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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: