As longtime friends of Cinefamily, we gladly take this nefarious opportunity to promote their Friends of Cinefamily Weekend Fundraiser. From December 5th through 8th (with follow-up events on the 13th and 16th), the legendary Robert Downey Sr. will be fêted by his son, Robert Downey Jr., and his friends, Paul Thomas Anderson (who cast Sr. in small but significant roles in Magnolia and Boogie Nights) and Louis CK (who has referred to Sr.’s Putney Swope as his initial inspiration as a filmmaker).
We would be inclined to encourage everyone to make an appearance at any benefit for the great Cinefamily. But, if you happen to be in Los Angeles over the days ahead, we cannot recommend this opportunity to see the work of Robert Downey Sr. and the man himself (a prince) highly enough. Fandor co-founder Jonathan Marlow telephoned the extraordinary filmmaker in order to ramble on with an assortment of platitudes (albeit all well-deserved).
Jonathan Marlow: Way back in the not-so-long-ago 2008, Anthology Film Archives screened a number of your films, many of which I 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 had 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 a.k.a. Moment to Moment]. I promptly bought that. Things had been written about 4/5 of those films but these were otherwise not works that one could see very easily. And now there is this celebration, ‘Truth and Soul, Inc.’ We here at Fandor have a ‘relationship’ with the folks at Cinefamily. That is one catalyst for us talking at this very moment.
Robert Downey Sr.: Are you one of these Internet companies that’s got a brand?
Marlow: I would like to think so.
Downey Sr.: Sounds like it! From what I hear.
Marlow: We wanted to do something to promote this felicitous showcase. I won’t be there, unfortunately. I’ll be in Mexico.
Downey Sr.: Why are you going to Mexico? Isn’t it dangerous down there?
Marlow: Depends on where you’re at, I guess. I don’t think I have much to worry about. Maybe.
Downey Sr.: Keep your eyes open.
Marlow: I always keep my eyes open! Meanwhile, I have a preposterous question. What prompted you to make films? Circa early-1960s, what made you think that was a particularly good idea?
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].
Marlow: Inevitably, you were going to make work that some audiences appreciate and others can’t even begin to fathom.
Downey Sr.: Yes, that’s been it. It’s about 50‑50.
Marlow: 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.
Marlow: The first of your films that I saw was Up the Academy.
Downey Sr.: What a horrible thing that was.
Marlow: Sorry. I saw it when I was much younger than I am now. I saw it 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 saw you in an Alan Abel film.
Downey Sr.: Right. Is There Sex After Death?
Marlow: 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.
Marlow: 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.
Marlow: Even if you had only ever made Chafed Elbows, we would still be having this conversation.
Downey Sr.: [Laughs.]
Marlow: 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.
Marlow: 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?
Marlow: It is a bit too much. There doesn’t appear to be much of an escape! You haven’t been to the Cinefamily theatre before?
Downey Sr.: No. I don’t know anything about it. I just know that somebody was killed there.
Marlow: That was many years ago.
Downey Sr.: Do you know Hadrian [Belove, co-founder of Cinefamily]?
Marlow: I do.
Downey Sr.: I asked him about that, actually. ‘Was somebody really murdered in your theater?’ He said, ‘Oh, yeah.’ What is good about what Hadrian is doing is, after I’m done with the four days, he is going to continue showing some of the films for the month of December.
Marlow: I wasn’t aware of that.
Downey Sr.: If people can’t get in to the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th, they can catch them later.
Marlow: 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.
Marlow: This project that you cannot talk about would be an intersection between fiction and non‑fiction?
Downey Sr.: I think you’re right.
Marlow: We can’t talk about it but that appears to be where it is going.
Downey Sr.: [Laughs.] That’s it.
Marlow: 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 cousin found it and sent it. We’ll show that and a couple of other surprises. That’s Monday night. That’s my fun night. Hadrian seems to be pretty excited by it. And he’s working hard, too.
Marlow: Nearly two decades ago, I had a small theatre [Sanctuary] in Seattle 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?
Marlow: 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.
Marlow: It really 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’s 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 showed it to me again. He also made a thirteen-minute film that I’m going to show Monday night. It will be the World Premiere. He is letting me introduce it in California at Cinefamily. Hadrian’s looked at it and he loves it. Something different from the usual kind of programming.
Marlow: I wish that I could be there. Those that 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!