Director Marina Zenovich Discusses the Balancing Act of Making a Robin Williams Doc

By Ashley Morton

The filmmaker reflects on favorite Robin performances, and the challenges of telling the icon’s story with both emotion and humor.


HBO: How long did it take to complete the film?

Marina Zenovich: It took basically two years to make: There was a lot of archival material to gather, and a lot of interviews. You’re constantly chasing. You’re looking for things people haven’t seen or heard before, and as you’re interviewing people, they hook you up with other people who may have photographs or video. We worked with the estate and they gave us access to Robin’s archive where we found some material. We looked in Europe; we knew he had done the Playboy interviews with Larry Grobel so we reached out to him and got the audio cassette.

It’s kind of like a big crazy hunt that never ends. It speaks to the true personality of the documentary filmmaker, which is so relentless. When you’ve been doing this for as long as I have, you try to teach the researchers to have that kind of passion as well.

HBO: It feels like there’s special focus placed on his stand-up. Was that a choice going in?

Marina Zenovich: I don’t think it was a conscious decision. We went with what worked. At a certain point, we had different movie clips in there, but some of them just weren’t right. The stand-up spoke to me. Although I appreciate him as an actor, stand-up was something he could always go back to, and it was there for him.

HBO: Is there any footage you consider the “gem” of the documentary?

Marina Zenovich: I love the Mork & Mindy outtakes, because it shows the moment in his life where he is just so high on life. And it’s fantastic. The other thing is the Julliard interview at the beginning — we call it the “Two Hairs” segment — because he’s so in his element. Those are my two favorite bits.

“He wanted to connect with people and I think he got that through performing. And when he wasn’t performing, he tried to find it.”

HBO: It’s so easy to think we know celebrities just from their public personas. Was there anything that surprised you while pulling the film together?

Marina Zenovich: I was just blown away learning how smart Robin was. I hadn’t thought about it, but of course when someone is making stuff on that level, using history to make jokes, they have to be incredibly well-read.

He was such a compassionate, giving person — always donating his time or money, paying for someone’s operation, going on the USO tours. People told me stories about how he’d just hand money out to homeless people on the street. He wanted to connect with people, and I think he got that through performing, and when he wasn’t performing, he tried to find it.

HBO: How did you approach discussing Robin’s death?

Marina Zenovich: His suicide was the elephant in the room. Everyone knew it was there; people assumed I would ask about it. So I never said anything and people would talk about it on their own.

It was really getting that balance right. I wanted people who were close to him to talk about the end, and what it was like. The Billy Crystal interview spoke best to that. I didn’t know what to expect from him, and he brought a lot of emotional depth to the interview. He was able to carry a lot of that weight for me, because I felt it in him.

HBO: Was it difficult to decide how to wrap up the documentary?

Marina Zenovich: The end was a hard moment to tackle; I didn’t know how we were going to do it. We looked for quiet moments in different themes and movies where Robin’s by himself. There’s one where he’s sitting on the beach and looking out at sea, and to me it felt like we could be with him in that moment. He kind of smiles, and changes his expression a little, and that was kind of it for me. It worked.

HBO: Do you have a favorite Robin Williams’ performance?

Marina Zenovich: I grew up watching Mork & Mindy, so I loved that. But in making the film, I loved Live at the Met. I loved the idea of a comedian going to the Metropolitan Opera House. I loved his body language. There’s a little segment where he’s coming out on stage, and it’s almost like he’s Mikhail Baryshnikov. I love seeing him hurl his body out. It’s like, “I’m about to give you a gift.” You don’t see that very often, and I found it inspiring.

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind is available to stream on HBO.