SummerDocs: A Celebration of Robin Williams

An intimate and relevant portrait of the comedian and actor
Robin Williams with Richard Pryor at the 1982 People’s Choice Awards Borsari/HBO

Those shut out of next week’s sold-out Hamptons International Film Festival SummerDoc “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind” at Guild Hall will find solace in the upcoming release of the film on HBO on July 16.

Viewed either way, audiences will be treated to an intimate and relevant portrait of the comedian and actor that eschews straight filmography and tragedy mongering in favor of insight and illumination on the life of a complicated, intelligent, talented, and endearing man from those who knew him best.

The film is in the capable hands of Marina Zenovich, whose previous subjects have included Richard Pryor and Roman Polanski. “I do have a fascination — my husband says it’s a compulsion — to make films about complicated men, to unpack someone’s life,” she said last week. 

Confronted with years of film and television work and public interviews, she said “with someone like Robin Williams, I wanted him to tell his own story as much as possible.” Even by restricting her team’s research to things not widely accessible to the public, such as the full tapes of interviews done for Playboy magazine in 1992 and audio from National Public Radio, there was plenty of archival material to mine for the film. 

“We were looking for the times he was more vulnerable.” With a subject who had an irrepressible urge to cavort, she said they often isolated the audio portions from the video available, because the audio often revealed more depth than was apparent — or perhaps a depth that was obscured — in his rapid-fire and clownish delivery.

“It’s surprising how much is online. To show things that haven’t been shown before is getting harder and harder for documentaries,” Ms. Zenovich said. They were lucky to find some childhood footage of him acting and then work he did as a student at Juilliard. 

Then there were multiple interviews with family, close friends, and colleagues to help give the pieces context. “You’re in a hard spot. You’re trying to show someone and how they were before, but you’re not the expert, you’re asking people who were there. It’s important to get them to trust you to open up and that you will not use their vulnerability in the wrong way.”

Billy Crystal, Eric Idle, Pam Dawber, and Whoopi Goldberg are among his celebrity friends interviewed. Family members provide further memories of who he was off camera. “Everyone wanted to show up for Robin. They miss him so much. They miss his take on the world. . . . He spoke so well to the nuances of politics and was so well read. He knew so much about the world,” Ms. Zenovich said. “One thing I learned from this process is how smart he was.”

Her goal was to make a documentary that was a celebration of his life. Those who view the film through the prism of the recent suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade (who was said to have studied Williams’s example) could be disappointed with the lack of time the film spends on his death.

“When you’re making a film, in the end you have these found objects. When you rub them together, you only get what you can get from them,” she said. “It’s up to you and your team through your understanding of who that person is, what they went through, and how they lived up to that” to bring all of it together for the film. While the suicide was not the focus, “it was the elephant in the room,” the inevitable conclusion, she said. “We didn’t really want to make a film about that. In a different outlet, it would be the first question asked, but that was not what this film was about.”

Speaking publicly for the first time since both the film’s trailer was released and the two high-profile suicides earlier this month, Ms. Zenovich said the overwhelming response the trailer had received helped her realize how much people loved Williams, but she was still processing the sadness of the news of Bordain’s and Spade’s suicides. “I am glad the film is helping people talk about it.”