- Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
Patton Oswalt has a bit about his lack of interest in movies with vague titles such as “Something’s Gotta Give” and how “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” might be the best movie title of all time as it tells you exactly what is going on. And he’s correct.
Which is to say that if the late Austin screenwriter Warren Skaaren had done nothing else but come up with the title “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” his place in movie history would be secure.
But he did a lot more than that.
A campus leader as a Rice undergrad, Skaaren was all of 25 when he proposed the state’s film commission; then-Gov. Preston Smith made him the Texas Film Commission’s executive director in 1971. As leader, he shepherded dozens of films that shot in the state.
He started his high-end movie career after working on “Texas Chain Saw,” working on scripts such as “Fire With Fire” (1986), “Beverly Hills Cop II” (1987), “Beetlejuice” (1988) and “Batman” (1989). He worked on, but did not get a writing credit for, “Top Gun” (1986), as well as several unproduced screenplays. He did it all from Austin, not Hollywood.
And yet, his place in movie history is ambiguous. As has been pointed out many times, death is a terrific career move if you are a pop musician but a terrible career move if you’re in the movie business. When Skaaren, a rising star in the script doctoring game, died of cancer at the age of 44 in 1990, he had barely begun what may very well have been an extraordinary career in the dog-eat-dog world of 1980s high-concept, studio-driven filmmaking, a creatively exhausting process if ever there was one.
Now his name is barely known.
Which meant that Austin film scholar Alison Macor’s work was cut out for her when she started working on “Rewrite Man: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Warren Skaaren,” out this month from UT Press.
Macor first encountered Skaaren when she was working on her previous book, the essential “Chainsaws, Slackers, and Spy Kids: Thirty Years of Filmmaking in Austin, Texas.” Skaaren’s papers at UT’s Harry Ransom Center and what she saw blew her away.
“I had no idea who he was, and when I started reading, I was like, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’” Macor said. Seven or so years ago, she dove into Skaaren’s archive and started researching his singular career.
“I would talk to people who knew Skaaren personally, and they kind of looked at me blankly when I told them I wanted to write a lot about his role (as a script doctor),” Macor said, “as if to say, ‘THAT’S why you want to write this book?’ His friends saw him as this Renaissance man, which isn’t wrong, but I come at this from a film history point of view, and there was all this material that really showed us the path on how this stuff worked.”
“This stuff” is one of the book’s most important themes: Skaaren’s relationship to credit regarding the screenplays he worked on. Productions often go through a process of arbitration with the Writer’s Guild of America in order to determine how story and screenplay credits should appear in a movie. “Screenplay by,” “Story by,” “Based on,” “Suggested by”… all of these phrases mean certain things, and careers can rise and fall depending on how credit is allocated.
In the book’s most extreme example, Skaaren worked heavily on the script for “Top Gun,” only to be denied screen credit after a gnarly arbitration process. One learns in “Rewrite Man” that Skaaren was a crucial part of that movie’s success — he humanized the arrogant Maverick (Tom Cruise), made Kelly McGillis a flight instructor and came up with the whole “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” thing. It’s touches such as these that helped make Cruise the biggest movie star on the planet, and nobody knows that Skaaren worked on it.
“When you go into the papers,” Macor said of the Ransom Center archive, “it’s not just his papers but memos from other people to other people that (Skaaren) was cc’d on. And it gives you a very good sense of how involved he was. And it is a process that can seem awfully arbitrary and that is not the sort of thing you learn in screenwriting class, which is a shame because arbitration is part of a reality screenwriters face.”
Skaaren ended up with an associate producer credit, which made him a fair amount of money over time. “And as one executive said,” Macor said, “‘Everybody in this town who matters knows you made that film,’ and he was rewarded in other ways.”
Macor said she was a little hesitant to dive into Skaaren’s life because he worked on development-heavy, high-concept, too-many-cooks blockbusters, the kind of producer-driven fare that ran exactly counter to the auteurist world of 1970s cinema. At Paramount, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer made some of the most critically reviled moneymakers of their age; Skaaren had a good relationship with this studio. (Indeed, it was so good, and Skaaren’s demeanor was so calm and insightful in the face of producer panic and creative insecurity, that Skaaren was offered an executive gig at the studio, a job he declined.)
“It’s a period that tends to get written off easily,” Macor said, “yet for most moviegoers, it was what going to the movies was about during that time. We tend to be so shorthand the way we talk about films and who gets credit for making them, and here was somebody who was in the mix in these films and kept really great records about it. You read this stuff and you realized that the littlest things change scenes, which change the movie, which can change how it is received.”
Skaaren also had a vibrant friendship with Tim Burton, who was all of 25 when he met the older Skaaren as Burton was looking for his next movie after “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.” The two became buds, and the collaboration yielded Skaaren’s improvements to “Beetlejuice” and crucial work on “Batman” a year or so later — Skaaren’s Joker was a pop nihilist at a time when the world knew him as Cesar Romero.
And yet, there was so much more to Skaaren. Macor says there was lots of debate as to what Skaaren’s career would have looked like had he lived longer. “Some friends thought he would abandon screenwriting for something else, some thought he would eventually leave Austin,” Macor said. “Nobody is completely sure what would have happened.”