Robin Williams’ Last Days: New Documentary Details His Struggle
Art and Experience: Tylor Norwood’s documentary, “Robin’s Wish,” which releases on demand Sept. 1, documents the last days of Robin Williams’ life. Close friends, neighbors and his wife, Susan Schneider Williams, tell a story of a man and his struggles before the death that took the world by surprise.
The documentary is led by Schneider Williams, who wants fans to understand the comedian’s battle with Lewy Body Dementia. Norwood tells a touching story, educating viewers on the degenerative disease that takes over the brain, with interviewees providing further insight into Williams’ last days. Williams’ death was listed as a suicide, but he had been suffering from an incredibly debilitating physical and mental condition that made it impossible for him to go on, although he never knew his diagnosis.
Norwood speaks with Variety about working with Schneider Williams and telling a story that would correct the narrative, since many people believed he must have been depressed or having substance abuse issues.
The documentary is so powerful, incredibly touching and intimate, how did it begin for you?
It happened through a mutual friend of Susan Schneider Williams’ and mine. Susan was talking to him about Robin and how people needed to understand what happened to Robin and that people needed to understand more about Lewy Body Dementia.
Susan called me and asked if I wanted to do a film about Lewy Body Dementia, and I didn’t want to do that. As a fan of Robin Williams, I’d never heard anything about Lewy Body Dementia concerning his death. And I thought I was pretty hip. I didn’t know about this connection when she called me.
What happened when you learned about the connection between Lewy Body Dementia from Susan?
Susan started telling me about all the stories of what she and Robin went through in the last year and a half of his life. She didn’t plan to be a part of the original concept, and I told her if she could tell those stories and be in the movie, I’d be all in, and that was scary for her because it had only been two years after Robin had passed. To her credit, she said, ‘Okay.’ So, we started doing the interviews and I locked that story in. And her accounts were valuable.
I went out and verified it all. I went to the Michael J. Fox foundation and different science organizations to sign off on all those claims about his autopsy because that’s what you do as a filmmaker. We ended up with 17 people who had never spoken out about Robin until now.
What was that like for you as a filmmaker to hear about Lewy Body Dementia and how it impacted Robin’s life?
One of the big things about Susan is that she has a big heart and once I had earned her trust, she said I could ask her anything I wanted. In the end, we had nine hours of interview, and probably less than 20 minutes made it into the film.
I have their entire love story – from the moment they met to the very end. The hard thing is she hadn’t told close friends about Robin, and so taking on that responsibility was huge. This is the journey of a woman who will never have the love of her life again. But for her to share these details and give you everything about what she and her husband went through – there should be some justice to that, and there should be some correcting of a narrative.
The filmmaking process for me was about taking on the weight of this woman’s grief and the weight of trying to retell Robin Williams and his story.
Once everyone started adding their piece, it took a lot of the weight off of Susan. With Shawn Levy coming out and saying, ‘Robin called me at 3 in the morning and he couldn’t work out how to remember a line,’ it was very striking.
Shawn was just one of the 17 people who speak about Robin, including David E. Kelley. How did you narrow that down in the storytelling and again in the editing?
I started realizing that as much of a death sentence Lewy Body Dementia is, Robin never got a diagnosis and never got to know what was happening, and that was the theme of this. So, we started to catalog Susan’s trauma, and she would say how Robin would call her from the set of “Night at the Museum,” but it is more powerful to hear that from Shawn.
I looked at the concentric circles, the neighbors, the friends and then the professional circles. I looked at who would be the best person to tell the story.
And there are moments like his neighbor John, the last guy other than Susan to see him alive, who says Robin went over to ask for a hug. That was something to put in because it spoke to the humanity of who Robin was.
Was there anything else that stood out for you during the filmmaking process?
During the making of the film, Susan was going to places she hadn’t been since Robin had been alive and was dredging stuff up.
At one point, she went over to the bedside table because she needed to feel close to him again and she missed her husband, and she found his AA book. It was such an important thing to him because he had depression and drug addiction, and he read this book every night and he did the work. She opened it, and she sees this page, and he wrote, “I just want to help people be less afraid.”
That was Robin’s little prayer into the universe that no one was ever supposed to read, but that’s where his heart, energy and spirit were.