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Robert Downey Jr. Left "Mason Jars of Urine" on "Zodiac" Set, David Fincher Says

He was protesting the director's lack of bathroom breaks.

Robert Downey Jr. has had a career filled with high highs (including winning an Oscar this year for his performance in Oppenheimer) and low lows (multiple arrests stemming from his substance use disorder). One of the projects many fans would consider a highlight of his filmography is somewhat complicated by his adversarial relationship with the director and an on-set standoff that reportedly resulted in a pretty gross demonstration.  Read on to learn why Zodiac filmmaker David Fincher said that Downey left jars of his own urine around the set of the 2007 crime thriller, and how the actor feels about his experience working with the exacting director more than a decade later.

RELATED: Oliver Stone Said Working With Richard Dreyfuss Was "The Single Worst Experience" of His Career.

Landing the role was a coup for Downey, pre-Iron Man.

These days, Downey is a megastar whose films have made billions, and it seems only natural that a director of Christopher Nolan's caliber would want him for a role in Oppenheimer. But 17 years before his Best Supporting Actor Academy Award win, he was still mid-comeback after navigating a few rough patches earlier in his career.

The actor was struggling with addiction even as he rose to success with a string of critically acclaimed performances across the '80s and '90s in movies including Less Than Zero, Air America, Natural Born Killers, and Chaplin, which earned him his first Oscar nomination. But by 1996, his personal issues threatened to completely derail his career. Downey was arrested in 1996 on drug and weapons charges and went to prison for a year in 1999. An early comeback attempt via a role on the hit TV show Ally McBeal was cut short when he was fired from the series after another arrest in 2001.

The actor's second comeback began in earnest a few years later, when he was cast in The Singing Detective in 2003 after Mel Gibson reportedly paid for the extra insurance required. Celebrated turns in the comedy thriller Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Fincher's Zodiac soon followed.

Downey and Fincher clashed creatively.

Robert Downey Jr. and David Fincher filming Zodiac
Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Downey wasn't Fincher's first choice for the role of Paul Avery, a journalist investigating the infamous Zodiac killings in California in the late '60s. He reportedly originally sought to cast Brad Pitt, but the actor was unavailable; Daniel Craig also passed. Whether or not that colored the proceedings, it was clear the actor and his director were on different wavelengths once they arrived on the set.

Fincher is a notorious perfectionist who will regularly demand multiple takes of his actors to get what he's looking for. Remembering the lengthy shoot for Zodiac—115 days, or twice the average for a film of its scope, according to The New York Times—Downey's co-star Mark Ruffalo said as a filmmaker, Fincher "paints with people," and added, "It's tough to be a color."

This exacting process didn't vibe with Downey's looser, more improvisational style. "Sometimes it's really hard because [the process] might not feel collaborative, but ultimately filmmaking is a director's medium," the actor told The New York Times. "I just decided, aside from several times I wanted to garrotte him, that I was going to give him what he wanted. I think I'm a perfect person to work for him, because I understand gulags."

Downey found an extreme way to protest the endless shooting schedule.

Robert Downey Jr in 2007
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc

Giving Fincher what he wanted apparently didn't mean Downey was above stooping to a bit of toilet humor to make a point. According to the director, Downey and other members of the cast objected to the intense shooting schedule, which often didn't leave time for bathroom breaks.

"Robert Downey actually came up to me and said, 'I can't work like this. I never get to go to my trailer. I can never get my [expetive] together. I'm on my feet 14 hours a day,'" Fincher said in the Keanu Reeves-directed documentary Side By Side, as quoted by Esquire. "He actually left mason jars of urine on the set, like over in the corner. He'd pee and bring it back as a form of protest."

The actor later mended fences with the director.


Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo reflect on filming "Zodiac" with David Fincher. #actorsonactors #robertdowneyjr #markruffalo #zodiac #davidfincher

♬ original sound – Variety – Variety

Downey might not have been happy on set, but he maintained that sardonic humor throughout the shoot—in a 2024 Variety Actors on Actors interview with Ruffalo, he even recalled pranking his co-star by convincing Fincher to reshoot a scene after they'd already done 60 takes—but a later experience with another highly technical director made him realize that maybe Fincher wasn't so tough to work for.

"I called Fincher recently because in retrospect, everything changes," Downey said. "Fifteen years later, you have such a different perspective on stuff, you know? For me, after working with [Christopher] Nolan [on Oppenheimer], I developed a new respect for Fincher. But I remember, that might have been the first time we really had our feet put to the fire with an exacting director. A real director, who does things a certain way."

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller is a pop culture writer living in New York. Read more
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