May 23, 2012

INTERVIEW: Robert Downey Sr.

by Steve Dollar

Robert Downey Sr., with friend and fan Paul Thomas Anderson

Something like the Dead Sea Scrolls of 1960s (and '70s) underground comedies, the five films assembled in the new Criterion Collection Eclipse set Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr. have been out of sight for so long that their release this week marks a major rediscovery. Deliriously imaginative and madly subversive, black-and-white romps like Babo 73 and Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight deploy manic pacing and counter-cultural absurdity to critique Mad Men-era America while inhaling deeply on their own stoned grooviness. "I've paid my dues," exclaims one of Downey's impish observers, played by actor friends or maybe someone he met at a phone booth, "why should I pay my debts?"

The best-known feature, Putney Swope, achieved cult status for its outrageous satire of Madison Avenue, proposing what happens when a white, patrician agency is taken over by a black militant who renames it "Truth and Soul Inc." But they're all winners, whether showcasing the mercurial Elsie Downey (the filmmaker's first wife and collaborator) in dozens of roles in Turquoise, or riffing on beatnik reveries in Chafed Elbows, where an insatiable deadbeat chases a shy sexpot (Mrs. Downey as "Rhoda... Rhoda Dendron") across a Manhattan rooftop, telling her: "You put a heavy tremor on my ticker-roo-roo."

Downey, loquacious and leonine at 75, sat down recently in a Criterion conference room to talk about the films, getting tossed out of Yankee Stadium—twice—in order to shoot a scene, his abbreviated pitching career and giving some kid named Robert Downey Jr. his first shot at stardom.

Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr. It's amazing to see these films back in circulation—as if they ever were the first time.

They were dead. One was only gotten to me because one the actors I had given a print to. We couldn't find a negative anywhere. Another film they found in somebody's closet. Scorsese did all that for Anthology Film Archives. A guy named Andrew Lampert, he started it and the Film Foundation put up the money. And he showed them there. He cares.

I haven't seen any of them before, but it looks like they did a great job.

What amazed me is they looked better now than they did 40 or 50 years ago. I mean this is coming off nothing. Some of the guys in the room were laughing, but I don't remember it quite that way when I made the films. They were really enjoying it rather than saying, "This is weird."

They're really snappy. I hadn't been prepared for the rhythm.

That's good to know. I wrote him a note, Scorsese, and thanked him. He reincarnated these things. And that's what he does. How does he have time to do his other stuff?

What was it like looking at all these again?

I hadn't seen a couple since they were done in the '60s.

My favorite is the tongue-twister.

Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight? That was fun.

It's got a sketch comedy format, but moves so quickly that the sketches can’t develop much—you have to pick them up the next time they come around on screen.

It's like No More Excuses in a way, but quicker.

No More Excuses

In a weird way, it almost anticipates the way people experience media now, surfing the web: bop-bop-bop. At the time, it must have had people going "What?"

There also were experimental films just based on quick cuts. But back then most underground films didn't have much humor and the ones that did are the ones you remember. A lot of them are very heavy and poetic and worthy but they don't stick with you. Back then, anything that was amusing, or semi-amusing, was more fun. Maybe that's how I am. I don’t know how funny it is now.

The films?

The planet.

I don't know if the planet's very funny right now.

That's what I'm saying. I don't get the joke.

Well, Two Tons is terrifically funny, with all the spaced-out free association. That took you forever to make, right?

A couple of years. Because there's no real story, and the only actor who was consistent was Elsie. I could stop for two months and raise money to shoot some more. Edit that, and go get some more money. Most of it was written, and she wrote some, too. I don’t mind fuckin' around, but you’ve got to have something to start with. I don’t know if I ever mentioned this before. We shot one day on Babo 73 and we had run out of film. Kennedy was in Europe so we got to shoot all around the White House. I had to shoot one scene and I said, "OK, we got it." I didn't have any film. I didn't want to get anybody depressed. So at the first screening we had, one of the actors said, "Where is that fuckin' great scene we did?" And then I had to confess. We used to use small rolls of film from—you know when you see planes firing bullets in war movies and they have a camera there? That film is 100-foot three-minute rolls and we got a whole stack of that. That's what we were shooting. The camera was a wind up camera it could only shoot for 18 seconds. None of the sound was done there it was done later. And that's how we did it.

Babo 73

That explains the silent-era vibe to a lot of the material. I noticed that you used a lot of overdubbed dialogue to extravagant comic effect, as well.

On Putney, I had to because he couldn’t learn his lines.

Was it 16mm film in those little cameras?

Yeah. You're just thankful to get anything. Putney Swope was 35mm but that was an accident. Nobody wanted that film when it was finished. Why were all those early films shown in the Village and I can't get this one shown? The guy who owned all the theaters in New York, Cinema 5, he came to a final screening and he was late and I didn't know who he was and he was banging on the door. I said, "You're late! The screening started." He said, "No, no, I’m Don Rugoff* blah blah blah. Who are you?" "I'm the filmmaker." He said, "Let me in or you're not going to get this film shown. And you better hope I like it." After the film he came up to me, he was a weird guy. He said, "I don't get it, but I like it." And he opened it in two weeks. He loved movies, very unusual for a distributor. He did Monty Python, he did Trash by Warhol, he did Z. All these great films. And he didn't have to go to anybody, because he was the distributor and the theater owner. Lucky guy. He'd put full-page ads in the Times and out himself in the hole because he shouldn’t have done it.

I looked up your IMDB page and the blurb for Moment to Moment (aka TTOTTTT) almost reads like a bad review. Usually, those entries are pure hype.

Well, Putney Swope got minus a star in the Daily News. They put it in the ad. As a good thing. Back then, people were having more fun. Now it's too obvious.

Chafed Elbows

Putney Swope was based in part on your experiences at a New York ad agency. Did you really shoot a commercial spot for a hemorrhoid cream?

After Chafed Elbows and Babo 73, they brought me in to do experimental commercials and I had a salary. There was a black guy there who said, "Bob, you and I are doing the same thing and you make more money than I do." I said, let's go see the boss. The boss says to me, "If I give him a raise, I going to have to give you a raise and then we'll be right back where we started." The guy was sitting right there. I went home and started writing right there. This has got to be a film about what happens to people who are marginalized. Never mind the minorities on the street. How about the ones who get jobs? So that was that. Oh, and my brother-in-law smuggled me into a meeting at an ad agency and he told everybody I was from South America and I couldn't understand English. So I got some good info there.

They would probably shoot you today, but in No More Excuses you succeed in walking onto the field during a Yankees game dressed as a soldier from the Union Army. How did that happen?

The actor said "I'm not doing that." So I said, fuck it, I'll do it. I went to the ballgame and at a certain time I took the uniform and put it on over my clothes. Then I jumped over the fence and walked toward first base. Naturally, the cops come out. This and that. We had two cameramen in the stands, but they didn't have close-ups. The article in the Daily News [the next day] was the real thing. "Union Soldier walks on field and asks, 'Where are the Yankees?' We went back the next day, and we were able to walk into the stadium through the outfield—they were out of town now—and I went and got a close-up to cut into that stuff. [Downey was, once again, detained by security]. They didn't believe that we were making a film. They told me, "We’re taking you to Bellevue," because both cameramen were not there. Finally, they walked in. They had taken the film to the lab downtown, and put new film in. They knew what would happen: "Give us that camera." The cops didn't think these guys had already taken the film to the lab. I was ready to go to jail for doing that. But back then we all did stuff like that.

Your first wife, Elsie Downey, stars in many of your films, typically playing a multitude of eccentric female roles. She's a comic marvel. Did she ever act elsewhere?

She could do it without even talking about it. She just would go grab a different piece of clothing and fix her hair. It was just fun. I would maybe say something but she’d take that and do what she wanted. She had offers but she never really was interested in that. My kids and myself were sad about that. She went out to California and did one or two things. She could sing, too, and she was on The Ed Sullivan Show with a satiric improv group. When I talk to her about it now, she says we had enough on our hands with Robert. He was always quiet... but now.

How did you like The Avengers?

I'm not a comic book guy so I didn't know what was going on. He was great as usual. He's going to direct now. I'm happy for him.

Have you got a part?

In his thing? I hope not. I can barely walk, you think I'm going to fuck his thing up?

Putney Swope

He could return the favor for giving him his first job when he was five.

I did put him in Pound and he was great. He plays a puppy who comes in and gets adopted right away. One or two takes. All the other actors were asking, "How does he do it?" I don't know. We couldn't afford a babysitter. I think he secretly knew he could do it. His coming off the floor with his addictions is more heroic than any movie. He did it. I’m really proud of him. Everybody in our family had similar problems at one point of time or another, most of us, and nobody died, yet.

Paul Thomas Anderson has cast you in bit parts in a couple of his movies, though.

I can't remember any lines or anything. He'd say, "What are you going to do with this?" I'll do my best. I knew him before he made his first film. He's great. I'm proud of him, my god. I've seen 90 minutes of his new one. It's just good. It's not really about Scientology. It just takes place in the '50s.

I wanted to fact-check some folklore that I found online about you. Did you really strike out Yogi Berra when you played baseball in the Army?

Put it this way: I was a ballplayer in the Army in the stockade in Okinawa [mimes guzzling from a liquor bottle]. So they would take me out and let me practice with the ball club. The Yankees were touring Japan. So a few days before they said you're gonna pitch an inning or so. I hadn’t pitched in two months because I’d been in the stockade. It was raining the day they came through. I had a good first inning. They didn't get any runs. The second inning, I walked three guys and Yogi Berra hit a triple. I was right back in the fucking stockade.

* "He died. And he was funny about that, too. He said, "I have a brain tumor. It's all in my head." I put that in a film, because of him.

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Posted by ahillis at May 23, 2012 7:40 AM