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It Wasn't in the Script

They both achieved fame as performers but found their true voice as writers. Carrie Fisher talks to Steve Martin about the process of writing--and how he came up with 'Bowfinger.'

July 25, 1999|CARRIE FISHER | Carrie Fisher is an actress, screenwriter and novelist

Carrie Fisher and Steve Martin share some similar traits. They're both funny. They're both successful writers as well as busy actors. They both know Hollywood intimately--it's a world they both mock with affection, in scripts and novels, essays and conversation.

With Martin's new film, "Bowfinger," set to open next month, Fisher and Martin renewed their acquaintance at her Beverly Hill home and talked about the film (a sendup of action films and the industry), writing and comedy.


I slept with Steve Martin once and once only, 20-some years ago. And I interviewed Steve Martin once and once only 20-some days ago. You do the math.

But I remember saying to him all that time ago that if he ever had occasion to be interviewed by the L.A. Times in future (I frequently said "in future" in those days), would he keep me in mind as the interviewer? He told me that he would, and as you see, he was as good as his word. All this is either true or not true. Like life.

But what is patently true is that Mr. Martin--yes, he makes journalists like myself call him Mr. Martin--has written another funny film, "Bowfinger." Directed by Frank Oz, produced by Brian Grazer, written by Mr. Martin, and starring Eddie Murphy, Heather Graham and himself, the Universal Pictures film opens Aug. 13. It's about fly-by-night filmmaker Bobby Bowfinger (Mr. Martin), who tries to make a movie with paranoid action star Kit Ramsey (Murphy), who doesn't even know he's in the film, with the help of a hapless crew (whose members include Graham and Christine Baranski) and clueless stand-in Jiff (also Murphy).

Steve and I spoke of how we first met (the Improv-- more than 25 years ago); how I did an episode of the George Burns comedy show that he directed perhaps 15 years ago, how we both have the same lawyer and how we both had been in therapy, although we weren't unhappy people. Steve told me, "I'm not unhappy, I'm not unhappy at all. I mean, we all have a dark side. Normal dark. If you didn't, you wouldn't be alive."

Steve was born in Waco, Texas, and his family moved to California when he was 4. He has an older sister. His father sold real estate in Orange County, and his mother was a housewife. His sister went north to college, got married and raised two kids. Their 87-year-old mother is still living in Orange County. When Steve's father realized Steve was going to be in show business, he wrote to actor Raymond Massey, whom he'd known when he was younger.

"Like Raymond Massey would be able to help me," Steve says. "It was sweet of him, you know?"

Steve started out writing for the "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," for which he won an Emmy in 1968. He continued writing for television for Glen Campbell, Sonny & Cher and Pat Paulsen's shows. He made two comedy albums, "Let's Get Small" and "A Wild and Crazy Guy," which became hits in the '70s. Then, he says, "I was on 'Saturday Night Live.' "

Though he wrote the material for his act and for those various TV shows, he did not consider that to be the sort of writing he would come to do later on. Today, he is a produced playwright ("Picasso at the Lapin Agile"), occasional essayist (largely in the New Yorker) and author ("Pure Drivel" has spent time on many bestseller lists). It is his play, however, that he credits with changing the way he approaches writing.

Carrie Fisher: You have a career unlike anybody else. I can't think of too many actors who write scripts, or I don't think anyone writes plays or writes books, too.

Steve Martin: There are a few. [Chazz] Palminteri ["A Bronx Tale"]. Ben Affleck and--

CF: Oh, right--those guys. How did you decide to write your play?

SM: I had a place in New York for years, and so I'd go to the theater, and I remember that I saw a play and thought it was very funny. I thought that would be a real challenge for me. So I put two and two together and said, "What am I good at? I'm good at listening to the audience and letting the audience tell me what is funny, meaning I can edit."

So after I wrote my play, I realized that's half the battle--being able to stand back, listen, cut and rewrite. Then I thought I could write. I had already written some screenplays and been onstage, so I thought that was a good combination for writing a play, and I had the idea. So I started writing it.

But at the same time I was frustrated with where I was in comedy. I thought I was getting old, you know? When I performed, it felt familiar, and that's a deadly feeling to have. And it didn't feel funny like it's supposed to feel. I can remember when I was doing stand-up, I thought . . . "I feel funny. I'm not necessarily saying anything funny, but I feel funny." And I had that feeling in movies for a while too.

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