Interview: Robert Downey Sr. On Truth, Soul, And Cinefamily
There were certainly great artists bending the medium in the half century leading up to the new wave, but perhaps none demonstrated more explicitly than the Cahier Du Cinema writers-cum-auteurs, that a film can, and often should, be anything. Their films, in addition to countless other European greats of the time, were in stark contrast to the heavily produced, controlled ethos of the Studio-dominated medium thus far, even going as far as to set productions in motion without an especially clear concept of what they were driving at. This made the process - one of spontaneity and discovery - an end in itself.
Forgive the oft-celebrated history lesson, but it's an essential prologue to discussing the world of Downey Sr. This, of course, also goes for the lion's share of beloved American directors of the mid-late 60s, from Hal Ashby to Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, and BBS's Easy Rider camp, who all found the French's flagrant disregard for narrative emphasis exhilarating. What sets Bob Downey Sr.'s work apart is his prankster audacity to divert so far out of the box as to completely ignore it in his satiric quest to collect and compile images to produce unique, utterly singular tones.
Robert Downey wasn't especially familiar with the rules of cinema before he began his process of defecating on them. Film really wasn't his thing. But after being introduced to the films of Preston Sturges, a rebel of classic Hollywood, his interest in the medium was peaked. Luckily, the times were such that places like New York's Charles Theater existed for DIY image-makers to throw their reels on a deck to be screened at round-the-clock film festivals, showcasing anything and everything.
At the Charles, Downey flew relatively under the radar for a few years, making whimsically absurdist mini-features, like Chafed Elbows & No More Excuses, that played like Fellini with a whoopee cushion. "I'm The Marx Brothers with Lenny Bruce language.", Downey once said in an interview, summing up his humorous approach to serious topics of the day. His farcically hallucinatory work took a cue from neo-realism, starring real, off-the-street people, and earned Downey a small but vehement appreciation in the community. Many of the faces in his pictures would reappear, like his wife Elsie, who sometimes played multiple roles in the same film, and eventually his young son Downey Jr, who made his debut as a puppy in Pound.
It wasn't until 1969 that Downey Sr. broke through to a wider audience with the racially audacious and straight-up hilarious, Putney Swope. With the aid of a revelatory advertising campaign, Swope grabbed the intrigue of millions with its instantly iconic poster, resulting in round the block lines at newly-born midnight screenings. His appreciators grew from there, earning more fans with Greaser's Palace, Two Tons of Turquoise Gold, and a continuing a cult legacy for future generations to discover.
Los Angeles is extremely blessed this week to welcome a few RDS appreciators, from a subsequent generation, to Cinefamily's Robert Downey Sr. Tribute event: Truth & Soul; a too-good-to-be-true, four-night celebration of Downey's work, featuring discussions with Paul Thomas Anderson, Louis C.K., and Downey's own son, Robert Downey Jr. A simple RDS appearance is an incredible treat, but to see him in such good company just seems unusually wonderful.
Local cine-cultists, whether they are aware of Sr.'s trip or not, have no excuse not to catch at least one of these rare conversational screenings. But, if you just can't make it, or if you're not fortunate enough to be in the vicinity of the joyous event, at least you can pick up Criterion's Eclipse release of Up All Night With Robert Downey Sr. - a handsome package featuring conversations between RDS &. PTA following each film - and have your own tribute. It's a career well-worth celebrating.
ScreenAnarchy: I understand that at the onset of your work, you weren't necessarily into cinema, per se? But, one of the first people that got you into film was Preston Sturges, if I'm not mistaken?
Robert Downey Sr.: That's absolutely right.
How would you describe what you loved about Preston Sturges?
Well, the films were about something. Even Lady Eve, I mean, was about a difference in classes. Also, it was just funny. The same people were in a lot of the films. I can remember I had to write a column for New York Magazine when the critic was on vacation. I wrote a piece about Preston Sturges. I got a call from his editor saying, "Preston would have liked the first five minutes of your movie.", which I thought was funny.
That around-the-clock experimental film festival where you started showing your work... Were you familiar with it before you submitted your work? Would you go in and watch all the different films?
I think a little bit, yeah. But, the whole idea of it was that you could just put your film on a stack in the projection booth and wait for your turn, which could be days. It was a great place. The Charles Theater was the name of it.
What exactly was the impetus to start making films? I'm sure you get that question a lot..
Yeah. Well, I was a writer of off-off-off Broadway stuff - actually plays that went on at midnight and stuff like that. I was also working as a waiter at the Village Gate. This guy that I was working with said, "You're writing and I have a camera. Why don't we do one of your pieces of writing as a film?" I said, "OK." That's how I started directing, whatever that is.
A lot of your films feel very spontaneous, almost as if you don't necessarily know what your film is while you're making it. So, what exactly would be the starting point? Would you have a fragment in mind that you would just go out and develop?
I think that's partially right. You get an image or something you saw. You build off that.
What about the cutting process? When you were assembling all these images, how would you know when to go out and get more?
Well, on one film, I shot over a period of one year in a park in Philadelphia. We shot like ten times over the year to get the different seasons. We just never knew what was going to happen with the people in the park - the ones we mostly focused on. So, it was exciting, especially a documentary, you don't know what's going to happen next.
What did the tone tend to be on set? It seemed like a pretty whimsical time. Was there a lot of laughing?
Oh yeah, sure!
What was the casting process like? You have so many unique faces in your films.
Just try to use the same people and ask them to do something different each time. A lot of times people off the street, or just people, are more interesting than actors.
Was your wife sort of unconditionally happy to participate in whatever you were doing?
That's a good question. Yeah. I don't know how she did it. She was fast too. I'm very, very happy to be going out (to Cinefamily) for many reasons. One of them, I get to see my granddaughter, who is two to three weeks old. The other is that Elsie, who passed on, not too long ago is going to be shown playing two films where she plays all the women in each film. So, that's going to be great.
I love the soundtracks of your films. Can you talk a little bit about working with Jack Nitzsche, or how would you go about selecting songs?
Well, Jack Nitzsche was just one guy. There was another guy, Tom O'Horgan, who did, one, two ... two of my films. He just got people off the street and told them what to do. He would just do these soundtracks and they'd be fabulous. Jack Nitzsche was just a great composer. I didn't even actually tell him what to do when he saw the film. He decided what we were going to do and it worked.
Right. So this other fellow... He would actually write those songs like the incredible "Hey, Hey, Hey" (B-side of 'Yeah, Yeah, Yeah') in CHAFED ELBOWS?
No, I wrote the lyrics and he wrote the music. It all happened in a hurry. I've written songs with Jack - other songs that were not in movies - but, that was Tom O'Horgan, who, ironically, turned into a director of Hair on Broadway and Jesus Christ Superstar and Lenny. He was a great choreographer of people.
I'm curious if you have any regrets about some of the movies that have slipped through the cracks? Like, VEGETARIANS IN ALASKA, or the Anthony Quinn Mexican picture?
Well, I got paid on both. One of them I got a grant and the other one, he paid me out of a paper bag.
What would you say VEGETARIANS IN ALASKA might have been about?
(Laughing) I don't know. I have no idea. You just had a title. I needed that grant and I had to say something.
Which production would you say was the most fun?
It's hard to say. It's a blur of fun. I guess in a weird say, Greaser's Palace, because I got to go to New Mexico and use a lot of color and have a new experience and get out of New York.
Looking back, what aspect of your work would you say tickles you the most? Or, perhaps, what makes you most proud?
I guess Putney Swope.
Any particular reason?
Because we had so much fun making it and nobody wanted it when it was done. One guy owned theaters in New York, and was a distributor who actually owned a lot of theaters. We finally got him to a screening. He was our last hope. When he came out, he said, "I don't get it, but I like it." And, he took it and opened it up about three weeks later. It started having an audience. Jane Fonda was on The Tonight Show and she mentioned it along with her brother's film, Easy Rider. The next day, Putney Swope had a pretty strong audience because of her. We had never met. So, that was fun... It was dead!
So, did the overnight success blow your mind a little bit? Suddenly, becoming friends with Jack Nicholson and Hal Ashby.
That's right. I knew both of them. Hal, I knew before Putney Swope was finished because I was cutting it in California. My step-sister's boyfriend was Hal. She brought him to a screening and we became friends. I've been making a documentary about him.
Can you pinpoint a moment where you thought, "Wow! This film is going to be successful! Suddenly, I have a huge audience." What was it like when that sunk in?
It wasn't a huge audience. It was just a strong one. A couple of times, I went uptown to watch the lines around the theater at Cinema 2. That was fun. I couldn't believe that. Because two months before, nobody wanted it. They said this is horrible, disgraceful, disgusting. Then, this one guy, you know, he stood by it.
In the features of Criterion's release of your films, it's really endearing watching your conversations with Paul Thomas Anderson. I'm curious as to how you two became friends and how you came to appear in BOOGIE NIGHTS and MAGNOLIA.
A woman in California asked me to read a screenplay. That's the last thing I wanted to do. She sent it again. I said, "Are you sure this is good?" She said, "Yeah, I'm guaranteeing it." So, I read it and it was called, "Sydney," and it was written by Paul. I met him. It was terrific. And, that turned into Hard Eight. We've been friends ever since. He just asked me to be in one of his movies. I was barely in one, but it was just fun. That's all. I'm not an actor. It was just fun.
So, he wanted you to be in the Philip Baker Hall role, I guess?
That's right. I think either me or this (PBH) guy. One of those character actors.. Then, he decided to give it to that guy because he needed the work too.
In the Cinefamily retrospective coming up, in addition to your live conversation with PTA, you also have Louie CK introducing PUTNEY SWOPE. Do you have any relationship with him? How did he get the gig?
He and another comedian were on a Podcast. They were mentioning that they had gone to a Blockbuster one evening and picked something out of the "On Sale" box or something. It was Putney Swope. They took it home. They got into it. They hadn't heard about it. I heard about that. It must have been either the Cinefamily or my son who called them. He is supposedly showing up. I don't have to have a medal and I love his work.
I'm glad. If you found yourself chatting with somebody nowadays who wasn't really familiar with your work at all, what might you show them?
I'd show them No More Excuses because it's five separate shorts inter-cut with each other. They were not meant to go together, but with editing, we put them together. Five short things we had. Yeah. It's a can-do. It's short too. It's 45 minutes.
I'm curious if you're a fan of any current filmmakers who you feel might be working in the same spirit of what motivated you?
Well, that's a good lead-in ... I forgot to mention that I'm showing a film that's never been seen before. It's rather new by Andrew Lambert and Owen Kline. It's a 13-minute film that's just great and the right spirit of those years, way back, when we were all helping each other. This film is great. I'm going to show it at Cinefamily on the last night. It's called, Jazzy for Joe. It's very funny too. I feel good about that.
Are you working on anything nowadays?
Yeah, I am. I don't fly, I'm taking a train [to Los Angeles]. I can finish this screenplay, once and for all, and get it going. Do another one!
The program runs from Friday, December 5 to Sunday, December 8. For more information, visit the official site of Cinefamily.