Arnold Johnson in "Putney Swope"

Great Conversations ’14: Louis CK & Robert Downey on “Putney Swope”

This week, we reflect on the most interesting conversations about film we heard in 2014. Louis CK and Robert Downey Sr. spoke at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles about the cult classic on December 7th.

For all the money this year’s Cinefamily fundraiser brought in – the LA nonprofit theater’s first to abandon the 24-hour marathon format that showed the breadth of their eclectic programming and focus on a specific filmmaker over the course of a weekend – there was likely nothing of more value to the theater’s co-founder Hadrian Belove than to see the 16-year-old who stood up to ask a question to this year’s honoree Robert Downey Sr., and said rather hazily after seeing his 1969 advertising satire “Putney Swope” for the first time, “I love seeing cool new shit like this.”

An organization that places a premium on the “revival” part of revival house, the idea of bringing the past and the present together seems to be at the very foundation of the Cinefamily. Certainly, it was evident from the four-day tribute to Downey in which the underground filmmaker was interrogated by his biological son Robert Jr. on Friday (clearly beaming about this celebration of his father, despite calling the weekend a form of “gestalt therapy”), his adopted son Paul Thomas Anderson on Saturday (who has made no secret of Downey’s influence on him) and his longtime friend Alan Arkin on Monday (who said of Downey after reading a letter from their mutual friend “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer, “The only thing I can compare him to is a 747. I used to look at 747s on the runway and I said, ‘there’s no way that son of a bitch is going to fly. I’d be scared to death, I’d go up in the plane and I’d have the best ride of my life.’”)

But the greatest amount of sparks seemed to fly on Sunday when the Cinefamily took their show out of their own home at the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax down to the heart of downtown LA at the ACE Hotel and gave the mic to Louie CK, whose only connection to Downey had been as an influence when the comic and filmmaker was just starting out. As Belove mentioned in his introduction for CK, the theater was in the midst of planning a Downey tribute when they caught wind of CK’s mention of “Putney Swope” on a legendary episode of Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast. Then as CK would later say, “Iron Man called me and asked me to come and meet his dad,” but not before recounting the story of how he first became aware of Downey, just shortly after moving to New York.

“It was like 1990 and I was trying to be a comedian and a filmmaker and I didn’t really have any hope of either one happening to me. Those are both very hard things to be. And I bought a VCR for the first time. I never owned one. For those of you who don’t know what that is, that’s a video cassette recorder and the way that you got video tapes was that you rented them, but I didn’t have a credit card, which you needed because I was broke. So I went to a video store and they had a bin of $5 or $1 videos. I just grabbed a handful with no idea, so I could use my new VCR.

One thing I want to say is it’s a shame about losing our video stores and our bookstores — you can’t stumble on things anymore. Now, they’re kind of like watch whatever the kid at iTunes decided to throw up on the front page for you. You can’t just go, “what the fuck is this thing?” Which is exactly how I saw “Putney Swope” with this middle finger with a person [on the box cover]. I was like, “What is this?” I had no idea who Robert Downey was. I went home, I put it in and I started watching and in the first couple of shots, I was like “Oh my God.” And the whole movie, I just kept going, ‘Oh my God! Somebody made this movie. Somebody really made it.’ They didn’t just sit and go, ‘this would be crazy.’ They actually shot it.” And it’s in a glossy box and you can get it for a dollar.

This was made in 1969 — it’s that way a movie can be like a note in a bottle, this beautiful thing that just stays [the same] — and I still didn’t know how I was going to get to be a filmmaker someday, but I knew it was possible. It was so inspiring to me because it made me think even if your ideas are really crazy, as long as you believe in them…what defines the movie to me is that everything that happens, it’s nuts, but it makes perfect sense to Robert. Days later, I started pulling together little bits of money to make a movie. I started making movies, started making short films and just doing it. This movie was a direct reason why I believed it was worth doing stuff that maybe didn’t seem so easy to sell or to talk somebody else into.”

Arnold Johnson in "Putney Swope"To go by the audience’s reaction, the film, in which an African-American radical (Arnold Johnson) is put in charge of a lily-white advertising firm after the death of its president, hasn’t aged a day. In fact, according to Downey, “It was a much different reaction than I’ve heard before. [In the past, there was] A lot of silence and then the occasional laugh and then once in a while a big laugh and then silence.”

Over the course of a 45-minute Q & A, a casual CK and a bemused Downey had a rollicking conversation, even developing a bit of a routine, with Downey’s answer to queries ranging from “How did audiences take this?” to “What was the cross street [of your home in Greenwich Village]?” being the exact same – “Both ways.” Although the two covered some familiar territory for longtime fans of the film – the fact that Downey personally dubbed his leading man’s entire performance because Johnson didn’t learn his lines and at the suggestion of the cameraman, he realized Johnson’s beard was thick enough that no one would notice, as well as the film’s unprecedented “minus one star” review in the New York Daily News – Downey still stunned CK and many others with tales from the production that was every bit as wild as what ended up onscreen.

Robert Downey's "Putney Swope"When CK asked about how they filmed the opening scene, a grand entrance that sees a Hell’s Angel clad in a jacket that reads MENSA on the back (a replica of which was given to CK by Downey Jr. after the screening) descending from a helicopter onto a port in Manhattan, Downey said, the next scene, shot inside of a staid Chase Manhattan Bank building was actually more difficult. Since there was no holding area for the actors, the pivotal scene where Putney seizes control of the ad agency and watches as everyone in the room turns from white to black had to be done without anyone leaving the room during the transition.

“When the white guys were in charge, the black guys were all underneath that [conference] table,” recalled Downey. “And when they took over, the white guys needed to get under the table. Otherwise, we couldn’t shoot there.”

As if that wasn’t enough, CK couldn’t help but ask about the little people who played the President and the First Lady — Pepi and Ruth Hermine. While one might assume the last name was shared because they might be married in real life, Downey revealed that wasn’t the case and in fact, they were a brother and sister who were plucked out of a group of five he was given by a manager of such diminutive talent.  “During the love scene there, they were laughing really hard,” Downey said, to which CK recoiled, “So it’s not even the weirdest thing about this? There’s midget incest going on. And I’m sorry…I know that’s not the proper word, but…I’m not saying little person incest.”

At one point, CK wondered aloud if he sounded a little like Chris Farley in asking about how each individual scene came to be, but eventually he realized asking more generally about its origins might be more fruitful. According to Downey, the inspiration came easily.

“A little marijuana and I was working at a place that made commercials for ad agencies,” said Downey. “The scene in the film where the [white] guy comes in and asks for a raise [from Putney], and he says, “If I give you a raise…” well that really happened. That got me writing right there. A black gentleman said to me, ‘You’re making more than me and I’m doing the same job as you.’ I said, ‘Let’s go see the boss.’ And we went in and he gave us the same logic as in the film.”

At the time, Downey was coming off the success of “Chafed Elbows,” his hour-long short that was paired at the Bleecker Street Theater with Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising” for a double feature that ran for weeks, but found no takers for his “Putney” script.

“My agent found a guy who was wandering the halls of William Morris, looking for Milton Berle or something and he said, ‘I’ve got a project for you,’” said Downey. “He showed it to him and he said, “maybe…” So we made it for back then, $250,000. Then nobody wanted to distribute it. The last guy who entered the screening room [Don Rugoff] owned all the theaters in New York, [like] Cinema 5, and when he finished looking at it, he said something like, “I don’t get it, but I like it.” And he opened it in about three weeks with that ad and I said, ‘The ad’s better than the movie.’ And he said, ‘Don’t tell anybody.’”

Yet Jane Fonda had found her way to the theater and endorsed it on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” leading to bookings around the country. CK marveled at how much of the comedy still held up, admitting how often he quoted non-sequiturs like “How many syllables, Mario?” after seeing it.

“I love the movie because everything that was worth doing was worth doing and sometimes I say, I don’t know why I watch this guy say this so much, but it stays interesting,” said CK. “And there’s a lot of slow stuff that’s very deadpan in a modern way. The jokes aren’t right on the nose, they’re really off to the side. They’re very strange, so now they’re very appealing. You said it didn’t get the laughs in ’69, but it’s been sitting like a wine waiting for people to see it now because it’s very funny.”

CK went on to say the influence he’s drawn from it has been more explicit than simply broadening his horizons as a filmmaker, citing one specific sight gag as a visual inspiration.

Perry Gewirz in "Putney Swope"“I love it so much when Sonny Williams [a long-haired hippie played by Perry Gewirtz] exposes himself and everybody just kind of gets sad,” said CK. “They walk away and then really tiny in the [back of the] shot, he turns around and he does it again. I loved that so much when I first saw it that you hung in there for that. And then there’s that beautiful little payoff way back there. And I feel like I’ve stolen that a few times for stuff I’ve done.”

“Good,” replied Downey.

“It’s good to steal things from people you don’t know,” CK shot back.

“Yeah, of course,” Downey said.

By the way, the question the 16-year-old asked? “What advice you have for an aspiring filmmaker?” To which Downey replied, “This is in the writing process, if you have a main character, and sometimes I don’t, but if you have one, they should be in a hurry.”

An impressed CK said, “That’s pretty good. Yeah, Putney’s kind of running around the whole movie, isn’t he?”

Downey laughed, “Going nowhere.”

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