HBO doc celebrates Robin Williams and his 'incredible talent,' says director

Robin Williams, in a still from the HBO documentary “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind”

A bout with flu once cost Marina Zenovich the chance to meet the subject of her HBO film, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, which makes its television debut Monday night after premiering at Sundance earlier this year.

“I was supposed to interview him for my [2013] documentary about Richard Pryor, and I was very excited that he even agreed to do the interview,” Zenovich recalled in a phone interview on Wednesday. “And then the day I was to fly to San Francisco, I was very sick with the flu — so sick that I couldn’t go, and my producer had to do the interview. So I was bummed out about that.”

That opportunity wouldn’t come again, but Zenovich, who won Emmys for writing and directing the 2008 documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, would eventually get to know Williams in a different way, as the director immersed herself in his work and spent time in deep conversation with some of the people the actor and comedian left behind when he died four years ago next month.

The resulting film is at least as funny, and sweet, as it is sad, focusing more on the life Williams lived, the joy he brought, and the things he overcame than on the circumstances of his death, and reminding us, clip by entertaining (and smartly curated) clip, of the talent that, from the beginning, confounded even his fellow comedians.

“In my head, my first sight of him was that he could fly, because of the energy,” recalls David Letterman. “We knew that whatever it was that Robin was doing, we weren’t going to get close to that.”

When someone, famous or not, dies by suicide, there’s a tendency for that person’s final moments to draw focus from the rest of their lives. Zenovich, though, wasn’t interested in making a film about Williams’ death.

“Of course it was always going to be touched upon, but it was not the focus,” she said of the two-hour documentary, which came about after she and Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney — “a friend and mentor” — merged competing projects about Williams, with Gibney staying on as a producer. “The suicide was the elephant in the room, and I literally didn’t even have to bring it up, because it colors everything, because everybody knows how it ends.”

With Robin Williams: Come into My Mind,” we wanted to make a film about him, his incredible talent, the creative process and his brain, and just kind of try to get inside his brain. Which was not easy. That’s like an idea, but then you have to … make it happen,” she said.

Marina Zenovich
Camera icon Henry Garfunkel / HBO
Director Marina Zenovich

And in fact the film can never quite answer the question, raised in a clip from an interview with Williams by Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton: Was Williams “thinking faster than the rest of us?”

Having gotten a taste  of Williams’ stream-of-consciousness riffing as recently as a January 2014 press session for his CBS sitcom The Crazy Ones — even at a time when his health is now thought to have been declining as a result of Lewy body disease, he could still veer from serious to hilarious with astonishing quickness — I’d wondered myself whether what he had was the comedy equivalent of mathematical or musical genius.

“I think so,” Zenovich said. “He was incredibly intelligent, incredibly well-read, incredibly sensitive. And had a mind unlike most people’s. And I think the combination of everything gave us this gift from God. …I’ve never come across anyone like that.”

Gift from God or not, Williams was no saint, and the film deals squarely with his drug use — which ended, according to his Mork & Mindy costar Pam Dawber, after he just missed witnessing the death of his friend John Belushi — as well as with a later bout with alcoholism, his womanizing, and the breakups of his first two marriages.

Of his three wives, only the first, Valerie Velardi, the mother of his oldest child, Zak, is interviewed. She paints an affectionate but clear-eyed picture of the early years of Williams’ fame, and offers up this tidbit: Her husband, she says, didn’t leave her for the nanny, as reports had long described the beginnings of his relationship with his second wife, Marsha Garces. Her marriage to him, she says, had been over, by mutual agreement, before Williams and Garces, who’d gone on to become the actor’s assistant, got together romantically.

Valerie Velardi, Robin Williams
Camera icon Borsari / HBO
Valerie Velardi, Robin Williams on their wedding day in 1976.

She hadn’t at the time contradicted stories that cast her as the embittered ex, and the new couple “got skewered, and I was sorry for that. And I’m sorry for Marsha, that she had to start her adventure with Robin in such an unpleasant way,” Velardi says.

“She didn’t really even want to tell me that,” Zenovich said. “When I went to interview her, she said, ‘You know, this is how it happened, but I’m not going to tell you that on camera.’ And I said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘That’s why I’m here. … If you have something to say, this is the time to say it.’ That was something I was glad that she was able to say, because she had never said it before.”

Neither Marsha Garces Williams, the mother of two of Williams’ children, nor the actor’s widow, Susan Schneider Williams, participated in the film. “I think it was too soon for many of them,” Zenovich said. “And I think that they were always an incredibly private family, so I don’t think that they necessarily wanted to take part in this. I was thrilled that Zak did, and I think he spoke for all the children.”

It wouldn’t, she said, have been “the same movie without Zak. Because he’s so well-spoken about his father, and you really feel his love and pain.”

Love and pain, as well as laughter, are also takeaways from many of the interviews with Williams’ friends, particularly Billy Crystal and Dawber, who at one point went for 20 years without seeing her old costar, but whose affection for him is obvious.

As is Zenovich’s.

“I feel that films are always an extension of the personality of the filmmaker and for me I always try to see the best in people. I like to see when there was hope in someone’s life,”  the director said.

“In Robin’s case, the glorious trajectory of kind of becoming this amazing creative being” is what interested her. “When you see him do the improv [in a clip from his early days as a performer], where, you know, the other people are fine, but then they tap him on the back, and … you get a feeling of what people must have felt like when they saw him. It was just unbelievable. It gets me so excited, because you can’t miss it. His talent was just so big, and it was like a rocket trying to come out of him.”

WATCH THIS

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind. 8 p.m. Monday, July 16, HBO.