Why Robert Downey Jr. Gave His Blessing to a Doc About His Filmmaker Father

A version of this story about “Sr.” first appeared in the Guild & Critics Awards/Documentaries issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Robert Downey Sr., who died in 2021 from complications of Parkinson’s disease, was a pioneering underground filmmaker long before his actor-son Robert Jr. made a name for himself. Toward the end of his life, the two Roberts teamed up for a doc from director Chris Smith that turned deeply personal.   

THEWRAP: How did this project come about? 

CHRIS SMITH: As documentary filmmakers, we’re always looking for a story, and I had a meeting at Robert (Downey Jr.)’s company and floated the idea to see if Robert was interested in anything in the documentary space. And I very quickly was told no, not at all, but he did think somebody should do something on his dad. 

How did that turn into a movie about his dad in which Robert Jr. was intimately involved as well?

It was really organic. I don’t even remember a moment where we sat down and said, “This is what we’re doing.” It was just something that started to happen. We started to document Senior, and then Robert was coming out to the Hamptons and was like, “Oh, we should film with me and my dad.” It just evolved. I think part of it was trying to stay open to not having a preconceived notion of what it should be.

How well did you know Robert Sr.’s work when you got into this?

At the very beginning it was just “Putney Swope,” which I think I had seen in film school. And then, obviously, once the project started and we were doing research, we caught up on the rest of it. It was really exciting to see. When I started making stuff in the ’90s, “Stranger Than Paradise” and “Down by Law” felt like the early independent cinema. And to see that there was this whole wave 15 years earlier was exciting and inspiring. And to think that they were doing that without a roadmap, getting a sense of the community that existed was really fun.

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Between that and COVID and Senior’s declining health, it strikes me that this is a film where what you ended up with is probably dramatically different from what you thought you were making when you started it three years ago.

Yeah. I think at the beginning it was looking at an artist and his body of work and the life that he had led. And then as it progressed, it turned into a story about a father and a son and their journey together, and how these movies reflected the life story as opposed to looking at it purely from a cinematic perspective.

How did Robert Sr.’s health affect what you were doing? He took a turn at some point during the process, right?

Yeah. It was shocking because, just on a personal level, the person that we started making the movie [about] was still very much active. We took a walk on the first day and got lunch. I don’t think we went into it with any idea that this could be the eventual path that things would take. But I would say that Robert (Jr.) seemed to have an idea that this could happen pretty early on. I remember when he first brought it up, I didn’t see it because Senior was just so full of life. 

At a certain point, I imagine you just had to accept that this was going to be the storyline of the last part of this film.

Yes. That was definitely the case. But the thing that was nice is that his spirit comes through throughout the whole film. Yes, there’s a bittersweet and sad quality to it, but it also feels very life affirming at the same time.

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Robert Sr. certainly seemed to get a kick out of it, even making his own version of the doc.

Yeah. Every time I was with him, he was pointing out scenes or things to be filmed. He has had an enduring influence on me in terms of embracing the chaos, which is hard in documentaries. The other day, I was shooting an interview in Portugal and people were walking through the frame. In a previous incarnation, it’d be distracting. But now I just think, “Oh, Robert Sr. would just say it makes the frame more interesting.”

Read more from the Guild & Critics Awards/Documentaries issue here.

Photographed by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap

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