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For the 30th anniversary of "Mrs. Doubtfire," Business Insider spoke to director Chris Columbus.
He said Robin Williams improvised so much that they ended up with 2 million feet of film.
Columbus said his last conversation with Williams was about a sequel.
In the early 1990s, few stars were as big as Robin Williams.
With movies like "Good Morning, Vietnam," "Dead Poets Society," and "The Fisher King," he had successfully navigated the rough terrain of transitioning from funnyman to serious actor. Meanwhile, children all over the world knew him as the Genie in Disney's 1992 hit "Aladdin."
A year later, he would blend his comedic, dramatic, and family-friendly talents when he played the iconic lead in "Mrs. Doubtfire."
Based on the 1987 Anne Fine novel "Madame Doubtfire," Williams plays Daniel Hillard, an actor living in San Francisco who is beloved by his three kids but whose wife, Miranda (played by Sally Field), only sees as an irresponsible manchild.
Finally fed up, Miranda files for a divorce and is given sole custody of the children. Desperate to spend more time with his kids, Daniel disguises himself as an elderly English woman named Euphegenia Doubtfire and lands the job as Miranda's housekeeper. Hilarity ensues as Daniel attempts to be a responsible adult and becomes Miranda's confidant as she starts a new relationship with her colleague Stu (Pierce Brosnan).
The movie became one of the biggest hits of 1993. Earning over $440 million worldwide, only "Jurassic Park" made more money at the box office that year. As decades passed, the movie has only grown in popularity, likely due to how it addresses children dealing with divorce but especially for Williams' comedic genius. During filming, he often did take after take of improvisation until the cameras ran out of film.
"He was in his prime at that point in his life and it was like divine inspiration," director Chris Columbus told Business Insider of Williams' improv habits on set.
In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the movie's release, BI spoke with Columbus about working with Williams, their last conversation before Williams died in 2014, and the over 900 boxes of footage sitting in a warehouse that could one day be turned into a documentary about the making of the movie.
Chris Columbus was terrified to meet Robin Williams because he was a huge fan
What was your first meeting with Robin Williams like?
Before getting involved, I went to a screening of "Good Morning, Vietnam." I was always a fan of Robin Williams' stand-up, but I was blown away by his performance in that film. It was one of the great performances I'd ever seen at that time. I made a vow to myself that I would someday work with him.
Years later, after "Home Alone" came out, I got a call from Joe Roth at 20th Century Fox about a script they had called "Alias Madame Doubtfire." That was what it was called at the time. Joe asked if I wanted to rewrite it, and I was like, "Let me read it first," and then he said Robin Williams is attached, and I said, "I'm in."
Right away, they wanted me to meet Robin and his wife Marsha, who was also a producer, and I was terrified. I was nervous as hell. I flew out to Los Angeles. My voice was shaking, I was just in awe of his talent.
Now, I had worked with John Candy, but Robin was considered by then a serious dramatic actor, so working with someone like Robin was really a step up for me as a director. That's why I was so nervous.
It took me three months to rewrite the script. I sent it to them, Robin called me and said he loved it, and I moved my family to San Francisco and we shot the movie.
Is it true that it was Robin and Marsha who wanted the movie to be shot in San Francisco?
Yeah, they lived there.
I had been to San Francisco one time in my life at that point, so it was fortunate for me because I was able to see the movie through fresh eyes.
The movie really is a love letter to San Francisco because I was falling in love with the city while we were making it.
Williams spent 5 hours in makeup to become Mrs. Doubtfire, so he would avoid filming as the character 2 days in a row
Did the Mrs. Doubtfire outfit come into form first or the voice?
The voice. Robin in preproduction started playing around with the voice, but with him, it doesn't take a long time to get the voice. He probably had it within 10 minutes and we all agreed that's exactly how Mrs. Doubtfire should sound.
Then, we started to design the wardrobe as well as the look. We hired a makeup artist named Greg Cannom who began putting together the look and I think what really solidified it were the glasses.
When we did our first screen test, it was very close to the look that's in the final film. When he put the glasses on, we knew that was Mrs. Doubtfire.
It was always going to be a granny look and we wanted it to feel as real as possible. Greg's makeup for the time was spectacular.
How long did it take for Robin to be made up into Doubtfire?
Four-and-a-half, maybe five hours. As we went further into production, it got a little quicker. Regardless, we never could shoot two consecutive days of Robin as Mrs. Doubtfire because he was waking up at 3 in the morning to get into makeup, so by 8 a.m. we could shoot.
It was a punishing day for him, so always the next day, we would shoot him as Daniel.
Williams improvised so much that the only way to stop him was if the cameras ran out of film. As a result, almost 2 million feet of film was shot for the movie.
How did you and Robin work? Is it true you two had an agreement on how you would shoot the scenes?
Robin always called me "boss" or "capo." Halfway through the shoot, I honestly wondered if he really knew my name, but it was flattering to be called "boss" by a guy I idolized.
Early on in the process, he went to me, "Hey boss, the way I like to work, if you're up for it, is I'll give you three or four scripted takes, and then let's play."
By saying that, what he meant was he wanted to improvise. And that's exactly how we shot every scene. We would have exactly what was scripted, and then Robin would go off and it was something to behold.
The poor script supervisor. Remember, this is the early 1990s, she wasn't typing what he was saying. She was handwriting it and Robin would change every take. So Robin would go to a place where he couldn't remember much of what he said. We would go to the script supervisor and ask her and sometimes she didn't even get it all.
Often, he would literally give us a completely different take than what we did doing the written takes.
So when he's really in an improv groove, how many takes would you let him do?
If it were today, we would never end. But back then, we were shooting film so once we were out of film in the camera, we would say to Robin, "We're out of film." That happened on several occasions.
It got to the point that I had to shoot the entire movie with four cameras to keep up with him. None of us knew what he was going to say when he got going and so I wanted a camera on the other actors to get their reactions.
For Pierce Brosnan and Sally Field, it was quite difficult for them not to break character.
Is there a scene in the movie that you remember distinctly as being just Robin completely riffing?
There are several but two come to mind that were wildly improvisational.
The entire restaurant sequence was amazing. When Robin playing Mrs. Doubtfire loses his teeth in his drink, you can see the glee in Robin's face, he's almost smiling to himself that he came up with that.
And the second one that stands out is what I call the pie-in-the-face sequence. It's when Mrs. Sellner (Anne Haney) comes to Daniel's apartment and he's going back and forth as Mrs. Doubtfire and Daniel. When he's in the bedroom putting on the Doubtfire costume, that probably was his hardest work on the film. Verbally and physically. He was physically spent after doing that. I think we did 18 takes on that sequence.
What was the studio's reaction to all of this? Did you get to a point where they wanted you to get Robin to pull back a little, just to stay on schedule?
God no. They were loving what they were seeing. Did they watch everything? I don't think so. We shot almost 2 million feet of film on that picture.
Columbus got into an argument with the Broadway show writer who wanted to rewrite the ending and have Daniel and Miranda get back together
The final scene of Mrs. Doubtfire doing the TV show and speaking about divorce, and how a girl whose family is going through it will be alright, it's so perfect. Especially with the movie being made in the early 1990s when the divorce rate in the country was soaring. But were there ever notes or conversations of having Daniel and Miranda getting back together by the end?
No. Not at all. Robin, Marsha, and myself, we were a strong trio about that. We were adamant with the studio that they would never get back together. Most divorced parents never get back together and we didn't want the film to have a false ending. It was really important to us.
I remember in the early stages of the Broadway show, I was talking to one of the writers and we got into an argument over the phone because he said he was going to write Daniel and Miranda getting back together. I was like, "How can you do that? It's just wrong." It gives the wrong message to kids all around the world.
We wanted those kids to feel that they were seen and heard because, in most movies up until that point, the parents always get back together.
Columbus says a 'Mrs. Doubtfire' sequel should never happen and would be 'very vocal' if one were ever announced
How quickly after the movie opened did the studio start talking about a sequel?
It's an interesting thing. Back then, there was an attitude that sequels were looked down upon by the artists. So Robin was against doing a sequel immediately after.
He and I didn't talk about a sequel until the year he passed away. We had a script that was written and it was the last time I saw Robin. I went to his house and we sat down and talked about it and the script was really strong. Robin's only comment was, "Boss, do I have to be in the suit as much this time?" It was physically demanding. For Robin, I think it was like running a marathon every day he was in the Doubtfire costume. He was older, obviously.
So we talked about it and I think he was hoping in the rewrite we would cut back on the Doubtfire character. But then Robin passed away so there will never be a sequel to "Mrs. Doubtfire."
Have steps been taken so there will never be a "Doubtfire" sequel? I mean, a Broadway show was done. Does the family have the rights to block any attempt?
Fox/Disney owns the rights, I think. I don't think the Williams family owns it, so the studio can do whatever they want with it.
Should they? God no. I will certainly be very vocal about it if they decide to do it.
There are 972 boxes of footage from the movie in a warehouse. Columbus wants to use them to make a documentary about the making of 'Mrs. Doubtfire.'
You guys shot so much footage, has there ever been talk of doing a documentary on the making of "Mrs. Doubtfire?" As you said, this is an example of Robin in his prime.
Yeah, we are talking about it and trying to get it done. There are roughly 972 boxes of footage from "Doubtfire" — footage we used in the movie, outtakes, behind-the-scenes footage — in a warehouse somewhere and we would like to hire an editor to go in and look at all of that footage.
We want to show Robin's process. There is something special and magical about how he went about his work and I think it would be fun to delve into it.
I mean, there's 2 million feet of film in that warehouse so there could be something we can do with all of that.
What made Robin Williams such a special talent?
He was an incredible person. A lot of talented people that I've come across in this industry, they are not special people. They are talented but they are a pain in the ass.
I came to San Francisco, I had a daughter who was Zelda's age, Robin's daughter, and they became friends. And had a son who was Cody's age, Robin's son, and they became friends and went to school together. So we would spend every weekend together. I ended up living in San Francisco for 20-plus years and those were some of the best years of my life. I thanked Robin every day for giving me that opportunity.
What made him special as a talent is the fact that there was never anyone before him and there will never be anyone ever like Robin Williams. He's one-of-a-kind.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Correction: November 21, 2023 — An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Marsha Graces Williams' name.
Read the original article on Insider