The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Sr.
Is it correct that you had a very small crew, during production? Was that always the plan?
Chris Smith: When we first went out to Robert Downey Jr.’s house in the Hamptons, he said that we couldn’t bring a crew. Which I only found out two days beforehand. And I personally had not picked up a camera in almost ten years. I had shot my first five movies, but as the business evolved… and people were using cinematographers, it was just sort of something that I wasn’t doing any more. So this actually got me back shooting, which was a great, liberating thing for me. On Hundred Foot Wave, I went over with, you know, just a C300, and I had a sound kit and a light… I think, generally, the production values of documentaries has changed so much in recent years: people are shooting with Alexas, and it’s really fancy. This film was just me, and Kevin [Ford] shooting, and maybe sound once in a while…. but it was very low-fi. That kind of got me excited about this kind of opportunity with documentary, which is so liberating, and which feels so real… and is how I started thirty years ago!
This film changed my life, and the way that I make movies, completely.
“Follow the film” is a filmmaking ethos that we learn about in your movie. Can you discuss what that concept means to you?
CS: There are two things I should say about that: during our very first interview, we were going through Robert Downey Sr.’s filmography, and he talked about Rittenhouse Square, which was a documentary he did — the last film that he did — and he said that they learned early on to “trust anything, and anything can happen.” And I thought that was such a guiding force for this project. Like, it was something that… you realized, that if you open yourself up to… I mean, I’ve always looked at documentaries as, the best that we can do [as documentarians] is to reflect back the world that we’ve been allowed into. And the experience of making this film definitely challenged that! I thought it was an interesting challenge to try to do. This film changed my life, and the way that I make movies, completely. You know… I’m someone who has a little bit of OCD, so I’m always trying to control everything in film, because… you know, if the sun is moving, you’re worried about the lighting, for instance. In the past I might have said, “we can’t shoot here— the conditions aren’t perfect.” And one thing that Sr. imparted on us… for example, when we were interviewing him in that theater and a siren goes off, and you hear me say, “wait, we’ve got to hold up for the siren,” he just says, “oh, it’s fine! It all fits.” And, to me, it made me think about the world around us differently. We did a series on big wave surfing, called Hundred Foot Wave, which I shot right after this, and the main interview happened during a hail storm. So it went from cloudy, to bright sun, back to cloudy, back to bright sun… and hail was hitting the windows… and the pipes started banging… and normally, I would have gotten in my own head, and frustrated, and decided to cancel the interview— we’ve just got to do it at a different time. But coming off of Sr., I learned to sort of accept the chaos of the things we can’t control. And that, to me, was probably the best thing to come out of this experience.
With this film, you’ve likely introduced many people to Robert Downey Sr.’s films. Was it a challenge to incorporate his work into your own?
CS: I think one of the main missteps we made, when we first started working on the movie, is that we actually tried to make it a retrospective of his career. And that is where we failed, I think. In the final cut, there’s enough in there that, if you’re interested, you can go back and you can watch those films. But it was… we were sort of being lead by the work, as opposed to actually being lead by his life, and his relationship with Jr. So that was something that took a while to figure out. Because when we started, he also wasn’t ill, you know? The first day we shot, we went out to lunch and walked somewhere. So I never looked at it as, “we’re going to be documenting the decline of someone’s life.” He seemed like he had a lot of energy, and a lot of opinions! So I just thought it would be great— an interesting portrait of this person. So I think, in my head, when we started… it was just looking at the life of an artist. And then it evolved. But those things that you start with can stay with you, and can kind of become almost like an obstacle— and that was something that took a while to let go of, and to realize that, no, we don’t have to do an exhaustive retelling of his career: if people want to learn more about his movies, they can do that. I don’t think that’s the role of— that’s an element of this film, but it’s not the primary focus.
Throughout your career, you’ve followed many kinds of subjects and told many kinds of stories. But it seems like ‘portrait of an artist’ stories hold a special place for you, given that your first film American Movie, has some similar themes to Sr.
CS: American Movie was interesting in the sense that [the subject of the film and I] were living almost the exact same life at that time: I was living in the edit room when he was down there editing… They told me I could use their facilities, so I was sleeping behind the flatbeds. It was interesting because, like, a lot of it was just me and a camera… and the situation was mirrored in that what was happening to him was also happening to me. I had a film at Sundance, and anyone I told I was making American Movie as the next film told me it was a terrible idea. And I don’t disagree with their criticism! Because making a movie about making a movie is not usually a good idea. But I just felt like… I had a conviction that maybe there was something there. But in terms of why you’re drawn to certain things… the only thing I can go off of, is that it’s an instinct. Just sometimes, certain things seem interesting to you, at whatever point in your life you’re at. And in this case, meeting Robert Downey Sr… he was just an interesting person to spend time with. And I felt like if I enjoyed that experience, I would hope it would transfer to other people.