Jr. Both had recently been released after lengthy prison sentences. They were ready and raw. Downey was playing the gay husband of Brooke Shields and Tyson was playing himself. At a party in the home of Wu-Tang, Downey minced over to Tyson and hit on him with increasing persistence. After several unsuccessful attempts to dismiss him, Tyson snapped and smacked Downey in the face, then choked him with one hand and slammed him to the ground. As Downey crawled away, Brooke – playing an independent filmmaker doing a documentary on hip hop hits on Tyson herself, leaving him confused and vulnerable. All lines between reality and film, roleplayer and role, were erased. The whole set was stunned.