Think of HBO’s new Robin Williams documentary as a celebration.
“You can feel the sadness throughout the film, but it’s also very uplifting,” says Marina Zenovich, whose “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind” premieres on HBO Monday (8 EDT/PDT). “It was a fine balance of getting the nuance of the laughter and melancholy right.”
The two-hour movie breezes through the life of the late comic, who died of suicide in 2014 at age 63, months after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Through interviews with exes, co-stars and friends including Billy Crystal, David Letterman and Steve Martin, the documentary charts his rise to fame through stand-up comedy, his breakout sitcom “Mork & Mindy,” and his eventual screen success in “Dead Poets Society,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Good Will Hunting,” for which he won an Academy Award.
“Mind” also doesn’t shy away from his struggles with addiction and depression, taking viewers through his tragic final months in a way that’s less revealing than Dave Itzkoff’s recent biography “Robin,” but no less moving.
USA TODAY chats with Zenovich about the film.
Question: You’ve made documentaries about other complicated men such as Richard Pryor and Roman Polanski. What drew you to Robin’s story?
Marina Zenovich: I never set out to make movies about famous people, but they have to have something intriguing about them. With Roman, it was the (sexual abuse) case; with Richard, it was the darkness and fire. With Robin, I was a fan but didn’t know a lot about him. I wanted to do a deep dive into who’s this amazing character, where he was from and where he got his spark of madness.
Q: The interview with Billy Crystal was particularly moving. Do you have any favorite anecdotes that he shared about Robin?
Zenovich: He talked a lot about how Robin really loved (Crystal’s) family, and how Robin would come to his family events. It really seemed like Billy was a bit of a rock for him. It was interesting to me how, when everyone was single hanging out at the Comedy Store and Canter’s Deli, Billy was a young father. From the beginning, he was kind of seen by Robin as someone who was responsible and had a family. The Billy Crystal interview moved me incredibly. When I got there, it was almost like he didn’t want to go there (emotionally), but he was willing to for his friend.
Q: Something that became clear through many of the interviews was Robin’s desire to be loved, his vulnerability, and the validation he got from laughter. Where do you think that came from?
Zenovich: When he was little, he spent a lot of time alone, so maybe he was predisposed to that. It’s kind of a combination of nature/nurture, but who knows? We really tried to show that through different people who knew him and his son, Zak, speaks very well to that. He did have a need. That laugh, as Billy Crystal said, is like a little extra-special hug that you can only get from strangers. We all know what it feels like when people laugh — I mean, imagine that at Robin Williams’ level.
Q: Billy said that he had never seen Robin afraid until he told him about his Parkinson’s diagnosis. What did you learn about his final months and days that wasn’t in the media coverage surrounding his death?
Zenovich: He was having a really hard time. He was going to doctors and therapists, and was on medication. This is something people go through when they don’t know what they have, and especially for someone like Robin, whose mind is his greatest tool. So I think his last months were extremely difficult. His family and friends tried to figure out what was wrong, and hopefully the film is seen as a celebration for all that he was. People have been asking me, “Who is the next Robin Williams?” And I don’t know that I can think of any.
Q: Is there a performance of Robin’s that helped you gain a greater appreciation for him while making this film?
Zenovich: I love “Live at the Met.” I mean, it’s 1986 and he’s talking about gun control and the possibility of having a female president? The guy was intelligent.