From Heaven to Hell with Robin Williams

Originally published on September 27, 1998 | Toronto Sun | written by Bruce Kirkland

HOLLYWOOD--Robin Williams went to the dark place.

It was ugly, it was horrifying and it was depressing. He pushed himself to the brink of a mental breakdown that he knew he had to control.

All for a performance in a movie.

For Williams to go that far, that deep, it had to be a special movie. He says it is. The movie is New Zealand filmmaker Vincent Ward's metaphysical romantic drama What Dreams May Come, due to open on Friday.

"I can do this," Williams remembers telling himself when the script for What Dreams May Come first came his way. "The question is why?"

Williams plays a California doctor killed early in the story in a spectacular car wreck. His widow--played by Annabella Sciorra--is a painter whose work reflects her longing for her husband and her growing madness. Added to the mix is the news that the couple had earlier lost their two children in another car crash.

While Sciorra pines, Williams finds himself in a personalized heaven and hell that flourishes in his imagination and is closely related to Sciorra's paintings. In many special effects-laden scenes, he literally walks in liquid paint inside a scene.

"You feel a lot," says a subdued Williams of acting in a film such as What Dreams May Come, which plumbs the human mind to examine, analyze and shape the nature of love and loss.

"There are a lot of emotions, and you think: 'Do I want to go through this?' That's the main question.

"In the end, I decided, 'Yes!' But it's hard stuff to deal with, all the loss and all the pain of it all. There were only a couple of days where you got to go: 'This is a good day.'

"Even in the moments when he was in heaven, he was still dealing with not wanting to let go and trying to connect with her (his wife). It's hard when you read it and you think: 'Do I want to go there, to go to those places?' But what is extraordinary is the vision of a very subjective heaven and hell."

Like director Ward, like co-producers Stephen Simon and Barnet Bain, who have guided this unusual film through a decade of development, Williams is careful not to align What Dreams May Come with a specific religion or a specific view of what heaven and hell may mean to people.

"I think you are getting your dreams, a preview of coming attractions in heaven and hell, if you believe in heaven and hell," says Williams.

"It's a weird thing, because the moment you get into a heaven and hell discussion, you go, 'Is it a Catholic heaven? Is it a Jewish heaven? It's like Miami on a nice day. Is it a Buddhist vision?'

"I believe that you have samples here on earth of heaven."

In the film, Williams creates his own heaven and hell out of his life memories. Ward created them by working with computer wizards, creating what Williams calls "a kind of virtual Van Gogh."

It's a natural high, he says. "It is the closest thing to acid without actually having to see the person next to you melt," quips Williams, who has documented his own drug use and abuse in the past.

"You see a whole other world, a personal heaven that is totally outrageous."

Williams, for one, is surprised it works on screen as well as it does. "Yeah," he says, "because you are really taking the old proverbial flying leap off that cliff."

Williams started talking publicly about the movie at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. "It was an insane day," he recalls now. "It was very strange to be in Cannes talking about a movie you hadn't started yet. You were kind of doing foreplay."

And this act wasn't at all sexy because it is so serious. Plus it seemed so impossible that the dream really would be realized as a polished film. Technology was being invented during the filmmaking to create the images.

"You get to the point where time, money, everything will prevent you from getting everything you want," says Williams. "But they certainly got a lot. I think they have achieved as much as they can given the nature of the beast."

A third of the film was shot on location in Montana. The rest was done in San Francisco, where Williams lives with his wife and children.

"It certainly made it easier for me doing this tough stuff and being able to go home at night. It certainly kept my sanity much more intact."

He hugged his kids warmly each night. "Not just to hug them but to just be with them. It would help you because the movie deals with loss.

"The most primal thing about the movie is that it made me appreciate everything in my life right now: My family, my friends, my wife, my children and what a gift they are. I treasure every moment with them.

"And the time I've had off after these movies (he followed What Dreams May Come with the equally intense Holocaust drama Jakob The Liar) has been extraordinary."

Williams, Chicago-born and raised in Michigan and California, has three children, 15-year-old Zachary, nine-year-old Zelda and six-year-old Cody. His wife is Marsha Williams, a woman he calls his soulmate, like Sciorra is for his character in What Dreams May Come.

"Oh, very much," Williams says of his soulmate connection. "Oh man, I know it. That's why there is a resonance here."

Devoted to his children, Williams tried to imagine losing them like his character loses his children in the film.

"You have to deal with that if you're doing a movie like this. You have to personalize it, and it's hideous! Then you come home at night and they're there, and you're going: 'Thank you.'"

The producers, Ward and co-star Sciorra all talk about Williams' vulnerability as the fuel he uses to make his character both believable and exciting.

For once in the interview, the supremely confident Williams looks puzzled. "I don't know what they mean by that except having to get to that place where you have to deal with stuff like this in an open way, to deal with intimate loss to try to make it accessible to people. That's vulnerability.

"I mean, you just have to be approaching it and not be 'acting' it. Just let it happen, really inhabit it. It's kind of like that method acting but you still have to have enough control. If you just break down sobbing for two hours..."

Williams doesn't complete the thought. He doesn't have to. "If you really approach this stuff, you'll come to a point where it's almost like a breakdown. You hit this place where, on the other side of it, lies deep, deep, deep, over-the edge depression.

"At the end, you have to take a journey where you've been through everything, where you've gone through every known emotion in terms of loss and love and life. That's vulnerability."

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