Synopsis : Robert Downey Jr. pays tribute to his late father in this documentary chronicling the life and eclectic career of pioneering filmmaker Robert Downey Sr.
Q: Talk about the people who were approached for the project?
CS: I actually approached Robert Downey, Jr. about doing a documentary about him. About two weeks later, he got word back to me that he had absolutely no interest in doing a documentary about himself. But, he did think somebody should do a documentary about his dad, so that was the beginning of what led to this path.
Q: It turned out that Senior wanted to make his own movie — what was your reaction to that? What was the initial process for dealing with that?
CS: Part of the appeal to him of this whole thing was that there were people around with a camera that he could try to co-opt to shoot what he wanted them to shoot. Pretty early on, he just decided that this would be much better if he was doing his own version. I didn’t realize it would end up being the best thing that could happen because it kept him completely away from us. I don’t mean that in a negative way, but he was overdoing it. He would say to Kevin [Ford, the cinematographer], or would nod to him and say, “What we’re doing is the real film.” He may have been right. Kevin and I were the two people shooting the movie. Kevin also makes many guest appearances and became the editor for the same film.
Q: You’ve made movies about making movies before such as “American Movie.” How did you see this film fitting in with your work as you started to realize there were all these parts moving and how did you tackle that?
CS: One of the first films I did was help two filmmakers in Wisconsin trying to make a horror film. This definitely felt like completing this circle of a story. I don’t think it’s necessarily to like a subject matter, like filmmaking in particular, and that appealed to me. It’s always about looking for characters. I just felt so lucky that we caught up with Senior at the time that we did. When we started filming him, we had no idea that the film was going to evolve into what it became. He was still fully healthy. We went out to lunch, walked around and visited places. For me, it was this randomness [that made the film]. We happened to have this meeting with Team Downey, which is the Downeys’ company, throwing out the idea of Robert sending us to New York to work on this. I feel so lucky that we were able to. The best [moments] of hanging out with Senior were when the cameras weren’t rolling, because he was so funny and interesting and charming all the time. I feel like we were able to capture a little bit of that spirit, and hopefully people got to meet somebody, and take something away from it.
Q: When the cameras were rolling, did you feel like he was trying to direct you a bit? What was that process of him making the decisions, telling you, “Oh, I think this might be a good shot?”
CS: That stuff was great. He thinks like a filmmaker. How lucky can you be to be doing something that you love to the very end? I wish I could be so lucky. I’ve never been protective of anything I do. So [if he said] “Hey, you should pan down from the building here. He’d say, “Sounds good, then let’s try it.”
Q: What were the initial conversations with Junior about what he wanted to do? Why did he want to make a movie about his father and how did he pitched that to you?
CS: There wasn’t much to it. He said, “I don’t want to do a documentary. But, somebody should film my dad” and that was really it. There wasn’t much to it at the very beginning. When we showed up to film in the Hamptons, I remember we were taking our cameras out of our cases and Junior came up. I didn’t know him at all. The only thing he said to us was like, “There’s nothing off limits” and he walked away. That carried through the whole project. They were very open, and obviously Junior grew up with a camera on all the time. So it was a very natural process for them.
Q: What was your interest in making a doc about Junior and how did you see that translate into this?
CS: Obviously he’s had a colorful life. He’s had his own issues with addiction and came through to the other side, and becomes Ironman. Now he’s having this new chapter of his life where, [it’s a matter of] will he direct or will he… We don’t know what he’s going to do. But knowing a little bit about his father… He tried to go to Hollywood, but didn’t make it, and retreated to New York. Then Junior stays and becomes the biggest actor in Hollywood. There was something interesting to me about the juxtaposition between those two, the different experiences that they had in dealing with Los Angeles.
Q: People are going to come to the film knowing more about Junior and his career and personality. How were you presenting Junior in his role in the film and how he would play into it?
CS: Obviously there were a lot of known things about Junior that we avoided, like the whole Marvel era and a lot of the addiction stuff. A lot of that was very clear. We chose instead to focus on how it related to Senior’s; that was where we were going.
Q: Talk about Senior’s cuts what exists of them now, and how do you think about editing it into the film?
CS: There’s a different cut somewhere. I just saw an email the other day going back and forth between different people looking for it, trying to assess it. I don’t know what’ll happen with it, but maybe it’ll be released. I would love it if people could watch it. I remember Kevin said that in the Alan Arkin interview, Senior watched the whole thing and there was one moment when Arkin stopped the interview. He gets up and goes and gets a kumquat from a bush that was nearby and comes back. Senior was like, “That’s the thing spot.” That’s the only thing that he took from the whole interview, was that moment. Kevin said [Senior] was always interested in the outtakes of anything that we were doing. He was interested in the process, like right when we turned on the camera and turned it off, he was like [ where’s] the throwaway.
Q: When you were editing this film, how were you thinking about incorporating Senior’s cut? Obviously, your filming had been doing Senior’s cut at the same time. Do you cut to it?
CS: We had a version of it. The editors and I went through it and were able to pick out things that felt the most uniquely Senior.
Q: Tell us about the black-and-white [footage]. Why did you choose the black-and-white as the base for the film?
CS: One of the things that Senior was always trying to impress upon us was trying to think differently about the way that we thought about movies, and thought about the way that we approach ideas. In one of the very first scenes, we see him watching a scene. He was like, “Good movement, nobody’s sitting.” Those were the two things that he always was looking for. Very quickly, thinking about that influence of [making it] somewhat different, doing black and white felt very obvious in the sense that so much of his early work that we were looking at when we were there was black and white. We thought, “Oh, this feels nice to be in his world,” especially at the beginning of the film when all the early films were black and white. You’re immersed in his reality or his universe. Then, as his career progresses and he goes to color, it felt so nice to have that. It felt like it really jumped off the screen in a way that was really exciting. When he does “Greaser’s Palace,” there’s these beautiful vistas and stuff that become even more special, in a way, juxtaposed against the black-and-white.
Q: What did you think about balancing the footage that you were shooting with the file or archival footage about his career? How did you want it to interact and interplay?
CS: That was way harder than it looked. Whenever you get a movie done, it always seems based on hindsight — at least, for me, it does. But it took us a while to figure out that all the films had an opportunity to reflect a portion of his life. “Putney Swope” reflected his beginning of being accepted as a filmmaker and his success while “Pound” is his relationship with Junior. “Greaser’s Palace” looks at the relationship between his mother and family. Then “Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight” is really about addiction. You have each one that we were able to use as a way to enter into a different chapter of his life.
Q: There are moments where you’re interviewing Senior, and then you’re interviewing Junior. Also, there were moments where they were interviewing each other. What did you think about the conflict behind those phone calls and how did you execute that? What role did you see them playing out?
CS: I think Senior started to develop… His symptoms got worse and it was clear that that’s where things were going. Robert had this idea that he wanted to have this dialogue, a conversation with his dad. He ended up doing it. Then Covid/ happened and we weren’t able to travel so they morphed into Zoom calls. We were able to set up cameras in both of their houses, and those were done by them on their own. We weren’t there filming, which helped. I think they did five different sessions where they were able to run through his whole life. It was really endearing to see this. I wish I could have had that dialogue with my dad before he passed away. There was something about it that felt so simple that we could all do, that you don’t do. But that was borne out of Covid. Robert really wanted to have this in-person conversation with his dad. And by the time he went and tried to have that, he’s like, “Is there anything you would want your son to know?” I think that was really the entry point for this dialogue that obviously, at that point, couldn’t happen. There’s something obviously bittersweet about it. It felt like, of course, that’s how it would be. You travel all this way over two years to have it be too late. But then it also felt like,in some way, almost poetic. Things were meant to be, and maybe that was the way it was supposed to be. I don’t know.
Q: We talked about this bio element and how you fit it into this film. But you are also thinking about this father-son relationship. Did Robert always know from the beginning that when he asked you if you wanted to make the film about his dad, how much tension would be a part of it, and that idea of knowing your father?
CS: It definitely was the running theme. It was so interesting to spend time with the two of them. They’re so different in the way that they conduct themselves, but both are charismatic in different ways. It was funny. Robert, quite early on, — as [Senior] started taking a turn with his health — said, “Oh, this is going to be about the end of his life.” I remembered him saying that and I was like, “What are you talking about? He was still mobile and everything was fine.” I don’t know if it was a defense mechanism to say, “I’m going to say that and then it won’t happen.” But it definitely was like, or he’s just being very pragmatic, he saw the writing on the wall.
Q: How did that shift your perspective as a filmmaker, knowing that this would be a film about the end of Robert Senior?
CS: It took me a while to switch, because I think I’m an optimist, and so I was like, “No, this is not going to happen.” This is Senior, he’s full of life. So it took awhile, and even in the editing, it took even longer because we started making a portrait of an artist and then it changed into a dynamic between a father and son — and a meditation on life to some degree. We do a lot of things in this. One that was so interesting was, when we looked back at the footage, the very first thing we did with Senior, he talked about the documentary that he made, “Rittenhouse Square.” He said this amazing thing — “We learn very early on to trust everything and anything can happen.” I always remembered that throughout the whole process of making the film. It felt like it was this weird guiding principle that we sort of adopted and took to heart. And it actually came true.
Q: You’re an incredibly accomplished filmmaker. How much for you is this also the process of being in Robert Senior’s film school?
CS: It 100% changed the way that I look at making movies and the way I do movies now. One of the things is that I hadn’t [done] shooting myself for quite a long time. Robert Downey, Jr. said, when we were coming up to the Hamptons, that we couldn’t bring the crew. So I had to figure it out myself and the last time I used cameras, they had tapes in them. I had to figure out how that worked. But Senior imparted to us to be a lot looser, and that carried over in everything that I’ve done so far. I always felt quite rigid in the way that I approached things and tried to control things, whether it’s light or sound. We would be doing an interview and there would be a siren happening, and we would always stop. But Senior would go, “Oh, it makes it more interesting.” He sort of embraced that. It’s interesting to think about things like, “If somebody walks in front of the camera or stands next to your subject, maybe that’s interesting.” The voice of Senior is always in the back of my head now. It helps me realize that, oh, these things that don’t seem like what you would expect might be opportunities.
Q: What was it like to not be there for those final moments, knowing you are witnessing what would otherwise be a very private moment between father and son? How was that for you as a filmmaker?
CS: Well, no one was in the room when Robert and his dad were there. Robert was going to be there with a camera and Kevin put an iPhone in the corner and had it roll. Robert had no idea that that was being filmed. That was something he found out about later. Thankfully, he wasn’t really upset about it. But Kevin was amazing. He had figured out how he could leave the iPhone in there on a little stand [so] no one knew. Robert was there, having this dialogue with his dad, and that really was part of the scene when he vents all.
Q: What was it like to witness that footage?
CS: With the footage, everything was profound. There were so many things that felt random, but then when you look at them they felt like they all connected back. Like when he started talking about “Charlie Parkinson’s disease,” he’s still there channeling that back [to] what he’s going through. He had some certain moments of lucidity. It reminded me of when my dad died of Parkinson’s, so there were a lot of things like that. You couldn’t help but tie it into your own experience.
Q: At what point did Robert view a cut, and how involved was he in acting as a producer of the story?
CS: He was incredibly valuable in terms of identifying clips that we’d missed, like looking at Senior’s work, and he was like, “How are you not using the scene where my mom gets shot in the leg with the arrow?” We’re like, “Oh.” We look it up and we’re like “Oh, yeah, it’s a great thing.” It took him a while to actually want to see a cut. He said the process of wanting to go through that was difficult. Susan [Downey] was great. She knew that, so she kept him at arm’s length for a while. Then once we figured out the structural theme of the movies, and the movie was cut in a good form, then she shared it with him. She was really helpful in terms of that. She’s a product of filmmaking and understands the process of how to make things work. I remember he was having an inner debate like, “Should we make a movie that’s really challenging [to] the audience?” Senior had said to Kevin, “We’re not successful unless half the audience walks out during the screening of the movie.”
I think Robert was always wondering about, “Do I honor my father in trying to make something that’s challenging to an audience? Or do I just do something that allows more people to actually enjoy a movie about [my] father that could be seen by a larger group of people? In the end, I remember some days [I think] I’m not my dad — and I’m having that realization.”
But towards the end, he was really helpful in terms of vulnerability in moments from films and helping, just things about his experience that we were able to incorporate into making it a stronger film.
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Here’s the trailer of the film.