Throughout Boulevard, Robin Williams looks stiff, like he’s holding a suitcase in each arm at all times. It’s his way of physically conveying his character’s emotional baggage—Williams plays Nolan, who at 60 can no longer suppress his gay feelings and attempts a relationship with a prostitute named Leo (Roberto Aguire). But, in light of Williams’s suicide last August, it makes you wonder what Williams himself was carrying with him while filming what turned out to be his last onscreen performance (his voice will appear in next year’s sci-fi comedy Absolutely Anything).
Viewers initially received Boulevard as a small movie about a man finally coming to terms with himself and his sexuality when it played the Tribeca Film Festival in the spring of 2014. Williams’s death unquestionably complicates the relationship between the audience and the movie. Boulevard’s director, Dito Montiel, compared the confluence of Williams’s death with the bittersweet nature of the film to “playing Pink Floyd up against The Wizard of Oz” when I spoke to him by phone last week. “Somehow it fits,” he added.
We also discussed directing a gay movie as a straight man and Williams’s death being mentioned in the film’s marketing. Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
Gawker: You didn’t write Boulevard. What inspired you to get involved with this project?
Dito Montiel: I read a draft of it, and it really kinda touched me in a lot of ways. You try to put yourself into what you get involved with if you can. Initially, I thought about my parents who were married over 40 years and got divorced in their 70’s. I remember thinking, “What are you gonna do now?” My mother was like, “I’m not done yet.” That stuck with me, that thought of: how do you make a change at this age?
(Laughs) I love being questioned about your straightness. It’s great. It’s a new thing. It’s a great new thing to be happening. I did an interview with a friend of mine who was asking about “gayface” and all that. I said, “Wow, it hadn’t occurred to me.” It might be my own ignorance or whatever, but nothing about it occurred to me about it being a story about a gay man. That certainly is an aspect of it, but to me, I thought of it as a story about two people, Joy and Nolan, that were in a marriage of convenience but really did love each other. In some ways it was generational, which excited me, what maybe is taken for granted these days. Doug [Soesbe], who wrote the script, he came out later in life. He’s, I believe, 70 now. It’s about suppression and a whole lot of other things. One of them happens to be gay. On my checklist of things, I guess, I couldn’t check that one, but it’s a story of human beings so I’m a part of that deal.
This movie is not your run-of-the-mill tragic gay narrative. In this movie, Nolan’s sexuality isn’t the problem; it’s how he handles it that’s the problem. He’s finally liberated when he comes to terms with himself.
Which is a human story of...fill in the blank. It’s so complex in so many ways and every human being is in their own situation. I thought Robin had such an honesty about it. Kathy [Baker] as well. She was so diligent. I had some people say, “Come on, if he’s going in with a trick, he’s gonna jump all over him.” I said, “Maybe. I don’t know.” When we were doing the scenes in the hotel room with the character Leo, the direction [to Robin] that we went with was, “You’re looking at yourself in that room. That’s you. You could have done that. You could have come out at this age and everything would have been good. And damn it, you didn’t.” The performances were so complex, I was just in awe watching them.
I was wondering if there was anything greater behind the lack of sex between Nolan and Leo. I found it plausible, but at the same time audiences are still squeamish about seeing gay sex.
No. I went into this with a Mr. Magoo attitude. I just went with what felt right to all of us. We never cared what the public would think. You don’t make a movie like this and think, “How are we going to break $100 million if we have a sex scene?” I didn’t think we were going to be going up against Jurassic World with a man in his 60’s coming out. So we didn’t have any of those restrictions. We were just going with the emotional aspect. He’s just looking at all that he lost in those rooms. It was just choices [we made] for no other reason than they seemed more honest.
Watching this movie, it’s impossible not to think about Robin Williams’s death and fill in the blanks retrospectively. He has a way of physically conveying the baggage his character is carrying around, but obviously he had his own baggage in real life. What are your thoughts about how his death will affect the way people receive this movie?
That’s one of those unexplainable, unfortunate situations that you just can’t predict. You make a movie, it’s this weird circus life you live. You have these incredible, intimate relationships with people for three months, you’re attached at the hip, talking through the midnight hours with the different actors about the most intimate things you could possibly conjure up so that you can get truth in the scene. And then someone yells, “Cut!” after three months and you all go home and you’re on to the next thing. It’s like life being sped up when you make a movie. You meet someone, two days later you’re talking about anything you can to conjure up an emotional explosion in them and then you go your own way and you hope you run into each other in the street one day or at the theater when it comes out. Then you hear this stuff and it’s horrible. When a famous person dies, we all share in this sort of strange grief. I think, “Boy, he’s got a family and he’s got some close friends that probably don’t want to listen to all of us talking about him.” But then you say, “I’ve lived with him my whole life, growing up, on TV.” It’s a very complicated thing that you get into with this. I’m just happy that in the end, we made a film that we felt really good about. All that other stuff is awful.
When you were doing that emotional probing, did you get any sense of his depression?
No, because you talk about it and then you joke about it...I’d say things to him like, “You really screwed up, man. Now you gotta walk into that house.” He said, “I’ve done the research.” (Laughs) It was his way of being funny. You can never tell a thing like this. I wish you could. There’s so many people you wish you could have figured out, but that’s part of the trick of life.
Do you have any feelings about Robin’s death being referenced in the trailer?
I saw that. It’s unfortunate that that’s part of the deal. But it is part of the deal. I don’t get into marketing. I wish I did, I’d probably make a lot more money. I can’t understand how anything works. I just know that you do what you do. I felt really good about the film. I’m happy it’s out there. You just do what you can. I’m not a part of all that stuff. I like the trailer, but it’s beyond me, that kind of stuff.
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The entire thing must be bittersweet. I would have felt the same way about this movie if Robin Williams were still alive, but at the same time that this movie features his last on-screen performance, it automatically builds in interest that might have not been there if he were alive today.
It’s like playing Pink Floyd up against The Wizard of Oz. Somehow it fits. Yeah, it is bittersweet, but the movie would have been bittersweet regardless. When it was done, and I was doing the last bit of cutting, I remember being really touched by it. Everyone you work with, you feel a strange sense of sadness [for]. It’s all bittersweet to me regardless. I’m a sap. But yeah, I imagine there are certain things people will attach to it now. Hopefully it’s positive.
In a way, Robin’s death only makes the movie more poignant. It gives the movie that extra layer that wouldn’t be there if he were still alive.
Possibly, but you know, you never know. The world sways so quickly back and forth these days. One day that might help you and the next day, that might be a negative. I don’t care about that kind of thing. The movie is what it is. People seemed to enjoy it before the awful news and...yeah, that’s just one of those things. There’s a woman in the film, [J. Karen Thomas], who passed away since we filmed, as well. It’s just so bittersweet. It’s another person you had a relationship with. That’s life. You just have to look at it that way. Unfortunately we all will pass, too, man. It’s a drag.
Boulevard opens Friday in New York.
[Image courtesy of Starz Digital]