‘Boulevard’ Director Dito Montiel on Robin Williams’ Final Performance

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When director Dito Montiel (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints) cast Robin Williams in his low-budget drama Boulevard, he merely thought he was lucking out, signing a terrific actor and marquee name for what was otherwise a very small, intimate film. Little did he know, it would turn out to be one of Williams’ final films (specifically it was his last live-action film to be released, although last year’s Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb was shot later). That knowledge gives the film extra weight and poignancy, but it also turns Boulevard into a fitting tribute to Williams’ considerable dramatic gifts.

Williams plays Nolan Mack, a quiet, average man who has lived a quiet, average life. He’s worked at the same bank branch for 25 years; he’s been married longer than that to his wife Joy (Kathy Baker), though we notice right away that they no longer share a bedroom. Their marriage, these days, is less about romance than convenience and friendship — partially because Nolan is gay, a truth he’s buried for decades and finally faces when he finds himself drawn to a young hustler (Roberto Aguire) who upends his delicate existence.

It’s a modest yet moving picture, and Williams is downright riveting, finding the man’s delicacy and pain, yet putting across the excitement that comes with finally discovering who he really is. I talked to director Montiel about the film, and about the experience of working with this very special actor.

Flavorwire: So congratulations on the film, which is really wonderful — and a very different film for you, in terms of subject matter and the character at its center. What drew you to this project?

Dito Montiel: Well, I’m interested in friendship and the passage of time — it’s a kind of obsession in everything I end up doing, and this is just a different variation of it. That was kind of exciting, the complication of the ages of the two leads, Kathy Baker and Robin’s characters. How do you let go of each other after all those years? That really was what kind of excited me.

What was it about the character that made you think of Robin Williams?

We started talking right from the beginning. I wasn’t even going to question Robin Williams, I was like holy cow, honestly. It’s weird because when you do a little movie, you have a “super dream list” and you usually just scratch that immediately then you go tiers down. But he was on the “super dream list,” so for that to happen was remarkable. Forget the fact that he’s a great actor, it’s not like, “Wow, can Robin actually act?” That wasn’t even a question, we’ve seen it in Good Will Hunting, we’ve seen it in everything, even in his outrageous films. He has this thing, there’s this public persona that I and everyone else grew up on, you know him as the guy on David Letterman whose kind of outrageous who can’t stop and can’t stay still. And the thought of the character being so confined, you’re not allowed to do that. I thought that’d be so interesting to watch.

Absolutely — there’s a stillness to the performance that I found really fascinating. I always wondered, when I’m watching him in a role like this or Awakenings or One Hour Photo that’s so contrary to his persona, if he would just shut off his comic self on the set, or if he would goof off and have fun between takes, just as to sort of let off steam?

A little of both — probably like anybody with that crazy talent. Sometimes we’d be shooting all night out on the street with a group of fun people, and sometimes he couldn’t help but start performing. That’s Robin, that’s an aspect of him. Then sometimes he would say “We have to take a walk” at two in the morning, and talk about such and such a scene, and then you’d talk a whole hour with him. Really talking very specifically about the character. I loved it so much because I care like that too. You hope for it, you hope a mega movie star is going to come and make your movie and care that much at two in the morning in Nashville, but it doesn’t happen all the time. So that was really, really special to me.

Tell me about working with him to develop the character.

When I read it, the first thing I thought was the relationship between the husband and wife — and yes, it’s a story about coming out, but it’s a story about a lot of things. You spend so much of your life, 40 years, with someone you do love and how do you let go? The first thing Robin was talking me about was Kathy Baker — he was saying “What about Kathy in this role? What’s she going through, what have I put her through and what has she put me through?” Kathy had an interesting way of thinking of it, every once in a while she’d look at me and say, “I’m going to be mad at him now because we had an agreement with this marriage and he’s breaking it.” That was really exciting to deal with both of them, in that aspect of the film, that this is a loving marriage. Whenever I hear people say he’s in a horrible marriage and he’s gotta get out of it… It was a nice marriage and unfortunately it wasn’t right. I think they did love each other, and a big thing Robin and Kathy wanted to portray that this marriage is a loving one, in some ways.

Them bringing those thoughts to the roles was really exciting. Them saying “I love you” in a scene where they’re lying in bed together, that was never in the script. We rehearsed it and it just started coming out and we just went with it. We had some opposition to some people involved in the film, they were saying “Why are they saying I love you?” I’d say, “Well, because they do!” And that was what Robin and Kathy brought to the role that I really liked. This was not a straight and narrow story of, you married the wrong woman and now you’re coming out and we’re all going to clap to see it.

I wanted to talk about that scene, because there’s such kindness and need and tenderness in it, and it tells us so much about their relationship. Tell me about how that scene was rehearsed and played, because I really think it’s some of the finest acting either of them has done, which is saying something.

Yeah, we worked on that scene a lot and we rewrote it ten times before we shot it. We had some battles about it with the producers, understandably, because they were saying “Where are you going with this?” Well, them saying “I love you” here is them not just saying it because they do, but it’s also in some ways goodbye, because they get it now. We were very conscious of trying to walk the line where we’re being honest and sometimes that can walk on the boring side. And I kind of like that, I like when I see a film and think “Wow, that’s a really honest scene you got there.” Maybe it could’ve been cut down a little, but I think it can help to have that extra beat in a film like this. I mean we’re not going to battle Jurassic World with a film like this [laughs]. I’d like to beat Jurassic World but I not going to bet on that one.

His relationship with Bob Odenkirk, who plays his lifelong best friend, is also really interesting, and seems genuine. How did they make that relationship play?

Well as far as actors go, I’m a fan of Bob Odenkirk. Even in Better Call Saul you can see what a great actor he is. I thought how interesting, these two people have come from similar worlds, in the real world, comedic backgrounds and really respected guys, they probably have a mutual respect for each other that might help form a friendship. You have half a day to become lifelong friends in movies; it’s really weird, so that was an advantage on that point. Plus, being two good actors. So you’re stacking the cards in your favor and then you watch them go. As far as the friendship goes, it was a weird one; I think that the characters they play, Nolan and Winston, are as good a friends as probably either of them could be with anybody. Doesn’t mean that they’re as good a friends as good friends can be. I thought, well, some people don’t have that person that they can really open up to. That probably goes for Winston to, he lives a bit of a distant life with his young girlfriend Eleonore Hendricks. You put all those things together you’d have to screw it up to make a bad scene [laughs].

The fact that this is the last movie we’re seeing him in obviously adds some real poignancy to the film — especially in the closing scenes, where the character achieves a kind of inner peace that it seems ultimately eluded Mr. Williams. Did his death come as a shock after working so closely with him?

Well, it’s always a shock. It’s life. You never think you’re not going to see someone again. It’s the weird hope we have for everybody within ourselves. Movies are a weird version of life: it’s like this crazy fast-forward three months you spend, you say hello and by lunch time you’re trying to tap into everything, of everybody, when you’re dealing with an emotional piece. Three months later you say “cut” and everybody goes their own separate ways and we run into each other again somewhere out there. It’s like a weird circus life. And when you hear stuff like this, it’s always shocking.

When people are famous like that, it’s such a strange level; we’d walk down the street at three in the morning and everyone that would walk by would say they love him. When you’re dealing with really famous people, the ratio is usually, at best, 60/40: 60 they love ya, 40 they hate ya. When you’re with a guy like that I’d say it was close to 100%. People just adored him for their whole life and that sounds corny to say but you have to look far and wide for people who have a strong dislike for him.

So you’re sharing in the whole world’s loss—and at the same time, it feels awkward to have these conversations, only because you think he has a family and really close friends who don’t want to share him with people like me, who have only known him for a tight four months. All I could do was feel bad like the rest of us—especially when you’ve done something you feel good about, and I know he felt good about, and I know he’d want to say, “Hey man, it worked out. We were so nervous but now it’s good.”

But that’s the drag sometimes of life.

Boulevard is out Friday in New York. It expands to Los Angeles and other markets July 17.