More than just Iron Man’s dad, multi-hyphenate Robert Downey Sr. didn’t help write the book on sixties and seventies underground cinema. Instead, he proved there are no rules at all. Raised on Washington Place and in Long Island, Downey enlisted in the army while underage and became a filmmaker while waiting tables in the Village “just as a way to get away from working.” These midnight movies, absurd in their reflections of the sexual and civil rights movements, still astound in their Dadaist blend of vaudeville, nouvelle vague, and rebellious satire. Simultaneously immediate and old-fashioned, they are also crude in shape and tongue, much like the man himself. Yet in conversation, he is still, as he always credited himself, “A Prince.”

Three years ago, Film Forum included Chafed Elbows—Downey’s photo-and-voiceover thingamajig about an incestuous mother and son—and Putney Swope—the seminal lambaste about black revolutionaries torpedoing a lily-white ad agency—in their “New Yawk, New Wave” series. Starting Friday, they’re giving him a whole week, grouping the aforementioned films with the Jesus-gone-Wild-West freakout Greaser’s Palace, a double bill of nonsense compilations No More Excuses and Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight, and sweet slice o’ life documentary Rittenhouse Square. Downey sat down with Gothamist to discuss his influence on Paul Thomas Anderson and Louis CK, anti-Hollywood ethos, and the wisdom he gained from fifty years of filmmaking. Naturally, the conversation got political and silly.

When did this Film Forum retrospective all come together? I came down there for a Q&A when they were showing Putney Swope and Chafed Elbows a couple years back. I thought nobody would be there, but it was a big crowd! Then I forgot about it. Now Bruce [Goldstein] comes around and says, “Let’s do a whole thing!” He’s a very interesting guy, you know that, right? You should interview him. He programs a lot of the stuff that they show there. He’s funny, too.

I don’t get down to Film Forum as often as I should. Most recently, I went down there for Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight. He wanted to be the fattest guy in the movie, and he pulled it off. What a tub of shit he was, wasn’t he? Oh my god. And he was a king, or whatever the fuck he is? But I enjoyed it anyway.

You had a retrospective out in LA a couple years ago, out at Cinefamily... That was wild. Louis CK did the Q&A for Putney Swope. He had me up there for forty minutes. He said it was his favorite film, I couldn’t believe it. The Q&As last longer than the movies sometimes. One time, I’m screening it at Temple University, and when it’s over, a guy comes up. Very clean cut, wearing a bow tie. He says, “Thank you for getting me into advertising.” That was very disappointing. I might’ve said “I’m sorry.” I should’ve.

Apparently it’s a big influence on the show Louie. Do you see any of your influence in there? No, but I enjoy him. We went to go see him at Madison Square Garden when we came back from California. He came out and took his shirt up, so you could see his big stomach. He’s great.

Where in the city did you grow up? In the Village, on Washington Place. Right near where IFC is now.

Were movies a big part of your upbringing? No. It was a thing I did once in awhile, mostly with my grandparents when I lived with them in Long Island. My parents got divorced when I was really young. When I started doing this, it was just a way to get away from working. A guy I worked with, William Waering—we were both waiters at the Village Gate—he said, “If you got a script, I got a camera. Let’s go!”

What was that place like? A big jazz and comedy club. Big! I worked there for a couple years. Sam Shepard worked there. You got to see Thelonious Monk. It was just a great place to be.

How old you were you when you enlisted? I was there from sixteen to nineteen. I was underage. I got a fake birth certificate, and my mother said, “His other birth certificate was destroyed in a fire.” I had a couple court martials, too. But I can’t tell you what they were for. After that, I lived at my sister’s on Cornelia Street. She said, “There’s something going on a couple blocks down that you ought to check out.” It was The Three Penny Opera with Lotte Lenya, and I said, “I don’t even know what this is but it’s great!” I was inspired, so I started writing. Then I ran into that guy at the Village Gate, and then once we had a film put together, all the critics walked out of the first screening, except for one who loved it. Then we had a line around the corner.

That film was Babo ‘73. Yes. Then Chafed Elbows got a mention in the Times, and it was another hit. The Bleecker Street Cinema put it with [Kenneth Anger’s] Scorpio Rising, and that became a huge double header all over the country. They thought I was Kenneth! (Laughs) They thought he was me. That’s alright. I like that film. His use of rock ‘n’ roll was good.

In No More Excuses, there are segments in there that are like early music videos. You might be right. We weren’t even thinking about that. Just having fun. Do you want to make films?

I don’t know yet. I can, because I’ve helped some friends out with their own shorts, but it’s also possible because we all have the technology on our phones. That’s right. Anyone can do it. It’s like having a pencil. Use it or don’t, but don’t say you can’t do it. If you really want to, you could make it with your phone. Somebody did, last year. Tangerine, I still have yet to see it. Godard and Truffaut and all those guys, they all started after just writing about film.

When did you discover all those French New Wave movies? Back when they started coming in here! They played at the Bleecker, I loved it. There was one night, at midnight, they were showing some of my rough stuff. Before the lights went down, a guy comes down the aisle with a goldfish in a martini. It was Charlie Mingus, the jazz player. Everybody was like, “What?” They started applauding. He could care less. It was great. Anything was possible then, because most of it hadn’t been tapped. People were tired of Hollywood. Not that it was a big deal, but it was a little movement.

When did you start using your subtitle “A Prince”? Early. We were editing stuff, and I just said, “Eh, call me a prince.” It stuck for a while, but then it became too pretentious. I’ll tell you what I told Johnny Carson, I said “I was too young to be a king, and too committed to be a queen.” Jane Fonda saved Putney Swope. Can you believe that? She was on the Carson show and said, “My brother is in a new film called Easy Rider, but there’s another movie I’d like to mention…” Carson was great about it, too. There was another time that I was on, he claims he didn’t see it, so he told me to write my own questions. This was what was going on when coke was coming in. People were babbling on about nothing. Including me.

Did any drugs influence your scripts or when you were making your films? Yeah. But I only did LSD once or twice, and I didn’t like it. My relative brought some down when we were shooting Pound, and next thing I know I’m wondering if I should go to the hospital or keep shooting! I shared what I had with other people, and they never forgave me.

You’d be hard pressed to get funding for those movies now. I had a hard time getting money then!

Chafed Elbows—I can’t think of anything like it. Your wife played the incestuous mother. She really just wanted to act! (Laughs) I’m still thinking of my own mother. She wasn’t happy with Chafed Elbows, that’s for sure. She said, “How dare you?” I said, “Fuck you!” When I saw it with Paul [Thomas Anderson] in Los Angeles, we get to the end of the movie where he’s alone and he’s reading a fashion magazine and he’s touching himself, and that’s the end of the film. He turns to me, and he asks, “Is that your mother’s picture?”

No More Excuses—that was originally for television? Yeah. I forget who it was for, but they wanted something on singles bars. They only used a tiny bit of it on the news. This editor friend of mine said, “Listen, you got some short films - you wanna put them together and shoot some new stuff?” I said, “Yeah!” I wanted to get rid of it, so I didn’t have to think about it. It also has an experimental ad I was hired to make for Preparation H. It’s forty-five minutes long, a very strange length. The critic for the Times, again, helped out a lot. I lucked out with him. Greaser’s he hated. Vincent Canby was his name. Anything original or different he loved. I heard that guy talking about dressing your animals on the radio. I didn’t write that.That was all him. For a while, I didn’t even know if he was kidding or not.

You’ve certainly done plenty of filming where you weren’t supposed to be filming. You getting into a Civil War outfit and getting on the field at Yankees Stadium... Boy, was I shaking. I said, “Are we really gonna do this?” The actor I had in mind for that said, “I’m not doing this.” It was a couple innings in. Two cameramen were there who pretended not to know me. Then I went out there, and when I got caught, security took me downstairs to a fucking cell-block, practically. They said, “If you’d hit Mickey Mantle with some dialogue, you’d have gotten hurt. Where’s the camera?” I said, “I dunno! They’re around somewhere.” The camera guys went down to the lab, threw the film in, came back, and the Yankees people grabbed the cameras, snatched the film, and it was the wrong film. And we had it! The newspaper you see in the film was the real thing. When we were shooting Putney Swope, we weren’t allowed out of that conference room that you see at the beginning, so the black actors had to be under the table when we were filming the white actors. Then switch. They weren’t allowed out in the hallway. It was in the Chase Manhattan building downtown. The guy who put up the money for it knew the somebody there, it’s the only reason we got a conference room.

What makes No More Excuses work for me is that almost all of it is about except sex, except for the stuff about President Garfield. You love having presidents in your films. Yeah, and now look at it all! I have a suggestion: Hillary Clinton should hire that woman from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, as her running mate. Go double down, and beat out the opposition with two women. That way, Trump can lose his mind. Did you see the picture of Ted Cruz’s father with Lee Harvey Oswald in the Enquirer? Check it out. He was an angry Cuban minister. There he is next to Oswald in New Orleans. It’s not photoshopped. Ted bowed out the next day!

Did you hear the myth going around now about how Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer? (Laughs) No, but he could be anything he wanted to be. He really makes you ashamed of being a human being. So disgusting. That wife of his almost threw up when he resigned, and then she looked like she fell through a trap door! Cruz didn’t even notice, he kept right on talking! It looked like a Marx Brothers routine. You can’t write anything about politics anymore. Satire is dead. This did it. What can you say? You have a guy talking about how women are ugly and Mexicans are killers and rapists. He won’t stop. If the world’s gonna end, Trump’s gonna have something to do with it. He’s liable to piss off somebody with a hydrogen bomb.

At least Obama has a sense of humor. Does he ever! How about when he sang Al Green? What President ever did that? When Obama first ran, Putney Swope was mentioned by a writer for the New Yorker I couldn’t believe it. That’s my voice as Putney Swope! (speaks in gravelly voice) “That’s me talking like that.” The actor couldn’t learn his lines. He kept saying stuff that didn’t make sense, you couldn’t even tell. I dubbed it later. He was a good guy, he just couldn’t hack it. The voice sounds like it’s coming from Canada.

How’d you end up casting a little person as the President? They were a brother and sister who played the President and the First Lady. Like I said on the Carson show, he gave the best reading.

You cast young Robert in Pound and in Greaser’s. Was it difficult to convince him to play dead? He was uncomfortable with it. That was his mother’s doing. He was always hanging around. He didn’t say much, but he observed every piece of filmmaking that was ever done. He wanted to be an actor. We knew there was something there. When I cut down Turquoise, which he’s in, he saw it at Cinefamily, and he said, “You cut too much out, dad!”

Yeah, as though he’s doing so badly now. The first Iron Man was great, because it was literally about a human being who said I’m not going to sell armaments anymore. That’s a big thing to say at the time. You see a struggle, it works. Tropic Thunder I think is a great film. I think he copied my voice for Putney for his own role! (Laughs) He was running the AA meetings on set!

Greaser’s Palace is such a wild movie. That’s not easy getting a transgressive movie made about Christ in the Wild West. Some guy ran out of the theatre and got hit by a cab when he saw that movie. That’s all I know. I felt bad when I heard about it, though. I know I upset a couple of my friends, that’s about it. Not enough so that I was gonna get killed, but people were pissed off. They said, “How dare you?” But now they say I was ahead of my time. I’m too old to be ahead of my time! (Laughs)

Two Tons of Turquoise is more like a collection of your home movies. It was. Just wanted to have fun. I always had the image of guys playing baseball while on horseback, and I said “We’re gonna do it.” Imagine lining that up for a shoot. Holy shit. Throw the ball, the guy hits it, whoever has to catch has to get off the horse, get the ball, get back on the horse, and throw it in. Those were the rules. We went nuts.

Rittenhouse Square—that was your last film? I think it is! The guy who produced it’s name was Max, Max Raab. He has an executive producer credit on A Clockwork Orange. He was always trying to put money into Two Tons and that stuff, and he says, “You should come down to Philadelphia and make a film about Rittenhouse Square.” I said, “Why me?” He said, “You don’t have an opinion.” I went right down, and he left me alone. I just made sure I filmed whatever was interesting for me. I made some horrible films in California before then. Bad. Just bad. But I needed money. This one producer said, “I don’t like what you’re doing.” I said, “What do you wanna do about it?” He said, “Step outside!” I said, “We already are outside!” (Downey puts up his fists) He said, “You son of a bitch.” He was a tiny guy, I don’t know what he was thinking. He said, “Don’t make me fire you.” I said, “Just give me final cut of the cocaine.”

Would you want to make another film? Oh yeah. I’ve got something written. Lining it up for cable. Half-hour series. Looks like maybe.

Any actors in particular you’d like to work with? Michelle Williams. And that comedian Sebstian Maniscalo.

You also wrote The Gong Show Movie, which is something fascinating. That just came to Blu-Ray recently. Chuck [Barris] is an old friend, too, He’s in bad shape. I said, “Why don’t we just take that footage you have of The Gong Show and really make a movie out of it?” I brought in a guy that I knew would be volatile, so I had him audition for The Gong Show. Chuck told him, “Thank you very much,” but the guy wouldn’t leave. Chuck really got pissed off. He never told me whether he was or wasn’t a CIA assassin. I said, “You can tell me.” He said, “I can’t tell you anything.” He’s a great guy. I met him because of Hal Ashby who did Harold and Maude and The Last Detail. Hal was really my best friend in California.

He’d have to kill you. Did you ever hear what George Burns said about that movie when it came out? He said it made him consider quitting show biz. (Laughs) That’s good.

I like the retrospective but it’s amazing how your films truly have survived and influenced because of home video. That’s how Paul and Louis found out about Putney. Paul knows these films better than I do. I asked him what it was like directing Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. He says, “The only thing he ever said to be was ‘Hat on, or hat off?’” He’d ask that before every scene. How about when he made shoes in Italy? “Shoelaces on or shoelaces off?” Paul really got pulverized when Phillip Seymour Hoffman left the planet. Lovely guy. He did a reading of one of my screenplays, and people were cheering! A staged reading! It was called Rockaway Bob, it never got made. He was so good as the annoying man who kept showing up. I asked Paul, “Why couldn’t you do something about it?” He said, “We tried! He kept saying, ‘I’m only drinking.’”

What have been some of your favorites from the last couple years? I thought Spotlight was great, because it’s about something! A film should always at least be about something.

Since some of our readers may be a little less familiar with you than with your son, I’d just like to hear from you how you’d describe your films to somebody uninitiated. It was all about not trying to repeat myself, even if i do. One thing I’ve learned after sixty-something years of doing this shit is if you have a leading character—I usually don’t, but if you do - always make sure they are in a hurry. It helps the writing.