The premise of Rewrite Man is one of the simplest and most reliable in biography: You’ve never heard the name, but you know the work. Here, that name is Warren Skaaren, the script writer, doctor or for some, “savior” of four ubiquitous ‘80s movies. They’re among the near-guarantees at any garage sale or thrift store VHS shelf: Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, Beetlejuice and Batman.
However, simply recognizing Skaaren by those familiar titles belies the years he spent fighting for how his name would be associated with them, or whether it would at all. As much as she illuminates Skaaren’s tragically brief life, film historian Alison Macor plunges us into the Hollywood machinations that facilitated the rise of this rewriter and also obscured him from history.
Macor’s ostensible connection to her subject is their mutual hailing from Austin, Texas — the place where Skaaren’s story in the film world begins and then ends all too soon at age 44. In a matter of two decades, the enterprising young Skaaren transitioned from igniting a peaceful student rebellion at Rice University, to founding the Texas Film Commission, to shepherding in-state projects like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, to establishing the Austin writing space where his career revising million-dollar scripts blossomed.
If that CV looks like a climbed ladder, Macor’s depth of research and access to Skaaren’s personal writings portray it much more as a found journey. While often approaching film scripts with left-brained graphs to analyze their arcs and tension, he was also drawn to labors of love like music, art, and cycling. His was a familiar conflict between commerce and art; it’s just that his golden handcuffs had names like Nicholson, Bruckheimer, and Paramount, and he was terribly good at managing their personalities and easing egos. A reader’s fondness for Skaaren may not manifest in the sense of wanting to grab a beer with him and find out what Tom Cruise was really like, but rather through appreciating his constant soul-searching.
The duality of art and work is all over Rewrite Man. Typical of the book’s detailed observations, one of its best small anecdotes harkens to when Skaaren was studying at Rice. Just before becoming student body president and effectively eliciting the resignation of a university president through widespread protest, Skaaren’s pet project was renovating a campus coffee shop. Upon its completion, he told the student newspaper: “We have lost an attic, but we have gained a place where it’s proper to do the most human thing of all, to dream.”
There’s ample dreaming in Skaaren’s scripts, even as he was trying to flatter movie stars, please producers, and reassure executives. His ruminations on dying and his love for Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death set the tone for Beetlejuice. Where his own tastes were concerned, Skaaren was drawn to what he found adventurous or exotic. The unproduced script for a third Romancing the Stone film (titled Crimson Eagle in its development) saw Skaaren travel to Hong Kong to research smuggling. Still, the natural question upon seeing the name “Warren Skaaren” credited third or fourth (or in the dubious case of Top Gun, “uncredited”) on some of the last century’s most memorable movies is: “Well, what parts did he come up with?” The easy answers make for good trivia. His most famous inventions include Maverick and Goose dueting “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” in Top Gun or The Joker’s classic, but ultimately meaningless credo “You ever danced with the devil in pale moonlight?”
The difficult answer is that measuring intellectual stake is the conundrum of Skaaren’s whole career. Macor teaches the layman the rabbit hole of Writers Guild arbitrations in Rewrite Man — their function when there’s a disagreement over credits, and more importantly, their dysfunction. The WGA assessments are beyond murky for script doctors. Are the origins of a movie’s quotable lines more important than the sheer volume of lines that end up on screen from a given draft? Is establishing a plot more creditworthy than establishing a tone? Are creating characters more important than crafting the qualities through which we recognize them as three-dimensional?
The many minute differences between “Story by” and “Screenplay by” credits are a bucket of cold water on the halcyon view that an uncompromising auteur simply willed the hit films of the ‘80s into existence. These projects were intentionally made by committee, and there could scarcely be too many cooks in the kitchen as far as studios were concerned. No one, including Skaaren, snatched the throttle of a blockbuster and just landed it Maverick-style.
It’s in this industry madness where we find Macor’s biggest strength. From the time Skaaren begins his Hollywood work in earnest in 1984, she reports meticulously on who was in which conference rooms, what weight was tossed around, what notes Skaaren made, what time he touched down back in Austin to write and just how many sunrises and sundowns he took to pound out what we now call pop culture. Macor’s diligent approach equals a humble, comfortable 200 pages of portraiture blended with inside baseball. Her prose breathes the same sense of responsibility and commitment to a project Skaaren himself possessed.
If there’s a hole in Rewrite Man, it’s from Skaaren’s wife, Helen, refusing participation. While the book isn’t short on personal detail — gleaned from confidantes, his assistant, and Skaaren’s own letters — there’s a gaping lack of intimacy when the included accounts come largely from people with whom Skaaren worked. While those relationships seem mostly honest and genuine — particularly those with Michael Douglas and Tim Burton — they’re all colored by an appreciation of how doggedly Skaaren did his job. Conversely, the biography is chronically short on weighing exactly what Skaaren sacrificed with writing sessions so long and frenzied they damaged his fingers and landed him wearing an eye patch by the end of redrafting Top Gun. In the absence of Helen’s perspective, we’re simply left to infer that Skaaren was withdrawn and absent in his marriage. Still, this missing link hampers the read. It’s easy to burn through 20 pages of WGA arbitration recapping, pause, and realize we didn’t learn much about Skaaren’s frame of mind during that period.
Though Skaaren succumbed to bone cancer one year after the release of Batman, the closing pages of Rewrite Man don’t delve into what might have been (more evidence of a journalist’s approach to biography). Still, it’s tempting to forecast what a screenwriter fresh from co-writing the most lucrative movie of the late-‘80s might have done next. A hit script bearing only Skaaren’s credit would surely have won him newfound notoriety. With his otherworldly talent for making work-friends, could he have attached himself to a burgeoning Kathryn Bigelow or a comebacking Ridley Scott just as they were beginning their runs of success in the ‘90s?
Granted, this is just fantasy matchmaking that assumes a tireless script doctor wanted to become an Aaron Sorkin type all along. It’s not as though today’s film industry isn’t ripe with career rewriters. Do fans or critics ever really recognize the worker bees behind the film industry’s biggest intellectual properties? I, for one, can’t freely name a writer who worked on any recent DC or Marvel script. Of course, there have been dozens, and Macor notes that arbitration has only become more complicated in recent times.
Rewrite Man is an ode to professionalism, not virtuosity. Had Skaaren existed as a character in his own work, he would’ve perhaps been a radar analyst in Top Gun or a desk editor at the Gotham Globe. He undergirded oversized characters with humanity and had it out for the cheap and easy. It’s hard to say what that sense of duty and craft means in determining screenplay authorship. Macor doesn’t necessarily make an argument for Skaaren deserving certain credits, but she leaves us to wonder: What if the fourth credited writer is the one who hid a film’s seams and created the transcendent piece of its illusion?