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Fellow’s Find: Screenwriter Warren Skaaren

By Alison Macor

What do Batman, Top Gun, and Beverly Hills Cop II have in common? All were rewritten by versatile screenwriter and “script doctor” Warren Skaaren. As a fellow at the Ransom Center last summer, Alison Macor, independent scholar and former film critic for The Austin Chronicle and the Austin American-Statesman, immersed herself in the Ransom Center’s Warren Skaaren collection. Macor shares her experiences working in the collection in preparation for her upcoming biography of Skaaren:

This summer I spent five weeks at the Ransom Center with the support of a Mayer Filmscript fellowship. I worked in the Warren Skaaren collection in preparation for my new book, In Batman’s Shadow: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Warren Skaaren.

In addition to writing original screenplays, the Austin-based Skaaren worked as a script doctor—rewriting screenplays by other writers—on many 1980s blockbusters, including Top Gun (1986), Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), and Batman (1989). By the time of his death in December 1990, he was one of the highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood.

I approached the collection chronologically because I thought it was important to trace Skaaren’s development as a writer. In some cases he spent years nurturing projects like The Freddie Steinmark Story, a biopic about The University of Texas safety who lost a leg to cancer, only to see them never get made. But with each new project Skaaren perfected his writing process and style. He drafted finely detailed character sketches and elaborate “intensity” charts that measured a story’s dramatic highs and lows. Ultimately it was his ability to create multifaceted characters that caught Hollywood’s attention.

I spent most of my time reading multiple drafts of each screenplay. This can be an exciting but also painfully slow process, and the beauty of the Ransom Center fellowship is that it gave me the luxury of time in an environment conducive to such work. Because Skaaren was often hired as a script doctor and reworked screenplays initially created by others, the assignment of writing credit became a particularly delicate issue and influenced his future assignments, pay rate, and reputation. Every studio project that Skaaren worked on went to arbitration, and he kept voluminous notes and copies of all correspondence pertaining to each case. The arbitration of Beverly Hills Cop II, for instance, was especially heated because, as a sequel with a built-in audience, the film was expected to do very well, and literally millions of dollars were at stake for the writers. Indeed, the writer who worked on the screenplay prior to Skaaren (and who received a shared credit with Skaaren) sued the Writers Guild over its decision to split the writing credit. The case was still being appealed at the time of Skaaren’s death—three and a half years after the film’s initial release.

Thanks to the Ransom Center’s Steve Wilson and Katie Risseeuw, who oversaw the digitization of some of the collection’s sound recordings, I was able to hear Skaaren on tape interviewing retired British and Nepalese soldiers and even a witch doctor in preparation for his original screenplay Of East and West, a sweeping coming-of-age story set in England and Nepal. Not only did this provide the opportunity to “hear” Skaaren for the first time, but it also gave me a sense of the intense preparation that he cultivated throughout his writing career. These recordings offered a glimpse of the charm and confidence that so many of his friends and colleagues have mentioned when describing his personality and, ultimately, his success.

Watch this video as Macor further discusses her work in the Skaaren collection:

Comments

Emily Otto-Skaaren
Reply

Warren was my father’s first cousin. Since it seems as though Alison may be writing a biography on Warren, I just wanted to give a bit of information on the pronunciation of the last name Skaaren. It is norwegien and is pronounced, “scorin” not “scarin”. Just thought this might be helpful.

Ann Arnold
Reply

The film Breakaway that was made about this adventure premiered in Austin in 1978. Many local musicians played the music on the soundtrack. There are quite a number of people who would really like to see the film resurface, or at least a recording of the soundtrack made available for the sake of history. I’m curious as to whether anyone is pursuing this possibility with Mr. Skaaren. The documentary pretty much died on the vine after the premiere.

Kaye Connors
Reply

I helped take care of Warren while he was dying. An acquaintance made a “home made” video interviewing Warren’s friends shortly after his death. I don’t think that would have been in the HRC collection, but it would be VERY interesting for a biography. Please contact me if you would like more information.

Kory Williams
Reply

I worked for Arnold Palmer for 20 years and was lucky enough to meet many ‘famous’ people. The most unfamous to me at the time and to a large degree was Warren Skaaren. I sat next to him on a flight from DFW to LAX on December 5th 1995. He looked so ‘plain’ and I don’t mean that in a negative way. He just didn’t look “hollywood”. We never talked until we were on approach into LAX. He wanted to know how I had a hamburger in First Class instead of the first class airplane food. I told him to request the kids meal when he books his flight. One thing led to another and the next thing I knew he offered me a ride to my meeting in the studio limo that was there to pick him up. He was there to work on BeetleJuice 2. He was the most amazing ‘celebrity’ I ever met and I met a lot. I cried when I read he had died so quickly and so young. I still carry his boarding pass with me everyday. I think its because every now and then you meet someone truly special, and Warren definitely was and to me still is. His many accomplishments defined him as a true American. That flight was the best of my career…..God’s Speed Warren

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