A Filmmaking Firebrand Returns to L.A.

Robert Downey Sr. rides into town for a mini-festival of his movies, which he can’t stop editing

It’s easy to forget that Robert Downey Jr. started his movie career in some of the least mainstream material imaginable. As a child, he had bit parts in several films directed by his father Robert Downey Sr., who was one of America’s most celebrated underground filmmakers during the 1960s and early ‘70s.

The senior Downey doesn’t pay much mind to the fact that his son is now one of the biggest celebrities in the world. “I’m just happy that he climbed off the floor during his dark period,” he says. “To me, that’s the miracle: that he chose to live.”

Downey Sr.’s movies, the cult classic Putney Swope among them, are being celebrated in an intimate, four-day festival which opens tonight at Cinefamily. “Truth and Soul, Inc. – The Films of Robert Downey, Sr. (A Prince)” includes appearances by Robert Downey Jr., Louis C.K., Paul Thomas Anderson, and Alan Arkin, a testament to the wide-ranging influence of his relentless anti-establishment satires. Downey Sr. himself will host screenings of his best-known films.

The retrospective is part of this year’s annual donation drive. For the past few years, Cinefamily has hosted a live, 24-hour telethon, and it was at one such event that Downey Jr. showed up to open a time capsule. He then proceeded to donate several thousand dollars so the theater could upgrade its projector, which was the beginning of a bond between him and the theater. “Hadrian [Belove, Cinefamily co-founder] and my son had a meeting of the minds,” as Downey Sr. puts it. “I’m very pleased that they’ll have my old films around.” But the main reason Downey Sr. is excited about coming to L.A. is that he’ll get to meet his newborn granddaughter.

The filmmaker didn’t have much input on which of his films are being screened, but he says he’s happy with the selection: “To me the interesting part is being able to cut a few minutes out of a couple of [the movies], years after they were made. Which shows you that nothing is ever done.” He has indeed made edits to some of his movies specifically for this series.

Speaking of re-editing old work, Downey Sr. says, “Most people, when they do this, they put stuff back in. But I do the opposite. Nothing brutal. It’s just that I think, ‘Why did I leave that in?’” His dissatisfaction with his original choices was ignited when he was sorting through his work to help the Criterion Collection compile a boxed set a few years back. He’s completely unsentimental about his after-the-fact tinkering. “I took two minutes out of Rittenhouse Square last week. Pound, took out about five minutes. Two Tons of Turquoise, about fifteen minutes. I didn’t touch Putney or Chafed Elbows or Greaser’s Palace. They’re fine.”

Such is the life of a restless filmmaker, even in old age. While taking the train from New York to Los Angeles (he dislikes flying) Downey Sr. will be polishing the last draft of his latest screenplay. And this weekend’s retrospective will allow him and his fans to look back on what he’s done before.