Randi Mayem Singer, best known for writing the screenplay for the 1993 comedy “Mrs. Doubtfire,” starring Robin Williams and Sally Field, spoke to screenwriting students at the Modern Languages Building on Friday about her experiences as a screenwriter.
Singer, now a writer and producer, said she first decided she wanted to write at age 13, but was unaware of opportunities in screenwriting. Singer studied political science at the University of California, Berkeley, with the intention of becoming a journalist.
She eventually took a job as a radio reporter for KMEL in San Francisco before moving to Los Angeles-based radio station, KFI. It was there Singer took a class at a UCLA Extension for screenwriting. She later quit the station to write full time.
“It was scary, but you know, when you’re young I just knew that’s what I wanted to do,” she said.
Singer said her start with “Mrs. Doubtfire” gained her notoriety, especially in the cross-dressing comedy genre.
“I like to joke: any time a man puts on a dress, my phone rings,” Singer said.
James Burnstein, director of the Screenwriting Program in the Department of Screen Arts & Cultures, said he considers “Mrs. Doubtfire” the best family film ever made.
“I’ve learned over the years that ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ is one of the very few movies that everyone has seen,” Burnstein said.
Burnstein said the film is incredibly honest about the meaning of divorce. He noted the final scene in which the Robin Williams character drives off with the children. In a voice-over, he talks about how there are all kinds of families.
“Go back and watch the ending in the context of where Robin Williams does not get back with Sally Fields,” Burnstein said. “Now watch it in the context of the Supreme Court decision on gay rights and that movie is virtually prophetic at that moment in its discussion of all kinds of families.”
Singer said when she was hired to write the screenplay, Robin Williams was already envisioned playing the eponymous lead role.
“It was just really clear to me what the movie was about,” Singer said. “It was about learning to co-parent.”
Singer said it was rare that the actor initially attached to a script actually played the role, either because the studio didn’t end up having an interest in casting him or her, or the actor is committed to another project.
“This is the first movie I ever got made,” Singer said. “The guy that was attached looked at the script and said yeah he would do it. I just thought that happened all the time.”
Singer said having Williams on board with the project greatly impacted the writing process.
“He has a cadence to how he … improvises, but in the dramatic scenes he doesn’t improvise at all,” she said.
Singer said she left the project when the studio wanted the parents to get back together — an ending she said would have been an irresponsible message for children of divorce. She eventually returned to the project when the studio reversed course.
“We amicably parted ways,” Singer said. “I came back when I was not quite as idealistic.”
Singer said a significant portion of her current screenwriting work involves writing and editing other screenplays for production — as well as work which is known as script doctoring.
Script doctoring is successful, she said, not by changing a large chunk of the script, but by solving problems with the plot.
“If you’re thinking about credit, write original work,” Singer said.
Singer finished the talk with a message of advice for the next generation of screenwriter hopefuls.
“Good material finds a place,” Singer said. “Have a voice, read, read, read great screenplays. Have a sense of where the beats fall.”
Correction appended: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote to Singer. This article has been edited to reflect its proper attribution to Burnstein. Other statements were edited for clarity.