TAKES A WILD RIDE IN RV
by Brad Balfour
Though it’s nearly impossible to capture a Robin Williams conversation as text, he’s mastered enough restraint over the years to lend his movie insights a measure of coherency. He brings the same maturity to director Barry Sonnenfeld’s droll new family comedy, RV.
This time Williams plays a dad who – forced to give up a Hawaiian vacation for a Colorado business meeting – drags the family on a bonding R.V. road trip instead. Obviously things go awry, and either because or in spite of the fact that Williams isn’t flooding the gas, it’s still funny as hell.
Though it was through the hit show Mork and Mindy and films like Good Morning Vietnam, Mrs. Doubtfire and The Birdcage that Williams sealed his funnyman reputation, it was on stage that he became known as a comic genius. He has also proven himself a remarkably elastic talent in such underappreciated dramas such asBicentennial Man and One Hour Photo.
Now with RV, Williams returns to comedy full force. A relentless improviser, Williams can take any comment and find a riff – as he does in his everything he participates in, even an interview scenario [and think about what couldn’t be translated to text].
So when you heard this was called RV, what did you think?
Recreational vehicle. [In French accent:] Recreation vehicle. We have ze student riots every year. We have what we call “the running of ze students…”
This film has a glove-fit role for you.
Ah, the glove fit…
It seems perfect for you in a way.
In a weird way, yeah. It’s kind of me and the technology as we are here surrounded by. We have two iPods, [some digital recorders] and one old cassette player. Thank you, Lord.
How did Barry Sonnenfeld manage you?
Oh, he controlled me. He’s got a great sense of humor, himself. He had a thing like, “Try it, it’ll be fun!” That’s him on the side of the RV.
Oh you mean Irv, the RV salesman played by Sonnenfeld himself.
Irv! He would give great ideas.
You were with the project before Sonnenfeld.
Yeah. Then when they hooked it up with him, I’ll do it. This in the wrong hands, we’ll talk.
What comes first for you?
I thought it was matzoh.
Matzoh, ooh. What comes first? Usually me. [Laughter.] Okay. The script came with this one. Sometimes you get both, which is great. If a director comes with a great script, like this movie I’m doing next, License to Wed, which I found out yesterday. I’m a counselor, basically.
You tell [Mandy Moore] she has to be celibate for two weeks?
Yes, isn’t that amazing? Me telling someone that?
Is it a comedy or drama?
It’s a comedy.
What about the choice you made here [with RV]?
The choice here was made easier after Barry was attached, because it really helps to know that you’ve got a number on a guy with great visual style and a great sense of humor to push it further.
It’s the first time in a while you’ve done a comedy.
Yeah, especially a studio comedy. I haven’t done one – when I was on a studio movie, I went, “there’s food! I’m on a studio movie!” When you’re doing really small movies, you realize [with studio films], “wow, look, there’s a full crew! And we don’t have to worry about where the film will come from tomorrow.” But it was interesting working with him, especially on something like this. Everyday he would make shots that would give it more of a sense of style.
What about your hip-hop bit in the movie?
It was fun ‘cause it’s based upon me seeing so many faux-homeboys. I was in Poland and you’ll see homeboys there dressed like full thugs [mocks a Polish rapper]… Shanghai homeboys [does a rap in Chinese]…
[Has your daughter] gone out with any of those kinds of kids?
No. “Going out with any of those?” Easy, dad…afraid of the large black man taking your girl out? “Yo, I’m here for your daughter, Mr. Williams. Don’t mind the tattoo. I luuuv her. I key my dick that you’re here. Serious as a heart attack, Mr. Williams, yo this is my ride.”
Sonnenfeld said you improvised many versions of the hip-hop scene.
Yeah, the other version was a kind of making them believe my son was a kung-fu master [does some of the scene]… It didn’t work as well.
Do you think that you and Barry have a synchronicity on timing?
Even that question has a synchronicity. I think we do. I think we have a timing about doing comedy, I think that we’re similar on that level. We are seeking synchronicity.
What does that mean?
It means to be in sync, to be together time wise. Chronos meaning time, sync meaning together. Out of sync is…out–of—sink… [laughs.]
When you approach a film, particularly a comedy, do you always do improvisation?
No, you only do that if they need the help or if there’s a place it really works. Like with The Birdcage, you didn’t have to do very much, it was so well written. That was Elaine [May, final screenwriter] at her best. You don’t need to add anything. And Mike [Nichols] would say, “It’s working, trust the comedy.”
When you are doing dramas, do you want to improvise as well?
Yeah, sometimes for the same reason. If there’s a room where it might help the scene of if you think you can punch it up. Whatever character you think you can establish more of the essence of the character by pushing a little bit. It’s only if the script has an opening or needs a little punching.
Where do these things come from in your head?
I have some films I’ll show you. [Laughs.] Where do they come from? They come from a kind of necessity and observation, and people laugh at that because they see it everywhere, the homogenization. Ohhh… There are homos everywhere. [Laughs.] The kids who have the pants that look like a plumber’s crack…
What about the generation gap between your technology-obsessed kids [Joanna ‘JoJo’ Levesque and Josh Hutcherson] and yourself? Does it happen to you with your family, where you text-message each other when you’re in the same house?
Oh, big time. That’s real. The whole idea of texting each other and you’re in the same room, it’s like, “Psh, no, serious Dad, I’m texting.” The weird thing is when we take vacations as a family. One of the rules is that we don’t bring that stuff. It’s amazing, you’d think that this could be a kind of cold technology, “Oh man, I need DSL. I need high speed, you bitch.” But within a day, they’re reading, they’re playing games, they’re outside…
One of the funniest parts in the film is when you’re standing on the front of the RV as you try to tip it off the rock it’s stuck, and then it starts rolling down the hill with you hanging on for your life.
Oh, man, doing that stunt was scary. I have to thank the guys who built that rig. It’s an amazing piece of technology. Not only would it move up and down, but they made it so when you got to the right point, [it did just what it was supposed to]. That scene was an homage to Buster [Keaton]. The idea was of a Keaton-like move to use this huge thing as a comedy prop. Those guys made this thing and it was amazing how it was all on hydraulics and they built this mound it had to be on. It’s insane, special effects comedy.
Are you’re back in a comedy groove? The producers Douglas and Lucy Fisher thought there might even be a sequel to this.
Somebody told me a great story about it. She said her father took her on an R.V. trip through Europe. I thought, “Wow.” Just to take an R.V. into France would be pretty wonderful. There’s so much comedy right there. Just going, [in a French accent:] “I could fix yours, if you want it.” Just when you got to Europe and you realize a French family car is a mom, a dad and a pack of smokes. Then when you go to Germany and you’re on the Autobahn, cars are literally going by you at 160 miles an hour. They come up behind you, and [German accent] “Yah ze make ze good cars, yah ze fast cars and the tanks. Wiley Porsche, he made very fast cars and these fighters. When you’re on the Autobahn, which Hitler made… psh, which were the old days.”
Besides the comedy there is an underlying message about family, and integrity, which surely appeals to you.
Yeah, a bit. It was basically a comedy, and if you get a little lead in, that’s nice. But it’s more about the idea of disconnecting on the level of when you lose all of that stuff and there’s this other thing that’s kind of wonderful, when you have a moment. And the adventures that the family goes through. Good and bad vacations, everyone’s had a bad vacation. Once you get through it, it’s like, “Wow. We survived!”
Have you had some strange ones with your family?
We’ve had some pretty strange ones. We go to Lake Tahoe a lot, no Fiji. [Laughs.] Taking these trips, there’s been times where it’s been just insane. Driving up there before all of this stuff. Now when you basically take a family trip, it’s like that scene that I love in the movie where they all have their iPods. It’s like traveling with a little deaf family.
Ageism is also a factor in this movie… Is Robin Williams worrying about…
Worrying about losing out to Brad Pitt [for] Angelina? But she has a tattoo that says, “Robin too.” Next to Billy Bob with “Your Name Here.” [Laughs.] When Tom has that baby, the world will change…”IT IS TIME. YOU MUST GATHER NOW. COME TO ME!”
So you don’t have an age problem?
No I don’t, actually. I’m doing these smaller parts, like in Night at the Museum. I’m the third lead but it’s been fun. I don’t need to hang out there for five months like Ben Stiller, who’s in every scene. I can just fall back and do what I want, which is kind of cool. It’s basically about the Museum of Natural History here in New York coming to life every night because of this Egyptian tomb that has this puzzle. And I had wanted to do that since I was a kid, and not that little, going to Julliard. When I’d go to the Museum of Natural History, the idea of there being a movie about that place coming to life is so perfect for a movie. I play a statue of Teddy Roosevelt that comes to life.
And you’re working on Man of the Year?
I did that already. That was fun. It was with director Barry Levinson [“Diner,” “Wag The Dog”]. That was a blast.
It’s a comedy as well?
Oh yeah, very much. About a political talk show guy running for office and winning because of a computer glitch.
In Man of the Year, you win the presidential election; is your character a Republican or Democrat?
He’s more of a third-party candidate. The idea Barry wanted to have was kind of a third-party candidate who could basically say, what have elections become besides this kind of a dog and pony show? Look at the debates, they’re sound bites. It’s that idea of, when has there been a debate where issues have been discussed or anything was resolved where you actually went, “Wow!”? It’s like dueling sound bytes where after the first time you go – and why a lot of people don’t vote or give up or kind of vote in waves, vote party…but who’s dealing with this stuff?
So it’s a movie with a message?
It’s a movie about politics. Like Barry did with Wag the Dog, the idea that you can be funny and still talk about stuff and say, just bring up things about what’s going on. Not just the idea of Republican or Democrat, but what the whole system has become. Like Frank Zappa said that politics are the entertainment wing of industry. And you realize you’ve picked candidates that are interchangeable, the Mr. Potato Head candidate. And you have a man presently in office where basically English is a second language.
What’s his first?
He speaks “W” Speak. It’s interesting whenever [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair is on stage with W., because it looks like a bad telethon. There’s Blair, who every week addresses the House of Commons where he is heckled. The Senate doesn’t heckle. “Hey, c’mon now! Hey Strom, your daughter’s on line two!” The idea that [Blair] must address and answer questions, I don’t think W. could handle that. “What, what are you wearing!?” [Laughter.]
I finally did a movie in New York. Yes! I did a movie about New York in New York! This one’s August Rush, shot by Jim Sheridan’s daughter, Kristen. It’s all in New York. And I love Canada, but it’s great to do a movie in New York about New York. Because it’s so real. When you’re in Central Park and see Central Park, to be in the Bronx and see the Bronx…
Any plans for live shows?
Yeah, I’ll be back doing that once I finish the movie, License to Wed, take a little time and go back out on the road.
Any plans for doing stand-up in clubs?
Yeah, I did the other night. I went on just because a friend was being heckled at Caroline’s. Jeff Garlin was on stage, and these two drunks were just – and after I while I just went, “C’mon now, leave the boy alone. Let the Jew be funny.” Then these guys started to go after me. I just went, “You don’t want to do that. I know you don’t want to do that. C’mon, make my day, big boy. C’mon, we’re going to do a Brokeback Mountain scene. I can’t quit you, Ennis. C’mon now.” You know now any time any guy says they’re going hunting, it’s like, “yeah.”
So what challenges you?
The challenge is to keep finding interesting things and meet interesting people, and so far that’s what I’ve been doing. And just aging and not worrying about if I come back and had botox, you’d notice.
How do you cope with long family trips?
If I’m driving, it’s just music. You know, books on tape too. Music? Everything. When you have kids you’ll be forced to jump the gamut.
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Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 25, 2006.