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Revisiting 'Putney Swope' with Robert Downey, Sr.

The 1969 film helped launch the creative ambitions of Louis CK and Paul Thomas Anderson. We talked to Downey, now 78, about whether or not it's his best film, and if anyone really "gets" it.

by Mike Pearl
Dec 5 2014, 5:46pm

Photos and stills courtesy of Cinefamily

It's no wonder Louis CK calls Robert Downey, Sr. the filmmaker who influenced him the most. Downey's films, which fall loosely into the category of comedy, seem to have been the template for  Louie's aesthetic, from the casual left turns from comedy into non-sequitur or ​unsettling drama, to the inexplicable but somehow apposite ​casting choices, to the sudden ​flights of surrealism. It's all vintage Robert Downey.

Louis CK  ​cites 1969's Putney Swope as a particular favorite. Widely regarded as Downey's breakthrough film, it tells the story of a marketing company that accidentally elects the token black member of its board of directors as chairman. He fires all the white employees and turns the company into Truth and Soul, Inc., creating a string of hilarious fake commercials—long before fake commercials became the central pillar of American comedy.

This weekend, Downey is part of an event in Los Angeles called  ​Truth and Soul, Inc. – The Films of Robert Downey Sr. (a Prince), featuring screenings of his newly restored work and guest appearances by Louis CK, Alan Arkin, Paul Thomas Anderson, and some relative of his named Robert Downey, Jr. 

I caught Downey with him to talk about

Putney Swope 

and he told me about the event, and—to my surprise—a new film he's working on.

VICE: Would you say Putney Swope is your best film?
Robert Downey Sr: Oh no. But it's the one that got around, and got distribution, and a lucky rhythm.

I'm such a huge fan though.
Aren't you too young for that?

Is 30 too young?
No, but it seems that lately people who are young have seen it. It's a mystery to me. I guess it's because of DVDs, but I don't know. It's confusing at times.

Who did you expect to like it when you made it?
When we made the film nobody wanted to even put it out there, and we lucked out because the last distributor who saw it, and owned theaters in New York, said, "I don't get it, but I like it. Let's do it." We opened in one of his theaters, and got some great response and then on the Tonight Show, Jane Fonda, when talking about her brother's film Easy Rider, mentioned Putney Swope. The next day, box office was up everywhere.

Do you "get" it?
It's hard to think about Do I get it? I just had fun.

Tell me about what you're looking forward to at this revival event.
There are seven films happening. My favorite thing about this whole thing is I'm introducing a film no one's ever seen before, by somebody else. It's called Jazzy for Joe, and it's just terrific. Black and white, 13 minutes of greatness. Cinefamily told me I could show anything. It's by a guy named Andrew Lambert. 

With your films, are they restored versions?
Scorsese [initiated the restorations] three or four years ago. They were really lost. We found one in a closet. We didn't think we had them. There were no negatives. 

Who did the actual restorations?
Criterion picked them up, and that really helped a lot. They picked up four films in a boxed set. Have you ever been to that place, Criterion? To their offices? You should try it. It's like walking into a church of film.

I'd like to see how they make those bonus features.
The extras are great. I usually look at those first, and then watch the movie. The movie makes more sense to me when I know how this or that thing happened.

You don't mind knowing the ending?
No. There's only three endings: "up," "down," or "it's up to you."

Which one is the ending of Putney Swope?
It's up to you.

Yeah, it's hard to decide. You certainly don't tell stories in a normal way.
​My stuff is... Y'know Goddard said it all: Every film has a beginning, middle, and end, but not necessarily in that order. Some of my films are short. A couple are an hour. Another one is 45 minutes. And then there's a couple [at] 85, 82 [minutes]. Stuff like that. Some of them are surreal. But maybe there's a through line somewhere that we pick up in the editing. I'm not sure.

You sometimes change everything during the edit, don't you?
I think it's another draft, in a way. With technology today, you can change anything.

Are you still actively working?
I am working on something, writing-wise, so we'll see.

A new film? Can you tell me what it's about?
​Nah, I don't want to. I'm just happy the writing is done. Then I have to go out and pitch, and get it financed, so we'll see. It's gonna be interesting to see if I can get financed now.

What's your strategy?
I play the Lotto religiously.

Has it worked?
Not yet, and the first budget is almost 5 million bucks.

I think you could make a hell of a movie with that amount of money.
Damn right! Putney Swope was $250,000, but it was all non-union. Some of the actors I want now are in SAG, and I'm in the DGA, so you can't do that.

Can you tell me which SAG actors?
​I've already got one: Alan Arkin. He's down here for this event. He's not gonna be the star, but he's got a great part. He's already read it for me over the phone. He's great. I've known him a long time. He doesn't kid around: He's just funny.

I'm looking to get a couple more done before I hit 80, which is coming up in a year and a half.

You don't have to stop at 80.
No, but I'd like to get a couple more done, and then between 80 and 90 just relax, and do documentaries and short films.

Is there any change you'd like to see in the world of movies?
​I'd like to see a little more hope in this town. A lot of people have come to the conclusion that only big-budget films interest the studios, and they used to make occasional films about people. Hal Ashby's films, and stuff like that. Maybe with digital everybody can make a movie if they really want to, on weekends or something.

But what do I know? I'm just happy to be alive. 

The event is a fundraiser for ​CinefamilyPutney Swope is playing on at the ACE Hotel Downtown at 2 PM on ​Sunday, December 7, with an appearance by Louis CK.

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