Come Inside My Mind, directed by Marina Zenovich, gets its title directly from a joke Robin Williams told in 1979 about the experience of having a brain on constant overdrive. Over the two-hour duration of the documentary, premiering on HBO July 16, Zenovich's intentions are to explore that one-of-a-kind, constantly sparking mind — and perhaps answer the question James Lipton proposes to Williams during a taping of Inside the Actors Studio: "How do you explain the mental reflexes that you deploy with such awesome speed? Are you thinking faster than the rest of us? What the hell is going on?"
The ending of Come Inside My Mind is inescapable. It hangs over every interview with Williams' close friends, like Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, and family members, like his son Zak and first wife, Valerie Velardi. But before the documentary inevitably swirls to the conclusion of Williams' life – he died by suicide in August 2014 — you'll receive an incredibly cohesive impression of one-of-a-kind, truly genius mind.
We spoke to Zenovich about creating a holistic picture of Williams the entertainer, Williams the man, and the gulf between the two.
Refinery29: There’s this hilarious, fast-talking Robin Williams who his audience loves. Then, there’s this sensitive person his friends knew. What drew you to him as a subject, and what was the challenge of creating this holistic image of him, given how complicated Robin Williams was as an individual?
Zenovich: “I was just a fan. I was just curious about him. I knew nothing about him. Like you, I discovered these two different sides to him. You always think people are going to be the same onstage as off. He especially wasn’t. I wanted to find out more about him. There are people who are intriguing.”
What surprised you most about him?
“Just that he was a quiet soul. A couple of people said that basically, when it was one-on-one, he would be quiet. When a third person would come in the room, he would turn on. It was almost like he needed an audience. It was interesting to find that out. Also, how generous he was with his time — going on USO tours, helping the homeless, giving money to people who couldn’t afford it for surgery for their children. His manager told me he was the highest paid actor at some point but didn't want to make more money than other people. He was a gentle soul who didn't want to ruffle any feathers.”
What was the mood like during the interviews? How did you get people to open up about him?
"People were very into telling me about their time with him. David Letterman talking about Los Angeles and the comedy scene being the best time of his life. Interviews go in ebbs and flows. I think the suicide was the elephant in the room. I wasn’t going to ask about it, but people brought it up anyway. How could you not when that was how his life ended?"
Even the stuff with Christopher Reeve — knowing how it would turn out for both of them gives the documentary sadness.
“For a while, we had a whole strand about Christopher Reeve having his accident. We had footage of Robin’s birthday party when Christopher Reeve was there. If I was making a film about the two of them then it would really make sense, but it was taking away from Robin’s story. We wanted to include their friendship because it was so beautiful. They were young, and they both became successful together. It was almost like they’d made some pact to be there for each other; they had some deal.
"I love when we got the archival footage of Christopher Reeve at Zak's baptism [Reeve was Zak's godfather]. Someone says Zak can fly into his own christening because Christopher Reeve is there, and he’s Superman. Robin’s first wife [Valerie Velardi] says, 'Oh yeah, he can fly into his christening.' Which explains, to me, how [she and Williams] were simpatico together. You could have a woman who says, ‘Oh god no.’ But she was like, ‘Oh sure, let him fly in.’ She was willing to go there. Robin was so zany. He had Zak fly in, which was just nutty.”
Was there anyone you would’ve liked to include in the documentary, but were unable to?
"I hoped to include Bobcat Goldthwait, but he didn’t want to do it. I put him in the film in archives. He was really good friends with Robin. I felt it was important to have him in the film. I would’ve liked to have Robin's second and third wife, but neither of them wanted to be in it."
The archival footage is so incredible. The documentary is heavier on footage most people haven’t seen than on Williams’ beloved films. What was the process of getting your hands on that footage?
“I got voicemails from Billy Crystal. And he didn’t just hand them to me on the day I interviewed him. [They] took a while to get. But I was thrilled when I found out he had them. Getting archives is a constant process of looking for more — always. I would constantly be on Google looking for anything that would lead me to anything that we didn’t have. That’s how we found the audiotape of Robin performing for his high school. Some smart kid who went to his high school invited Robin to speak. Robin couldn’t but he did a tape recording of it, and we found that online."
How did you choose what to include from the sheer volume of his comedy and how to time it?
"We knew we wanted to tell the story in Robin’s voice, so we focused on audio of him telling his own story. Towards the end, we were trying to make the film funnier. Certain scenes work, certain didn’t...Taking something out can affect the whole feeling and rhythm. It’s just a process. You have to trust your gut."
What's your favorite Robin Williams joke?
“I went to rehab in wine country just to keep my options open."