Francis Ford Coppola Had A Wild Plan To Prepare Robin Williams For His Role In Jack

If Sam Raimi had one of the most interesting runs of films in the 1990s, then Francis Ford Coppola had one of the most confusing. The director of "The Godfather" and "Apocalypse Now" kicked off the decade with 1990's "The Godfather Part III," a film that wasn't at all the critical misfire its reputation would suggest, much like Raimi's "Spider-Man 3" (yes, I just compared a "Spider-Man" sequel to a "Godfather" movie). Coppola would follow it up with "Bram Stoker's Dracula" in 1992, delivering one of the year's biggest hits in the form of a deliciously over-the-top Gothic horror drama.

And then there's 1996's "Jack," the Coppola film that makes even the director's most ardent defenders avert their gaze and shuffle their feet. Robin Williams stars in the movie as Jack Powell, a boy with a fictional version of Werner syndrome that causes him to age four times as fast as other people. When Jack turns 10, his parents agree to allow him to attend public school for the first time. This predictably leads to all sorts of comical situations as Jack begins to make friends and takes advantage of how he looks 40 years old to get his pals out of trouble or buy things they wouldn't be able to.

On paper, casting Williams to play a child inside the body of an adult sounds like an inspired choice. "[Williams] is childlike but not childish or even remotely a child. His inventiveness and enthusiasm are what make Robin seem so childlike," as Coppola told the Calgary Sun in July 1996. However, in order to ensure Williams would be believable in the role, Coppola put the actor and his young co-stars through a most unorthodox boot camp.

Summer camp at Coppola's ranch

For as much as "Jack" feels like Francis Ford Coppola's answer to Penny Marshall's 1988 hit "Big," there's a key difference. In "Big," Tom Hanks plays a child who is magically turned into an adult and spends much of the film working opposite other grown-up actors. "Jack," on the other hand, requires Robin Williams to believably play a kid in an adult's body opposite real kids for most of its runtime. Speaking to The Christian Science Monitor in 1996, Coppola explained:

"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. 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."

After some consideration, Coppola came up with the idea of having Williams and seven 9-year-old boys from the film's cast live at his personal ranch for a couple of weeks (Coppola joked he "kept them 'captive'" there). The director said Williams recognized what he was going for and "eagerly" joined in on the plan. He added:

"I felt I was a drama counselor at summer camp again. 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."

A special 'technical adviser'

After two weeks, Francis Ford Coppola brought the other adult actors in "Jack" to the ranch to rehearse with Robin Williams and his young co-stars. Still, even after all the prep work, Coppola and the cast encountered some unexpected challenges during filming. As Coppola told The Christian Science Monitor:

"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."

To address this, Coppola hired 10-year-old actor Jer Adrianne Lelliott to serve as a "child technical advisor" to Williams. Williams would go through each scene, then Lelliott would act it out, with Williams observing so as to get a better idea of how to adjust his performance. "[She] turned out to be so good, I gave [her] a part in the movie," Coppola added.

Despite their efforts, "Jack" was a box office misfire that earned largely negative reviews from critics. Of course, the issue isn't the movie's acting so much as its script. Where "Big" and Coppola's own 1986 fantasy comedy "Peggy Sue Got Married" (a film about a woman who travels back in time into her teenage body) mix sharp humor with poignant observations about aging, "Jack" plays out as a string of tired jokes for its first half, only to take a hard right into schmaltz when Jack's rapid aging begins to affect his health. The end result is an oddly unpleasant movie, given its fanciful conceit.

But the strangest part? "Jack" was co-written by James DeMonaco, the creator of "The Purge" franchise. How's that for a wild last-minute twist?