Camp Coppola Sets Scene for 'Jack'
In an interview, Robin Williams and his director explain how time on a ranch with kids prepared them for the film
NAPA VALLEY, CALIF. — Shrieks of laughter rang from the pool as seven little boys splashed about. Suddenly, a big kid did a belly flop into the deep end, and Francis Ford Coppola emerged from under an umbrella yelling, "Young man, that will be enough of that!"
Instead of silence, the group exploded with laughter.
The "young man" Coppola was scolding was really forty-something Robin Williams.
As Coppola explains, "I was preparing to direct the movie 'Jack,' the story of a little boy who looks full-grown yet he is only 10.
"I thought, this is a very sweet story, but it depends totally on the audience being willing to accept the actor they are looking at, who is full-grown and shaves, as a little boy. If they don't believe from the very beginning, it won't work."
Further explaining his thought process, Coppola says, "Certainly we'd all seen 'Big,' and Tom Hanks did an excellent job as a kid encased in a man's body. In 'Jack,' it had to be more, for he must interact mostly with kids."
To fully immerse the lead actor in his story, Coppola hit on a winning strategy: "I thought, if I took Robin Williams, who is playing 'Jack,' and seven nine-year-old boys and kept them 'captive,' in a manner of speaking, living together at my ranch, it might work. The kids would become friends, and Robin would become reacquainted with the child within."
Before this plan was devised and Coppola had even signed on, Williams turned down the script. Playing yet another childlike role didn't appeal to him. As he explains, "Been there, done that. I wanted the challenge of doing something new." But then he heard that Coppola would be directing. "Who could turn down a chance to work with 'The Godfather?' "
(Williams was referring to Coppola's film, which won the best picture Academy Award in 1972 and remains widely considered one of the great American films of all time. Two sequels followed.)
Coppola and Williams first met 10 years ago at George Lucas's birthday party at Lucas's Northern California ranch.
"Robin was the master of ceremonies," Coppola recalls. "He did an hour of the most amazing improvisation, including a take-off on Lucas's 'Indiana Jones' movies. I realized what an extraordinary actor he was."
Later, the two became neighbors, owning adjoining ranches in Napa Valley, Calif. They even opened a restaurant, The Rubicon in San Francisco, with Robert De Niro. But until "Jack," they'd never made a film together.
Coppola was delighted that Williams agreed to his idea for preparing for "Jack."
"I told Robin of my live-in rehearsal plan," Coppola says. "I knew if he'd go for it, it would be a great help. Robin recognized what I was trying for and eagerly joined in.
"I felt I was a drama counselor at summer camp again," Coppola recalls. "For two weeks, all the kids, including Robin, did everything together. They swam, camped out overnight, joined Boy Scout activities, went shopping at Toys 'R' Us, ate together, had food fights, and slept in bunk beds."
Coppola leans back on the sofa and sighs. "It was a wonderfully wild two weeks. Then for the third week, I had the adults in the movie, Diane Lane, Brian Kerwin, Fran Drescher, and Bill Cosby, join us at the ranch for a final week of rehearsing."
Some interesting challenges evolved during filming. For example, Coppola explains, "It's one thing for a little boy to come running to his mother, sit on her lap, and be comforted. But when the child is a full-grown man, it's difficult to sum up the same gentle, loving feeling, stroking his head, hugging him, assuring him through his tears that he is still loved."
That's when Coppola got the idea of hiring 10-year-old actor, Jeremy Lellicott, as a "child technical adviser" to Williams. "He turned out to be so good, I gave him a part in the movie.
"But, I'm getting ahead of my story," he laughs. "Occasionally, I had Jeremy stand in for Robin in scenes, especially those where his parents are consoling him from the taunts of his classmates. Once Diane and Brian Kerwin, who play the parents, let their feelings come forth comforting the 10-year-old sitting in their laps, it was easier to repeat it on film with a heavier and older Robin."
Jeremy would itch, fidget, and dance about - just like a regular kid. Williams absorbed it all. "It helped me remember growing up, and also my son when he was 10. He's a teenager now and in a different mode," Williams smiles.
"When a boy is 10, his mom is still the most important thing in his life. As he gets older, parents become people to tolerate," Williams adds.
Williams, who supports the Make-a-Wish Foundation for Children, says that no matter what physical disabilities a child might face, he or she still has the energy of a child and an ability to say, "Hey, I'm a kid, enjoy me."
Williams and Coppola shared similar growing-up experiences. Each attended many schools.
"It was terrifying to stand in front of the kids and be introduced with a name like Francis," Coppola says. "I recall being late and my new teacher saying, 'You're tardy!' and I kept saying 'No, I'm Coppola,' and the kids would laugh at me."
Williams's family moved just about every three years. "There were always bullies at school," he recalls. "We usually lived in a large house, like Jack does, and I remember as an only child being alone. I was always shy. Guess that's why I became a clown, I had a mask to hide behind."
According to Coppola, "The easiest thing about working with Robin was encouraging him to improvise, for he's brilliant. When he began to ad-lib, it was screamingly funny, but occasionally he would flip into an older sensibility, and I had to say, 'Whoa, a 10-year-old doesn't know that yet.'
"There's also an innate sweetness about Robin. It shines forth when Jack realizes when his classmates graduate from college in their 20s that he'll be a senior citizen."
Coppola sums up the movie's message: "It's not how old you are, but how much you enjoy each moment of life."
With a smile, Coppola admits he just passed his toughest test: His little granddaughter Gia saw the movie. Eyes all aglow, she bounced into his arms and declared, "I love it!" So that's why "Jack" is dedicated "To Gia."