Any fan of Carrie Fisher has a go-to favorite role that’s set to immediate default after her most beloved performances as Princess Leia. For some, it’s the vengeful, machine gun–toting ex-bride who was stood up at the altar by Jake Blues in The Blues Brothers. For others, that favorite role is Marie, Sally’s frank and witty confidante in When Harry Met Sally….
For me, Carol Peterson from The ’Burbs is essential Carrie Fisher viewing. Joe Dante’s 1989 comedy, centering around the odd and mysterious family living next door to Tom Hanks in his quiet neighborhood, would mark the second time Fisher would star alongside Hanks after 1985’s The Man With One Red Shoe. Though Fisher’s Carol Peterson was the quintessential suburban mom — something of a departure from previous roles that were set either in a galaxy far, far away or in cultural centers such as L.A., New York or Chicago — in some ways, Carol was very much like Princess Leia: the voice of reason and sanity in the middle of a trio of boyish ne’er-do-wells.
As a 9-year-old who was close in age to Carol’s son in The ’Burbs, there was something comforting about watching Fisher, though at the time I wasn’t able to pinpoint from where that feeling of contentment stemmed. Looking back 25-plus years later, it was a brilliant piece of casting on Dante’s part. The persona onscreen looked like Leia but here she was, in our galaxy, with a short haircut, walking around a kitchen wearing a modest, unembellished cotton nightgown and robe set, like my own mom would wear while making breakfast.
In the devastating wake of Fisher’s sudden passing, I reached out to Dante to get his take on what it was like working with the actress in one of her most memorable, possibly most subtle, roles.
L.A. WEEKLY: Had you met Carrie Fisher prior to working with her on your segment from Amazon Women on the Moon, Reckless Youth?
JOE DANTE: No, Carrie came recommended to me by John Landis, producer of the movie (then wittily titled Untitled), who had worked with her on Blues Brothers.
Can you tell me about the first time you met Carrie Fisher and what your impression was of her?
I think it must have been at a costume fitting for her role as dowdy Mary Brown, Depression-era heroine of the Reckless Youth segment, an affectionate evocation of the sleazy no-budget exploitation movies like Marihuana, Weed With Roots in Hell. It required bad acting, bad camerawork and bad direction. Carrie got it right away, which endeared her to me immediately.
The role of suburban mom Carol Peterson was quite a departure from characters in some of her previous films. When you were casting The ’Burbs, did you immediately think of Fisher as the perfect person to play opposite Tom Hanks’ Ray Peterson? How did she come to be cast in the role?
We became pretty close after Reckless Youth and, having gotten to know her, I felt her personality was a great fit for The ’Burbs role. Not sure how well Tom knew her beforehand, but they clicked amazingly well.
Through her books, a number of her performances and interviews many of us have read and watched, we know Fisher to have been incredibly funny and witty. However, in The ’Burbs, the character she plays is the only sensible, mature and serious person on the block. Did she joke around when the camera wasn't rolling?
Of course. We all did. Carrie was a delight to work with, but to be fair the movie is an ensemble and every member of the cast was spot on. We were one of the few movies shooting in town during a writers strike, so we had the whole Universal lot to ourselves (and the raccoons and deer that lived nearby). A good time was had by all. Lots of laughing. It was fun to go to work every day. At the end Tom, Carrie and I bought out Raging Waters for what became a pretty memorable wrap party.
Fisher was a great writer of dialogue. Did she ever improvise or have suggestions about how Carol should speak? If so, can you give any examples of how she deviated from what was written on the page?
We decided to shoot in sequence since we were confined to one location, and a great deal of the dialog was improvised. Bruce Dern and Rick Ducommon came up with some great stuff but the majority of the improvs were between Tom and Carrie. The breakfast scene (“he's a hydrocephalic”) and the game show scene (the Jeopardy! questions) and their final conversation are sequences that improved exponentially, often on the first take.
Her look at the beginning of the film — the robe and nightgown — sort of reminded me of how my own mom would be dressed in the morning when cooking us kids breakfast. Then Carol wears these great sundresses. Her wardrobe and short haircut epitomize the look of the suburban mom. Did she come to the table with ideas about how Carol should look and dress?
Carrie was full of ideas and not shy about expressing them. A total pro.
Had you kept in touch with her or did you ever run into her after working on The ’Burbs?
We worked together on some script doctoring for Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot, which I was briefly involved with as director, but as people often do in this business we drifted apart, although we’d run into each other now and again on airplanes (usually headed to or from Vancouver) and autograph conventions, Comic-Con, etc. The last time I spoke to her she was signing autographs for a huge line of fans.
Can you describe your overall experience working with Fisher on The ’Burbs?
Making that movie was one of my favorite experiences and, despite its initially unimpressive critical reception, it has lived on the become something of a touchstone for fans of ’80s comedy. It has a lot of fans. And it wouldn't be as good without Carrie.
Is there anything else you'd like to add about Carrie Fisher?
Just that like a lot of us, I loved her wit and her spirit. And I miss her.
Follow Jared on Twitter at @JaredCowan1.