Boulevard director on working with Robin Williams: 'I couldn't have loved him more'
It’s been almost a year since Robin Williams died, and it’s still strange to think that he’s no longer with us. He was such a constant and welcome presence during his four decades of movies, the rare performer who truly was beloved. Even director Dito Montiel, who directed Williams’ final onscreen performance in Boulevard, which opens July 10, often slips into the present tense when describing his leading man. “Everybody always has such nice things to say about the people they work with, but the stories about [Williams] are true,” he says. “He is a sweet man.”
Boulevard, in which Williams plays an unhappily married 60-year-old man who impulsively acts upon some latent desire and offers a ride to a young street hustler named Leo (Roberto Aguirre), is a serious and daring relationship drama. The roadside encounter and subsequent romantic awakening have immediate consequences for the older man, Nolan, fallout that threatens to finally destroy his long, passionless marriage to Joy (Kathy Baker). Bob Odenkirk plays Nolan’s best friend, a college professor who’s long envied the stability of his pal’s marriage but immediately senses that things are falling apart.
In this exclusive clip from the film, Nolan confronts Leo after the younger man failed to show up for the restaurant job he helped him get. It turns in to an angry scene, and as Montiel explains in the conversation below, Nolan’s outburst made it one of the most difficult scenes to get right. In fact, it nearly broke them.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Was Robin already attached to Boulevard when you came aboard? What was the chronology?
DITO MONTIEL: Yes, I was all excited to do a big blockbuster. Robin Williams! I was wondering, “Why are they calling me for a big blockbuster with Robin Williams?” Then I read it and was pleasantly surprised and I fell in love very quickly with the whole implications of the film. It’s a very delicate film to make. You’re walking a very thin line that gets exploited, in my opinion, sometime, as a one-way story. Like, this is a great coming-out story, or this is a mean-wife story. But this was more complex.
Robin jumped around a lot his last five years, with roles in indies and supporting roles in studio blockbusters. When you got the call, were you surprised this was a character he was interested in? Were your expectations about him different than what you found?
I wasn’t that surprised, because it’s hard to define a guy like Robin Williams. Each generation has a different opinion of him. It’s pretty remarkable. Depending on who you’re speaking to, he’s Mork or the teacher from Dead Poet’s Society.
Right, or Mrs. Doubtfire, or the shrink in Good Will Hunting. What was he like to work with?
I couldn’t have loved him more and I know that sounds corny. Everybody always has such nice things to say about the people they work with, but the stories about him are true and you’d have to search pretty far and wide to find the bad ones. He is a sweet man. He really cares a lot about getting things right and being honest about his character. One thing that Robin was very particular about, and I couldn’t agree more, was that Joy, his [character’s] wife, is a huge part of the film. The big thing for us was that this was more a film about letting go, I guess, than coming out. How do you say goodbye to the love of your life, which is Kathy Baker’s character, as opposed to the story of Nolan at age 23 coming out. This would be a very different story if he had been married at 18 and divorced at 23 and moved on. Not that it can’t be beautiful at any age, but it’s a little bit more complicated, letting-go, than maybe initially what the plan [of the movie] was, so I was very happy that was where Robin’s head was going. He didn’t think the audience would clap for him when he walked out on her, and I guess that was a big challenge for that role.
Robin is one of the biggest stars of the last 40 years, and I imagine he’s supremely confident on a movie set. This isn’t his first rodeo, by any means. But when you worked with him, how did he ask or look for cues from you on certain things?
I’m trying to say it without sounding corny, but the guy is really good. That being said, I wouldn’t say there’s any bravado to his confidence at all. He certainly wants to talk about it until your ears are bleeding. And I’m all for that. There isn’t a take that we don’t talk about in between; there isn’t a scene that while we’re not setting up the next one, we’re preparing for it. Even the last day of filming, he was really obsessed about this one thing. Literally, we walked through the whole hour of “lunch,” back and forth, trying to figure out how to make it work. I love that. That was maybe particularly unexpected about him: That he cared that much. This is a little movie. Like you said, he’s been making movies for decades, and he’s got every acclaim that you can ask for, and then he signals me at 3 in the morning in Nashville, walking for 20 blocks on his lunch to discuss the next scene. Not many people care that much.
We have an exclusive clip where Nolan confronts Leo at his apartment…
That’s it. That’s the last scene he filmed. The last day, that we took the walk.
What was he asking you about when you were walking that night?
Well, you know, we couldn’t get [that scene right]. The whole movie was so delicate. I call those scenes really boring. [Laughs] Like, let’s make sure it’s really boring. I love when a scene can almost be boring because it’s so honest, you know. But that scene was difficult because for whatever reason, we had sunken into this sort of very quiet character, Nolan, who doesn’t really say much to anyone. And then obviously this scene, he gets a little louder. So we were having a hard time with it. We couldn’t get it. There was a whole weird thing where he hugged Leo and tried to kiss him. And we went to lunch, and in my whole life, I’ve never gone to lunch without getting something [in the can]. But we just did. And he came over to me and goes, “We’ve gotta get this scene, we gotta get it. Let’s walk.” I don’t know where the hell we walked, but it wasn’t the best section of Nashville. We walked forever, and we got a couple of, “Yo, Mork!” He just said, “Why can’t we get this scene?” I said, “I don’t know, let me think.” And he goes, “I don’t know if I would try to kiss him.” And I said, “Yeah, it’s kind of a big deal to even go into that room, right?” And he’s like, “Yeah.” I’m like, “Forget the kiss, who the hell needs the kiss?” So he’s like, “That’s it! That’s it!” Of course, we had to walk 20 blocks back. And that’s the scene.
I feel like, because of what happened to Robin, that audiences will inevitably conflate him with Nolan, just in the sense that both men seem to be silently suffering behind a facade.
You know, you make a movie, and if there’s a red light flashing in the distance, everyone thinks that the director had a whole lot of money and a great idea that the red light means something. Then you say, “Yeah, we couldn’t afford to shut the red light off that was broken two blocks away.” So people will read into it what they may. It’s hard to tell. It’s kind of hard to even understand the whole deal [with Robin’s mental state at the end of his life]. I guess if we could understand it, then maybe it wouldn’t be happening. It’s hard to even know any of that. I know that I loved the character Nolan and I really liked Robin a lot, so it’s hard to tell what people will gather out of this film.
What’s it like to watch the movie now? I mean, it must be surreal and in some ways terribly sad to see something that you love and that you put so much of your heart into, but obviously real life has spilled into it in some ways.
Yeah, you know, movies are the weirdest thing in the world. You join this weird little cult for a couple of months and you’re attached at the hip with all these people that you talk to incessantly. And you’re out there and everyone’s trying so hard and working crazy hours. And then it ends and you just kind of all go your own way. It’s really odd. Because you’ve formed these incredibly strong relationships that you kind of know are going to end, in a world of make-believe. It’s all surreal. You have these strong attachments—half to this character that’s not real, and half to a person that’s pretending to be that character. I don’t know anything else like it, and I’ve kind of done every weird job in the freaking world. This has to be one of the weirdest, man. And it’s very sad, of course.
Boulevard opens July 10 in New York and will expand to other markets in the weeks that follow.