Robert Downey Jnr on Netflix portrait of his filmmaker father, and the relationship between two ‘pretty flawed dudes’
- Streaming on Netflix, Sr. is a film by the Iron Man star on the life and career of his maverick auteur father, Robert Downey Snr, filmed shortly before he died
- The Oscar nominee says making the film led him to ‘ingest the totality of our relationship’, and address the pair’s drug issues and finding peace in family life
Robert Downey Jnr set out to make an objective portrait, a tribute to his father, the underground filmmaking maverick Robert Downey Snr. His dad had other plans.
“The key point in this is when he goes, ‘OK, I think we should split into two camps: the [expletive] movie and the one I’m gonna make,’” recalls Downey Jnr, laughing. “I just go, ‘Man, hats off to you, pops.’”
Sr., directed by Chris Smith, is a work of father-son harmony more than might be suggested by Downey Snr’s typically brusque assertion of filmmaking independence.
It’s a kind of home movie, mostly made by Downey Jnr but with his father’s own insertions peppered throughout.
It’s a son’s loving reckoning with his iconoclast father, a freewheeling cult filmmaker whose experimental films gave Downey Jnr his entry into moviemaking and whose outsize personality did much to inform his son, for better and worse.
As Downey Jnr puts it, “My dad and I are pretty flawed dudes.”
“It was a way to put something between us in our own relationship, and [gain] closure. I didn’t know that it would be the quickest way to the heart of things,” Downey Jnr said in a recent interview alongside his wife and producing partner, Susan Downey.
“It’s like a little string you pull at, you know. And it winds up pulling you into a rabbit hole that I kind of needed to go down in order to process and ingest the totality of our relationship.”
Downey Snr died last year at the age of 85 after battling Parkinson’s. That’s part of the film; Downey Snr wanted it to be.
Sr., which is streaming on Netflix, was made with the intention of capturing his last days: a last stab at gaining some understanding of him, wrestling with their shared demons and, once again, making a movie together.
Some 50 years ago, Downey Jnr made his debut in his father’s antic 1970 dog pound comedy, Pound (1970), at the age of five.
“I have pretty good recall for the entirety of this incarnation, for better or worse,” says Downey Jnr, 57. “Those films and projects, I have very clear memories of that. I can still see the Mounds [chocolate] bar that was being handed to me. It was my first prop I ever had to deal with.”
Years before he was an Oscar-nominated actor for Chaplin (1992) or the star of Iron Man (2008), Downey Jnr was, as he says in the film, “just Bob Downey’s kid for a long time”.
Absurdist, spontaneous films like 1969’s Putney Swope and 1972’s Greaser’s Palace made the elder Downey a pivotal countercultural provocateur who defined himself outside of the mainstream.
In Sr., Downey Jnr’s reverence for his father is easy to see, as is their mutual affection. But that doesn’t mean the old man was always easy on his famous son. Every film Downey Jnr ever made, he wondered: “What will Snr think?” Only every 15 years or so would he get a thumbs up.
“I remember that he thought Less Than Zero (1987) was good. He thought Chaplin was too episodic. And he really liked that German song I sang when I was 15.”
Again taking his father’s direction, Downey Jnr sings that song, with panache, in the film. Though it’s easy, as a viewer, to see how much alike they are, Downey Jnr is more hesitant to define what he inherited from his dad.
“I did not get his wildly optimistic ongoing super-curiosity,” he says. “I would never necessarily marvel at the fact that a duck had baby ducks and those ducks got big.”
On those ’70s films, Downey Snr’s cocaine use was rampant, an environment that surely had an influence on Downey Jnr’s own struggles later with drug addiction. It’s a point that Downey Jnr raises in the film.
“We would be remiss not to discuss its effect on me,” Downey Jnr tells his father. He replies: “I would sure love to miss that discussion.”
But Sr. is in many ways a portrait of how both Downeys recovered, stabilised and found peace through family. Downey Jnr ascribes a metamorphosis in his father to his second wife, Laura Ernst, who died in 1994, and his third wife, Rosemary Rogers.
“I can relate to that, too, up until this current administration, the never-ending Susan Downey empire,” says Downey Jnr. “I just have a lot more gratitude.”
Movies were how they connected. The last film Downey Jnr and his father watched together was the music biopic satire Walk Hard (2007). They laughed their heads off.
Since premiering Sr. at the Telluride Film Festival, held annually in the US state of Colorado, Downey Jnr has noticed how Sr. becomes a projection of others’ experiences losing a parent. Towards the end of the film, Downey Jnr goes into his father’s room, with the camera trailing, to find some final answers.
“I was going to get to the bottom of it for once and all,” he says.
Like most sons seeking such definitude, Downey Jnr came out, he felt, empty-handed.