‘Sr.’ Director Chris Smith Found Himself Following Robert Downey Sr.’s Lead, For The Film And Beyond – Contenders Documentary

While crafting the documentary Sr. chronicling the life of writer, director and actor Robert Downey Sr., filmmaker Chris Smith found himself, much like Downey’s films themselves, setting aside advance notions and following where the story took him.

“It started as a portrait of an artist, and it changed into a look at a relationship between a father and a son, and evolved into a meditation on life,” Smith said during a panel for the Netflix movie at Deadline’s Contenders Documentary event. “The thing that we returned to was, ‘Let’s try to abandon any preconceived notions or thoughts about what this should be and try to let the process inform what the movie is,’ which I think was very much in the spirit of of the way that Sr. operated.”

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Smith noted that Downey’s son Robert Downey Jr. – who steered Smith toward telling his father’s story and actively participates throughout the film – had warned him that the maverick auteur was a master of deflection when it came to probing questions about his life, perspective and psyche, which proved challenging during the filmmaking process.

“That was the challenge of the movie,” said Smith. “We asked [Downey Jr.] ‘Who is this guy?’ And he’s like, ‘I’ll never know.’ Every question was met with a deflection, whether it was from us or from Robert. But I think through that and through time, and just spending time with somebody that you start to get the essence of the person, and I think that was the important part.”

Smith is glad that he persevered and was able to get some degree of sharper focus on Downey Sr., who died in 2021 shortly after filming. “It’s interesting: Had we not spent that time with him at that point, it would have been a real shame to try to make this movie looking backwards,” he said. “I feel like everything lined up where we were able to spend time with him while he was still mobile and still out there and capture at least some slice of the person that, you know, everyone talks so fondly about.”

Smith said he couldn’t help but feel Downey Sr.’s significant impact on his own filmmaking style, both during the making of the film and beyond.

“There are a lot of things that I think he challenged us that I that not only made this film better, but affected my filmmaking going forward,” he said. “There’s a scene where we’re filming and a siren goes off in the background,” he recalled. “And normally we would cut and wait for the siren to pass. … He immediately was like, ‘Oh, it was great!’ He always embraced the chaos or the world around us. And it was something that just sort of helped me lose a rigidity that I think I had developed in filmmaking. … That and in trying to think differently, trying to always challenge yourself to do things differently.”

Check back Wednesday for the panel video.

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