The Most Sane Woman In Hollywood
Longtime film producer Susan Downey talks with BuzzFeed News about how she's navigated the movie business by avoiding as much drama as possible, and her latest venture, a production company with husband Robert Downey Jr.
Like so many starry-eyed teenage girls in the 1980s, Susan Downey had a poster of Tom Cruise on her bedroom wall. But it wasn't a dreamy pinup of the actor from teen-bait fare like Risky Business or Top Gun. Downey had cajoled her local Chicago suburb movie theater into giving her a giant promotional banner for Cruise's character-driven family drama Rain Man.
"I had a poster in my room of all the Academy Award-winning movies [for Best Picture]," Downey told BuzzFeed News last month at the Toronto International Film Festival. "Whenever there would be a new one, I'd make my mom go get it for me. I loved entertaining, big Hollywood movies."
And that childhood passion has come to define Downey's entire life. It guided her to a prestigious film school, and into a sturdy, successful career as a movie producer (The Reaping, The Invasion, The Brave One, Orphan, Whiteout, The Book of Eli, Unknown) with mega-producer Joel Silver. All told, the films she's worked on have grossed nearly $1.2 billion domestically, and $2.7 billion worldwide.
When asked to describe her style as a producer, Downey smiled wryly. "I have no idea why, and this is other's observations of me — I tend to be in the realm of these very complicated personalities," she said. "I guess I enjoy corralling that."
Downey's accomplishments — enviable for anyone aspiring for genuine success as a Hollywood producer — are important to acknowledge, because, for many, her biggest achievement is helping to transform her husband, Robert Downey Jr., from a drug-addled washout into the most valuable movie star in the world.
The timeline of Robert's career resurgence — the embarrassing arrests in the 1990s, the nearly year-long jail term in 2000, the hard-won sobriety and standout roles in films like 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and 2007's Zodiac, and the career rocket fuel that was 2008's Iron Man and all it's wrought — is well-trod territory, a great Hollywood comeback story told time and again. But it's one that may not exist if Susan was not in Robert's life, not only as his wife, but also as a tenacious and meticulous film producer.
The couple first met while working on the 2003 psychological horror film Gothika — it was Susan's first movie as a full-fledged producer, and it was one of Robert's first roles after he was fired from the Fox series Ally McBeal following two post-jail drug arrests. Since then, Susan has overseen most of Robert's non-Marvel movies, either as an executive producer (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, 2010's Due Date), or as the film's main producer (2009's Sherlock Holmes and its 2011 sequel, his biggest non-Marvel hits by far).
This Friday, the couple's latest collaboration, The Judge, will open. The character-driven family drama, directed by David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers), follows a heavyweight lawyer (Robert Downey Jr.) who reluctantly returns to home after his mother's death, and even more reluctantly agrees to defend his estranged father (Robert Duvall), a local judge, after he's accused of murder. Not only is the film the first time the Downeys have produced a film together (Robert is an executive producer), it is the inaugural film from the production company the Downeys founded in 2010, aptly named Team Downey. "We met about 12 years ago, and it feels like we've been working together ever since. Team Downey just made it official," said Susan.
"Over lo these many years, I've recognized through her eyes what an exhaustive, largely thankless, and hilarious job it is to be a creative film producer," Robert told BuzzFeed News via phone. "Underneath it, you have to love movies so much that you can tolerate the expenditure of energy." How Susan has — and has not — chosen to expend that energy makes plain that she hasn't just been able to tame her husband, but much of Hollywood in the process.
But Susan Downey — born Susan Levin, the middle child sandwiched between two brothers — originally started her career in front of the camera. When she was 11 or 12, she begged her parents to let her be a child model. "We had some friends whose kids were my age, and they were doing TV commercials and print work downtown," she said, sitting in a Toronto hotel awaiting The Judge's gala premiere later that night. "There's a huge industry in Chicago that does that, and it really interested me. I just thought it would be a fun thing to do. It was a lot of catalogue work for Sears, and, like, the end of a cereal commercial — the prize in the box type of thing."
Her father worked for Sears, as a buyer in women and children's shoes, and her mother was what Susan called an "incredibly active" stay-at-home mom. They happily supported Susan's dream, her mom driving her into downtown Chicago for all of her gigs, all the way through high school. "She was not a stage mom at all," Susan was quick to note. "It was more like, 'Did you get your homework done? OK, now we can go.'" It was, in short, a rather idyllic, healthy Midwestern childhood. "There was no turmoil in the house. I never really saw fighting. My younger brother and I would fight sometimes, but like you do with a sibling. Nothing significant," she said, before adding with a chuckle, "And now he works at Team Downey, so it's all good."
Susan's upbringing is just one of many contrasts to her future husband, who was raised by divorced parents who struggled with drug abuse and alcohol addiction. "I can't even begin to explain the steadfast commitment to helping her follow her dreams, whatever they were," said Robert. "It's a great American story of what's possible, you know, when" — he paused, breaking into mournful laughter — "your family isn't broken."
At some point during her modeling gigs in Chicago, Susan began to realize that she was far more interested in what everyone else was doing around her than what she was doing in front of the camera. "I would ask, 'Oh, that's a C-stand — what does that do? Oh, a light meter, how do you read it?'" she said. "I had no interest in really becoming an actress or doing that kind of thing. … I just knew that I wanted to do something in making films."
Her determination led her to University of Southern California film school, which in turn led to her first job working in the mid-1990s for Threshold Entertainment, which was founded by James Cameron's former partner Lawrence Kasanoff, and ultimately to Silver Pictures and its prolific, temperamental founder Joel Silver.
"I know he has quite a reputation out there," Susan said of Silver, "beating up agents and lawyers and anyone he perceives as standing in the way of making the movie. But it comes from a place of passion. … He was always so good to me and to the people who worked for him."
She landed her first credited job as a co-producer on the 2002 horror film Ghost Ship, and began to shape a career in which she actively worked to turn down the heat in any given situation rather than add to it. "I can't get wrapped up in the drama," she said, smiling. "It's not really in my makeup. It's the only way I know how to conduct. I just want to keep getting shit done. But I don't ever want to overreact. … You really try where possible to let the emotions be on screen. That's the place for them. The other stuff, a lot of times it's just miscommunication and ego, I find." She laughed quietly to herself, as if remembering a particularly vivid on-set crisis.
Her demeanor in person is indeed remarkably even-keeled, and there is no sign of the tightly coiled energy exuded by most high powered producers. One gets the impression Susan is not even the sort to raise her voice. "There's something incredibly just wise and loving and thoughtful and tolerant [about her]," said Robert. "But then, when she finally does get pissed off, I just love her even more, because I go, Oh, good, good, good. She has a breaking point with crazy people annoying her."
"I have a very focused, grounded, non-dramatic approach," Susan said, slamming her hand down on her arm rest between each word. But it was also clear her professional no drama philosophy has been informed at least in part by her husband, i.e., one of the most naturally dramatic personalities in Hollywood. "We're entertaining people, but we're not saving lives, you know?" she said. "[It's] one of the things I learned from Robert over the years. I was always so goal-oriented, and just put my head down [to] do the work — and he's like, 'But how 'bout enjoy the process?' Because that's what we actually have to do every day."
Robert demurred when asked about whether he's influenced his wife's newfound appreciation for the methodology to her work. "Well, that's great, if I have," he said. "I know it's all you bring with you when it's over. Did you have a good time making that movie, or do you never want to see it or any of the people involved again?" He did, however, express similar awe at Susan's detail-oriented, getting-shit-done approach to her job. "It's the difference between having an idea about pyramid, and actually building one," he said. "She builds pyramids."
With Team Downey, the company allows the couple the chance to combine their respective, complimentary talents to build more pyramids. "I think it came up initially around the time of making the first Sherlock Holmes," said Robert. "It was Joel Silver's production, and yet, he had charged Susan with really being boots on the ground and making it all come together. There was just this sense of, Wow, you know what? We're really developing a way of working that I could see transplanting that into any situation and having it be fruitful."
Susan, meanwhile, wanted to better harness her husband's innate creativity. "He's got just this incredible mind," she said. "This kinetic energy and this ever-flowing faucet of ideas. If you have to do a creative job, like, let's have that guy in the room, all the time!" But Susan was clear that the company is not meant to solely create starring vehicles for her husband — Team Downey is developing a series for Showtime, for example, on which Robert would only be a producer.
And with The Judge — along with other films in Team Downey's pipeline, like an adaptation of the classic Perry Mason crime stories from the 1930s — it's clear the company is also focused on films where the fate of the planet is not in imminent jeopardy. "I love seeing him as Tony Stark and Sherlock and saving the world and all that kind of good stuff," said Susan. "But it's really fun to see stakes not as high, and yet, to see the emotions super strong. … It is fun for me now to be able to maybe do something that drives a little bit more from character than concept."
In an industry that has appeared allergic to character-driven drama over the past decade, Team Downey is gambling that it can fill a hole that Hollywood studios have largely abdicated to television and independent films. (The production company has a first-look deal with Warner Bros.) It's a luxury afforded by Robert's success and Susan's dogged work ethic, providing them with the ability to spend the kind of concentrated time with their family — the couple has a 2-year-old son, Exton, and Susan is due to deliver their first daughter in November — that they would not otherwise have. "What we do takes so much of our time on a daily basis, especially when you're in production," said Susan. "As a producer, you're there from the inception of the concept to the delivery of it. It just takes so much energy."
Perhaps because he has spent so much time pretending to save the world, Robert attempted a battlefield metaphor to explain why he's content with wedding his career and his family together. "It's just kind of like, who would you rather be in a foxhole with?" he said. "Someone who would take one in the gut and go down fighting back-to-back with you? Or someone who kind of has other agendas? Like, they might not even be on your side."
"This is our life," he continued. "I've seen what happens to two professionals who are out there chasing it down all the time, and the relationship suffers. Look, if we never made another movie again, we would still find stuff to do, largely because of her contribution and just all the life skills that I've seen her demonstrate for all these years. I'm just like, How the fuck am I going to find any person or experience that beats that? And, like, Why bother?"