Things I’ve Learned as a Moviemaker: Robert Downey Jr.

From Kings County State Correctional Facility to the private tutelage of the legendary Lee Strasberg, Robert Downey Jr. has blazed a many-striped path.

The actor’s father, the notorious underground filmmaker Robert Downey Sr., made his five year old son’s screen debut in Pound, a 1970 film about a group of animals at a pound awaiting euthanasia. Fast-forward nearly four decades into Downey Jr.’s career, and the actor is topping Forbes’ highest-paid actors list, three years in a row. MovieMaker sat down with Downey Jr. to talk acting, directing, money, and movies.

Downey Jr. with then girlfriend Sarah Jessica Parker, 1985. Image courtesy Elle.

Save your money

Especially if you want to make films that are personal, or in any way ‘difficult’ or uncommercial, you will go through years where your income is little or nothing. It’s a big temptation for young filmmakers when they get their first check to go buy that Porsche. Don’t. $100,000 may seem like a lot of money. But what if you have to live on it for three or four years?

“We’re really close to having the financing” doesn’t mean much

You will meet many odd and mysterious people who may claim to have all kinds of money to make your movie. Maybe they do. More often they don’t. I’ve never gotten a film made without all sorts of weird and surreal twists and turns. Getting from ‘nowhere’ to ’95 percent there’ isn’t so hard. Getting an actual check you can cash to make the film with is hard. Be ready to ride the very strange roller coaster and just try to enjoy it the best you can.

Be kind to your cast and crew

You rely on these people to make your dream come to life. You need them to take your ideas and make them better. You’ll be asking them to work long, hard hours, for what may not be a lot of money on a small film. It’s amazing how far a smile, saying ‘thanks,’ listening to their ideas and appreciating their efforts can go toward getting people to give you their best. The nice side benefit is you’ll have more fun, too, with everyone on your side.

No one is enough of a genius to make a movie alone

Maybe there have been a few exceptions in film history, but do you really think you’re one of them? Most of us need our collaborators to push us, challenge us and make us and our stories better. Even Stanley Kubrick relied on the rehearsal process to discover new things about his material from his actors. (“Singing in the Rain” in A Clockwork Orange came out of an improvisation in rehearsal.) Be ready to let go of the movie in your head. It’s never going to come out just like that. You can fight that, be miserable and squash the creative process or embrace it and find the joy in letting your film grow in ways you could never have foreseen. I think it was Truffaut who said “The secret of good directing is to know exactly what you want in every moment of your film, but having no ego at all about giving that up the moment anyone else has a better idea.”

The process is more important than the result

This one is very hard to hold onto, but the more you can, the happier you’ll be as a human being. You will make mistakes, as will your collaborators. That can either be a huge disaster in your heart or it can be a learning experience. But, in the end, what’s “success” anyway? What you think? What everybody else thinks? What seems “right” to you now may look pretentious and silly in 10 years (or 10 months). What seems awful may look a lot better in that same time span. In the end you’ll die and your films will fade into time. So what’s more important, getting it perfect, or learning and growing as a person and an artist?

Downey Jr. in The Singing Detective, courtesy of Paramount.

Negative criticism hurts more than positive feels good

You may want to consider if you really want to read what all those critics have to say about your film. I’ve found kind and positive reviews lose their glow much faster than mean and harsh reviews lose their sting. And I promise, you will get some of each. If you make a film interesting enough for one critic to like it a lot, it means it’s interesting enough for another critic to hate it. All you can do is hope the ones who like it are enough of the ones who carry weight. And there is precisely nothing you can do to affect that.

Check out actors (and crew) you are considering as collaborators not just as talents

There are great actors who are great people as well. I make a real effort to try to work with those actors. It’s hard enough when everyone is on the same side. It’s much harder when 80 percent of your energy goes into babysitting a crazy person determined to make the whole process about them. Yes, there are few actors who are such geniuses that it might be worth putting up with them acting like angry, lunatic four-year-olds. But there are a lot more who simply aren’t worth it. Not when there are people like Nick Nolte or Billy Crudup or Jennifer Connolly or the vast majority of the actors I’ve worked with who are wonderful partners. But I do my homework. I talk to directors who have worked with actors and crew I’m considering and I learn what the experience was like.

Remember that actors are scared.

Even the most experienced actors and movie stars often feel vulnerable and scared, even if they’ll never admit it. It’s scary letting yourself be that vulnerable—that naked in front of a bunch of other people. It’s scary trusting your director (especially a young director) to not let you look like an asshole in front of what may ultimately be hundreds of thousands of people. If you can develop a trust and partnership with your actors (rehearsal is very valuable for this), you’ve gone a long way to getting the best from them.

Remember that there’s more to life than movies

Movies are great, but it’s easy to have them become your whole world. We work 18 hours a day making them and can spend the rest of our time chasing the chance to make them, watching other people’s movies, etc.

This is dangerous on two fronts: If your whole world is movies, you have a pretty small frame of reference to draw on as an artist. The more you listen to music, walk in the park, fall in love, fight for a cause, etc. the more you’ll have to bring to your films beyond really cool references to other filmmakers’ work.

But even more important, you’ll have a much better chance of being a happy person.

For years, movies were my life. I’d write them, direct them, read about them, go to film festivals and see almost every movie that opened. Then, one day I found myself in a serious depression, with the realization that my world had become very small and I was banking on an absurd, illogical business to give me happiness and a sense of meaning in my life. I had no spiritual base, no sense of something bigger and important than my films and me.

Now I hike in the woods, spend lots of time with my wife, mentor, meditate every day, read the newspaper, work on political causes, etc.

I don’t know if it’s made me a better filmmaker, although I strongly suspect it has. I know it’s made me a happier, more satisfied human being. MM

Featured image of Robert Downey Jr. courtesy Odyssey Media Group.

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