Moments: a conversation with Robert Downey Sr. (a prince)
— Jonathan Marlow
On the occasion of Truth and Soul, Inc., a 2014 retrospective in Los Angeles, Jonathan Marlow telephoned the extraordinary filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. in order to ramble on with an assortment of platitudes (albeit all well-deserved). That conversation is now revisited due to the Netflix debut of Sr., directed by Chris Smith and featuring his son, Robert Downey Jr., and his friend, Paul Thomas Anderson (who cast Sr. in small but significant roles in Magnolia and Boogie Nights), among numerous others. Most notably of all, of course, is that it includes ample amounts of Robert Downey Sr. talking about his life, the universe and everything in-between.
Hammer to Nail: Way back in the not-so-long-ago 2008, Anthology Film Archives screened a handful of your films, many of which I was previously aware and had always wanted to watch but never had the pleasure to see. Obviously, the ones that were readily available—such as Putney Swope and Greaser’s Palace—I’d loved for many, many, many, many years. It seemed indulgent to venture out to New York to see them (and I didn’t). But I was delighted that roughly four years later the remarkable folks at Criterion released a set of five [as part of their Eclipse series, entitled Up All Night which includes the aforementioned Putney Swope along with Chafed Elbows, No More Excuses, Babo 73 and Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight aka Moment to Moment]. Things have been written about 4/5 of those films but these were otherwise not works that one could easily locate. In any event, I have a preposterous question to begin at the beginning: what prompted you to make films? Circa early-1960s, what made you think that notion was a particularly good idea?
Robert Downey Sr.: I was an Off‑Off‑Off Broadway playwright. I had plays at midnight at the Charles Theater on Avenue B or C. I was working at the Village Gate as a writer… and a waiter… and a houseman… and whatever. That was just tough to think about getting plays on. But at least you could get them on! Nobody got paid, whatever, whatever. A waiter at the Village Gate said, “Listen, if you’re writing stuff, I have a camera. We could make a movie. I’ll be the cameraman; you direct.” I said, “Okay, if you say so.” We started fucking around and we made a film [Balls Bluff].
HtN: Inevitably, you were going to make work that some audiences would appreciate and others couldn’t even begin to fathom.
Downey Sr.: Yes, that has been it. It’s about 50‑50.
HtN: 50‑50. Those are pretty good odds, actually!
Downey Sr.: Not bad. Talk about fifty years for these films to be 50‑50. That’s good!
HtN: The first of your films that I saw was Up the Academy.
Downey Sr.: What a horrible thing that was.
HtN: Sorry. I saw it—when I was much younger than I am now—on video many years after it was released. Then, much later, I saw Putney Swope. It wasn’t until long after that I made the connection that the same filmmaker (you) made both films! I also remember you in an Alan Abel film.
Downey Sr.: Right. Is There Sex After Death?
HtN: It seemed that you were both coming from similar sensibilities about American culture.
Downey Sr.: You’re right. He’s featured in No More Excuses, too.
HtN: Balls Bluff is folded into No More Excuses?
Downey Sr.: Exactly. And so is Alan Abel. Alan Abel reoccurs in that film three or four times. When I heard him on the radio, I thought he was for real. When I met him, I said, “Oh my God, what a put on.” He actually had people throwing blankets over cows and everything.
HtN: Even if you had only ever made Chafed Elbows, we would still be having this conversation.
Downey Sr.: [laughs]
HtN: Obviously Putney Swope and Greaser’s Palace reached a much larger audience.
Downey Sr.: Putney Swope, of course. That happened because of a great distributor and theater owner in New York [Donald Rugoff, Cinema V] who loved movies and he picked up Putney Swope when nobody else wanted it. He said to me, “I don’t get it but I like it, so we’ll go and open it.” Jane Fonda was on the Tonight Show talking about Easy Rider and her brother and she said, “P.S. there is another film you should probably know about: Putney Swope.” The next day, the film had a nice ride because of her. I don’t know her. But that was great. It was very lucky for me, that kind of thing.
HtN: Putney Swope seems to tap into the same zeitgeist that Dennis Hopper was reaching with Easy Rider. Much of your work seems to be in opposition to the status quo.
Downey Sr.: That is well-said. I don’t know if I was thinking of it that way at the time but that’s well-said. I think it’s true. Now that I look at these old films again, exactly. There is so much status quo now, though. Isn’t there?
HtN: It is a bit too much. I’ve read a rumor on a number of occasions that you’ve wanted to revisit Putney Swope and do a new take on it. Is that still something of interest to you?
Downey Sr.: Kind of. But I wouldn’t want to make a sequel. I’ve come up with something else and I can’t talk about it. In fact, I’m still working on it and on the train [t0 Los Angeles] I’ll be hopefully finishing it. [The 2005 documentary] Rittenhouse Square taught me a lot about how everything could work. It’s not real… but it’s real, if you know what I mean. Anything can happen in a documentary. That’s what I like.
HtN: This project that you cannot talk about would be an intersection between fiction and non‑fiction?
Downey Sr.: I think you’re right.
HtN: We can’t talk about it but that appears to be where it is going.
Downey Sr.: [laughs] That’s it.
HtN: Four nights, Los Angeles…
Downey Sr.: …four nights, seven films plus a lot of special stuff I’m going to show that people haven’t seen ever. Like ten minutes of an interview from 1967 at the Toronto Film Festival. My wife’s cousin found it and sent it. We’ll show that and a couple of other surprises.
HtN: Nearly two [now three] decades ago, I had a small theater [Sanctuary] in Seattle upstairs at Scarecrow Video, the biggest video store in the world. Scarecrow had Putney Swope and Greaser’s Palace on VHS and folks would make a pilgrimage to the store to rent films that they couldn’t find anywhere else (such as these). Now it is not as hard, thanks to Criterion.
Downey Sr.: Have you ever been to the Criterion office?
HtN: I was just there a few weeks ago, coincidentally enough!
Downey Sr.: It is a shame that you didn’t let me know. That is the church of film.
HtN: It truly is. A digression: is there a possibility that Sweet Smell of Sex will ever become available?
Downey Sr.: No. That’s horrible! We’ve finally found it. It is one of the worst fucking things ever made. And I made it! What a piece of shit that was. Stay away from that one. I have fun memories of making it, though. Andrew Lampert at Anthology Film Archives [at the time] showed it to me again.
HtN: In any event, I wish that I could be there [for the Los Angeles series]! Those who are fortunate enough to attend are in for a one-of-a-kind evening. Every night. Thank you. Thank you for being you.
Downey Sr.: [laughs] I guess that’s who I am!
- (2022) dir. Chris Smith [89min.] Library Films / Team Downey / Netflix