Warren Skaaren, Movie Mogul
Here's the man who's selling Texas to Hollywood. If you think that's easy, then you don't know Hollywood or Texas.
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HERE’S THIS GUY, AND HE’S been drafted and it’s what you might call a bad scene. He’s standing at a boarding gate in the Dallas airport with his family, waiting to be shipped off to God knows where—Germany or something—and his family is standing around him weeping.
He looks up and in one of these gee, small-world numbers, coming across the Dallas airport—really zipping across it—is an old college buddy of this guy. Name of Warren Skaaren. They went to school back at Rice, five or six years ago, and Warren was a sculpture major. He hadn’t laid eyes on Warren in three or four years.
One of the reasons Warren’s zipping right along, with this kind of concerned look on his face, is because he’s being trailed by a couple of dozen women, all with that pinched, reckless look some women get when they’re after something.
So this guy, who was about to call out to his old buddy, Warren, starts staring. His brain is not ready to start wondering why his old buddy Warren, who hasn’t seen him yet, is zipping along across Dallas airport in the middle of these women. Then he sees that the women’s object is not really Warren but a man walking beside him. This guy can’t quite see the fellow’s face, but…
No, wait, positions are changed, and our friend recognizes the fellow beside Warren. It’s…well, it’s Steve McQueen, and he, Warren, obviously is with Steve McQueen. I mean, it wasn’t Warren Skaaren and Steve McQueen walking across the Dallas airport and at this moment they happened to be walking beside each other, the women actually zipping along after McQueen, with Warren basically in their way. In fact it looked as though Warren were actually hustling McQueen along.
Explanations, as they say, were in order, but this guy continued to stand there, inoperative, his mouth still open, as Warren and Steve McQueen zipped along toward the airport restaurant, dozens of women in pursuit.
And just about then, Warren looked up and saw ol’ buddy over there, saw that he was dressed in Army green and that there was a real kind of John Garfield scene going on there with the family and all. Saw that ol’ buddy has seen him. Saw that ol’ buddy had seen McQueen, and that ol’ buddy had realized that Warren seemed to be kind of in charge of McQueen. Realized that he really should explain all this.
But these women…
So this guy, on his way to God-knows-where-in-Germany, gets this look and smile from his buddy Warren that says: “Look, well, I’m sorry, but I’ve got Steve McQueen here and…” and then Warren is gone into the restaurant with Steve McQueen, and the women right along behind. Then this guy himself is gone, to God knows where in Germany.
Listen, we can straighten all this out. In that three-and-a-half years since you last saw Warren the Sculpture Major at Rice, some amazing things have hapened. Warren, as you might guess, did not go into sculpture. He is now executive director of the Texas Film Commission, and Steve McQueen is not the only international celebrity he might be seen with in the Dallas or Houston or San Antonio airports these days. Goldie Hawn he calls Goldie. Ryan O’Neal knows him when he sees him. He has been eyeball-to-eyeball with Sam Peckinpah and lived to tell about it.
Warren Skaaren, you might say, is pimping for the State of Texas. He spends $100,000 in taxpayers’ money a year trying to talk Hollywood types into shooting their movies in Texas. Come, coos Warren in advertisements in film biz trade journals, come roll your Cinemobiles over our soft curves in the Hill Country. Burrow your lenses in the sweet mosses of East Texas. Stay the night in the sensuous beaches down at Padre. My state is a virgin, meester (comparatively).
Well, Warren must be doing something right. Right there at the end of this movie called The Getaway (in pursuit of which Warren was schlepping McQueen across the Dallas airport), there’s this big, gaudy, effusive thanks from the bottom of the producers’ hearts to Warren Skaaren and the Texas Film Commission, in big letters spelled right across the screen.
Thanks is cheap, right? But Skaaren and the TFC do better than that, you better believe it. The Getaway cost First Artists Co., the producers, about three million, and Skaaren figures about half that got left right here in Texas, mostly in San Marcos and El Paso. The Thief Who Came To Dinner, the Ryan 0’Neal starrer, which the TFC helped Warner Bros. locate in Houston last year, was no El Cheapo production either. Ibid on The Sugarland Express, which Universal City Studios shot around Houston and San Antonio earlier this year. As a matter of fact, Skaaren figures the TFC has reaped about $69 in location expenses dispersed in Texas for each $1 the TFC spent. This year he estimates that’ll be up to $100 per $1.
Hey, and they’re clean dollars, folks. Do you see Ali McGraw belching suspended particulates into the air? Is Tony Perkins wrecking any ecological balance? Not at all.
And gee, moom pitcher stars right here in town, and those big hairy looking cameras and lights and—don’t shove— a chance to be an extra and actually be in a movie. Glamour Time! Glamour Time! Look in Molly, Gid and Johnny, if that’s indeed the title the film shot in Bastrop based on Larry McMurty’s novel Leaving Cheyenne will have when it’s released. Look for a familiar face. Unless something tragic happens on the ol’ cutting room floor, you should see our dear departed gov, Unca Preston Smith. Evrabody wants to be a star!
Say what you want about Unca Preston, the TFC was his idea. Prez was in the theatre biz in Lubbock before he took up politics. Popcorn and cherry sours in the blood. Warren Skaaren was an assistant on Smith’s staff and thought this film commission thing would just fit his pistol. He wrote a proposal and one thing led to another.
Skaaren is in his late 20’s. Low-keyed. A little pale. Has a fabulously distinctive, resonant, movie-star voice. Could probably make a fortune doing commercials. Realize that he is dealing with people who for the most part are just off the 3:10 from Oz, so while trying to earn his paycheck keeps a little distance from the work just to be sure the ol’ head stays on straight.
Just what is it that he does?
Well, as the Hollywood people sometime puts it, he schlepps. That’s a bastardization of the Yiddish word, and it means roughly that he deals and copes. Skaaren and his one assistant (Diane Baker, younger, definitely dishy, also a Riceite, very high energy level) will respond to filmmakers’ inquiries about Texas. If they’re interested enough to come here to look potential locations over, Skaaren or Baker or one of the 50-odd commissioners of the TFC (appointed by the governor) will show them what the state has to offer. Skaaren and Baker will attempt to run interference with any sort of problem the filmmakers might have, especically those that might require liaison with any governmental agency within the state. They will smile, they will hope, and they will not be depressed when the company decides to shoot in Kansas instead.
“The internal politics in this business is incredible,” says Skaaren. “HolIywood is based on some very expensive fantasies. Stars are intelligent like Mother Nature. They just aren’t very linear people. We’ll show some people, say, the country around San Antonio and the production manager says it’ll never do—even if San Antonio would be perfect—because the production manager has a farm back in Greenville, South Carolina, and he wants the studio to shoot there. I don’t worry about losing a location because you have absolutely no control over the situation. One company got down to the point of committing to the hotels, and then I got a call one day from the producer about something else, and he kind of added, ‘Oh by the way, we’re shooting the picture in Kansas.’ Texas was going to be a backup location.”
You don’t have to come with grips* to Texas.…Or anything else. Except maybe a scenario. Or a script. We’ve got everything you need to shoot a Lawrence of Arabia. A Patton. An African Queen. A GWTW. An Airport or a Waterfront.…We even have the props. Homegrown settings. Natural. For takes instead of fakes…
—TFC ad in The American Cinematographer, trade journal for movie cameramen.
*a little pun, folks. “Grips” is what they call stagehands on a movie set.
Skaaren budgeted $31,000 for advertising Texas geography in film biz trade journals last year. That’ll go down to $21,000 this year as word gets around Hollywood about the friendly, cooperative folks down Austin way. Another $10,000 has gone for a color videotape cassette library of Texas scenery to browse through. The rest of the money goes for salaries and lots and lots of Hertz mileage.
“We need another person,” says Skaaren. “If all the productions come to Texas that say are going to come, Diane and I just won’t be able to handle them. I mean, when somebody calls me in Austin at 2 a.m. and says he’s landing at Houston at 6 a.m., what can I do?”
Skaaren says he finds himself used as a gofer every now and then (a showbiz term: a flunkie who “goes for” things). But “I don’t take it very seriously. I know they don’t know what they’re doing and I know we do. They’re like tourists, actually, trying to make a profit on their trip. I get to talking to some of these people and they’re talking about all the money they’re going to spend in Texas, and I start to realize that they don’t have a dime and what they really want me to do is put them on to some oil miIlionaires who’ll finance their picture for them.”
Other than a helpful hand and a big smile the TFC can offer filmmakers no more. “We don’t give freebies. We can’t pick up any tabs. Freebies turn to resentment very quickly.” Skaaren ends up liking most of the people from Cloud Cuckoo Land he must work for; but he sees no special reason why he should have to suffer fools and boors.
“I don’t like the idea lots of movie people have that everyone outside of LA or New York is dumb,” says Skaaren. “There are still people who think everyone in Texas had to be a minor conspirator in the killing of Kennedy. Yeah, still. We’ll take movie people into somebody’s home, like we were doing in River Oaks in Houston for The Thief Who Came to Dinner, and the people who own the house are gracious and helpful and the minute we hit the street the movie people are really tearing the house and the people down, just because the house won’t work for them.”
There was just a teensy little bit of hassle between the TFC and Bud Yorkin, who produced and directed Thief, which was shot almost entirely in Houston. “The commission was almost no help at all,” said Yorkin. “We had to do everything ourselves.”
“There was a personality clash,” says Skaaren.
“For the sums of money movie people routinely pay out,” says Skaaren, “they expect things to move. They just don’t realize that people have to think things over here. If you ask a small-town sheriff to block off the main street for three months, he’s going to have to think about running for reelection in the fall.
“I remember once going through a small town in East Texas, very poor, and here’s this guy who represents one of the people who makes the whole moving-image business in this country what it is, and he turns around to me and says, ‘How do these people stand it? They look like they’re living in a commercial!’ The film people don’t understand their own bias.”
For The Sugarland Express, Skaaren had to schlepp with the Department of Public Safety. The script of that film, which stars Goldie Hawn, is about a DPS officer who’s kidnaped by two fugitives. There was no way the picture could have been made without DPS cooperation (the finale involved 200 cop cars assembled) and the DPS was none too pleased with the screenplay. “They weren’t sensitive to technical details and that bothered the DPS. We had to clean some things up a little, and after that the DPS was wonderfully cooperative.”
Skaaren’s biggest triumph of persuasion came during The Getaway negotiations when he was able to talk director Sam (Mr. Macho) Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs) into changing the Forties period of the script to present-day Texas, since everybody on the location scouting expeditions was going mad trying to find places that hadn’t been Taco Bell’ed to death. “It was about 2 a.m. and Sam was on one of his macho things,” said Skaaren. “He will test people this way. If you back down, he’ll have no more use for you, but if you stand up to him he’ll respect you. We had our little scene and I yelled at him a little, and after that everything was all right.” Lucky you, Warren.
Lucky Warren, too, the day he was walking through a Dallas ghetto helping black actor-director Raymond St. Jacques find locations for his Thirties-period film The Book of Numbers. “We were walking right down the middle of the street. St. Jacques is a very flamboyant guy, and I was the only white guy anywhere and then this guy, he must have been crazy, started running toward us down the street, taking off his clothes…”
And so it goes. In addition to the films aforementioned, Skaaren has accomodated the makers of an NBC-TV pilot called “Hernandez—HPD,” shot in Houston (the producers wanted to stage a suicide inside the Astrodome; the Astrodome folks weren’t wild about the idea). Plus many commercials. He is presently confident that Peter Bogdanovich, who directed The Last Picture Show on location in Archer City (before the TFC existed), will be returning to shoot something called Texas Girl in Dallas (stars Cybill Shepherd and Marcello Mastroianni). He is confident that John Wayne will shoot a cop story soon in Houston…Universal tells him they’ll use Lubbock for The Buddy Holley Story.
But before we leave, Warren, we wanna slow down the lowdown. Let’s hear the dirt. Time for a snappy, vicious star anecdote. What’s the most delicate thing—this sounds like a “Dating Game” question—you’ve ever had to arrange in the line of duty?
Skaaren had to think a minute (“I thought I’d have all kinds of terrific stories to tell from this job, but I can never remember them”).
” A director of…international prominence, let’s say, called me one night about 3 a.m. He was afraid he had an, ah, terminal case of a discreet disease. But I had been forewarned of his hypochondria. I talked to him for about half an hour in glowing terms about the impossibility of that situation. He didn’t feel that he had contracted the disease in Texas. He just thought the time had come to stop the onslaught of this dread disease…At any rate, I promised him there would be a specialist waiting the next morning at breakfast for him. But as I anticipated—since I did not call a specialist—the next morning at breakfast the whole thing was forgotten.
“That sort of thing happens.”