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Robert Downey Jr. and Director Chris Smith Detail the ‘Huge Profound Impact’ of ‘Sr.’

The producer and the director talked to IndieWire about how the inventive Netflix documentary changed their approach to filmmaking.

Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Smith

Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Smith attend the “Sr.” New York Film Festival premiere screening

Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Netflix

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To watch “‘Sr.’” on Netflix is to know Robert Downey Jr. and director Chris Smith were, in a sense, winging it by the time production started on the documentary portrait of the star/producer’s late filmmaker father. But Downey told IndieWire over Zoom that the seed of the idea was there a decade before he ever met the “Fyre” filmmaker. “‘We should do a documentary about fathers and sons.’ ‘All right. Would we be in it?’ ‘Maybe. Who knows,’” said the actor, mimicking a conversation he had with the New York-accented Sr., still tickled by the eccentric director’s pitch.

“My dad went down to North Carolina and was following George Hamilton on a tour he was doing for ‘La Cage aux Folles.’ Then he started interviewing him and [his son] Ashley,” said Downey. “Anyway, there’s a super long answer to this. I’ll just stop myself short. There’s been an obtuse dialogue about maybe something like this for ages with me and Sr.”

In the same Zoom, Smith joked that when the pair met to talk about a Downey Jr. documentary, “We were redirected to a different suffix.” Though he was not interested in the Emmy-nominated documentarian’s initial proposal, Downey thought, “Wow, dude, could you imagine if we got Chris Smith to try to figure out a way to unfurl this Gordian knot?” He knew that he and his wife, producer Susan Downey, were on the same page about what an intimate project like “‘Sr.’” would require; he knew that he could rely on colleague Emily Barclay Ford and her husband Kevin Ford to work productively with his father; Smith would be the “objective tertiary element’ that would turn the Sr. idea into a reality.

“‘Sr.’” starts traditionally with a run-through of Robert Downey Sr.’s life and work, giving context for his avant-garde films like “Chafed Elbows,” “Pound,” “Greaser’s Palace,” and the landmark “Putney Swope.” Toward the middle, it becomes a zany look at the director’s dynamic with his son as they commit to making Sr.’s own movie within the movie. As the years go on, the film’s final act is the father and son figuring out how to say goodbye after the octogenarian’s Parkinson’s disease has worsened.

Looking at the Best Documentary Feature contender now, Downey sees two takeaways. “The ego never dies. And even if you smash it, another one is born right up, like mushrooms in the yard,” said the actor. “And then there was the requisite humility that was required from all of us to go, ‘Okay, that’s where Sr.’s at. Great. Let’s embrace it.’ And Chris embraced that right away.” Smith rolled with the punches during what Downey described as “this real weirdo game, initially, of Tai chi about where to push and where to yield.”

Robert Downey Sr. and Chris Smith

Robert Downey Sr. and Chris Smith in “Sr.”

Kevin Ford/Netflix © 2022

Part of that included letting Sr. split production into two camps to shoot and direct his own footage. “But the second [that] dad was happy doing what he was doing, Chris knew that he would be distracted enough to not interfere with this unfolding process,” said Downey. “There were times when Chris and I looked at each other, and we knew that, hopefully, we’d be fortunate enough to see this through to the end of his life and that it would be something that he would look back on as happy, closing arguments for his art, his life, his role as a parent, as a husband, as a whatever. And it’s a tricky thing because the jury’s out on all of us.”

Making “‘Sr.’” was a transformative experience for both Downey and Smith, with the latter saying it had a “huge profound impact” on the way he shoots and directs future projects. “Robert says early on, ‘My dad’s a lover of process.’ And I felt like that was something that was always with me during the process of making this film. And I do so many other films that are done in a different way, that there was something very exciting and it reminded me of how I started, which is like on this film called ‘American Movie,’ where it was me with a camera on my shoulder, little to no crew, just trying to figure it out as we went along. And to me, that’s the most exciting,” said Smith.

The director also remembered shooting a scene with a siren going off in the background. “Normally we would stop, [but] Sr. makes the observation of, ‘No, that’s part of the world around us. That makes it more interesting.’ And if you tune into that idea, it makes everything more interesting,” said Smith. “Through the Sr. lens, everything becomes more interesting or an opportunity.”

There is hope now that the go-with-the-flow approach to making “‘Sr.’” will become something more studios are open to greenlighting (the film was shot independently and then acquired by Netflix). “There’s no way that this film would’ve ever gotten through that [pitch] process because we couldn’t answer what it was because we didn’t know. And to me, that was something that’s being lost in the modern landscape of documentary,” said Smith. “It’s very hard to get a commissioned film where you say, ‘I have no idea what it’s going to be or where it’s gonna end.’”

Robert Downey Sr., Robert Downey Jr.

“‘Sr.'”

Netflix

For his part, Downey sees the film as helping push the documentary medium forward in the same spirit with which his dad broke filmmaking boundaries. “There is a certain creative responsibility, which is you don’t want to just indulge or shock or repeat. And so the invitation from Sr. is always saying, ‘This is not that special. You don’t need to revere it that much. Nobody ever changes the game by trying to just get in and fit in. There’s room for innovation wherever you go.’ And his approach is to learn the rules and then break ’em,” said the actor/producer.

He pointed out, “This has been a year where a lot of us in this industry have been trying to say, ‘Hey, I wanna represent something deeper about myself, more about my origins, my story, my relationship with A, B, or C.’ And then there’s been other instances where the old way of doing it is really not well-received. Like, ‘So and so tries to do a film about this and that,’ but it seems way too pat and contrived.” Downey added, “As a member of the doc, and all types of filmgoing, public, I have different standards than I would’ve three or five or seven or 10 years ago. Because things have done what they always do. They’ve evolved, and we have a new set of expectations for something. I don’t care what you call this, I want to be entertained, delighted, I wanna be uplifted, I want to be challenged. Get my attention and keep it. I fucking dare you.”

Coming out of a decade in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, becoming the highest-paid actor in the world for a time, Downey felt vulnerable premiering a project so experimental. “This documentary is actually this weird multipurpose thing that we didn’t know it could be until we saw it with an audience and got all this feedback. It becomes this soup that if you just jumped into it on a certain level, it’s entertainment on a certain level, it’s a documentation of something. And on another level, it’s an invitation to suspend your disbelief that this might have anything to do with anything besides your own process,” said Downey. “But that’s the crazy thing, right? That’s supposed to be the magic of cinema. It’s so funny that my first nuts and bolts, [most] real, palpable example of it I’ve ever felt was being with an audience when they watched this.”

Smith and Downey are optimistic that the filmmaking inspiration “‘Sr.’” serves is contagious. “I don’t know what cinema or the documentary space is going to turn into, but I’m hoping that this will at least remind people that it’s got to be the next thing, not the old thing,” Downey said. “There’s something very revealing about it.”

“Sr.” is now streaming on Netflix.

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