Movie Journal: Robert Downey Sr. Talks ‘Putney Swope’

Remembering when this “retch-ed” film hit the big screen


In the November 21, 1968, issue of the Voice, readers of Howard Smith’s Scenes column received a sneak preview of a new film being shot around town:

MOST PEOPLE would think that the advertising agency scene is a bizarre enough theme by itself, but imagine merging it with black power and coming up with Truth and Soul, Inc. Bob Downey (right), self-styled “Prince” and midwife of low budget films with a sardonic slant (Chafed ElbowsNo More Excuses) does just that in his plunge into the big time by directing Putney Swope. It stars Arnold Johnson (left), a few strands from Hair, and a script that might give Madison Avenue the bends. The $200,000 movie which should be finished in a few weeks has been shooting in such esoteric locales as Greenwich, Connecticut, Manhattan office buildings, and the Great Jones Street Alley.

Eight months later, readers with a good memory might have been intrigued by an ad in the July 10, 1969, Voice:

In that same issue, Robert Downey, Sr. himself sat down with Jonas Mekas, the Voice’s expert on (and maker of) underground cinema. During the interview, Mekas muses that perhaps Downey is getting too big time — too “uptown” — to fit comfortably with the low-budget provocations that were usually reviewed in the Movie Journal section of the paper.

And indeed, as a not-quite-full-page ad in the next week’s issue attests, Putney Swope was a hit with many critics writing in the straight press. Downey’s distributors however, perhaps sensing the crossover appeal that the film had with both up- and downtown audiences, included a hardcore pan amid the raves:

“0 ★ (No stars.) Putney Swope is vicious and vile, the most offensive picture I’ve ever seen. This one is retch-ed. If intelligent people must see it, take along your retch bags.” —Wanda Hale, Daily News

Mekas and the other critics were definitely onto something: Putney Swope has inspired a number of major filmmakers, including Jim Jarmusch and Paul Thomas Anderson, who, in homage to Downey’s film, included a character named Buck Swope (played by Don Cheadle) in Boogie Nights. —R.C. Baker

Movie Journal

By Jonas Mekas
July 10, 1969

Putney Swope, Bob Downey’s new film (he made Chafed Elbows), is opening this Thursday at Cinema II. I am quite certain that it’s the funniest, the most absurd, and probably the most intelligent film you’ll see in town this week and next week and the week after that. Since it deals with a subject I know nothing about — it’s all about Madison Avenue, how a bunch of blacks take over an advertising agency, and what happens to them — I had this rambling talk with Robert Downey. Marshall Lewis, who is doing publicity on the film, occasionally joined in.

Jonas: I see Putney Swope as a collage film, a collage of absurdities, of ideas, situations, insights, documentary reconstructions, ironies, parodies, etc. None of your films are really character or plot films. But then, even Sturges comedies are collages. Not that your film is exactly a comedy. I think it’s also a document. My main problem with it is that I do not know the advertising world and I am not even interested in it. Probably, half of the film escaped me totally.

Marshall Lewis: It’s curious that you are bringing up the collage thing. Because I find the idea rather exciting. Because it’s frenetic, as the advertising world itself.

Jonas: The only thing is that to present the madness, one has to be very organized… Anyway, it’s possible that you chose the most difficult form of comedy, as far as the viewer goes. The viewer in Putney Swope is not given any guidance. The scenes of corruption and scenes of innocence are mixed together. Sane and insane are mixed together. The subject, in a sense, is not transcended but only presented, and presented probably well. People who are interested in advertising will have a field day with this film.

Marshall: That is, all of Madison Avenue.

Jonas: And also many other avenues. Everybody advertises, everybody sells.

Downey: It’s symbolic of everything. Not only advertising.

Marshall: It’s about people doing things they don’t like doing.

Jonas: In Swope, I had a feeling that people were doing things and they liked doing them. Only that they were doing stupid things. The people were stupid, and their business silly, stupid, and corrupt.

Marshall: The only thing is that they do not enjoy doing it.

Jonas: I didn’t see any clues to that. I do not see any clues to that in New York in general. The way people are acting I get the impression everybody likes what they are doing, no matter how stupid or corrupt their business is. The only clue is that you see no passion in what they are doing. That’s why your film is so documentary. The way I see the film, Swope wants to run the advertising agency, and he believes in it, and he runs it to the best of his abilities. Same with all the other silly characters, black and white. They do everything to the best of their abilities.

Downey: But they end saying, fuck it, let’s split the money and go.

Jonas: Yes, but they say it not because of their principle but because, through their stupidity, they mismanage their business. They would like to succeed, but they don’t know how to run it. Maybe they are not corrupt enough yet. Anyway, this is an occupation, a profession I know nothing about.

Downey: But there are millions of these people. If they don’t work in advertising, they use it. I worked in it, for two years. I am trying to cleanse myself in this film by showing everything that I saw while working in advertising. I could’t believe, for instance, that a black man was getting less money than me for doing the same thing I was doing. That’s another reason for why I brought the black people into the movie.

Jonas: My problem is this. I even attacked the Living Theatre, for harping and harping on how black and corrupt everything is. It’s about time that we go one step further, and… We all know how corrupt the system is. These are very obvious that both whites and blacks can misuse and mistreat people…

Marshall: You know it, but how many people really do?

Jonas: What I’d like to know is why Don Rugoff really likes the film. I’d like to interview him and find out his reasons. Maybe he thinks the film is good propaganda for Madison Avenue.

Downey: He thinks I am crazy. He actually thinks I am insane. Really.

Marshall: But he distributed good films, like The Cool WorldNobody Waved GoodbyeSoft SkinNothing But a Man

Downey: The things we did, the stuff Taylor Mead, I did, or what your brother did in Hallelujah the Hills, this is starting to seep into what they call, uptown, “people who go to movies,” and it took 10 years.

Jonas: The Wild Bunch, by Peckinpah, could be made by you, Peckinpah, could be made by you, or by Taylor Mead, by Warhol — it’s camp… It’s still great, I think, that today you can take a film like Swope to Cinema II — a film without a plot, a film that isn’t exactly what they call a Hollywood movie. It’s not even exactly a comedy.

Downey: It’s a sad film. It’s a tragedy. It’s a documentary absurdity.

Jonas: I think Swope is a film which would look better the second time. It’s not a one-viewing film.

Downey: I see that Jonas doesn’t dig the film. You don’t have to write about it if you don’t like it. I know Jonas if he doesn’t like something he doesn’t write about it.

Jonas: It’s true. But it’s also true that I do not dislike Swope. The only thing is that I do not know the world it deals with, it doesn’t interest me. So I am sort of interested. The film is educational to me, like a documentary. A case study. When I am not familiar with the subject of the film I am very critical of my own dislikes.

Downey: I think its the best film I ever made. It’s my most personal movie. But the truth is also that I want to go to something else. It’s my best film because I learned more from this film than any other.

Jonas: It’s certainly the most ambitious of your films. And the deepest, content-wise.

Downey: I really do not see why you interview me. Maybe I should interview you as the film-maker of Swope.

Jonas: Okay. Ask me questions.

Downey: Do you think that anything is funny in your film, Putney Swope?

Jonas: Hmm… Hmm… The author has very little perspective to his own work. It’s very difficult to judge for me what’s really funny in Swope. It’s a serious film for me.

Downey: What do you mean by “serious”?

Jonas: What I mean is this… I wonder if for Chaplin, or Keaton, or any great comedian… if any of their own gags, situations looked really funny to them… For an artist, who is creating it, it’s a very serious business to make a comedy. That’s what I mean, when I say that Swope is a serious film for me.

Downey: You are probably right… How do you feel about a film opening in a uptown theatre, Upper East Side? How does that affect you?

Jonas: When you do something into what you believe you want more people to see it, be it for fun, for politics, or for beauty. Swope is not exactly a home movie. It’s a movie for the people.

Downey: Do you care about what other people say about your film?

Jonas: Praises are sweet… But you see, immediately, after you’ve just completed a film, you are sort of numb to both, to praises and criticism. It’s neither hot nor cold. You are still surrounded by the atmosphere of your own film, and you are the best judge of it, so it doesn’t matter what people or papers say. It matters more to the distributor and the exhibitor.

Downey: Why did you call the film Putney Swope?

Jonas: Could be any other name. No great reason… Okay, why did you call it Putney Swope‘?

Downey: I don’t know…

Jonas: How much did the film cost?

Downey: Over $200,000. There are over 200 actors in it.

Jonas: Rugoff is the distributor. Who was the producer?

Downey: A guy named Duboff. He put up the money. I had nothing to do with raising money. Nobody else would do it.

Jonas: Where did you get the black actors?

Downey: We put an ad in ­Showbusiness, and the first 100 who came we cast.

Jonas: How long did it take to shoot?

Downey: Two months. But we were rushed. We had to shoot nights in agencies… So you don’t like the film? You think it has no feeling…

Jonas: No… But I think it lacks substance. Or clarity. But then, the whole advertising feeling has no substance. And then, please do not take my quibbles out of proper perspective. When I compare your film with, say, The Wild Bunch, I have to admit that I like your film better. So you see, my quibbles are on a different level… Have you seen any films recently you liked?

Downey: I like Hopper’s Easy Rider. Also, Titicut Follies. Swope could be called Madison Avenue Follies. Have you seen any you liked?

Jonas: I liked 2001.

Downey: You never wrote about it.

Jonas: I do not write about films which everybody writes about even when I like them. You see, the commercial film has 999 papers, and 999 film columnists, and the underground has only me, or me and a half… I even had doubt if I should write about your film — you’ll get enough space uptown. Or I hope so. Have you had any Hollywood offers?

Downey: They keep coming. I have turned down a lot of films for a lot of money for the last two months. Because I want to write my own scripts. And they want me to film novels. One day a guy offered me $75,000 just for directing, to make a movie. I never had 75 cents… you know. So I say, “but this book is a piece of shit.” And he says: “I know. But when do you want to start?” I would never make those kind of movies. I am not there. I am in the middle. I’ll be always in the middle, between underground and Hollywood. Although you never support this kind of cinema…

Jonas: It’s not true. You see, if I write only about the underground film, it does not mean that I dislike all other cinema. I consider that I have limited amount of energy. Plus, no other paper would write about the underground, not until very recently. As for the “middle” cinema, there is all the uptown “intellectual,” “liberal” crowd. So it’s not a question of my likes or dislikes but the question of “strategy of energy.” It’s all calculated… I am concerned only with the most neglected area: the personal, mostly non-narrative film. Bringing Andrew Sarris into The Voice was part of calculated strategy, to free myself for the avant garde.

Downey: I noticed that Andrew’s columns became shorter after he got married.

Jonas: That’s why mine will become longer… I ain’t a fool, I am not going to get married… Where was I? Yes. There are so many films which are not even mentioned anywhere. So why should I waste my small column on commercial film? Very often I get reproaches from the commercial film-makers, often good friends of mine: “Why didn’t you review my film? You don’t like it or something?” But I consider my Voice space too valuable. I am guilty even about this space that I am giving to you.

Downey: That’s why you don’t write about Andy’s film anymore?

Jonas: That’s correct. He doesn’t need me any longer. I have to control myself, not to write.

Downey: So why do you write about my film?

Jonas: From solidarity, I guess. Memory of the old days. When you were in the underground, when you were showing your films at the Charles theatre, at the Open House. In memory of good old days…

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 7, 2021

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