Ron Bass: The Collaborator

Screenwriters as a group rail against the injustices of Hollywood and complain that they have no power. Oscar-winner Ron Bass, the screenwriter of such films as Rain Man, The Joy Luck Club, Waiting to Exhale, My Best Friend's Wedding, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, the new What Dreams May Come and the upcoming Snow Falling on Cedars, complains very little and wields his own powers of persuasion.

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Everyone in Hollywood knows the old joke about the starlet so dumb she slept with the writer. A powerful screenwriter is a perfect oxymoron. Even writers with the most exalted reputations suffer regular humiliations. Paddy Chayefsky won three Academy Awards and was one of the only writers ever to get his name above the title, but all he could do in the wake of damage he believed director Ken Russell had done to his script of Altered States was take his name off the finished film. To protect their work, many writers choose to direct, but that's no surefire guarantee of artistic freedom, either. And besides, some writers don't have the temperament or desire to direct. There's simply no obvious way for a screenwriter to work in Hollywood without at least courting burnout levels of frustration.

Ron Bass stands as a rare exception in the world of impotent screenwriters because he not only avoids beating his head against a wall on a regular basis, he actually has a discernible degree of power. He makes big bucks, wins awards (an Oscar for Rain Man) and has a healthy percentage of box-office hits (like last summer's My Best Friend's Wedding). He's one of the most prolific screenwriters in the business--he's had 14 feature-film scripts credited to him in the last decade or so--and his exclusive writing-producing deal with Sony gives him more clout than ever to oversee a diverse slate of projects. Remarkably enough, Bass has achieved his success not by penning the type of action movie blockbusters that usually put writers in demand, but by concentrating instead on women's pictures, like The Joy Luck Club, and character-driven dramas, like Rain Man. In the last half of this year alone Bass will have four movies in release: How Stella Got Her Groove Back, based on Terry McMillan's novel (he also wrote Waiting to Exhale); What Dreams May Come, a big-budget supernatural romance starring Robin Williams, Annabella Sciorra and Cuba Gooding jr.; Stepmom, a tearjerker starring Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon for which he did the final (uncredited) rewrite and served as executive producer; and Snow Falling on Cedars, which is adapted from David Guterson's best-selling novel about a murder trial that hinges on small-town prejudice against Japanese Americans in the years after World War II and stars Ethan Hawke as a reporter who's loved a Japanese-American woman since they were children together.

Young scribes eager to emulate Bass's extraordinary success and productivity will be hard-pressed to follow his example. Though he wrote his first novel when he was a teenager, writing seemed like an impractical career to him so he studied law and he spent 17 years as a high-priced entertainment attorney before he dared to call it quits. Apart from the perspective on Hollywood it afforded him, his legal background gave him skills that have proved useful to this day. "Every day I would walk into my office at 8:00, "Bass recalls," and there would be 50 files neatly set up on the desk and three or four phone lights already flashing. I would have to go from one negotiation to the next by punching those buttons. I'd have to remember everything about a case, as well as the psychology of the person I was negotiating against and what it would take to get them to do what I wanted them to do. Then 30 seconds later, I'd be involved in another negotiation. That ability to have selective focus has been very helpful in enabling me to work on more projects simultaneously than most writers think they can handle."

Indeed, the most distinguishing factor in Bass's screenwriting career is the way he's organized himself into something of a mini-corporation that remains in motion despite difficulties or delays in individual projects, and keeps Bass out of the all-morning-at-the-deli life that shoptalking screenwriters all over town indulge in. He has a staff of seven people who help to research, rewrite and produce his movies. As Variety editor Peter Bart wrote, "While others stumble along, trying to piece together a career, Bass behaves like a crazed fox in Hollywood's henhouse. He writes seven scripts a year and, more important, gets a remarkable percentage made."

In addition to time management and organization skills, Bass's legal background taught him to be a master politician adept at measuring and massaging the giant egos that populate the film business. Filmmakers on every level pay lip service to the notion that movies are a collaborative art, but Bass actually operates on that basis. Certainly, he is strong-willed in pursuing his vision of a story, but by nature and practice he's receptive to suggestions from others. He believes in the value of collaboration, and he points to My Best Friend's Wedding for examples of when he was right to defer to the director and when he was right to go with his own instincts.

"It said in my contract on My Best Friend's Wedding that nobody could rewrite me. Nonetheless, P. J. Hogan, the director, and I worked it out together. When we were doing the crab-house scene, he said to me, 'I want everyone to break into song here.' I said, 'How long is this going to go on?' And he said, 'I think the longer it goes, the funnier it gets.' I said, 'This isn't a sketch movie. This is a movie where you have to be invested in the characters. If you have this surreal moment, won't that take audiences out of the movie?' I was very skeptical, but he was convinced it would work. We went to the first preview, and he was 100 percent right. I never would have had the guts to go for that."

Bass proved to be right about the ending of the movie, though. Executives at TriStar argued that an ending in which the heroine winds up dancing with her gay friend at her ex-lover's wedding would be depressing. "They felt that if America's sweetheart, Julia Roberts, was not going to end up at the altar," Bass explains, "at least we had to know the sun was shining. I said, 'Hey, it's Julia Roberts, do we really think she's not going to get a guy for the rest of her life?' Well, I got out-voted. I wrote a new ending where another guy comes up and asks her to dance. The idea was never that he was going to be her boyfriend; it was just to show that she could dance with a guy again. When we tested the movie, we didn't even have to wait for the cards. Everybody walked up to me and said, 'OK, you're right.' They could see nobody cared about this guy who had never been seen before. So we went back to my original ending."

In the case of Snow Falling on Cedars, Bass and director Scott Hicks (Shine) disagreed about the amount of dialogue in the film, and Hicks prevailed. "I found the novel to be extremely eloquent," Bass says, "and Scott's contribution to the script was paring down the language and relying more heavily on the visuals. He took all the voice-over out of the movie. A lot of people don't like voice-over, but I think when it's used correctly, to reveal the inner heart and feelings of the character, it's very helpful." Despite their disagreements, Hicks and Bass are working together on another film. In fact, most of the directors who have collaborated with Bass choose to work with him again.

It was Hicks's decision to cast Ethan Hawke in the leading role. "I hadn't seen all of Ethan's movies," Bass admits. "But Scott was enormously enthusiastic about him, and from what I can tell, he has the right qualities for the role of Ishmael. Ethan has a dark, moody side as well as a more accessible side, and that fits this character. Ishmael is not the normal movie hero. He's not an out-there kind of guy. He's embittered. He's lost his arm in the war, has been rejected by the woman he loved, has been in the shadow of his father. He's lived a life of disappointment and frustration. Ethan conveys that bitterness; he gives you the sense of someone who has a deep interior life."

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