Twelve Things You Didn’t Know About Screenwriter Warren Skaaren

To celebrate Alison Macor’s lively biography of the screenwriter Warren Skaaren, we’re highlighting the surprising impact and short life of one of Hollywood’s highest-paid writers. Although he rarely left Austin where he lived and worked, Skaaren wrote 1980s hit movies like Top GunBeverly Hills Cop IIBeetlejuice, and BatmanRewrite Man: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Warren Skaaren addresses issues of film authorship that have become even more contested in the era of blockbuster filmmaking, especially with ongoing negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers and a possible strike by the Writer’s Guild of America.

Twelve Things You Didn’t Know About Screenwriter Warren Skaaren
By Alison Macor

Warren Skaaren was a bit like the fictional Zelig in Woody Allen’s movie of the same name. If something big—even historic—was happening, Skaaren probably was there, just behind the scenes. From his storied tenure as student body president at Rice University during the tumultuous 1960s to his seemingly “overnight” success as one of Hollywood’s go-to script doctors, Skaaren made the most of his short but memorable life. As fellow screenwriter Bill Broyles (Cast AwayApollo 13) once said, “Warren was like a Wizard of Oz character able to do these magical things like suddenly showing up at the airport with Steve McQueen. He was moving in a world that none of us could even imagine. He just made things happen.”

He sold Hollywood on Texas.

Twenty-five-year-old Skaaren, working in the Governor of Texas’s office, drafted a proposal for the state’s film commission. Governor Preston Smith appointed him as the first executive director of the Texas Film Commission in May 1971. Under Skaaren’s four-year tenure, he brought Hollywood films like The GetawayThe Sugarland Express, and Lovin’ Molly to shoot in Texas.

He masterminded the Coat and Tie Rebellion at Rice University.

As student body president at Rice, Skaaren kept a campus-wide protest from turning ugly when he led students and faculty in a peaceful protest against the hiring of a controversial new university president. Nicknamed the Coat and Tie Rebellion because of its formally attired participants, this protest—and Skaaren’s efforts—resulted in the resignation of William Masterson just three days after he was hired to lead the university.

He introduced Leatherface to the Mob. 

While still head of the Texas Film Commission, Skaaren worked behind the scenes to land a distributor for an independent horror movie called The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. All of the major film companies passed, but a fledgling distributor named Bryanston Pictures showed interest. Run by Louis “Butchie” Peraino and his uncle Joseph, a “made” man in the Colombo crime family, Bryanston made the Texans an offer, and well, they couldn’t refuse.

He saved Top Gun. 

A young Tom Cruise, hot off the success of Risky Business, was ready to bail on a film about hotshot fighter pilots at an elite training academy. Producing partners Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson hired Skaaren over the phone after he wowed them with his treatment, which humanized Cruise’s character, Maverick, and ditched Maverick’s bimbo gymnast girlfriend in favor of a sexy rocket scientist. It was also Skaaren’s idea for Maverick to woo love interest Charlie (Kelly McGillis) by singing a duet of the Righteous Brothers’ classic “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” with Maverick’s best friend Goose, played by Anthony Edwards. Cruise stayed on the picture, and its success would propel the actor into superstardom and cement his friendship with Skaaren. 

He unleashed Beetlejuice.

Twenty-five-year-old Tim Burton was looking for his next picture after the surprise success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Introduced to Skaaren by agent Mike Simpson, who represented them both, Burton flew to Austin, where the two spent a weekend seeing local sights and discussing their mutual interest in the afterlife. Skaaren mined Native American trickster archetypes to transform the 

Beetlejuice character from a humorless desperado in writer Michael McDowell’s early drafts into a wacky, mischievous, and lasciviously amusing scene-stealer.

He also wrote Beetlejuice 2. 

Thrilled by Beetlejuice‘s financial success, producer David Geffen and Tim Burton approached Skaaren about writing a follow-up in the fall of 1989. Ironically, after Skaaren’s untimely death in 1990, Michael McDowell took over the screenplay. The project never got made although drafts of Skaaren’s script for 

Beetlejuice in Love reside in his archive at the Harry Ransom Center at UT-Austin.

He could have been a part-time mogul.

Executives at Warner Bros. were so impressed with his unique ability to communicate with the suits as well as creatives like Tim Burton that they offered him a part-time executive position at the studio. He turned it down.

He helped The Joker go wild.

Hired to rewrite Sam Hamm’s screenplay for Batman, Skaaren finally connected with the initially distant star Jack Nicholson (The Joker) when he wrote dialogue inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche, one of Nicholson’s favorite philosophers. 

Batman’s blockbuster success would catapult Skaaren into an elite group of million-dollar script doctors.

He fueled Tom Cruise’s need for speed.

Over a 1988 dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles, Tom Cruise asked Skaaren to write the script for a race car movie Cruise was eager to make. Skaaren spent two years on the project, learning how to race at Rockingham Speedway and eventually writing 10 drafts of a screenplay for what would become Days of Thunder.

He wrote Romancing the Stone III with Michael Douglas. 

Douglas hired Skaaren to script the third film in the Romancing the Stone trilogy after the two hit it off at a meeting at Skaaren’s West Austin home. Skaaren traveled to Hong Kong to research the illegal exotic animal trade and scout locations for a screenplay titled Crimson Eagle. Kathleen Turner’s pregnancy delayed the project, and then Douglas’s unexpected success with Fatal Attraction convinced the star that he needed to pursue more dramatic roles. The project never got made, but Douglas and Skaaren remained friends, trading pithy faxes and notes until Skaaren’s death.

He was an unofficial therapist to the stars. 

Sought out by his classmates in high school because he was a good listener who gave sound advice, Skaaren utilized this skill in Hollywood on several occasions. He offered diet tips to hard-living producer Don Simpson (“Simpson,” he once chided, “stay away from the queso!”) and counseled actress Kim Basinger and producer Jon Peters on their tempestuous love affair while making script changes on Batman’s overseas set.

He wasn’t afraid to embrace his inner selves. (All of them.) 

A lifelong seeker, Skaaren threw himself into all kinds of New Age therapies, especially in his final year. Before his death, he identified and named various inner selves, including Ingrid (his feminine side), Working Warren (the grim workaholic), and WES (the 9-year-old for whom he wrote action movies like Batman).

Alison Macor’s biography Rewrite Man: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Warren Skaaren will be published by UT Press on May 30.