Ron Bass, Screenwriting Machine

Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

For a guy who earns up to $2 million a script, Ron Bass still pushes himself like some hungry kid straight out of film school.

Seven days a week, the Oscar-winning screenwriter begins work between 3 and 4:30 a.m. Skipping breakfast and most often lunch ("Digesting makes me logy," he said), he writes exclusively on yellow loose-leaf paper with No. 2 Sundance pencils made by the Blackfeet Native American tribe. Bass is so organized, a colleague insists, that he knows "at what point on which script he'll be working at 2 p.m. Aug. 15." His aptly named Predawn Productions turns out seven or eight scripts a year.

It is a lifestyle that has paid off handsomely for Bass, a 55-year-old former entertainment lawyer who has reinvented himself as one of Hollywood's most sought-after writers. Adopting a collaborative approach that has proved somewhat controversial, he has written or co-written hits such as "Rain Man," "Sleeping With the Enemy," "Waiting to Exhale" and this summer's "My Best Friend's Wedding," which recently surpassed $100 million in domestic box-office receipts.

Studios used to book a "blind slot" in Bass' busy schedule much as they would line up an A-list movie star--and there's still a year or two wait for his services. He recently signed a three-year exclusive writing and producing deal with Sony Pictures that he hopes will allow him greater flexibility once it takes effect early next year.

" 'Working with Ron is like taking a turn in a time-share condo," said Deborah Schindler, a producer of Bass's "Waiting to Exhale" and his upcoming "How Stella Got Her Groove Back." "Not only does he juggle several projects at once--but he's equally passionate about each one."

By his count, he has had a hand in 83 film and television projects since he started writing for the screen in 1982. He has worked on 18 movies that have made it to the big screen, receiving a credit on 10 of them. Six more--including adaptations of Richard Matheson's "What Dreams May Come" and David Guterson's "Snow Falling on Cedars"--are either in production or expected to go before the cameras in the next six months.

Call Bass a workaholic, however, and he bristles a bit.

" ' . . . aholic' implies 'I wish I didn't do this,' " Bass said recently from the Napa Valley home where he summers with his wife and two teenage daughters. "I write all the time because I love it. Still, when people focus on quantity, it sounds like I'm cranking out sausages. I'm not comparing myself to Mozart . . . but is the 'Jupiter' Symphony any less magnificent because he worked so much and so fast?"

How can one man be so prolific? With a lot of help from his friends--and a crackerjack team--Bass concedes. Three years ago, he started putting together an "in-house studio development department" on which he relies for inspiration and feedback.

The core of the group consists of Jane Rusconi, Mimi Won and Hannah Shakespeare, who scout out material, provide exhaustive script notes for each scene and serve as an all-purpose sounding board. Other team members include researcher Brooke Rogers and Judy Skelton, Bass' longtime story editor and assistant. David Field, Bass' friend and frequent collaborator, just joined the company and, when projects are family- or medical-themed, Bass' sister Diane, a psychiatric social worker, also weighs in. Compensation after bonuses begins at just under $100,000.

Eyeing his gargantuan output and success, some in the industry wonder where the group leaves off and Bass himself begins. He acknowledges that his collective approach to the creative process has created some confusion.

At a press junket for "My Best Friend's Wedding," Bass recalls, he was asked to address a rumor that the script had actually been written by one of his employees. "First, it's a lie," the writer said. "Talk like that has been going on for a year or so and it's always shadowy, always upsetting."

Accurate or not, such talk has made the rounds in Hollywood.

"It's no secret in the industry that, since Ron got so busy, he created a factory of young women whom he mentors and takes to pitch meetings," said producer Janet Yang ("The Joy Luck Club").

Bass denies being a member of what he calls the "Rubens School of Writing"--an allusion to 16th century painter Peter Paul Rubens, who would conceive sketches for his assistants to execute, and then then apply the finishing touches.

"If anyone else had written the ["My Best Friend's Wedding"] screenplay, they'd have to be a handwriting expert," Bass said. "I have the first five drafts, laboriously written in longhand, sitting on my desk. Writing a $2-million script isn't so easy you can hire elves to come in during the middle of the night--if people are capable of it, what do they need me for? Besides, I was 90% as productive before I hired this team."

Bass said his development staff declined to be interviewed for this story, preferring to let him speak for the group.

Screenwriter Julie Talen was never on his payroll but says the mentoring Bass gave her in 1991 on "A Simple Lesbian Wedding"--a still-unproduced script about her mother's suicide--made her career. Bass, who was a law school pal of her boyfriend, helped the newcomer outline the story and together they read the material aloud. "Ron was very generous," Talen said. "Though we ended up sharing the story credit, he insisted that I write the screenplay myself. He knew the system well enough to realize that I'd disappear if we shared the writing credit, as well."

A native Angeleno and current Brentwood resident with degrees in political science from Stanford, international relations from Yale and law from Harvard, Bass says he's always been collaborative by nature. About 20% of his projects have been co-written with the likes of Al Franken ("When a Man Loves a Woman"), Terry McMillan ("Waiting to Exhale," "How Stella Got Her Groove Back") and Amy Tan ("The Joy Luck Club"). Rusconi worked with him on three TV pilots--for which she received screen credit, he says. Though they didn't collaborate, Bass and Barry Morrow shared the best original screenplay Oscar for 1988's "Rain Man."

Generally personable and down-to-earth, Bass admits to being a "tiger" at times. "Ron knows how to mount an extremely coherent argument," said "Shine" director Scott Hicks, who is working with Bass on "Snow Falling on Cedars" and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"--the story of a paralyzed magazine editor in development at DreamWorks. "You see the seeds of his legal background--he has attitude, point-of-view . . . but not in a negative way."

Bass is not the first writer to enlist the support of others. In 1910, Jack London paid Sinclair Lewis for plot ideas. Today, novelist Elmore Leonard ("Get Shorty") and screenwriters Robin Swicord ("Litte Women") and Nicholas Kazan ("Reversal of Fortune"), among others, employ researchers on a case-by-case basis.

For his part, "Men in Black's" Ed Solomon prefers to fly solo. "Delegating dilutes the creative process," he said. "Research is a spur to the imagination."

Having his own executives, Bass asserts, is the best of both worlds. He gets the feedback usually provided by studios--with the freedom to ignore it at will. "I'm an evangelist for the team approach," he said. "The more they pay you, the greater the risk you'll think everything coming out of your mouth is gold."

Hollywood, at least, credits Bass with the Midas Touch, since his first nine films took in more than $1 billion worldwide. He is regarded as a master structuralist, adept at translating material to the screen. Though some say his writing is overly emotional, in the end, he creates characters that movie stars want to play.

Bass has an "unusual mix of commercialism and taste," said Stacey Snider, a co-president of production at Universal Pictures, who worked with the writer while she was an executive at TriStar Pictures. Producer Jordan Kerner ("When a Man Loves a Woman") likes his "smart, witty dialogue that rings true." The writer was replaced on "The Bridges of Madison County" and "Dangerous Minds"--both of which starred women. But female roles are said to be a particular strength.

"My Best Friend's Wedding" served up meaty roles for Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz. Like almost all of his work, Bass points out, it was drawn from a variety of sources.

"I always listen to what people say--but when I sit down to write, it's all about me," he said. "People may not view my stuff as erudite or subtle but you're seeing my heart and my soul on the screen. No one can accuse me of phoning it in."

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