Robin Williams’ “Mrs. Doubtfire” improv yielded 2 million feet of film, director says

The late comedian’s livewire performance was sometimes filmed on four cameras simultaneously, says director Chris Columbus.

Robin Williams has always been known for his brilliant ad-libbing talents — and a new interview with Mrs. Doubtfire director Chris Columbus revealed the mind-boggling extensiveness of his improvisation.

In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the 1993 movie, Columbus told Business Insider that the crew shot “almost 2 million feet of film” on the classic comedy. That’s equivalent to roughly 379 miles — further than the distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Columbus recalled Williams’ spur-of-the-moment style. “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,’ the filmmaker said. “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.”

<p>20th Century Fox / Everett</p> Robin Williams in 'Mrs. Doubtfire'

20th Century Fox / Everett

Robin Williams in 'Mrs. Doubtfire'

Williams’ ad-libbing yielded great material that wasn’t in the script, but also sometimes created problems when his performance outpaced his memory. “Robin would change every take. So Robin would go to a place where he couldn't remember much of what he said,” Columbus explained. “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. “

Williams’ livewire performance could only be contained by technical limitations. “If it were today, we would never end,” Columbus continued. “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 also said that he hopes a documentary on Mrs. Doubtfire can materialize. “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 said. “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.”

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