'The Wedding Singer' at 25: Behind Carrie Fisher's contributions, Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore's chemistry and more
Director Frank Coraci and screenwriter Tim Herlihy explain how the "Star Wars" icon's ghostwriting and a senior citizen's rapping helped make the famed rom-com a hit.
While Adam Sandler’s first two star vehicles, Billy Madison (1994) and Happy Gilmore (1995), were modest box office successes that found wider popularity on home video, The Wedding Singer (1998) blew the doors down when it released in theaters 25 years ago this week.
Director Frank Coraci had no idea how the low-budget, $18 million romantic comedy that paired Sandler with Drew Barrymore would perform, but now remembers discovering its popularity almost immediately. Coraci, Sandler, Barrymore, screenwriter Tim Herlihy, producer Jack Giarraputo, co-star Allen Covert and a couple other collaborators rented a party bus in Manhattan and drove around New York City, covertly popping into four screenings to see how it was playing.
“Adam had a baseball hat on and Drew would cover her face, and we would go into a theater and watch,” Coraci recalls. “And everywhere we went, it sold out… It was like a dream come true. It felt too good to be true. We’d go into theaters and people would be sitting on the floor. It was so packed. It was insane… It just wasn't a movie that anyone knew was gonna strike such a chord.”
With assists from Carrie Fisher, Judd Apatow, Billy Idol, Christine Taylor, Alexis Arquette, Steve Buscemi and an 85-year-old woman covering Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” it indeed struck a few chords.
The endearing, enduring rom-com about a 1980s wedding singer who’s left at the altar, hilariously poisoning his cheerful demeanor until he falls for an engaged waitress, went on to earn over $123 million — and also later grow its fanbase on VHS and DVD.
The only movie that could spoil The Wedding Singer’s festive debut? Titanic, which was still surging toward a box office record for a ninth straight weekend when Wedding Singer arrived to open at No. 2. Still, there was never any doubt in the filmmakers’ minds that it had to be a Hallmark holiday release: “We were like, ‘This is the perfect Valentine’s Day movie,’” Coraci says. “Guys get to bring their girlfriends to a romantic movie, yet they still get to see a Sandler movie.”
In exclusive interviews this week to commemorate Wedding Singer’s 25th anniversary, Coraci and Herlihy shared stories from the making of the rom-com favorite.
The movie was a reunion for college friends Sandler, Coraci and Herlihy.
Having becoming a cult comedy hero on Saturday Night Live and for Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, Sandler was a hot commodity in the mid-'90s. Coraci and Herlihy (who co-wrote both Madison and Gilmore with Sandler and became head writer at SNL in 1995) were both friends with Sandler from their days together at NYU, and suggested he do a rom-com.
“Sandler always had this idea of a wedding singer who got stood up at the altar, and then had to go back to doing weddings,” Coraci says. “The comedy dynamic was brilliant.” When Herlihy came on to write it, this time solo, he suggested they set it in the '80s.
New Line Cinema head Michael De Luca had seen a parody rock tour Sandler and Coraci worked on involving a talking goat, and arranged a meeting with them. “They wanted to do a talking goat movie,” Coraci says. “And we were like, ‘We love the idea that you wanna do a movie with us, but we wanna do a romantic comedy.’”
Carrie Fisher played a key role in shaping the movie after coming on as a script doctor.
Herlihy says he was about halfway through the script — right around the point when Robbie Hart (Sandler) and Julia Sullivan (Barrymore) meet — when he hit a wall. “I kind of didn’t know where to go,” he admits.
That’s when team called on Carrie Fisher. Though she never stopped acting after delivering those iconic performances as Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983), Fisher also became one of the most in-demand script doctors in the industry, working on hits like Hook (1991), Sister Act (1992), Lethal Weapon 3 (1992) and Outbreak (1995).
Coraci holed up at Fisher’s Los Angeles home as they worked on The Wedding Singer together for six months. “It was a trip cause she would just have famous people come over every day, whether it was Richard Dreyfus or Bernardo Bertolucci, or you name it, Dave Stewart from The Eurythmics. People would just show up at their house… I'd have to play with Billie Lourd, who was a little girl then. And Carrie would be like, ‘Let's go shopping. We'd have to go shopping.’ It was so surreal for me, this guy who just moved to Hollywood for the first time and I'm suddenly with Princess Leia going shopping and playing in the pool with her kid. That was part of my job.”
It didn’t work out as well for Herlihy. “I got fired,” he says. “I mean, you're not really fired cause you’re still paid the full amount. But you know, somebody else was working on it.”
Fisher “fleshed out the female roles,” Coraci says, and helped them solve their lead couple’s will-they-or-won’t-they dilemma. “The trickiest thing about a romantic comedy is you pretty much know how it's gonna end, so you have to try to make enough peaks and valleys and near-misses… You gotta [make the audience] think they're not gonna be together.”
So Fisher and Coraci watched old romantic comedies like Roman Holiday and Breakfast at Tiffany’s for inspiration. They landed on key obstacles to the pair’s inevitable coupling. There's Robbie losing faith when Julia’s cousin Holly (Christine Taylor) tells him Julia’s only marrying the cheating, Miami Vice-worshipping d-bag Glenn Gulia (Matthew Glave) for his money. Robbie showing up at Julia's house to finally confess his feelings, only to see her in the window looking joyful in her wedding dress (in reality she's imagining she's with Robbie). And Julia arriving at Robbie’s door to find his ex-fiancée (Angela Featherstone) wearing nothing but his Van Halen T-shirt.
Fisher’s contributions were key, but not finite. “When she handed in her draft, we were heartbroken because she really changed all the dialogue and it wasn't Adam's voice, really,” Herlihy says. “It was her voice. So we were not happy. But in retrospect now looking back, she solved the second half of the movie with that old Hollywood thing… We didn't think of it. We weren't good enough to do that at that point.”
After Fisher’s draft came in, Coraci, Herlihy and Sandler regrouped. Along with Sandler’s longtime producing partner Giarraputo (another classmate of Sandman’s from NYU), they sat around the actor’s dining room table. “We kept making it funnier and funnier,” Coraci says. “We changed every line or joke back to the way it was, or came up with a new line,” recalls Herlihy. “I think there's only one line of Carrie’s left in the movie. But she did that structural stuff that really saved our bacon in the second act.”
Future king of comedy Judd Apatow, who’d also done uncredited rewrites on Happy Gilmore and the Jim Carrey starrers The Cable Guy (1996) and Liar Liar (1997), was also brought in to do a pass. “Originally, the movie ended in Vegas [where Julia was going to marry Glenn],” Coraci says. It was Apatow who came up with the idea of having Robbie intervene on the plane, where, with the help of Billy Idol as himself, serenades Julia with the song “Grow Old With You."
The Wedding Singer teased the dramatic chops Sandler would become better known for years later.
Sandler stunned critics and audiences alike when he delivered a bruising dramatic performance in 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has said he first discovered Sandler’s true ability as the actor screamed at his girlfriend’s father during “The Denise Show” on Saturday Night Live. The actor now regularly lands kudos for his dramatic work. The anxiety-inducing Uncut Gems (2019) should’ve earned him an Oscar nomination. Last year’s sports drama Hustle recently nabbed him a SAG nod.
But Sandler arguably showed his dramatic side on the big screen for the first time in The Wedding Singer. The actor gave a nuanced, mature performance that marked a noticeable shift from the goofy arrested development hijinks of Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. Audiences had to believe that not only would Julia fall for him, she’d call off her marriage for him.
“I'll tell you what it is,” says Coraci. “Adam loves to be himself in movies. But since it was a romantic comedy, [he really had to be] Robbie Hart. He loses his temper and stuff cause that works well for our comedy. But Robbie Hart is probably not as close to Sandler the same way [as Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore]. Like his character in Uncut Gems is not Sandler. Movie stars have a way of being themselves, and that's why people love them. But once in a while when they totally transform, [that’s when we get] amazed. Adam's a sweet guy like Robbie. He can sing and all that. But it was just a different DNA.”
Not that it mattered with most critics. Like Madison and Gilmore, The Wedding Singer was not treated kindly upon its release.
“It was like 50-50,” Coraci says. (The movie currently stands at a 72 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but several of the reviews are from well after the film’s release.) “If you watched Siskel and Ebert’s review of the movie, they freaking hated it. They're like, ‘They borrowed from all the old classics.’ And I'm like, ‘Yeah, exactly. How do I make a great romantic comedy? Let me watch the best ones and reinterpret them.’”
Despite what you read, Drew Barrymore was the first and only choice for Julia.
Never trust the “trivia” section on IMDb. There, you’ll read that half of the actresses in Hollywood were considered to play Julia, including Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Katie Holmes, Cameron Diaz, all the Jennifers (Aniston, Lopez, Garner, Love Hewitt, Beals) and half the Christinas (Applegate, Ricci, Moore). Even Pamela Anderson.
“That's not true at all,” Coraci confirms. “Literally, Drew was the first person we met with, and we fell in love with her.” (Neither is the tidbit that Herlihy wrote Glenn with Jim Carrey in mind, the screenwriter clarifies.)
That’s not to say Barrymore was the most obvious choice at the time. “Back then it was a whole different [time]; Drew was still most famous for being in E.T. and then being kind of a wild child or whatever,” Herlihy says. (The actress had just made a buzzy cameo when she was killed off in the opening scene of 1996’s Scream.)
“It was a little out of place at the time because Drew hadn't been sort of the leading woman [then], she was doing smaller movies at the time,” Coraci explains. “And when we met her, we're like, ‘Oh my God, the world needs to reengage with her in this sort of big comedy kind of way. She was so excited to do comedy and, immediately, [she] and Adam had chemistry. And so much of the movie I think works well because the most important thing is you believe that these two people should be together.”
Barrymore also helped reshape the very fabric of the movie.
Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore “were basically Adam and a bunch of people revolving around him. I think we were just gonna do kind of a version of Billy and Happy, but in the '80s and with weddings,” Herlihy admits. “But when we knew it was gonna be Drew, and she had such a power to her, it sort of evolved into a departure for us.”
Sandler and Barrymore became fast friends and reunited six years later for another box office hit, 50 First Dates.
An 85-year-old actress stole the show with her rendition of an old school rap classic.
The film is oozing with memorable musical moments involving Sandler (from his extra-bitter cover of “Love Stinks” to the originals he wrote, “Somebody Kill Me Please” and “Grow Old With You”) — not to mention a gamely committed Alexis Arquette with a spot-on Boy George tribute.
And then there’s Ellen Abertini Dow’s performance of Sugarhill Gang’s seminal 1979 old school hip-hop classic “Rapper’s Delight.” Abertini Dow was 85 years young when she played Rosie, the senior citizen who pays Robbie for voice lessons with meatballs as she prepares to sing to her husband at their 50th wedding anniversary party. After singing the sweet love ballad “Til There Was You,” Rosie busts out the bars.
“I think, originally, that was a heavy metal song,” Herlihy says. “It was like an Ozzy Osbourne tune, and then somebody had the idea to turn it into rap. I think we went back and forth. I'm not sure we all loved the rap at first. But then we saw her do it and we knew that was the right way to go.”
Coraci was all for the rap, particularly “Rapper’s Delight.” He remembers recording the song on cassette when it first came out, and furiously writing down all the lyrics. He also tutored Abertini Dow, who died in 2015 at the age of 101.
“I had to bring her to the studio and have her pre-record the song and she could not keep up with the rhythm of rapping,” he says. “So I said, ‘Let's do it again together. And let's dance when we do it.’ And once she danced and she got into the rhythm, she got it. And that's why I think when you see her in that moment, she's moving her hands to the beat.
“I honestly think the success at the box office was [because of that]. That moment in the trailer I feel like got everyone to show up. And then luckily the movie was good enough that people came for weeks and weeks, and that's why that movie did so well.”