I think Austin just became a magnet for people who had a different take on things. Out of that, a scene emerged.
Austin's insular film community is a lot like the Texas high school Richard Linklater dramatized in Dazed and Confused (1993): it has its cliques, its hazing rituals, its small-scale dramas, and plenty of comedy. Nowhere was this more in evidence than at the first Texas Film Hall of Fame, which took place on March 8, 2001, on the eve of the annual South by Southwest Film Festival. Pulled together in less than six weeks, the spectacle was the brainchild of Louis Black and Evan Smith. Black is the editor of Austin's alternative weekly newspaper The Austin Chronicle and was at the time president of the Austin Film Society (AFS), a nonprofit film organization that Linklater and friends had created in 1985. Smith had recently been promoted to editor of Texas Monthly magazine and was a newly appointed AFS board member. The Texas Film Hall of Fame honored such Texans as actor Sissy Spacek and screenwriters Robert Benton and Bill Wittliff. Writer-director Quentin Tarantino, Cookie's Fortune screenwriter Anne Rapp, actor Rip Torn, and other celebrities were on hand to pass out the awards. The eclectic mix of honorees, while certainly deserving, also spoke to who was available on such short notice. As the AFS artistic director and a self-proclaimed film purist, Linklater had his doubts about the AFS-sponsored event. The Texas Film Hall of Fame seemed to be less about honoring the art of filmmaking and more about the spectacle of celebrity. Other naysayers worried that they'd quickly run out of deserving Texans.
The Texas Film Hall of Fame unfolded in Austin Studios, a multimedia complex housed in the former airport. Four months earlier, the AFS had finalized a deal with the city to convert part of the airport into much-needed production space for local and out-of-town film and television projects. The twenty-acre complex included a spacious office building and hangars that functioned as soundstages and prop warehouses. Some in the film industry questioned the nonprofit's ability to run a film studio, but on that March evening, Black, Smith, and other members of the film society's board of directors were eager to show off the new facilities. But one look at the chaotic scene hours before the ceremony revealed that the show was far from ready. The hangar stood half-empty as vendors delivered tables, chairs, and flowers. AFS Executive Director Rebecca Campbell barked orders into a walkie-talkie while volunteers scurried around her. And as invited guests and presenters such as former Texas governor Ann Richards entered the hangar later that evening, they could still smell the wet paint drying on the stage.
AFS board member Chale Nafus ran into the former governor a week later, and they chatted about the event. Richards chuckled and made a comment about the evening that could have easily summed up three tumultuous decades of Austin moviemaking. "That," she said in her inimitable drawl, "was an odd party."
The "odd party" that is Austin's independent film production scene and filmgoing culture first took root in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Local filmmakers became energized by the movie industry revolution dubbed the New Hollywood. Films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Graduate (1967), and Easy Rider (1969) made them think about storytelling and characters in new ways, and emerging film school-educated directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg made a career in movies seem almost tangible. "By the late '60s and early '70s," writes Peter Biskind in his chronicle of the period, "if you were young, ambitious, and talented, there was no better place on earth to be than Hollywood." Austin offered a pretty good alternative, however. In the early 1970s Austin was both a fairly conservative state capital and a thriving, progressive college town whose residents numbered 296,000. The city's growth in the preceding decade had mirrored the kind of population explosion typical of much larger Texas cities like Houston and Dallas, yet Austin maintained a laidback feel. The legislature met only every other year, and in the summers many of the university students left town, making the city feel even smaller.
By 1970 nearly twenty movie theaters served the capital city. Two of these theaters, the Varsity and the Texas, were located just across the street from the University of Texas campus, where a handful of university-sponsored film programs screened foreign-language, experimental, and classical Hollywood films. These programs also brought in legendary directors like Fritz Lang and Jean-Luc Godard, while the school's newly created Department of Radio-Television-Film trained aspiring filmmakers. A few freelance production companies stayed busy with commercial work, which helped struggling filmmakers like Tobe Hooper pay the bills and offered access to cameras and other equipment. These various film organizations and institutions nurtured Hooper, Eagle Pennell, and others, who then inspired another generation of filmmakers that included Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, and Mike Judge. This book chronicles the transformation of Austin's homegrown film community, now often called the Third Coast, a term first applied to the state's film industry in the late 1970s; it is the story of how this community began and grew.
The thirty-year history of this regional filmmaking hub involves many converging forces and people, most of whom were (and still are) big personalities. It begins in the early 1970s with the production of Hooper's horror classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Chainsaw's success was integral to the formation and reputation of the local film scene, and its production history reveals the inextricable links among the local and regional film, music, and political communities. For instance, Chainsaw had deep ties to state government: Bill Parsley, Chainsaw's primary backer, was a former Texas legislator, and Warren Skaaren, the film's producer's representative, was the head of the Texas Film Commission. Skaaren, who would become a successful Hollywood screenwriter and script doctor responsible for hits like Top Gun (1986) and Batman (1989), worked behind the scenes to secure Chainsaw's controversial distribution deal with Bryanston Pictures, a company founded by "made men" affiliated with the Colombo crime family.
From Chainsaw this story follows the development of the Austin film scene through 2001, a time when the local film community seemed ready to make good on its reputation as the Third Coast. The unexpected success of the first Texas Film Hall of Fame in early March of that year was followed three weeks later by the release of Rodriguez's $35 million action movie Spy Kids, most of which was shot, edited, and digitally enhanced in and around Austin. By May, Spy Kids had grossed more than $100 million domestically. Tom Copeland, then executive director of the Texas Film Commission, thought the movie had helped Austin's film scene turn a corner. "Outsiders now see Austin as a full-service industry," he said at the time.
In July of that same year, during the tenth anniversary reunion screening of Linklater's first feature, Slacker (1991), the signs that Austin's film community had changed significantly were even more visible. Linklater first documented the college town in 1989, but that Austin, as well as most of its hangouts, no longer existed by 2001. And film events like the Slacker anniversary screening were no longer the clubby all-night parties they once were, presided over by characters like the late George Morris, a former Texas Monthly movie critic, film professor, and Linklater's mentor. Instead, Austin's benefit screenings and movie premieres had become carefully orchestrated events pitched toward a broader audience. They were marketed to appeal to the city's newest residents, many of whom were venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and young professionals working for high-tech companies like AMD and Motorola and computer giants like Dell. These Austinites were part of the New Texas: geek smart and culturally savvy, they had money to burn.
This is the story of a community that has been shaped as much by Skaaren's creation of the Texas Film Commission in 1971 as by Matthew McConaughey's relocation to Austin in the late 1990s and the blockbuster success that launched the Spy Kids franchise. In the decades between these events, Austin's film scene changed radically.
Austin's love affair with the movies began long before The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. One of Texas's first Kinetoscope parlors opened in Austin in 1894, a mere seven months after the first parlor opened on Broadway in New York. By the 1910s the cinema had begun to replace theater and stage shows as these "live" events became more expensive to produce. Around the same time, film production in Austin became a reality when brothers W. Hope and Paul Tilley relocated their filmmaking equipment from their grandfather's San Antonio garage to Austin in 1911. Prior to their move the brothers had tried to break into the burgeoning freelance market as producers of 35mm newsreel footage. After shooting images of a sixty-foot beached whale and the crowds it attracted when it washed ashore in Port Arthur, Texas, the Tilleys sent their footage to New York's Pathe Freres, the largest newsreel studio at the time. It was promptly rejected.5
The Tilleys paired up with movie promoter Charles C. Pyle in 1912. By early 1913 Pyle, who was married to a New York-based actress, had convinced twenty-five Austin businessmen to invest $1,000 each in a local movie production company. Pyle recruited his wife and fourteen other New York actors, named the company Satex (a jumbling of the letters that spell "Texas"), and negotiated a national distribution deal with Warner Bros. Satex set up shop in the Joseph Goodman Building downtown, a few blocks west of the Capitol and just a few doors down from what in the early 1970s would become the first office of the Texas Film Commission.6
Like the local filmmakers who came after them, the Tilley brothers took advantage of Austin's lush natural resources, exploiting the capital city's varied geography of verdant hills to the west and wide prairies to the east, its mild temperatures, and the natural spring that fed into the lower Colorado River. And while many early filmmakers of the time refused to acknowledge public demand for longer movies, Pyle and the Tilleys branched out into longer productions with silent three-reelers like Their Lives by a Thread and Shadow of the Virgin Gold, which was shot in the nearby Hill Country. The Tilley brothers' homegrown filmmaking enterprise quickly went bust, however. The Satex Film Company closed its Austin office in late 1913 after Warner Bros. went bankrupt and the Satex investors became more and more aggravated with Pyle's shifty accounting.
Two years later, in 1915, Austin's Paragon Feature Film Company made A Political Touchdown, a love story that featured local actors and showcased numerous Austin landmarks such as the Governor's Mansion, the University of Texas, and the Capitol. After its sold-out Austin run at the newly opened Majestic Theatre on Congress Avenue, A Political Touchdown played in nearly one hundred cities around the country. The stately Majestic was designed by noted Chicago theater architect John Eberson and built for $150,000. Its stage first featured vaudeville acts that gave way to the more popular silent movies and, by the 1930s, sound films. In 1930 the theater underwent a massive renovation after being purchased by the Interstate Theatre Circuit. Upgrades were made inside and out, and the theater was outfitted with air-conditioning and a top-of-the-line sound system that transformed it into a first-run movie palace renamed the Paramount.
Film production would remain sporadic at best in Austin in the coming decades. For a time, the state's larger cities held the most promise of creating and sustaining a regional film center. San Antonio, which boasted the Alamo and Fort Sam Houston as well as several army bases, attracted Hollywood studio films like Wings (1927) and Soldiers in White (1942). In the late 1940s, Hill Country rancher and businessman James T. "Happy" Shahan began promoting his 22,000-acre Bracketville ranch to these studios, but Shahan's biggest coup was convincing John Wayne to shoot his directorial debut, The Alamo (1960), at the ranch. By the late 1960s, most of Texas's film and television industry was centered in Dallas and Houston. Southern Methodist University film professor G. William Jones and Dallasite L. M. Kit Carson co-founded the Screen Generation Film Festival in 1970 and invited director Robert Altman to show a controversial new film called M*A*S*H. Carson eventually moved to Los Angeles, and Jones renamed the event the USA Film Festival.
By the early 1980s the state's crew base had swelled to more than 1,000 union members, and Dallas alone boasted more than 300 companies that catered to the film industry. But the real bread and butter of the state's entertainment industry in the 1980s was television work, most of which took place in Dallas. The long-running prime-time series Dallas occasionally shot on location beginning in 1978, but it was the many made-for-television movies (MTMs) and movies of the week (MOWs) that brought the most work into the city beginning around 1983.
Like Dallas, Houston also had its share of film and television work in the 1970s and 1980s, and the city also nurtured an independent film scene with the help of several organizations designed to encourage regional filmmaking. The Southwest Alternate Media Project, or SWAMP, was co-founded in the mid 1970s by Rice University film professor James Blue. SWAMP, which became a nonprofit organization in 1977, would provide finishing funds to many Austin-based filmmakers over the next two decades.
As with other states across the nation, Texas experienced a proliferation of film production and studies programs on college campuses by the 1970s. The University of Texas established its own Radio-Television-Film (RTF) program in the fall of 1965 within a new School of Communication. The school's director, Dr. DeWitt Reddick, envisioned an RTF department along with programs in journalism and speech that combined hands-on experience and scholarly research. It was a progressive idea for its time, and it had the potential to differentiate UT's RTF program from its competitors on both coasts. Reddick recruited Stanley Donner (who had been director of Stanford University's radio and television program) to chair the RTF department. Initially the department operated out of the campus Radio-TV building, which also housed local PBS television station KLRN and backed up to the university's main administration building, known as the Tower. When Charles Whitman began shooting from the Tower's observation deck just before noon on August 1, 1966, the KLRN staff took one of their studio cameras, rolled it out onto the roof of the Radio-TV building, and trained its lens on the Tower. The images their camera recorded that day provided the news feed for stations across the country.
Donner eventually stepped down as RTF department chair and was replaced by Rod Whitaker, who arrived to teach in 1966. "Whitaker used to say, 'If you want to contemplate your navel, go to UCLA. If you want to learn to make films, come to Texas,'" remembers production manager Bill Scott, who was one of the department's earliest graduate students. "Whitaker's mandate was to foster production," explains former RTF instructor Ron Policy of Whitaker's somewhat controversial decision to partner with various state agencies in order to supplement the department's insufficient equipment budget. Graduate student Richard Kooris, for instance, made his master's thesis film for the Texas Aeronautics Commission. "They paid us, and since we had free labor and free facilities, about 80 percent of what they paid us was profit. So we took all that money and we used it to buy more equipment."
Whitaker left the department in 1976 and was replaced by Bob Davis, a professor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Newly graduated with a doctoral degree in film history from the University of Iowa, Thomas Schatz was one of Davis's six new faculty hires in the mid 1970s. Young and ambitious, Schatz represented the department chair's attempts to expand and energize the department. "What Davis was about was socializing and program building," Schatz recalls. Davis threw parties at his west Austin home, where he carried around a pitcher of margaritas, and UT faculty members and graduate students mingled with some of Austin's literary lights like nationally known writers Bud Shrake and Gary Cartwright. Guests strummed guitars and passed joints. One of Davis's most important hires in the late 1970s was former blacklisted screenwriter Edward Dmytryk. Down on his luck in Hollywood, Dmytryk reluctantly agreed to teach film production and screenwriting courses in Texas. Recalls Austin Chronicle film critic Marjorie Baumgarten, who was a graduate student at the time, "Dmytryk was one of the first big experiments for the department, to bring in a real professional."
When the university's aspiring filmmakers weren't learning their craft, they were soaking up movies in Austin's four-wall and drive-in theaters. The Varsity and the Texas were located on the edge of the UT campus. The Varsity screened a mix of studio films and specialty releases, while the Texas's schedule of soft-core pornography was interspersed with new foreign films like Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers (1972). A handful of university film programs tried to fill the artistic gap with varying degrees of success. In the process, these programs nurtured a generation of passionate filmgoers who became industry leaders, like Sony Pictures Classics co-founder Michael Barker. These university-sponsored screenings also attracted non-students, cultivating a filmgoing culture that still exists today.
The University Film Program Committee (UFPC), formed in 1953, screened foreign classics at Batts Auditorium. Restricted to students, faculty, and staff, the free screenings offered audiences movies from around the globe and were fairly popular until the early 1970s, when the program went under because of financial troubles and an indifferent administration. In 1965 UT students Greg Barrios and David Berman started the volunteer-run Cinema 40 Film Society to bring alternative movies to Austin. Cinema 40 often invited directors to present their films, and in the spring of 1967 French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard gave a bilingual lecture before he screened one of his own previously unreleased films. Two years later, Andy Warhol showed some of his movies to a sold-out crowd. Esquire film critic Dwight MacDonald marveled at the organization's cutting-edge film programming after a visit in the late 1960s: "While I was in Texas . . . I was able to see for the first time some films by Warhol and [Kenneth] Anger, both programs being put on by Cinema 40, a student film club operated with great enterprise."
In 1970 undergraduate students Michael Shelton and Shannon Sedwick (who would later create the long-running local comedy sketch troupe Esther's Follies) organized a film series called the Museum of Light, which programmed experimental and underground films. "This media is not to be confused with the Godards, the Antonionis, the Resnaises, or the Bergmans, who are actually the Establishment with subtitles," opined Austin's underground weekly, the Austin Rag, by way of promoting the series. The Museum of Light, which Shelton and Sedwick also created to assist local independent filmmakers by screening their work and paying them directly, lasted only through 1973.
A year after the Museum of Light began, RTF faculty members Richard Kooris and Ron Policy founded a nonprofit film program called CinemaTexas. Run by graduate students for course credit, CinemaTexas initially was designed to screen the films that were being discussed in RTF history and theory classes. "We're talking about a time when the idea of a cinema studies program was still kind of new. We're talking about a time when, without home video, you got excited to get your hands on a 16mm print and be able to play it over and over, and really be able to analyze it," says George Lellis, who served as the program's first editor.
Charles Ramírez Berg had quit a high school teaching job in San Antonio to enroll in the RTF graduate program in the spring of 1972, and he immediately gravitated to CinemaTexas. The series began by showing movies two nights per week and eventually expanded to four weeknights. Lellis, Ramírez Berg, and other graduate students wrote "Program Notes" to fulfill part of their course requirements in film criticism, and these informative and often thoughtful analyses eventually earned the program an international reputation. Reportedly, The New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael received the notes on a subscription basis.
Of all the film groups that originated on the UT campus, CinemaTexas and Cinema 40 had the most influence on the film tastes of students, local film aficionados, and Austin filmmakers. Says Cathy Crane, who arrived at the university in 1975 and later worked with Richard Linklater, "You'd be walking around campus and there'd be three or four cool places to see movies. You'd go in and half the people would be film students and the other half would be people who were just interested in movies. Then you'd come out and all these people would congregate and start talking." The RTF program proved to be a training ground for future filmmakers, cinematographers, and other crew as well as critics, writers, and teachers.
But the RTF program wasn't a perfect fit for everyone. Larry Carroll, who edited The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, was a master's student in the department in the 1960s. "We decided that making movies was much more fun than being graduate students, and there weren't a whole lot of opportunities to work on theatrical films. Documentaries were a blast, but there was no money in them, even if you could get a grant, so we created Shootout Films," recalls Carroll. He and fellow graduate students Daniel Pearl and Ted Nicolaou went into business with Kooris and sound recordist Courtney Goodin. The group collaborated on freelance film projects in the early 1970s, but they didn't organize formally as a commercial production business until 1974, after Kooris left his teaching position at UT. Kooris and his wife bought out the partners a year later and opened Texas Pacific Film, a production company that continued to expand. By the mid 1980s the company was booking two to three jobs per month and training generations of crew in Austin. Richard Linklater's longtime cinematographer, Lee Daniel, began working there in 1984. Like so many others before him, Daniel trained on the job with Kooris, who had high expectations for his crew and could be demanding and abrasive. Still, says Daniel, "he was mentor and teacher to all these people that came through his company. He gave people every chance in the world to excel. He was very egalitarian."
Feature film work was rare in Austin in the early 1970s, but a number of state agencies supplied enough work to establish a healthy battle between Shootout and its primary competition, Richard Kidd's Motion Picture Productions of Texas, which became Filmhouse around 1970. In the early 1960s Kidd worked as a news cameraman at KTBC, one of the television stations owned by Lyndon Johnson. There Kidd met fellow cameraman Gary Pickle, and the two left the station around 1966 to start their own freelance film production house. They hustled commercial work from banks and other local businesses, occasionally hiring freelancers like Kooris.
A year or so after opening his business, Kidd met filmmakers Tobe Hooper and Ron Perryman. Born in 1943, Hooper grew up immersed in the movies. Around the impressionable age of seven, Hooper began reading the EC comics series. "I loved them," Hooper recalled. "They were not in any way based on logic. To enjoy them you had to accept that there is a Bogey Man out there." These horror tales and the movies he consumed growing up contributed to his later development as a filmmaker, a talent that he began cultivating in high school while making 8mm horror movies. By the mid 1960s Hooper had made a number of his own films, including an eleven-minute period comedy called The Heisters, which he shot in 35mm with Perryman acting as director of photography. Perryman and Hooper collaborated on Hooper's 1969 psychedelic art film Eggshells. Hooper, who eventually would become best known for a film about cannibals in rural Texas, also worked with Perryman on Peter, Paul & Mary: Song Is Love (1970), a PBS documentary produced by Fred Miller about the popular folk trio. "In the 60s Ron was kind of a guru to Tobe," remembered Kidd. "Tobe was a great cinematographer, had a really good eye, but he loved collaboration, which Ron really provided him with—they'd talk over shots for hours, figure out some crazy way to rig the camera, hang the lights, whatever." After Kidd saw Down Friday Street, a short film Hooper and Perryman co-directed in the late 1960s about the demolition of an Austin building, he knew he wanted to work with the talented filmmakers. He convinced Hooper and Perryman to join forces with him and Pickle.
While Shootout and Filmhouse provided production services in the mid 1970s, Ivan Bigley's Texas Motion Picture Service (TMPS) functioned mainly as a post-production facility. TMPS, which operated into the late 1990s, provided completion services for nearly three generations of filmmakers. TMPS gave locals like Richard Linklater a place to edit and mix their films and provided out-of-town productions like The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) a facility to screen dailies, which Bigley often projected himself. "Practically everybody who ever did a film, anywhere, any time, went to Ivan," says Tom Copeland, who worked as a makeup artist on commercial shoots in the 1970s before transitioning to location scouting for the Texas Film Commission. In 1967 after Bigley finished his service in the Vietnam War, he relocated to Austin as a cameraman for Earl Miller Productions, which produced programming for KLRN. Miller sensed the industry was moving toward video technology and decided to expand into television production, but Bigley staunchly supported film. In 1975 he was able to create TMPS with backing from an investor eager to branch into the film business. Located northeast of the university, the original facilities included editing equipment, an eight-track mixing board, and a thirty-seat screening room. Joel and Ethan Coen screened footage at TMPS in 1982 while making Blood Simple in and around Austin and developed great affection for Bigley, who allowed cash-poor students and independent filmmakers to use his facilities, often at no cost. "Ivan did a good job at servicing UT and the film industry," says Sandra Adair, Richard Linklater's longtime editor. "I don't think films could have been finished in Austin had TMPS not been there."
TMPS, Shootout, and Filmhouse, in addition to the University of Texas's RTF program and its campus film series, made up the initial infrastructure of the Austin film community in the 1960s and 1970s. These businesses and organizations trained many of the cast and crew that Tobe Hooper hired for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which began principal photography in the summer of 1973. This particular moment in Austin's history reveals the converging forces that helped to nurture the city's vibrant cultural scene.
Young people had been coming to Austin to attend the University of Texas since 1883, but the 1960s marked a gradual shift in Austin's population profile. Although the university more than doubled its enrollment between 1960 and 1970, two-thirds of the city's newest residents in 1970 were not students but young adults, perhaps drawn by the city's newly hip music scene. Austin's City Council noted the typically transient nature of this particular new population group and wondered whether the young people would stay long enough to make significant contributions to the Austin community. "On the other hand," reasoned the council in a 1973 study, "the newcomers bring a vitality to the city, an open mind and a fresh approach. Austin was their 'city of choice.'"
It was at a Willie Nelson concert in 1972 that many people began to see clearly the creative potential in Austin. Nelson's concert at Armadillo World Headquarters memorably brought together country and western and rock 'n' roll fans. "All of a sudden the hippies and the cowboys all looked alike," said writer Bud Shrake. Like many creative types, Shrake moved easily between Austin's music and film scenes. By the early 1970s, he had published a few novels and was writing for Sports Illustrated. He was splitting his time between a house in Austin and an apartment in Manhattan. It was in New York in 1969, after seeing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, that he was inspired to write his first screenplay. Originally titled Dime Box after the small Texas town where the story took place, the script eventually became Kid Blue (1973), a comic western starring Dennis Hopper.
Once Shrake finished Kid Blue, he sent it to his New York agent, who eventually got it to Hollywood producer Marvin Schwartz. Schwartz showed the script to Twentieth Century Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck, who greenlighted the project. Although Kid Blue was in the can by the end of 1971, the movie's release was held up for more than a year. It eventually opened in 1973, and Kid Blue was selected as one of only three American films to play in the New York Film Festival that year. Shrake was convinced that the movie would take off, but it didn't. "When Easy Rider came out, Hopper insulted everybody out in Hollywood. And so they were all just waiting for his next movie, which was mine," Shrake said. "Kid Blue was a lesson for me that I learned two or three times about how petty or nasty the studios could be."
Warren Skaaren and the Texas Film Commission
Austin was worlds away from Hollywood, which is one of the reasons writers like Shrake based himself there. But something about the unassuming city with its mix of counterculture wannabes and conservative politicos—a place where hippies skinny-dipping in a local watering hole counted as a tourist attraction—managed to attract a fairly steady stream of film industry insiders. Some of the politicians recognized the inherent business value of this and, in the late 1960s, began actively to cultivate film production by creating the Texas Film Commission. And while this government agency was created to promote film production across the entire state, its location in Austin meant that local filmmakers could more easily establish a relationship with its staff.
Warren Skaaren was a senior at Rice University in 1969 when he first met Jerry Hall, press secretary for Governor Preston Smith. Skaaren, who was student body president, had been invited to spend the weekend visiting the governor's office. The weekend began with a dinner on Friday night, where the governor's staff visited with the students. Remembered Hall, "The next morning, this intent-looking guy came over and introduced himself and said, 'I'm Warren Skaaren.' We talked a little bit. The next thing I know, he turns up in Austin working on the governor's staff."
Skaaren was a quick study of human behavior and seemed to have an uncanny ability to zero in on a person's vulnerabilities, which he related to with empathy. This quality would prove instrumental later in life when as a screenwriter he would interact with Hollywood's powerful but often fragile egos on projects like Top Gun. "Warren worked with Tony Scott and Tom Cruise to fix that film," recalls Mike Simpson, executive vice president at William Morris Agency and Skaaren's former agent. "Tom Cruise was bailing on the picture, and Warren saved the movie."
After Skaaren graduated from Rice in 1969, he moved to Austin so he could begin working within the Texas Department of Health and Human Services. Over the next two years Skaaren would become a valued member of the governor's staff. Ron Bozman, who in 1992 would win a producing Academy Award for The Silence of the Lambs, was Skaaren's good friend and college roommate. "Warren was in the inner circle of those guys around Preston Smith," Bozman recalls.
Bill Parsley, a good friend of Hall's and the primary investor in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, moved within this circle as well. A former state legislator who became Vice President of Public Affairs at Texas Tech University in 1965, Parsley first met Hall in Lubbock while they were both students at Tech. Parsley had come from less than humble beginnings in a small town north of Abilene, toiling in the fields pulling vegetables and enduring hard physical labor. But by the time Parsley arrived in Lubbock in the 1950s, he had reinvented himself. He had confidence to spare, and he saw himself as something of a ladies' man. "He hit campus, and word got around immediately that he had worked for Paramount Pictures," Hall remembered, although no one was ever really sure if he had.
One day in 1969, not long after Hall began working as Governor Smith's press secretary, Parsley called from Lubbock. He had seen an item in the newspaper that piqued his interest. "What do you know about film commissions?" asked Parsley.
"Nothing," Hall replied.
"Well," Parsley said, "I'm going to see what I can find out about them."
New Mexico had formed a film commission in 1968 and managed to convince director Sam Peckinpah to shoot scenes for The Ballad of Cable Hogue in Santa Fe. After doing a little research of his own, Hall realized that he knew Charlie Cullum, who headed up the New Mexico Film Commission. He consulted with Cullum a few times by phone before he and Parsley presented a proposal to Governor Smith. Skaaren heard about the project and approached Hall about running the operation. Skaaren had some experience with the film business, if only by association with Bozman, his Rice roommate. "I was working in films since 1968, so Warren had been around the film business by just hanging out with me," Bozman remembers.
Governor Smith, a former theater owner, gave Parsley and Hall the go-ahead to draft a resolution. In the end, they wrangled $400,000 from the state's budget surplus to create the Texas Film Commission, which was housed in the governor's office. Hall and Parsley also put together an advisory board with notable individuals chosen primarily to increase the commission's glamour quotient. Actress and Dallas resident Dorothy Malone joined the board, as did former Lyndon Baines Johnson special assistant Jack Valenti, who had since become the head of Hollywood's self-censorship organization, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Skaaren was just twenty-four years old when Governor Smith officially appointed him as executive director on December 9, 1970.
The commission's first office, opened in May 1971, was on the top floor of a downtown apartment building called The Penthouse, just a few blocks west of the Capitol. Although the building itself was impressive, the office was little more than a couple of desks and chairs and a few filing cabinets. Almost immediately Skaaren purchased a 35mm still camera. He took it with him on road trips throughout the state, photographing possible film locations and slowly building an impressive file.
One of Skaaren's first coups as director of the film commission was convincing producers of The Getaway to shoot in Texas. Directed by Sam Peckinpah, the $4 million studio picture filmed in El Paso, Huntsville, and elsewhere beginning in January 1972. Skaaren's business savvy impressed Getaway producer David Foster, who had produced Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller a year earlier. "The thing about Warren is that he understood movies and he understood the problems. A lot of guys just do the job and try to con you into working in their state. Warren actually knew the business of making movies. He sure as hell knew what he was talking about. Or, even if he didn't, he knew what we needed, and that was the important thing for us," recalls Foster. Skaaren arranged for the crew to destroy a bank in San Marcos and other old buildings in El Paso, and he paved the way for the use of the state prison in Huntsville. "He would find places like that where we could do whatever we wanted to do, which Peckinpah loved," Foster says. "Skaaren was like a bulldog, but in a nice way. He had great style and great taste and was a real gentleman. And yet he knew, we needed that prison, goddammit, and he was going to get us that prison."
Skaaren worked tirelessly to please the out-of-towners and ensure smooth sailing on the production, and he did the same for the nearly forty features that came through the state while he was head of the film commission. Sidney Lumet shot Lovin' Molly in and around Austin; Steven Spielberg filmed The Sugarland Express in Sugarland, Del Rio, San Antonio, and Floresville; Brian de Palma lensed Phantom of the Paradise in Dallas; and George Roy Hill filmed The Great Waldo Pepper throughout Central Texas. Skaaren's quiet charisma put him on a par with the Hollywood people. He could deal with the outsized personalities and egos coming in from Los Angeles without overshadowing them. "He was like a Wizard of Oz character that was very mysterious and able to do these magical things like suddenly showing up at the airport with Steve McQueen," says Bill Broyles, who at the time was preparing to launch Texas Monthly magazine. "Warren was moving in a world that none of us could even imagine. He just made things happen." Skaaren was very good at what he did, amassing contacts for himself and the state and bringing in plenty of business. But as the years passed, he felt a growing dissatisfaction about his involvement behind the scenes. Despite the access it gave him to the Hollywood filmmaking community, Skaaren was ambivalent about heading up the state's film commission. He really wanted to write movies but felt not quite ready. His stifled creative side revealed itself in sketches, metal sculptures, and charming letters he penned to friends and associates.
In May of 1973, while still at the film commission, Skaaren used this charm as well as his contacts on behalf of Tobe Hooper, who was planning to direct his second feature from a script he had co-written with Kim Henkel called Leatherface. Skaaren sent a letter about Hooper to a Hollywood distributor, and he spent the better part of its three and a half pages extolling the marketing potential of the unproduced script. Skaaren wrote convincingly of Hooper's talent, calling him "straight" and "very bright" with a superior sense of design and layout, as demonstrated in the advertising campaign for his first feature Eggshells. That film's fatal flaw, Skaaren wrote, was its artiness and inability to attract audiences. But that would not be the case with the horror movie Leatherface (retitled The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Skaaren explained that in exchange for the distributor's help with the project, he was in for a cut of the producer's profits, but he was quick to note that his own work was strictly behind the scenes. "My name will not be on the picture, that would not be a good public first pix for the Ex. Director of the Gov's Film Commission to be involved with," Skaaren explained, and he closed the letter by asking his friend not to reveal his involvement to anyone.36
Skaaren met with Austin lawyer Robert Kuhn, a friend of Parsley's who would handle legal work for Chainsaw and put up $9,000 of the initial budget. They discussed how to skirt any potential conflicts of interest between Skaaren's involvement in the project and his position at the film commission. "Even though it might have violated somebody's rules, it didn't violate mine. Everybody wanted him to do what he did," says Kuhn of Skaaren's lobbying for Chainsaw during his tenure as film commissioner. "He was doing Chainsaw while he was there, but he wasn't doing it by depriving or setting back the film commission," Kuhn insists. Still, Skaaren was uneasy about the potential conflict and would express more than a little ambivalence about the project to industry friends like Foster, who agreed to line up meetings with potential distributors once the film was finished. Kuhn thought Skaaren deserved whatever monetary benefits he might get for all the work he was doing trying to find a distributor for the film, and he helped an anxious Skaaren navigate the legal issues involved. "Relax, Skaaren," Kuhn told him. "You won't go to hell yet."