“The First Assembly Had Two Major Editing Flaws”: Editors Greg Finton & Poppy Das on Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind
Perhaps best known for her biographical documentaries (including two on Roman Polanski and one on Richard Pryor), Marina Zenovich’s latest film Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind is an intimate look at the late comic and actor. Set to air later this year on HBO, the film draws upon a vast assembly of archival materials, many previously unknown to the public, to cover Williams’s extensive career. Editors Greg Finton and Poppy Das discuss the challenges of crafting a portrait that focused on the comedy rather than the tragedy of Williams’s life.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the editor of your film?
Greg: I had just finished editing Fantastic Lies for Marina Zenovich when she told me she was developing a documentary about the life of Robin Williams. It sounded like such an amazing opportunity to explore the world of this actor/comedian who had such a wide range of material and such a diverse life. I let her know that I was extremely interested in editing it, and luckily she brought me on board.
Poppy: I came on to the film a few months from the end of the schedule, when it became clear that the focus of the film was shifting from the personal journey to that of his career and new story needed to be crafted in a short period of time. I have collaborated with Greg on a number of projects over the years and had been following the progress of the film from the beginning of editing, so it felt like a good fit.
Filmmaker: What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Greg: The films I have edited cover a wide spectrum of genres and people, but I suppose one of the consistencies of my work is that I always try to develop emotionally strong characters, regardless of the subject matter. I know that in my early conversations with Marina about the film we talked a lot about the need for Robin to be developed in that way.
Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were your goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?
Greg: The first assembly had two major editing flaws — too much heavy drama, and not enough comedy. Our entire team had said from the beginning of taking on this project that it would be unforgivable to make a film about Robin Williams that wasn’t funny, so capturing Robin’s comic genius became the number one priority. The first assembly was also very comprehensive in telling Robin’s full life story. It became clearer with each subsequent cut that the more we focused the film on Robin’s creative process, the better it felt.
Poppy: One of the earliest choices that Greg and Marina had made in this film was the use of Robin’s voice to tell his own story. (There was a trove of archival, voice-only interviews that had been collected over the years.) These interviews offered a side of Robin that few knew and it was a revelation to discover the thoughtful, curious, and private side of a public figure. When I came on to the film, I went back to this material often to make sure that that we always had Robin’s thoughts front and center as we shaped the material into a portrait of the artist.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Greg: There was a lot of heavy drama in Robin’s life from the death of people he was very close to, and the first assembly covered a lot of those deaths. They were very compelling scenes, but they were also very greedy, in that they would swallow up other scenes around them. The more we stripped away the heavier, darker scenes, the easier it was for the comedy to shine through. Plus, the brilliant thing about Robin was that he never shied away from talking about his personal struggles in his comedy routines. Ultimately, he was the one who provided us with a way to tell the darker sides of his life in a comedic way through his routines.
Poppy: In an effort to let Robin tell his story it meant constantly screening material and reading transcripts. We had a fairly extensive archive of both Robin’s life and work so it was something that I dug into repeatedly. I found myself making many sequences of material of his performances, home videos, interviews and photographs that we could draw on to flesh out sections that had already been assembled. As we fleshed out these sections with Robin’s presence, the film began to take shape. It also gave me a sense of how complex this man was and that we had to demonstrate that complexity in the film.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Greg: I started as an unpaid apprentice on a horror film in the summer of 1989. I was lucky enough to move up pretty quickly from there, becoming a 1st Assistant Editor within a year’s time. I had two amazing editing mentors while I was an assistant – Bob Estrin and Sandra Adair. I got to observe so much from them, not only about editing but how to navigate the numerous relationships one has to navigate while being an editor. Additionally, all of the films I worked on with the two of them prioritized character development above all else. All of the style, action, special effects, etc. don’t mean a thing if the audience is not connected to the characters in your story. That is certainly something I still take to work with me every day I’m in the cutting room.
Poppy: I started in the business as an assistant editor on a film for the PBS series NOVA. I worked for an editor who was very encouraging, and within a year I was editing with him on another NOVA. Shortly after that I started freelancing and have worked primarily in documentary and non-fiction films and TV shows.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Greg: I’ve used Avid on all of my feature documentaries.
Poppy: We used Avid. We love Script Synch, which is a must in doc filmmaking, and it was essential on this film.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Greg: Without a doubt it was the scene about Comic Relief. You wouldn’t know it when you see the finished film, because ultimately that scene was cut down quite a bit. But I said many times while cutting variations of that scene, that Comic Relief could be (and maybe should be) an entire film itself. hat Robin and Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg did with that whole endeavor was really amazing. The amount of money they raised, the number of comedians they attracted over the years and the countless numbers of people they helped was truly inspiring. It was a shame to have to cut that scene down as much as we did, but to cover more than what we did in the film, it started to become a scene about something other than Robin.
Poppy: I don’t think that it was a scene as much as it was an idea. I think Robin Williams although hilarious was a troubled person. We wanted to explore and present the complexities of the darker aspects of his personality, not simply as told by others but through a mosaic of moments that over time showed these parts of him. That offered a glimpse into a more private Robin that you wouldn’t otherwise experience.
Filmmaker: Finally, now that the process is over, what new meanings has the film taken on for you? What did you discover in the footage that you might not have seen initially, and how does your final understanding of the film differ from the understanding that you began with?
Greg: For every documentary I have worked on – in whatever capacity – I have always felt like I got to meet and know someone I never would’ve had the chance to do so otherwise. Fortunately for me, this film was no exception. Before editing the film, I knew Robin Williams the way most of us do – through his films. It was such a joy to comb through the hours and hours of archival interviews he had done over the course of his career. To go through all of his comedy routines, and all of his films and TV shows. Of course, the outtakes for all of his work were usually the best material of all – pure Robin! It was such a surprise to discover this man, who had such a boisterous public persona, was actually a very introverted, shy and quiet person.
Poppy: How much I learned about Robin Williams, how complex and troubled a man he was, and how enormous his talent and compassion was. I probably knew what most people know about him as well. So it was a surprise to find him unfolding over time in front of me. I hope it is a compassionate portrait that we all created.