Marina Zenovich Discusses Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind – ” We just wanted to honor him.”
In 1979, Robin Williams told a joke inviting you to come inside his mind. Director Marina Zenovich borrows from that for the title of her latest documentary for HBO Films, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind. It’s a poignant look at Robin Williams with never-before-seen footage that takes us inside his mind and his creative processes. The documentary also features interviews from those who knew him; Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal and his son Zak. I caught up with Zenovich to talk about filming the beautiful portrait she paints of Williams.
We all have a memory of Robin Williams and what his career means to us. What made you want to make this? Was there something you saw that made you want to share your story?
I make films about people. I’m always looking for people that I’m interested in. I’d been a fan for a long time. When I made my Richard Pryor film, I was supposed to interview Robin, but I got sick that day, so my producer had to go and interview him. I was deathly sick otherwise I would have gone. I wanted to meet him. IT’s like he was in my movie, but I never met him. When the opportunity came up to make a film, I jumped at it.
What can I say? I was a fan since Mork & Mindy. I loved his standup, and I loved some of his acting roles. When he passed away, it was such a shock. I felt that I was really lucky to be able to be the one to make the film about him and it was a huge responsibility to get it right and to have people honor him and celebrate him while trying to tell as clear a story as possible about his life.
How much time did that take to pull it together and to get the stories and the footage?
It was pretty fast, but we had an amazing team. We put the movie together in a year. That’s fast for me because I used to do projects that took five years. When you have good people who are focused on what they’re doing and have the best intentions, I felt everyone was coming together for him. I think we edited for nine or ten months. We had researchers in New York. We were working with Robin’s manager and we were able to get access to his archives that were at a university in Boston. In this day and age, you’re always looking for things that people haven’t seen. It’s hard because of YouTube, and everything is out there. We were looking everywhere and reaching out to everyone. People are amazed by what you have, but it’s also what you didn’t get. It’s knowing that there’s a lot out there, but we did get a lot, such as when we found out about the Mork & Mindy outtakes because that’s Robin in his prime.
Also, those voicemails Billy shared were gold dust.
That was one of those…I’m always chasing after people for a living. [laughs] That’s what I do. David Steinberg’s assistant, Tanner Neibert said to me,” I think Billy has voicemail messages that he saved from Robin.” She told me that and of course, I was chasing it and I think it was six months before they were sent to me as random voice messages on my phone. You hear it and I’ve said this before, but it was gold. It was that personal, never heard before archive that you’re looking for. It showed how much he loved him and how much he treasured his humor and how they were able to riff off each other. It was just amazing. I was thrilled when we got those.
That was priceless.
I hadn’t seen a lot of his standup. I loved that focus because that showed us, who had never seen these treasures that other side of him. We’ve all seen his films. Was that always the plan for the central focus – his standup?
It happened organically, but it’s really scenes from movies play in certain ways. Standup speaks to a broader theme. He was an ACTOR and I say that because he went to Juilliard. He’s not just a standup comedian. He was an ACTOR. He was a Juilliard trained actor who could also improvise and who could also do standup. These are different skillsets and each one helped the other. We used the scenes more sporadically where they played and felt the standup was more who he is.
It all happens organically. You have an idea of what you want to do. You know which pieces of archive — whether they are from movies or standup — you know what excites you. The footage is really bad, but it’s so funny. You don’t even care. It’s when he’s talking about cavemen. It’s so funny, it’s his spirit carrying you through it all. We were just in hysterics even though the quality was bad. We were trying to meld the combination of interviews and standup and acting moments that really spoke to his inner life to illustrate that.
He got more open as he got older, but he wasn’t like that at the beginning. It was a huge achievement. I had amazing editors, and we all just gave into Robin. We just wanted to honor him.
What about dealing with suicide, how did you decide to approach that?
It was really the elephant in the room that everyone knew about, and I’d had to bring up at some point. It was all leading to that. What’s interesting about interviewing people, you never know who will say yes and why they want to talk. A lot of them have unfinished business. This happens in all films.
I remember for Richard Pryor; I spoke to his lawyer and I was shocked he said yes, but he had a lot of unfinished business that he needed to get out. You’re always hoping for that. For this, we were as sensitive as we could be. Some of the interviews were heavy and there was a lot of emotion and we just allowed it to happen without pushing it.
I also talked to people who weren’t in the film. When I talk to people in the background who don’t want to be in films, they help you understand what was going on and then it informs the filmmaking and it’s really helpful to me. Who am I to come in and impose my view? I always want to let the people who were there and close to him, speak. You try to talk to people to get them to talk, in this situation where it’s quite sensitive, you don’t push as hard as you would normally push. You try to paint a picture of them that is representative of what you’ve heard from people and give them their place in the story.
With his kids, I don’t know that I needed to talk to all three kids. Zak was kind enough to agree, and he was willing to go there. I don’t think it was easy, but he’s so well spoken and really understood his father. I was blown away by his intelligence, his eloquence and how much he knew his father and the things that he said that cut to the core in a classy way. I felt his interview was so good. I tried to speak to the kids, and they didn’t want to. I totally understand and I totally respect that. I try to do the best I can with what I have.
Your ending was so perfect, how did you come up with that?
We knew we wanted to use that at some point, but we didn’t know where. It’s the key signature moment that really represents him. The hardest part was where do you start and where do you end? It took a lot of trying and when you’re editing you’re trying a lot of different things. It’s just amazing and such a wonderful creative process where you’re trying to figure out what works and doesn’t. That seemed like the perfect ending. Then we go into a song performed by Eric Idle, that was performed at Robin’s memorial that is just perfection to me. I make a point when the film has screened to have it play to the end. It’s the cherry on the top. It’s beautiful and sad. The ending for me is something that just happens organically.