Robin Williams was rarely out of character — his frenetic, spot-on impressions bordering on irreverence, a foil to his riffs on social issues, politics and culture that never seemed to offend.
He was one of the world’s most successful comedians, and a masterful actor.
But the façade he built up around himself came crashing down on August 11, 2014, when news of his suicide rippled across international news outlets, devastating millions and revealing the brutal reality Williams was living — one steeped in addiction and depression, a story that went largely untold for years.
Through archival footage and present-day interviews, director Marina Zenovich is revealing it now in “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind,” which made its world premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival.
It will kick off the Hamptons International Film Festival’s SummerDocs series on Friday, June 29, at Guild Hall in East Hampton, before airing on HBO on July 16.
“I’m very excited for the film to finally come out, and I’m thrilled to screen in East Hampton because I used to live in New York and go to the Hamptons,” Zenovich said. “People really responded to the trailer. I knew people loved Robin Williams — I guess I just didn’t know to what extent. He is such a beloved figure, so I’m excited for it all to go down.”
During a recent telephone interview, Zenovich caught up with The Sag Harbor Express to talk about her three-year journey with this documentary, and the man who inspired it all.
The Sag Harbor Express: What drew you to Robin Williams as a subject?
Marina Zenovich: When you make films about people, you’re always looking for people who have a story to tell. Usually people think they know people’s stories, but they don’t. You’re always trying to take the time to go a little deeper. The goal is always to make something people haven’t seen before. You always want to surprise people, whether it’s his archive or stories that people are telling. It’s just a process.
We very much wanted to tell the story in Robin’s own voice, so we sought out as much video and audio archive, so he could tell his story.
What surprised you the most about Robin’s story?
Zenovich: To me, because I’m the mother of an only child, I felt very much like I was making a movie about an only child. I’m always an amateur psychologist/private investigator, so his personal stuff is very interesting to me — the fact that he was an only child and that he spent a lot of time alone. In this day and age, before cell phones and video games, he had to use his imagination and built his imagination based on being alone.
I was also surprised by how giving he was — how much time and money and effort he donated to people who were in need. He really wanted to help people. And everybody loved him. I knew that people loved Robin Williams, but I didn’t know how much. So that was really fascinating to realize. I feel lucky I was able to tell this story.
Why do you think he was so beloved?
Zenovich: He’s been so much a part of pop culture, since “Mork & Mindy,” and he’s been out there as Robin Williams. Who would ever tire of Robin Williams, and his boundless energy and incredible way with words, and accents, and his unique way of looking at the world and laughing about it?
We said a lot in the editing room, “If only he was alive now, could you imagine what his stand-up routine would be, with everything that’s going on in the world?”
Did you have a strong reaction to his suicide?
Zenovich: Of course. I was very sad. When you hear about anything like that, whether it’s Robin or any of these people recently this happened to — but especially Robin — it’s something you would never expect. Of course it’s incredibly upsetting. I mean, it’s tragic. It’s horrible.
We wanted the film to be a celebration of him and his particular genius, for lack of a better word, and we knew that in order to tell his story, we wanted him to tell his story with his voiceovers, and that we would have to talk about the end.
What was the most challenging part about making this film?
Zenovich: There were certain people I wanted to talk to and they didn’t want to talk. I think some people felt it was too soon. I’m very pleased with the people that I got, but you always want more, you know? We did interview a lot of people we didn’t use just because when we came to editing — which had its own difficulties, because there was so much archive. It’s like, you can’t please everyone. I learned that early on. After Sundance, I remember people emailed me like, “Why did you put a scene from this movie and why not this one?” And it’s like, “Oh, whatever. You can’t please everyone.”
Trying to get as many people from his life to talk about him and give us as much as they were comfortable, coupled with picking the best moments of his comedy, took a lot of work and time. These projects are never easy.
Are there any interviews that come straight to mind when you consider the film overall?
I loved David Letterman because I felt like he was talking about the best period of Robin’s life, and I felt like I was really capturing something there.
For me, I was really moved and surprised by the Billy Crystal interview because I didn’t know what to expect, and it was a very deep interview. I got a sense that he really felt he was going to grow old with Robin, and there was a depth to the interview that was deeply touching. That was one that I loved. You’re just trying to capture the magic, basically.
Did making this film change you in any way?
Zenovich: It made me appreciate Robin Williams a lot more. I appreciated him originally, of course, but it made me appreciate what he was going through.
The film is a love letter to him. I feel happy that it got made. Even though many people told me he didn’t like any celebrations about himself, I feel like he would love the film and love how much people loved him. I’m pleased with how it turned out, and I hope that people like it.
The Hamptons International Film Festival will kick off its SummerDocs programming with “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind” on Friday, June 29, at 7 p.m. at Guild Hall, located at 158 Main Street in East Hampton. The series will continue with “Bathtubs Over Broadway” on Saturday, July 21, and “Chef Flynn” on Saturday, August 25. Tickets are $25 and $23 for members. For more information, please call (631) 324-4050 or visit guildhall.org.