When comedian and actor Robin Williams died by suicide in August 2014, most of the world never saw it coming. After all, how could a man who was so publicly driven to make people laugh be so privately unhappy that he would take his own life?
It turns out that Williams, who was 63 at the time of his death, suffered from diffuse Lewy body dementia, an affect of a Parkinson’s disease diagnosis that often leads to anxiety, depression and extreme paranoia.
But few people knew about Williams’s illness, which, filmmaker Marina Zenovich points out, was par for the course for the comedian who would happily share the manic humor swirling around his brain with millions, but reveal little about his personal struggles.
Though Ms. Zenovich didn’t know Williams personally, she has come to understand a great deal about him through the interviews, performances and people he left behind.
On Friday, June 29, at 7 p.m., Ms. Zenovich’s new film, “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind,” will be screened at East Hampton’s Guild Hall as part of the SummerDocs series sponsored by the Hamptons International Film Festival.
Ms. Zenovich, who lives in Los Angeles, recently talked about the film in a phone interview; she will be on hand at Guild Hall for the screening and a Q&A afterward led by SummerDocs host and HIFF Co-chair Alec Baldwin. The film will debut on HBO on July 16.
“I usually makes films about people—my husband would say about difficult men, though I didn’t marry one,” said Ms. Zenovich, whose previous documentaries include one about Roman Polanski. “I like looking at people who have interesting stories, and Robin Williams was someone who intrigued me and I wanted to know more.”
Ms. Zenovich, who was approached about making a film on Williams as far back as 2013, has spent much of the last four years researching and seeking out archival footage of the comedian. While she, like many others, was taken aback by his suicide, she notes that it isn’t the primary focus of the documentary.
“It was utterly shocking news, and we all get obsessed with the ‘why,’ but this film was always about something more,” she explained. “The film was always going to be a celebration of him and trying to have him tell the story of his life, his art and his process. We used as much archival footage and audio interviews as possible to tell his story.”
Williams appeared in a previous documentary by Ms. Zenovich about a different comedian. Her 2013 film “Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic” included an interview with Williams that was conducted not by Ms. Zenovich but by her producer, because she happened to be sick that day.
For this film, Ms. Zenovich was able to find a treasure trove of material from many sources, including National Public Radio, writer Larry Grobel (who conducted a 1992 Playboy interview with Williams), and footage from a documentary about the Juilliard School that was shot while Williams was studying acting there under the tutelage of the esteemed John Houseman. Among his classmates at Juilliard were Mandy Patinkin and Christopher Reeve.
“It’s all about finding unedited raw interviews,” said Ms. Zenovich, who also located a rather obscure, but totally charming, segment of Williams and his mother joking around. That footage came from a TV show about celebrities and their moms.
“It’s really fun. It’s also forensic,” she said of the process. “You see the cut piece and want to know, where’s the raw footage? You’re always looking for footage people haven’t seen.”
And, as a filmmaker, Ms. Zenovich notes that raw footage is becoming increasingly difficult to find—everything either ends up being uploaded to YouTube or, conversely, destroyed after the final cut of the project has been approved.
“In making documentaries, we’re finding that local stations have thrown it out, or you have to pay someone to go look for it,” she said. “Then you have the archive houses, whether it’s BBC or the networks. We also looked at Australian television—whatever it takes.”
“At a certain point we brought on a second editor to go through the comedy routines again to look at bits and fill in what we didn’t have,” she said. “There was so much material.”
Besides footage of interviews and comedy routines, the story of Robin Williams is also told through the heartfelt memories of fellow comedians such as Elayne Boosler (whom Williams once dated), David Letterman and Billy Crystal.
“I was thrilled to get them all. You never know what you’ll get until you get there,” she said. “Billy Crystal had a real level of sadness. I think that he felt they would grow old together. His interview was really deeply felt, and you can tell it in the film. He talked about how everyone wanted something from Robin, but he just liked him.”
It was evident in the interviews and the footage that Williams thoroughly enjoyed the fast and furious life in Los Angeles during the late 1970s and early 1980s, hitting the comedy clubs to do his irreverent stand-up routines, partying through the night and hanging out with fellow star comedians.
“He took a bite out of life. Elayne Boosler was saying if she saw him in the daytime, she didn’t know what he would become at night,” Ms. Zenovich said. “I think he was just flying high on his talent, and people were high on him. They were exciting times.”
But those times were also sobering—especially after the death of “Saturday Night Live” star John Belushi, who overdosed at the Chateau Marmont in L.A. in March 1982. Belushi was 33 years old at the time—and among the people who had stopped by to hang out with him in the hours before his death was Robin Williams.
It was a wakeup call for Williams, who quit drugs and alcohol for several years as a result of Belushi’s death. Then, in 2006, he entered rehab for alcoholism. Open heart surgery to repair an aorta followed in 2009, as did another rehab stint for alcoholism.
But ultimately, it was his Parkinson’s diagnosis and dementia that led him to take his life, and Ms. Zenovich notes that for some of Williams’s family members, speaking about him on film was not something they were able to do.
“Though time had passed, with these things you have to understand that some might say it’s too soon,” Ms. Zenovich explained. “That’s why his second and third wife and younger children didn’t want to talk to us.”
But Williams’s first wife, Valerie Velardi, and their son, Zak Williams, did take part in the documentary and provide some very poignant moments in it.
“Val and I spoke, and we hit it off. She is very open and full of light, for lack of a better word, and Zak, I didn’t know if he’d say yes or no,” Ms. Zenovich said. “It was very hard for him, but he was so thoughtful, well spoken and able to articulate his father’s issues. I said, ‘He’d be so proud of you.’”
Ultimately for Ms. Zenovich, the journey of making the film about Robin Williams took her to many new places and also allowed her to revisit the genius of his immense talent, which, all these years later, still rings true.
“The comedy is what I love. He was talking about issues we talk about now,” she said, pointing to one of Williams’s bits in which he alludes to the prevalence of guns in this country by portraying a family greeting each other at the end of the day, each with his or her own weapon. “We found ourselves wishing he was alive so we could hear his riff on all this stuff going on now.”
“Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind” will be screened at Guild Hall, 158 Main Street, East Hampton on Friday, June 29, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25, or $23 for members. The screening is part of the Hamptons International Film Festival’s SummerDoc series. A Q&A with the filmmaker and Alec Baldwin follows. For tickets, call 631-324-4050 or visit guildhall.org.
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