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‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ Director Says Two Million Feet of Film Was Used During Production Because of Robin Williams’ Improv

Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox / zloben / MovieStillsDB
Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox / zloben / MovieStillsDB

Robin Williams took on a lot of funny roles during his career, one of the most popular being that of Mrs. Doubtfire. The film, which shares its name with the titular character, is filled with both scripted and improvised jokes, but what audiences see is just the edited version. As director Chris Columbus explained in an interview, Williams provided a lot more takes than what the finished product contains – like two million feet of films worth!

Williams set the tone for filming

Chris Columbus and Robin Williams, dressed as Mrs. Doubtfire, behind the scenes. A camera sits between them.
Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox / CaptainOT / MovieStillsDB

The film was released on November 22, 1993, and saw Robin Williams playing an actor who disguises himself as an elderly female housekeeper to see his children following a bitter divorce where his ex-wife took full custody. The comedy was a smash hit at the box office, grossing a whopping $441.28 million worldwide, and it quickly became one of Williams’ most recognizable characters.

Filming for Mrs. Doubtfire began in early 1993, and right from the get-go, Williams was clear that he wanted to improvise. “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,'” Columbus explained. “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.”

They couldn’t keep track of all of his takes

Robin Williams vacuuming in the Mrs. Doubtfire costume.
Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox / yodasimpson / MovieStillsDB

We all know Williams was a king of comedy, but put the man in a granny suit and he could really take off. “The poor script supervisor,” Columbus continued. “Remember, this is the early 1990s, she wasn’t typing what he was saying. She was handwriting it and Robin would change every take. So Robin would go to a place where he couldn’t remember much of what he said. 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.”

Each take was different from the last, and in order to keep up, Columbus had to make sure he had enough tech on hand to catch it all. “It got to the point that I had to shoot the entire movie with four cameras to keep up with him…” Columbus explained. “…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. For Pierce Brosnan and Sally Field, it was quite difficult for them not to break character.”

Columbus wants to make a documentary about the process

Headshot of Robin Williams.
Photo Credit: Jason Kempin / Getty Images

With the film being such a hit, Columbus floated the idea of a possible sequel to Williams. However, at the time, Williams shot that possibility down. Several years later, though, he met with Columbus again to discuss a follow-up, the film going so far as to have had a “really strong” script developed. Columbus said that his only question was, “‘Boss, do I have to be in the suit as much this time?'”

“So we talked about it and I think he was hoping in the rewrite we would cut back on the Doubtfire character,” Columbus said. “But then Robin passed away so there will never be a sequel to Mrs. Doubtfire.”

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That being said, Williams’s improvisations on set of the film developed almost two million feet of film. Columbus has over 970 boxes full of never-before-seen footage, outtakes, and behind-the-scenes film that he hopes can be compiled into a documentary and shared with the world. “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,” Columbus said. “I mean, there’s 2 million feet of film in that warehouse so there could be something we can do with all of that.”

Samantha Franco

Samantha Franco is a Freelance Content Writer who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Guelph, and her Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Her research focused on Victorian, medical, and epidemiological history with a focus on childhood diseases. Stepping away from her academic career, Samantha previously worked as a Heritage Researcher and now writes content for multiple sites covering an array of historical topics.

In her spare time, Samantha enjoys reading, knitting, and hanging out with her dog, Chowder!