Posted on Thursday, December 29th, 2016 by Peter Sciretta
This week we’ve all been thinking about Carrie Fisher, who died earlier this week at the age of 60. While most people know her for her role as Princess Leia in the Star Wars films, a lot of people don’t realize that her written career spans farther than the bestselling books and novels that she penned over the years.
Entertainment Weekly once described Carrie Fisher as “one of the most sought after [script] doctors in town.” She worked without credit on films ranging from Hook to Last Action Hero to the Star Wars prequels and much more. Learn about her unknown legacy of uncredited work on big Hollywood screenplays in our Carrie Fisher Script Doctor primer.
What Is a Script Doctor?
In the 1990s, Fisher was one of the top script doctors in Hollywood, called in to help fix or improve movies. While most films only feature one, two, or a handful of names in the writing credits, big Hollywood blockbusters often are the work of a lot more uncredited writers who were brought on to polish a character or “punch up” jokes, dialogue, and other story elements. The Flinstones movie reportedly had over 30 uncredited screenwriters.
Notable script doctors include William Goldman, Quentin Tarantino, Aaron Sorkin, David Mamet, Akiva Goldsman, and Frank Darabont. Joss Whedon was a script doctor on many films including Waterworld, Speed, Twister, and X-Men. The screenwriter/filmmaker has said that the call usually comes “when they are making a movie already, and they should not be.” Whedon explained that once on board, the script doctor “may face any number of challenges, from ‘gosh, this one scene doesn’t work,’ to ‘Wow, this script sucks,’ but the basic charge remains the same: connecting whatever dots they already have; it’s taking whatever they’re wed to and then trying to work something good in between the cracks of it.”
Script doctors seldom get credit for their contribution to the project, and a lot of times don’t want credit. Sometimes a film is such a mess that the stuff makes headlines, but most of the time these uncredited gigs go completely under the radar. So when someone like Rian Johnson gets brought in to rewrite ADR for a film like Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, you usually never hear about it. But stuff like that happens all the time.
In doing research for this piece, it was hard to find much information about Fisher’s script doctor work, and that’s typical. What follows is a compilation of information from all the quotes and sources I could cobble together.
How Carrie Fisher Became a Script Doctor
So you might be wondering how Carrie Fisher, an actress known best for her performances in the Star Wars movies, became one of the most sought-after script doctors in Hollywood. Carrie told the Phoenix New Times that she got into script doctoring when she was asked to adapt an interview she did for Esquire into a movie:
I read mostly fiction and then it went to obligation. I was asked to write a book based on an interview I did for Esquire. I was asked to write a nonfiction book and I didn’t. [Laughs] I was asked to adapt that book and then I started doing re-writes.
You can read the 1985 Esquire interview she mentions here. Fisher admits that being a script doctor is “a good job, but that is a job I did not look to get.” But it probably really all began, as much of Fisher’s career, with George Lucas’ little space movie.
Rewriting Star Wars
Fisher, like some actors, would eventually rewrite the dialogue in a lot of the movies she starred in. This practice started on the Star Wars movies. Harrison Ford was rewriting a lot of his dialogue and Fisher said 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 Return of the Jedi, Fisher says she was rewriting a little bit of Princess Leia’s dialogue. It’s probably worth noting at this point that an image of a script page for Empire Strikes Back featuring handwritten notes has been circulating the web recently, but those notes were not written by Carrie Fisher as claimed by many sites.
George Lucas must have liked the uncredited dialogue revisions Fisher did on the set of Star Wars because he asked Fisher to write an episode of the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Fisher has even said that Lucas asked her to punch up the Star Wars prequels, although I can’t find her on record talking about her contributions beyond confirming her involvement. It has been reported that she provided some rewrites on The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.
How Carrie Fisher Got Hooked By Spielberg
But as for her screenwriting career, that began with a book. After a drug overdose, Fisher wrote the 1987 novel Postcards from the Edge, a semi-autobiographical story of a substance-addicted actress who tries to look on the bright side even as she is forced to move back in with her overbearing actress mother. Fisher adapted the book into a movie, released in 1990 and starring Meryl Streep, Shirley MacLaine, and Dennis Quaid. It was nominated for two Academy Awards and three Golden Globes.
I wrote Postcards and based on that I was asked to rewrite Hook. They told me they wanted me to rewrite Tinkerbell’s part, but if Tinkerbell interacts, you’re writing scenes.
Fisher was uncredited for rewriting comedic dialogue for Julie Roberts’ Tinkerbell character. Hook screenwriter Jim V. Hart explained in Steven Spielberg: A Biography that “Steven tends to use writers like paintbrushes, he wants this writer for this, this writer for that. The joke was that everyone in town who had his fax number was writing for it.” Regardless, Hook launched Fisher into a career of doing uncredited writing gigs all around Hollywood.
Fisher has said that she enjoyed working with Steven Spielberg on Hook because it was “just nice being treated with a different kind of respect than certainly you would be as an actor.” But she didn’t seem to like the project much, telling Jonathan McNamara that she “took another rewrite job” just “to get off of that.”
So it just went from Hook to whatever. Sister Act. Lethal Weapon 3. The River Wild. Some really bad ones too.
We will learn about all the and more, as we continue this Carrie Fisher script doctor primer.