Bass, Ronald

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BASS, Ronald

Nationality: American. Born: Ronald Jay Bass in Los Angeles, 1943. Education: Became a voracious reader while bedridden as a child; attended Stanford University, where he studied political science; awarded a Woodrow Wilson fellowship to Yale University, where he continued his studies; graduated from Harvard Law School. Family: Married Gail Weinstein (divorced); married Christine Steinmann; two daughters, Jennifer and Sasha. Career: Began working in the motion picture industry as an entertainment lawyer, 1967; re-worked Voleur, a novel he had written while a teen-ager, which was published as The Perfect Thief, 1978; wrote two additional novels, Lime's Crisis, 1982, and The Emerald Illusion, 1984; abandoned his law practice to write full-time, 1984; authored his first produced screenplay, Code Name: Emerald, based on The Emerald Illusion, 1985; worked as executive producer on two network TV series, Maloney and Dangerous Minds, 1996; signed an exclusive three-year writing and producing deal with Sony Pictures Entertainment, 1998; was one of 30 screenwriters to sign a pact with Sony Pictures Entertainment that will enable them to earn at least two per cent of a film's gross receipts, plus upfront fees, 1999. Awards: Best Original Screenplay Academy Award (shared with Barry Morrow), for Rain Man, 1988; ShoWest Convention Screenwriter of the Year, 1998. Address: c/o Beth Swafford, Creative Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212, USA.

Films as Writer: (sometimes credited as Ron Bass)


Code Name Emerald (Emerald) (Sanger) (based on his novel)


Black Widow (Rafelson)


Gardens of Stone (Coppola)


Rain Man (Levinson) (co-sc)


Sleeping With the Enemy (Ruben)


The Joy Luck Club (Wang) (co-sc, + co-pr)


When a Man Loves a Woman (Mandoki) (co-sc, + co-exec pr, ro as AA Man #1); The Enemy Within (Darby—for TV) (co-sc); Reunion (Grant—for TV) (co-sc)


Waiting to Exhale (Whitaker) (+ co-exec pr); Dangerous Minds (Smith)


My Best Friend's Wedding (Hogan) (+ co-pr)


How Stella Got Her Groove Back (Sullivan) (co-sc, + co-exec pr); What Dreams May Come (Ward) (+ co-exec pr); Stepmom (Columbus) (co-sc, + co-exec pr)


New Kid on the Block (Hogan); Border Line (Kwapis—for TV) (co-sc, + story); Invisible Child (Silver—for TV) (co-sc); Swing Vote (Anspaugh—for TV) (co-sc); Entrapment (Amiel) (co-sc, + co-story, co-exec pr); Snow Falling on Cedars (Hicks) (co-sc, + co-pr)


Passion of Mind (Berliner) (co-sc) (+ co-pr)


The Shipping News


By BASS: books—

The Perfect Thief, New York, 1978.

Lime's Crisis, New York, 1982.

The Emerald Illusion, New York, 1984.

With Scott Hicks, Snow Falling on Cedars: The Shooting Script, New York, 1999.

By BASS: articles—

"Joy & Luck in Hollywood," interview with Jeff Schwager, in MovieMaker (Los Angeles), January 1994.

"My Best Friend's Wedding," interview in Romantic Times (Brooklyn, New York), July 1997.

On BASS: books—

Schanzer, Karl and Thomas Lee Wright, American Screenwriters: The Insiders' Look at the Art, the Craft, and the Business of Writing Movies, New York, 1993.

On BASS: articles—

Weinraub, Bernard, "When a Man (a Lawyer!) Writes About Women," in New York Times, 24 April 1994.

Bart, Peter, "Bass-o-Matic," in Gentlemen's Quarterly (New York), October 1998.

Strauss, Bob, "It's Quality and Quantity for Passionate Screenwriter," in Los Angeles Daily News, 19 October 1998.

Friend, Tad, "Letter from Hollywood: The Two-Billion-Dollar Man," in New Yorker, 24 January 2000.

"Film: The Most Powerful Writer in the World," in The Independent (London), 21 May 2000.

* * *

In 1988, Ron Bass had only a trio of produced screenplays to his credit. That year, he won an Academy Award for co-writing Rain Man, which remains among the most fondly recalled films of its era. Since then, he has been one of Hollywood's most prolific and indemand screenwriters, establishing himself as a reliable scripter whose films generally are inspirational in content as they spotlight human needs, desires, and relations. Furthermore, in an industry in which the screenwriter often is undervalued, if not the object of outright scorn, Bass's savvy business sense, combined with his professional roots as an entertainment lawyer, have allowed him to cannily market himself as a high-profile—and highly-paid—scenarist.

Bass occasionally will be associated with a popcorn action movie. One such title is Code Name: Emerald, his first screen credit, a by-the-numbers espionage yarn based on one of his novels. Another is Entrapment, a tired older man-younger woman romantic thriller featuring Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones. However, the majority of his scripts tell humanistic stories and feature characters who are struggling to find happiness and inner peace within themselves and in their relationships with others.

Many of his scripts feature strong female characters; even Entrapment pits an insurance investigator who is as tough as she is attractive against a sly veteran thief. Bass's screenplays have examined the plights of, and delineated issues related to, minority women: The Joy Luck Club (based on the novel by Amy Tan); and Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back (both adaptations of books by Terry McMillan). They have explored the complexities of relations between the races: Dangerous Minds, about a "white bread" teacher/ex-marine who struggles to inspire her African-American and His-panic charges; and Snow Falling on Cedars, in which a Japanese-American fisherman is accused of murder and a white reporter covering the case finds that the man's Japanese-American wife was his own boyhood love. Some are inter-generational sagas: Gardens of Stone, spotlighting a veteran soldier who believes the war in Vietnam is a folly and a young, raw, anxious-for-combat recruit. They have examined the intricacies of friendship: My Best Friend's Wedding, in which a woman is jarred when the man who has been her best pal becomes engaged to another. Or, they have charted the complexities of inter-familial relationships and crises, focusing on characters who patronize, disregard, or despise each other but come to understandings: When a Man Loves a Woman (about an alcoholic wife-mother and her mildly condescending husband); Stepmom (in which a cancer-stricken ex-wife-mother first opposes but then unites with her former husband's girlfriend); and, of course, Rain Man (in which a self-absorbed young man establishes a bond with his autistic older brother).

Bass's most fanciful screenplays explore other-worldly existences, alternative realities that are the outgrowths of an individual's dreams, or an individual's death. What Dreams May Come depicts a concrete, fully-visualized afterlife for its main character, who dies, ends up in heaven, and then must venture from paradise to save his wife/soulmate, who has committed suicide and gone to hell. In Passion of Mind, a woman concocts a make-believe reality in her dreams, and then must ascertain which of her lives is authentic and which is illusion. Both of these films explore their main characters' deep-seatged longings, fears, and fantasies—and, by extension, those of the viewer.

Quite a few of Bass's scripts are adaptations of novels. He has transformed books by such diverse writers as Tan, McMillan, Nicholas Proffitt (Gardens of Stone), Nancy Price (Sleeping With the Enemy), Charles W. Bailey II and Fletcher Knebel (Seven Days in May, the source material for the TV movie The Enemy Within), LouAnne Johnson (My Posse Don't Do Homework, the source material for Dangerous Minds), Richard Matheson (What Dreams May Come), and David Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars). With regard to how he goes about adapting a novel into a screenplay, Bass once observed, "My basic view of film is that, literature is about what happens within people, while film is more about what happens between people. So the basic tool for me is the two-shot, a scene between two people interacting in a way that illuminates for them and for us who they are, what they want, and where they're going."

At a point in time in which a majority of Hollywood movies seem to be about special effects or teens intent on losing their virginity, Bass's films spotlight character development and explore human emotions. His strength is in writing dramatic scenes, in which characters reveal their innermost feelings or connect with others—and he has come to be depended upon for his ability to fashion such sequences. The original draft of Stepmom, an autobiographical effort penned by Gigi Levangie, was a blend of comedy and drama. It was deemed unacceptable by the potential stars, Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts. Bass eventually was hired to rework the script, to excise the comic aspects and highlight the dramatic ones—resulting in Sarandon's and Roberts's agreeing to sign onto the project.

Conversely, to some, Bass's screenplays are unabashedly sentimental, not to mention formulaic. They wallow in touchy-feely emotion and, in the grand Hollywood tradition, they have manufactured happy endings. The production notes of his films may refer to him as "one of the film industry's preeminent screenwriter(s)" and add that his films "have earned well over $1 billion in box-office revenues worldwide." However, one critic has even gone so far as to label him a "powerful industry hack."

Bass started out in the business as an entertainment lawyer—an industry type whom his creative counterpart might disdainfully label a "suit"—and so it is no surprise that most of his films, for better or worse, are strictly and safely mainstream. For example, during the 1990s, dozens of independent features offered in-depth explorations of the romantic lives and lifestyles of gays and lesbians. In Hollywood movies, homosexuals finally have a non-disapproving presence, but only as poignantly tragic figures (in Philadelphia), comic figures (The Birdcage), and, most notoriously, as sexually neutered buddies (As Good as It Gets and Bass's My Best Friend's Wedding, in which the heroine and her gay sidekick set out to torpedo her pal's nuptials). So Bass's screenplays usually are tame, and rarely are cutting-edge. And he fully understands and accepts his role within the filmmaking process. He has noted that "you judge a writer's work by what the final film looks like, but there are a lot of other people whose decisions (come into how a) film is going to be presented, and ultimately of course the author of every film is the director. He's the guy that makes the final decisions."

With this in mind, Bass has endured the everyday indignities of the screenwriter. Many of his scripts have been rejected and gone unproduced, or have been altered by others; Elaine May, for one, was hired to make revisions on Dangerous Minds. Yet he is no underpaid, underappreciated ink-stained wretch. Given his background as an entertainment lawyer, Bass fully understands the sources of power in the motion picture industry. And so he has astutely established himself as a mini-writing factory, penning several screenplays at once and charging $2-million per script. Assisting him are six writer-researchers, who are known as his Team—and who a number of his friends have dubbed The Ronettes.

Since The Joy Luck Club in 1993, he also has received a producer credit on many of the films he has scripted. In the late 1990s, he agreed to an exclusive three-year writing and producing deal with Sony Pictures Entertainment. Then he was among a group of 30 screenwriters who signed a landmark, controversial pact with Sony that will result in their earning at least two per cent of a movie's gross receipts, in addition to upfront fees. The deal was negotiated without input from either the Writers Guild of America or the scenarists' managers and agents.

—Rob Edelman