Bass Hysteria

Film still for Bass Hysteria

Critics call him sentimental and say his scripts are written by committee, but Ron Bass - writer of Rain Man and Stepmom - may be the most powerful screenwriter in Hollywood history. Benedict Carver looks at the machine who always gives audiences something to cry about

In the power-broking world of the Hollywood studios, screenwriters have until recently always been the bit players. Writers, according to industry lore, are difficult but expendable. They are always making unreasonable demands and they don't know how to play the game. Ron Bass is a thoroughbred power-broker who plays the game to perfection. Over the past 12 years this former entertainment attorney has sprung effortlessly through a number of hoops to establish one of Hollywood's most successful screenwriting imprints. If being an auteur means being able to make whatever film you want, then Bass is the first auteur screenwriter in Hollywood history and the most powerful penman since Joe Eszterhas, writer of Basic Instinct.

The Bass myth is fuelled by his remarkable output - an average of eight screenplays a year - and his controversial working methods, which involve employing a full-time staff of eight as his personal "development department". The screenwriting machine himself enjoys an 18-hour day, rising at 3 or 4am, working through lunch and rarely going out in the evening. His oeuvre has a solid track record at the box office, and includes such hits as Rain Man (1988) and My Best Friend's Wedding (1997). In a profile of Bass in GQ, Variety editor Peter Bart argued: "If success were measured purely in monetary terms, Bass is probably the most successful writer Hollywood has ever seen."

Bass' golden touch is currently so favoured by directors and studio executives that he can be writing or rewriting as many as seven scripts at any one time. At present these include Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Arthur Golden's novel Memoirs of a Geisha and a script based on the Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx, which Sony Pictures wants Bass to polish for star John Travolta. Sceptics of the Bass method allege that his team does more than research and development, that they are, in fact, uncredited writers. And Rain Man aside, Bass' pictures have found little support among critics, who believe them to be sentimental and manipulative. But whether he's a hack carrying out the studio's bidding or a genius with a common touch, unlike most screenwriters Bass has manoeuvred himself into a powerful position in contemporary Hollywood. How did he get there?

The film industry has long harboured what screenwriter Robert Towne calls a "historic hatred" for writers. And even today, rarely does a week go by without a tale of woe emerging about some budding scribe who has been crushed by a crude and insensitive Hollywood infrastructure. Director John Ford would rip up scripts in front of his writers without even reading them. Jack Warner famously labelled writers "Schmucks with Underwoods". In 1988 the failed Writers Guild of America strike over residuals decimated morale in the screenwriting community and arguably worsened writers' working conditions and remuneration. Hollywood has not fully recovered from this conflict. Towne, who won an Oscar for his screenplay of Chinatown, believes that writers not only receive little respect from their paymasters but lack self-respect too. "Until the screenwriter does his job, nobody else has a job," Towne wrote in an essay in Scenario. "In other words, he is the asshole who keeps everyone else from going to work."

Ron Bass doesn't fit the beleaguered-writer model. Born in Los Angeles in 1942, he attended Stanford University, where he studied political science, and Yale, where he earned a master in international relations. Bass says that when he was growing up he wanted to be a novelist. He began writing short stories when he was six (he was bedridden between the ages of three and eight). By 17 he had written his first novel and was distraught when his English teacher told him it was a "personal fantasy" that "could never be published". A suitably chastened Bass didn't write another word for 15 years. In an early example of the pragmatism that would govern his career he turned to law instead, specifically entertainment law. "If I wasn't good enough to be an artist then at least I could hang around artists," he says. "It was vicarious."

In the early 70s Bass returned to his rejected novel and refashioned it in the mornings before starting work. The resulting adventure caper The Perfect Thief was published in 1974. After two further novels he turned his third, The Emerald Illusion - a John Le Carré-influenced spy thriller - into a screenplay, Code Name: Emerald. "I insisted on writing the screenplay, just to make money. It was made into a terrible film, written by seven people, that was never even released theatrically. But my then-agent made a bunch of copies of my script, which was good, and sent it to all the studios. They started to hire me. And I realised that writing for screen was not a lesser artform than writing fiction." After that Bass was on his way, penning Bob Rafelson's Black Widow and Francis Ford Coppola's Gardens of Stone (both 1987) in quick succession.

Bass' legal background informs his writing regime - most observers point to his unusual level of discipline. He claims that he wakes at 3:15am and immediately starts thinking about a scene he was working on the previous day. "Sleeping in is 5:15," he says. "That's really indulgent." Often working outside - in parks, cafés or the homes of his team members - he writes in longhand and keeps a box of newly sharpened pencils by his side. He approaches each scene with the mindset of a methodical problem-solver; the idea that it might defy writing does not occur to him. He even has his own technical vocabulary: he talks about "blocking" and "dressing" scenes, to the confusion of studio executives.

Bass put together his development team in the late 80s. It has turned 'Ron Bass' into a machine that moves with brutal efficiency from one project to the next. And it has led to accusations that Bass is not a writer at all, but a manager of other writers whose ideas and opinions he collects, collates and then passes off as his own work. The first person to join him was Jane Rusconi, a former researcher to Oliver Stone on JFK. After Jane came Mimi, and after Mimi came Hannah; and soon there were eight, mostly female team members. (One Hollywood wag has nicknamed the group the "Ronettes".)

According to Bass, who funds the entire operation himself, his method is much misunderstood. He insists that he is the only writer in the group. "It's really sad, people say a lot of hurtful things. If people really understood it then they'd be doing it too. Not many writers can afford to have eight people, but a lot could afford one or two. And for most people two would be great." His team, Bass says, carry out research and criticise his ideas. They make suggestions for improvements to scenes and characters' motivations. "They have to be very courageous because I'll get defensive at times and I'll really fight and get angry." As if to demonstrate the point he turns to Rusconi, in whose home we are meeting, and says, "You ought to read the thing I did this morning. You'll find it at 127-A in my notebook..."

Neither Bass' success nor his protestations have convinced Hollywood of the veracity of his claims for his system. "The line between making 'suggestions' and actually 'writing' them is a fine one," notes one colleague. But for Bass film is a collaborative medium and writers should be no exception. "People say to me, 'So, some of the ideas and so forth in your scripts come from other people.' I say, 'Yeah. That's great. And there's nothing new about it.' I don't have to have every idea be my own in order to feel that I've done a good job."

Bass' team also provides him with a buffer to the studio: their responses replace those of a set of development executives. Like many Hollywood writers he finds little to recommend in the studio development system. "A studio executive is forced, by the nature of his job, to improve something. So they just take the other side. If the character is angry, the exec will say she should be sweet. If she's imperious, she should be gentle. Right now, as I'm writing Memoirs of a Geisha for Steven Spielberg, we give the most recent drafts to executives at Sony. And I say to them: 'I don't want to read your memo. I want you to give your memo to Steven. I want to hear from Steven if he wants to incorporate some or all of what you want.' I've spent too many years working with competing visions and trying to make it all match. If you do that you end up having no vision at all."

Rain Man , which Bass co-wrote with Barry Morrow, won him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and transported him into the writers' A-list. The other members of this élite club currently include Richard LaGravenese (The Bridges of Madison County), Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List), Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show) and Gary Ross (Big). William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) lurks in the background, polishing the occasional script such as Last Action Hero and Good Will Hunting. Like Bass, LaGravenese, Zaillian and Ross have come to prominence by writing melodramatic star vehicles which appeal principally to women (for instance, Zaillian's Awakenings and LaGravenese's The Horse Whisperer). But unlike him they have used their new-found power to move into directing. In fact, LaGravenese (Living Out Loud), Zaillian (A Civil Action) and Ross (Pleasantville) all released films last year which they wrote and directed themselves.

Bass sees LaGravenese, Zaillian and Ross as "film-makers" but describes himself as a "storyteller". But the common consensus about Bass in Hollywood is that he wields so much power with his pen he doesn't need to direct in order to control his material. Bass admits that on some of his projects (such as My Best Friend's Wedding) the director or studio couldn't order a rewrite without his consent. But in general, he says, he defers to the director. "I've worked with Luis Mandoki, Vincent Ward, P. J. Hogan and Steven Spielberg, who is an extremely open guy. I think they respect me enough that, if I'm really against something, they'll find a solution we both feel OK about. On My Best Friend's Wedding P.J. and I worked together, and producer Jerry Zucker sometimes with us, and P.J. rewrote stuff. There were actors who wrote things too - Julia Roberts wrote that great toast at the end. And I loved that."

While he eschews directing, Bass has moved into producing. He earned his first producer credit, which he describes as a "watershed", on Wayne Wang's 1993 tearjerker The Joy Luck Club. Since then he has wanted to be part of the film-making process on almost every film he writes: "You aren't an island, sending a script off into the sunset and then grumbling when everybody screws it up. I stopped being at war with the process and became part of the process." Or as Bart put it in a 1997 profile of Bass for Variety: "Most writers pride themselves on being proverbial 'outsiders' railing against the system; Bass has always been an absolute insider."

Bass has written with some success in almost every conceivable genre - action, comedy, romance, thrillers, drama. But that doesn't mean his screenplays have nothing in common. Nearly all Bass-scripted films, from Sleeping with the Enemy (1991) to Dangerous Minds (1995), contain strong roles for women. Many in Hollywood credit him with single-handedly inventing the "women's picture" of the 90s. (Bass himself notes that 60 per cent of ticket-buying decisions by over-21s are made by women.) Thus Hollywood's leading actresses, at least in box-office terms, are Bass devotees: he has worked three times with Julia Roberts, twice with Angela Basset and once with Meg Ryan and Demi Moore.

Bass is also an unabashed employer of emotion. In his scathing review of What Dreams May Come (1998), the L.A. Times' Kenneth Turan wrote: "Ron Bass never met a tear he didn't like." (Bass' response: "When you go through being reunited with your dead children and go through hell to see your wife, if people aren't breaking down it gets totally bogus.") Nearly all Bass' pictures involve humans coming to terms with their "inner selves", and many with other people - husbands, parents, relatives.

Of course Bass doesn't hesitate to admit that as a storyteller he manipulates people's emotions. "I think if someone is going to pay their eight bucks and give me two hours of their time to sit and watch a story, then they don't want to watch something that doesn't engage them emotionally. I go to movies to laugh or cry or to get really involved. The theory that less is more and things have to be very restrained to be truly aesthetic and artful and worthwhile - I think it's a bunch of bullshit."

In support of his approach Bass cites the popularity of the Farrelly brothers' There's Something about Mary, which he compares to his script for Chris Columbus' Stepmom (1998) - starring Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon - in its combination of street-smart humour, whimsy and "heart". Humour, emotion, romance: it's a formula whose success has already been proved by such film-makers as Ghost director Jerry Zucker and James L. Brooks, the writer and director of Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets.

With his willingness and ability to embrace the production process, his empathy with a pre-millennium audience looking to discover their "inner selves" and his desire to write market-driven pictures, Bass is the quintessence of 90s Hollywood screenwriting. In July 1997 he signed an exclusive three-year deal to write and produce films for Sony Pictures Entertainment. The deal is thought to be one of the best paid ever for a writer/producer in Hollywood - in his GQ article Bart writes that it is, "Virtually impossible for Bass to make less than $10 million a year." In the 30s the contract writer was powerless, at the beck and call of the studio and obliged to pen as many as five generic screenplays a month. Under Bass' 1998 contract he will earn more than $1 million per screenplay that he writes or rewrites; there is no minimum writing requirement; and he doesn't have to accept studio assignments.

Before February this year Bass was the exception among Hollywood writers, but now he, along with LaGravenese, Attanasio and Scott Frank, is among the 30 writers involved in a watershed Sony deal that for the first time offers a percentage of gross receipts to screenwriters. However, most screenwriters still chaff beneath the studio yoke. Writers say that two issues always come up at WGA meetings: how to limit the number of free rewrites a writer will perform and how to improve his or her chance of staying on a project he or she originated (few writers who start a script are still involved by the time the film goes into production). As John Gregory Dunne explains in Monster: Living off the Big Screen: "Although ritual obeisance is paid to the script, rarely is it paid to the individual scriptwriter. Prevailing industry wisdom is the more writers there are on a script, the better that script will be."

At Sony Bass not only writes his own scripts but rewrites and produces those of others. Stepmom, for instance, on which he is the fifth (credited) writer, went into production only after it had been given the Bass makeover. It's a process he rigorously defends: "When you're making a film there's so much at stake the best idea has to win. On Stepmom we sat at a table in a restaurant in New York - Chris Columbus, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon and I. And when you're sitting in the room talking, nobody's wearing a hat with a name on it. It's like four writing partners - we're discussing and arguing and disagreeing and figuring out how to do it right."

To many of his screenwriting colleagues, therefore, Bass isn't merely a successful writer collaborating with the system; he is the system, and more than that, he's a symbol of the system's triumph. Many upcoming screenwriters say they are turning to television in frustration at the headaches inherent in dealing with producers and executives. "I don't feel the position of writers in Hollywood has changed much over the years," says one aspirant, who prefers not to be named. "We know no script is going to start shooting without some changes being made, but there's this idea in the studios that everybody should be allowed to contribute to the process, that the script should please everybody. So, the writers who are co-operative get most of the work. I think that the idea of a 'power writer' in Hollywood is an oxymoron."

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012