The comedian sits down with Barry Levinson to talk about their new comedy
One's a comedy legend and the other is a Hollywood legend - Robin Williams and Barry Levinson. The two have teamed up once again for their latest dramedy, Man of the Year. They previously worked together in 1987's Good Morning, Vietnam and 1992's Toys.
In Man of the Year, Robin plays Tim Dobbs, a talk show host, a la Jon Stewart and Bill Maher. Off a suggestion from an audience member, Tom decides to run for the President of the United States. Taking a break from his show, Tom brings along his staff of Christopher Walken and Lewis Black.
Barry and Robin sat down together to talk about reuniting after 14 years and what it was like to work on this film. In typical Robin fashion, he put on a show for us; the man is just on all the time - and it's great! He even had a chance to touch on his recent stint in rehab - and make it lighthearted.
Check out as the hilarity ensued with Barry Levinson and Robin Williams:
A lot of us were happy to see Tom Dobbs get into the White House. Can you discuss why the film didn't go all the way there?
Barry Levinson: Because in the end of the day as he said - what you are talking about is that you have to have a sense of integrity. So if you say, 'I'm not really the President, but I'm going to do it anyway.' So, then you've already started down the wrong road; I think in this movie you're basically saying there has to be some degree of integrity and a place to begin. And ultimately he decides he doesn't deserve to be the President and ultimately he gives other reasons why he's best served as being the court jester and not the head of the court. It becomes an issue of morality and integrity of where you want to be and how you want to view your life and what you think you really are.
Robin Williams: It's essentially a moral dilemma too, if you start out on a dishonest foot. That it's like, even though you may, it's like Chris' character - 'You can do good!' And if you walk out sides there are like 400 Walken impersonators. This is the only town where cab drivers will talk like, (in his Christopher Walken voice) 'It's weird; go to the airport. Why?' But, the idea that it would be totally dishonest.
Would you be able to make that choice on the high ground?
Robin Williams: On the high ground? I think you are on the high ground if you say no. Even if you have to say that's the issue for him, it's not real; I wish that would happen in real life. What happened in Ohio? 'I can't tell ya, heh, heh. The machine had a 'Can I vote for him day?'' The program seems flawed. I'm Stephen Hawking and I would like to tell you there are more controls on a Vegas slot machine than on n a U.S. voting machine - and this is not a message, this is actually me; thank you
Have you ever thought of being into politics like Arnold Schwarzeneger?
Robin Williams: Like Arnold? I'm just using my movies
I would support you.
Robin Williams: It is about politics; like my character, I believe I serve a better purpose just being able to make fun of everything. The moment - in many comics, the moment you chose a side even though people say, 'You're a democrat!' 'Yes, I've tried for awhile and what's left of the Democratic party.' But, I wouldn't want to run; I mean Arnold ran and has done very well. Right now a lot of Republicans are going, 'He's turning!' And there are people who say he's actually kind of an anomaly right now - a moderate Republican. He's a lot like an Amish Tech rep - there aren't that many. There are not that many moderate Republicans and I think he's actually using his power to try and maintain a somewhat of a stance that there has to be some changes made. And if you live in California, fuel efficiency is sort of realistic; literally, they will have days where 'Don't go outside.' 'Why?' 'Because the air is solid.' He is trying to put through some legislation that is controversial and yet still deal with the idea that it's a democracy and do things that aren't necessarily popular which is what Dobbs is talking about. Change is not popular; we are creatures of habit as human beings. 'I want it to be the way it was.' But if you continue the way it was there will be no 'is.'
Robin if you did run, what would your slogan be and who would be your running mate?
Robin Williams: Why not? Try me! What could be so bad? It's a very Jewish campaign. 'Why not?' Hello, who would be my Vice President? I would go with Stephen Colbert. His performance at the White House press conference - he deserves the golden spheres awards; I think it's quite powerful what he did. Or Martha Stewart, just to know she'll have an interesting place to leave; she's already done time, and as long as she has the ankle bracelet. The idea she could write truly inside living - truly inside living.
What did you learn from watching tapes of the '92 debate?
Barry Levinson: I watched it initially only for the fact we were going to have a three person debate with an independent and I wanted to see how they laid out their video cameras because we wanted to have coverage that would be consistent to what was done and not suddenly invent some different way of doing it. That would have been out of character for the piece, so I was just looking at it for the credibility of it all. What was interesting in that particular debate was how many times they would begin to talk - this one says it and then this one says it. There were interruptions, there were a number of things that went on; it was a much liver debate than what's taken place in 2000 and 2004 certainly. So, my reason was just a logistical issue in terms of how we were going to deal with the cameras, etc.
Robin Williams: Also, you saw with Perot - he came with charts and bars and graphs like a high school economics teacher. 'Can't you see right there? Here's the deal right here.' It's a bit like the old side-show guy. 'Here's your economy, there's your economy. Move it around there; there, ya can't see it, there it goes - right there, look around.' And then there is Bush Sr. going 'Not knowing it, not knowing why.' They sound the same, but when you have George Sr. who is basically John Wayne and you tighten your ass. 'And you take that and you take that and you get George Sr.' And you also look at Perot who also looks like a Ferengi; it was interesting, very interesting. But, the idea that he did come with the pie charts and people were going, 'Wow, I didn't know that.' And he made money by actually selling computer time which is a wonderful idea; it's like surplus energy.
What about Bill Clinton?
Robin Williams: Bill basically has a way of relating to people. He talks, 'I feel your pain and I like that shirt you're wearing. I know you, I feel you and I relate to your hair.' The idea he would actually answer your question and know what you were saying. Actually, after one of the debates, George was very upset that the person who was supposed to ask the question didn't get to ask the question; and so that was very difficult and he was sort of thrown by that. 'Why didn't we just stay on point?' Because a lot of the Town Hall meetings were people asking stuff and not shills. 'Sir can you explain?' 'I, I..' 'I didn't even ask the question yet. I found Clinton, like he always is, he is able to multi-task, which is what he did in the White House with the girl under the table.
Was there any research besides being a guest on late night talk shows?
Robin Williams: That's pretty much it; the idea of being on the other side of the interviewer is an interesting place for me, because normally I'm their worst nightmare. The idea of answer questions and answering questions - it's interesting for me to watch; I've been on all of them - actually not on them, but been near them and to look behind the desk what it is to sit and listen and the question of someone. And the idea of building off that. All Jon Stewart has to do is play the clip; when W says, 'I'm the decider,' you're off and running. When you have someone that makes up new words, even the people from Websters are going, 'Gosh I love him. My g-d, it's so amazing how you can just cannibalize the language; I want to see a 1-800 number every time you speak.' 'Talk to a naked candidate.' 'I'm the decider.'
Barry, how do you control this guy?
Robin Williams: Medication.
Barry Levinson: It's not that difficult; it's relatively simple. There is a script and as I've always said this is what is written, and if we can improve upon something at any given time we'll do that. A lot of times if I think that I have the take that I need then sometimes we'll just try something else. Or sometimes I'll say to him, 'Did you ever think about blah, blah?' And then we'll kick something around and do another take and something else may happen; and if it's better and if it's more interesting great - if not, we can just move on. The good thing about Robin is he has enough discipline as an actor to know where the boundaries are; it's not like he's just bouncing off the walls and whatever. He does know where we have to get to and what we have to accomplish and if we can improve on those moments we'll do it, even though we didn't have a lot of time for this movie. It was only shot in 42 days and we didn't have a lot of time and it was only shot for $20 million. So, there wasn't a lot of time hanging around and doing that; we had to constantly keep moving and still we were able to and Robin was able to find things that would enhance the piece.
Can you talk about politically does that scare away people and on the recent events in your personal life?
Robin Williams: Oh, my personal life? Only that I went to rehab the same day that Mel Gibson was arrest on the Pacific Coast highway and that allowed me a certain anonymity. And that G-d does have a sense of humor - he was stopped by the only Jewish highway patrolman. I think that allows me a certain, I dunno, je ne sai what? In terms of scaring people away from that type of scrutiny? Yeah, I have seen a lot of extraordinary people - Mario Cuomo - for whatever reason not want to go further. And why, given the fact that the scrutiny is way beyond what's necessary for the office. It's like you want blood and urine; it's like the old joke, 'He wants blood, urine and semen sample - give him your shorts.' The idea that people they want - and not just you, but all of your past and it puts everyone around you in jeopardy. Family members, like if your wife has ever taken medication; anything would be up for grabs -and why would it scare away anybody who might be extremely qualified, but if their life isn't squeaky clean you go, 'Well you can't be president.' If you apply the same standards moral standards to most of the presidents we've had, then they wouldn't be in office. 'Mr. Jefferson it is Sally on line two.' 'I told you I wouldn't wait in Paris. I've been waiting in Paris for two days Thomas Jefferson! You said I'd be first lady!'
Anything special you wanted to bring to this, a point of view?
Robin Williams: About politics? No, just the system; I just wanted to talk about the whole system. How is it working? Is everyone happy with the way things are. If you're a Democrat, you're going, 'Gosh, we're doing well.' If you're a republican you're going, 'F*ck 'em.' But I think it's the idea that what's working well right now? Are we as a country doing very well? Are we actually functioning to the best of our abilities? How do we do? If you look at most countries, how do we stand in the world? How do we stand nationally? How come we have not rebuilt New Orleans? How do you do that? How do you function through that and how do you deal with all the different things? And both sides, and not the idea of divisive politics but the idea of united as in U.S. being us and the idea of working together and finding - and disagreeing and able to work it out. That for me - the system, as a comic, as you see with all these guys like Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Colbert, all they're doing is basically just saying, 'Here's the absurdity.' And people laugh and yet it still goes on. You can look at any given day and go, 'That's insane.' And I think Barry's pointed out that it's very easy to be cynical right now because it's hard to top what's been going down.
Barry Levinson: That's why the movie in a sense is - someone said to me about Wag the Dog and I said, 'Well, Wag the Dog was in a more innocent time in a way.' It was in a less cynical time in that regard compared to where we are now. We're in a much darker period, a much more cynical period, so therefore you have to find a movie that's going to work in another place because if we're going to just simply rehash what's out there, and it's so crazy and absurdist, you can't go that way. You can't top that. So therefore we had to find another place and that's where this movie falls in a sense is in a different time and place than, say, where Wag the Dog was in the '90s.
Robin Williams: And also if you had a candidate who is up for full disclosure and actually doesn't care; the fact that he does have a history, the fact that he did inhale, the fact that he's done all these different things, that he's a human being. I'd rather have an intelligent human being who has all these different things going on and can deal with you. If you get a certain sense of this is who he is, this is what you get and screw all the other consequences. He hasn't been spun. And yet it's hard to have anybody - a lot of these guys you meet, like at the Clinton library, all the ex-presidents were so happy. It was like - even Gore describes himself as a former - it's almost like he's been to PA, Politics Anonymous. He says, 'I'm a former candidate,' like now he's freed up to be more himself and can talk about issues he's adamant about versus when he was running. He couldn't talk, people might be offended by that. That might lose some votes and you're going, 'You might lose some votes but you may save humanity, but it's up to you. Your call.' I like breathing. I really like breathing and I don't like fecal matter in my water. It's just crazy. I don't like bathing in my own shit. For me it just bothers me, all of a sudden, 'What's that? He's got brown soap.' But the idea of that's acceptable. When they start talking about acceptable levels of Strick 9, for those of you doing the math, it's a poison. It's not really acceptable over a long period of time and when you deal with mercury. 'It can really make your day go badly.' Thank you, people are going, 'Oh, don't do that.'
Was any of your comedic dialogue ad libbed?
Robin Williams: Yeah, we would try different things here; we tried some stuff, just pieces. He would say, 'Try working up some things that are general enough that they won't lock it off into a time or specific issue. Like it'd be great to talk about the middle east in there but you want to have a campaign that's talking about things that have been around and will be around. We had issues like alternative fuels and the idea of what is that about, the issue of flag burning which is always brought up. It seems to come up at time when just when something - 'We're about do a complete audit - FLAG BURNING. BURN THE FLAG.' Like I said, I was driving the other day, I didn't see one on fire. 'Don't go out today; flags have been burning all over the country.' And it is offensive, if you're a vet it's offensive. It's also I think if you're a vet, it's also offensive to know that there are flag thongs. 'Where's grandma's stripes? I don't know.' What's the idea that you can do that and it's always brought up like he said, the ideas of bringing these issues up to trigger emotionally your response and you'll go for it and we will go for it. And the idea of putting an amendment into the constitution about that, there are a lot of other things I'd put way ahead of that. Those are the things that they will put and get you really worked up about and you guys help. There'll be stories. We're talking to people, 'Yeah, I haven't burned a flag today but if I saw someone I'd have to shoot him. And I know that's illegal. Well, not in Texas, we're working on it. Thank you.'
How did you balance the serious elements and the comedy?
Barry Levinson: Well, in a sense, as I said to Robin, there is no need to have to be funny because it's not a sitcom. It's not like all these scenes need to be kind of funny. His character has a sense of humor and at certain times, it will open up and will happen that way. In other scenes, they're dramatic because they are in fact dramatic. So the movie's not playing in some other kind of way where we need to keep it always rolling and therefore we have to find jokes and things to do it. It's not designed that way. It basically has a dramatic structure with someone who has a great sense of humor in it. So it will be humorous because of the character who is in it and the circumstances that take place periodically but not throughout the movie. It's not designed that way.
Robin Williams: As it did in Good Morning, Vietnam; it was the same kind of mix which is why it's great to work with Barry. He has the ability to mix them beautifully, and also the ability to say, 'You don't have to do anything here. There's enough absurdity just to have on a Thomas Jefferson wig and be speaking to congress and go I hope this works and be in the limousine dressed like that.' There's not a lot of spin you have to work on. The idea of talking about the subjects and that ability is funny because we can try and just go as far as you can and mix and match which is wonderful too which gives you the crossover. He was the first guy who could actually do both of them with Good Morning, Vietnam and the chance to do it again, especially now in these interesting times, to be able to have both, that to me was the gift and that's why I wanted to do it. And I'm glad we did because it's just to address it all. The whole system, the entirety and look at - because we are - everything that's been happening, it's not like - it's almost to the point, it's almost a documentary. Everyone's going, 'This, that - oh, it happened yesterday, I'm sorry.'
Did you meet Mel Gibson in Rehab?
Robin Williams: (in an Australian accent) No, we never met and we're supposedly keeping correspondence. (regular voice) But I have Jewish agents so I haven't gotten any message. Thank you. Mel called, 'Hi Robin. I'm on the Coast Highway. Come pick me up. Don't worry.'
You can laugh it up with Man of the Year opening in theaters October 13th; it's rated PG-13.