MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Carrie Fisher worked as a script doctor on more than a dozen Hollywood films.
Besides transforming them into cultural icons, George Lucas also helped the stars of the original “Star Wars” in other ways. First off, he famously gave Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher one-quarter of one percent of his cut of the profits, which made each of them millions (Lucas gave Steven Spielberg a cut of the film as well, as part of a bet that we covered in a previous Movie Legends Revealed). Second, he allowed them to develop their characters as the series went on. Ford was the first to really get a say about his character (including almost convincing Lucas to kill off Han), but one thing most of the actors agreed on was that they had a problem with Lucas’ dialogue. Alec Guinness once wrote about the film, “New rubbish dialogue reaches me every other day on wadges of pink paper — and none of it makes my character clear or even bearable.” A few years back, Fisher spoke about Lucas’ approach to their dialogue:
Harrison Ford was rewriting his stuff in all the Star Wars movies and it became annoying because it impacted my stuff. It is easier as an actor to go into rewriting because you know what would fit into your mouth dialogue wise. We would tell George Lucas, “You can type this shit but you can’t say it.”
By the third film, I was rewriting a little bit of my dialogue.
Lucas allowing Fisher to work on her own dialogue eventually served her well, as she later became one of the top script doctors in Hollywood! Read on to see how it all happened and what eventually drove her out of the script-doctoring business.
Fisher, as you likely know, is the daughter of celebrities Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. But as she was just 20 years old when “Star Wars” was released, she was unprepared for stardom and didn’t handle it particularly well. Fisher became addicted to drugs during the early 1980s, which don’t combine well with her bipolar disorder. Regarding her role in “The Blues Brothers,” with Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, Fisher recalled, “Hanging out with them didn’t help, and John actually recognized it in me. Slowly I realized I was doing a bit more drugs than other people and losing my choice in the matter.” After a drug overdose in 1986, she turned her life around with drug rehabilitation. In 1987, she released the semi-autobiographical novel, “Postcards from the Edge,” about a young actress dealing with a drug overdose and her overbearing actress mother.
In 1990, Fisher wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation, starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine. The film was a modest success, but Fisher’s dialogue was widely praised. That led her to an offer for work as a script doctor, a writer brought in to help with the screenplay. Most commonly, they polish dialogue and help to punch things up a little (Quentin Tarantino famously worked on the dialogue of “Crimson Tide,” including adding a memorable recurring bit involving the Silver Surfer), but they can also improve the film’s structure and the motivations of characters. William Goldman, Joss Whedon and Tom Stoppard are just three famous screenwriters who have worked as script doctors. Due to Writers Guild of America rules, script doctors are almost never credited.
In 1991, Spielberg brought Fisher on to his Peter Pan film “Hook” to specifically work on the dialogue for Julia Roberts’ Tinkerbell, I suppose under the theory that she wrote women well (after her success with “Postcards From the Edge”). However, you can’t really just write one character’s dialogue in a movie; you inevitably have to write a scene between that character and another. So soon, Fisher was adding scenes. Her work on “Hook” then got her a gig helping out the script for “The River Wild.” Very soon, Fisher was one of the most in-demand script doctors in the business, getting paid large sums. With some films she was successful (she famously helped not only the script on “Sister Act” but the relationship between Whoopi Goldberg and Disney Pictures Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, who were at each other’s throats during production), while others not even she could save. (“The Last Action Hero” brought in a ton of writers, one of which was Fisher, to give the movie a “woman’s touch.” “The Last Action Hero” even tried to bring in the original screenwriters for help after firing them early on.)
All told, Fisher worked as a script doctor on more than a dozen Hollywood, including “The Wedding Singer,” “Outbreak,” “Milk Money,” “Lethal Weapon 3,” “Coyote Ugly,” “Scream 3,” “Made in America,” “So I Married an Axe Murderer,” “Love Affair” and, bringing her career full circle, Lucas’ “Star Wars” prequels.
However, Fisher ultimately stopped working as a script doctor, citing a new generation of writers but, more specifically (in an interview with Newsweek):
I did it for many years, and then younger people came to do it and I started to do new things. It was a long, very lucrative episode of my life. But it’s complicated to do that. Now it’s all changed, actually. Now in order to get a rewrite job, you have to submit your notes for your ideas on how to fix the script. So they can get all the notes from all the different writers, keep the notes and not hire you. That’s free work and that’s what I always call life-wasting events.
But yes, for a time there, Fisher was one of the best in the business. The legend is…
Thanks to CBR Editor Rob Levin for suggesting this one! And thanks to Jonathan McNamara and Ramin Setoodeh for the interviews with Fisher. And thanks, of course, to Fisher for the information.
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music.
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