Director Chris Columbus spoke with Business Insider about the movie’s 30th anniversary. He fondly recalled working with the late Williams, saying he brought the titular main character to life with his unparalleled talent.
“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,”‘ Columbus told the outlet.
“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 director said he felt sorry for the script director, Margaret de Jesus, who had to record all the changes by hand.
“Remember, this is the early 1990s, she wasn’t typing what he was saying. She was handwriting it and Robin would change every take,” Columbus continued.
“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.”
He added, “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,” Columbus said.
The film also starred Sally Field as Williams’ ex-wife and Pierce Brosnan as her new love interest. The director said it was “quite difficult for them not to break character” when Williams was in full improv mode.
The movie was based on the 1987 Anne Fine novel “Madame Doubtfire.” The story follows a divorced man (Williams) who dresses up as a British nanny to stay close to his three kids. It came out at the height of Williams’ popularity in the mid-90s and became a box office hit, earning more than $440 million worldwide. It remains popular to this day.
Columbus hinted that a documentary about the film could be a future possibility.
“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,” he told BI.
“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.”
Williams died by suicide at the age of 63 in 2014 after years of battling depression. After his death, he was diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia.