A Conversation with Ron Bass
This week on On Story, Academy Award-winning screenwriter Ron Bass discusses his prolific career writing box office mega-hits like Rain Man, My Best Friend’s Wedding, and Sleeping with the Enemy.
- The best response you can have to a payoff in a thriller
is someone goes, "Oh, right, I forgot, of course..."
[multiple voices chattering]
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[telegraph beeping, typing]
From Austin Film Festival, this is On Story.
A look inside the creative process from today's
leading writers, creators, and filmmakers.
This week's On Story,
My Best Friend's Wedding
and Sleeping with the Enemy screenwriter,
You have to be a writer because you love writing
and not because you want to be a writer.
That's the big dichotomy.
People who want to be a writer means,
"I think it's going to be fun to hang out with beautiful women
or beautiful men, and be famous."
And that's just like,
well, you couldn't pick a worse profession to be that in.
But if you love to write,
and that's fun whether anybody paid you or not,
and you love doing it, it's phenomenal in that way.
[Narrator] In this episode,
Academy Award winning screenwriter, Ron Bass,
discusses his prolific career writing box office mega hits
like Rain Man, My Best Friend's Wedding
and Sleeping with the Enemy.
- I just want to start off by asking how you, ultimately,
found your way into the world of screenwriting.
- I always wanted to be a writer.
I started writing short stories when I was six years old.
I never wanted to write screenplay.
I only thought of novels.
Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Fitzgerald were my heroes.
And I wrote a novel in high school
and I showed it to my freshman English teacher
who I had this huge crush on.
And she was this very sophisticated woman
from Columbia University.
She just didn't think it was terribly good.
And I went home and I burned the only copy
that ever existed in a metal bowl
and, of the few memories I have of my high school days,
I can just see those embers kind of just disappearing.
And I didn't write again for 16 years
until my, now, wife, been together for 43 years now,
almost literally said the words,
"Why would you not want to do the thing you love
most in the world just because you're not good at it?"
And I thought that was very inspiring.
I just said, "You know what?"
And so I, the next thing I did was I wrote that novel
that I had burned and it Pocket published.
So I guess Columbia University doesn't know everything.
- I understand there's a couple of really unique things
about your process.
You hand write everything.
- And you work on multiple things at a time.
Is this correct?
- Maybe 20.
- Okay, wow.
- When I was a lawyer,
what you are when you're an entertainment lawyer
in Los Angeles,
there's 40 files on your desk in the morning
and you are always, you walk in and those little phone lights
were lit, which phones looked like in the day,
and you were punching into this conversation about
Goldie Hawn at Warner Bros, and this conversation about
Jane Fonda at Universal, this conversation about
Robert Redford, and you are just doing them constantly.
Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.
And so, not only do you have a facility for doing that,
but you learn something that I advise everybody else to try
and learn which is,
the more things you are doing, the better off everything is.
First of all, no defeat is anywhere near as bitter
as it was that day for me back when it was the only thing
I was doing because, when you strike out on something,
you can go back and you have six other things
that are happening and they will--
my wonderful team will pick me up.
I'll come in.
I'll be real down.
Something just happened that was horrible.
And they'll say, "Well, we've still got,"
and then we'll start picking up
and talking about the other stuff.
But also there's a facility that goes beyond the
psychological part of it which is,
it's all one process, storytelling.
And no matter how different the genre, and the tone,
and the tempo, and the characters,
problems that you solve in one thing
are lessons you learn in solving the problems
in other things.
- You do have some themes in your work.
You're drawn to these very strong female characters
And I'm just curious, what are the characters
and the stray lines that do attract you and why?
- Well, character is story.
So it's all about the characters, and who they are,
and what is there about human connection that this
particular story is about,
and how you identify with them.
And as I've-- I'm so sad,
I keep saying these cliches so many times
that my poor people have to listen to it a thousand times,
but it begins with the premise that women are much
more interesting than men in drama and in life.
And the cliche that they always have to hear me say is that
men are result-oriented.
get the girl, get the deal,
get the money,
do not ever notice that you're feeling guilty or ashamed
or weaker or insecure,
because that will screw you up.
Women have to know who they are all the time.
They have to be honest with themselves.
They have to be aware of themselves.
So therefore they're really interesting.
And when we were doing Rain Man,
and as some people know,
90% of the work was done with Spielberg.
We were sitting at his place on Broad Beach Road for that
entire summer and the four of us, it was Steven and Dustin
and Tom and me, and so three of us are these Jews who were
tremendously neurotic and we're all talking.
We all understand Raymond.
Oh my God and we were walking on the beach, Dustin and I,
and I'll definitely be--
And Tom, of course, this completely different guy.
And we were trying to explain to Tom all the way through,
including Dustin, that it's your movie.
I mean, he's the guy... he's the guy with the arc.
He's the guy that's carrying the movie.
Dustin plays one note all the way through.
It's adorable note, but he does it.
And so I said this thing to Tom,
probably the first time I'd ever really said it
out loud to anybody, that I just said here,
and he said, "So, I'm supposed to get in touch
with my female side."
I said, "That is the most dangerous way to put it
"because it's immediately like, Oh, I won't be masculine anymore
"and I'll be some--
"Get in touch with the side of yourself that actually
"cares who you are.
"That actually understands what you're feeling.
"That actually is thinking about what you really do want
"and don't want in life, and how everything's impacted.
Get in touch with that."
- Hi, it's me.
Well, you didn't hang up.
Does that mean we're engaged.
I just want to hear it's not over.
I'm scared it's over.
[woman on phone] Don't ask me tonight, Charlie.
I don't know what to say.
Let it sit.
- Something I'm not real good at.
[woman] There's a lot of things you're not good at.
- I'll call you when I get back.
[woman] Mm-hmm (affirmative).
- I'll see you.
- This only happened because Tom Cruise was so loyal
to Dustin Hoffman and such a great guy, Tom Cruise,
that he passed up, I can't even tell you how many roles,
saving time for this to happen
as directors kept going on and on and on.
So the first one was Marty Brest.
Then it was Steven Spielberg.
The third was Sidney Pollock.
And the last one was Barry Levinson who actually
directed the movie.
And the thing about directors is they leave to do other things.
They decide they want to have other voices
that agree with them more.
You really can never be sure exactly where you stand
with them unless they're now, at that point,
your personal friends.
So now it gets changed.
And when you really love something,
you have all this feeling about
where the really important pieces are that,
if you just rip out this one little thread,
you've ruined everything.
And so when I saw the first cut,
I was just-- all I could see was the things that were changed.
Barry did this thing at the end that you saw
that everybody adored because it was so sad.
And I said to him,
"This is wrong
because it's not earned."
What's earned is something,
not certainly that Raymond can change,
and not certainly that Raymond would live with Charlie,
but what was earned would be the victory that Tom had
for having changed.
Why didn't it happen?
Because I think it was just--
it felt too...
I don't know, too happy to somebody.
Too-- they wanted to kind of live in the sadness of the
major chord of it that it was just that-- and that's what
they chose and it's hard to knock it.
It was very successful.
People always love the ending.
- I'll see you soon.
One for bad. Two for good.
- Bet two for good.
Three minutes to Wapner.
- You'll make it.
- Let's jump over to My Best Friend's Wedding.
- There's another ending that I actually really love.
- But you know how it almost ended.
You heard that story?
- No, I haven't.
- So that's a script that I did,
I've only written 212 scripts.
I've only written about six or seven on spec.
And that was a spec,
because I pitched it a couple times
and everyone was like,
"Julia Roberts doesn't get the guy?"
So it was like, "Okay."
The other reason I wanted to do it was that I,
at that time, and why Will and Grace
hasn't bothered to give us royalties, I don't know,
through the years,
but there was no such thing as a character like George.
There was no character in any film, major film,
where the nicest, smartest, most attractive, most understanding,
wisest, most compassionate character was a gay male.
There was no such movie.
So now we write the movie and I don't go to Chicago.
I'm doing something else.
Everybody else in Chicago.
I'm doing the film, and it comes back,
and I see the first cut.
And everybody knows about previews,
and so you have multiple previews,
and this is a first preview audience,
and P.J. Hogan did a wonderful job directing,
and he's a real friend, and I'm watching the movie,
and now everybody's driving away after the honeymoon,
and she's standing there sad,
and a guy walks over to her,
who is an actor named John Corbett,
who later did a movie called My Big Fat Greek Wedding,
and he says, "Hi, I'm Andy Connolly
and I'm Michael's best friend."
And he said, "You're the most amazing women,
and can I have this dance?"
And now we wind up with her dancing in the arms
of this stranger.
And she does the smile of a thousand teeth,
which she does like nobody else in the world can do,
and the camera's swirling around them, and it's just...
and I'm sitting in the back, and I'm sitting in the back with,
then, my people.
Everybody's like horrified, upset and I'm saying, "Watch."
And you're looking at the audience
and the air just goes out of that room so [bleep] fast,
and I'm so proud of movie audiences
for realizing what a bunch of [bleep] that was.
And the guy that ran the studio is my favorite studio
executive ever, ever, and who's now passed.
A man named John Calley.
The smartest guy I ever knew in the business.
He likes to sit in the middle of the theater.
So he's got everybody surrounding him.
glares at me like it's all my fault,
and walks up the aisles.
We walk out into the lobby
and John says,
"You get the director.
"You get that producer.
"You have lunch tomorrow, two o'clock.
You, me, Lucy Fisher," is the one was running the studio
at Sony, "get in that room and you tell us how to fix that."
He hadn't wanted to see any cards.
Just totally knew it.
So we sit down and we create seven scenes.
Director and producer love it.
Go and pitch it to a room full of 20 executives.
I don't know, maybe 15 executives,
most of whom were not creative executives.
They're mostly business executives, mostly.
And when they say,
"Why do you want to do that?"
"The reason I spec'd this is,
"love doesn't always have to be the person you're sleeping with.
"The person you love the most in your life might be your child.
"It might be your mom.
"It might be your best friend.
"Your roommate from college.
"Or it could be, in that case,
"the person who's just your best friend,
"and that's the person whose love will heal you
"in that moment, because that's the person whose
"love you really want.
Not some good looking guy that dances with you."
And everybody said, "Yeah. Okay."
Like it was--
like they'd never thought of it before,
but it all made sense to them in the room.
There wasn't a big fight.
They all went back.
We all re-shot it.
And then, so now this, the end of this story comes
to the second preview.
Now with the new ending.
We're all sitting in the back.
John's sitting in the middle
and the film ends, lights go up,
and I think it's pretty great reaction.
John stands up, looks at me,
walks up the aisle.
I get up.
I follow him out.
He's a big tall guy.
And he says, "We have a problem."
I said, "What?"
He says, "What we're going to do with all the money?"
[man on phone] And then, suddenly,
the crowd's part.
And there he is.
Radiant with charisma.
Bizarrely, he's on the telephone.
so are you.
And he comes towards you.
The moves of a jungle cat.
And, although you quite correctly sense that he is...
like most devastatingly handsome single men of his age are,
"What the hell.
"Life goes on.
"Maybe there won't be marriage.
"Maybe there won't be sex.
"But, by God,
there'll be dancing."
- "Joy Luck Club" is upwards of 300 pages or so.
And you're trying to condense that into two hours.
What does that look like for you?
- We had the same lawyer, Amy and I.
The guy was my law partner, named Barry Hirsch.
And Amy flies down with Wayne Wang who's directed it.
And I'd never, of course, met them before.
We had breakfast at the Biller Hotel.
And Amy said, "How many of my characters
do you want to throw out?"
That was the first thing she said after all the pleasantries.
And I said, "Well, none, of course."
She goes, "Everyone says you have to throw
at least half of them.
I said, "Well, everybody's wrong."
She looks at Wayne.
I had the job right there.
I had them,
I had them at Hello.
And then I gave it away because I said,
"I won't write this unless you write this with me."
"Oh, I don't know how to do that.
I don't write screenplays.
I have so many novels that I'm doing.
I'm this. I'm this. I'm this."
"Yeah. Yeah. I won't do it then.
"It has to have your voice.
"It isn't about, I'm not a woman.
"It isn't about, I'm not Chinese.
"It's just about, this is a literary masterpiece
"and it's your voice.
"And it's got to have your voice.
I can't paraphrase your voice."
So she agreed to do it.
And now she flies down two months later when we're
going to do it.
She flies down to Los Angeles.
I page budget everything before we start
because I have to know that I'm not writing an 800 page script.
I said, "I'm going to give us a page and a half
to do this scene."
And she said, "Well, that's not possible."
I said, "Well, it's not only possible,
it's going to happen, and it's going to be great."
And I said, "Because you're not condensing anything,
"you're not-- adapting doesn't mean
"editing your wonderful book into a screenplay.
"It doesn't mean making a trip to do a short story.
"It means you're starting completely over writing
"something completely different,
"and using your thing as a treatment.
"What's the key emotional transaction in that scene.
"How deep can you cut into the conversation
"before you start it?
"How quick can you get out?
"And how do you have to twist the words that are
already there to just get it all power packed
into that page and a half."
And she did it once.
And about two weeks into the process, she said,
"I'm so glad we're doing this because it really--
I'm going to carry this with me."
It's a different process.
You're taking a novel, you don't want it to be over
in five seconds.
You bought the novel.
You want to lie there, and read it, and have fun with it,
and so forth.
Movies going by you at 24 frames a second,
and you better be pulled in,
dragged along, and loving it,
and want to see what's happening every second of it.
I think the thing that strikes me the most isn't,
necessarily, a condensing issue,
it's more of a,
why you would change something significant.
And that is to make it earned.
In the film, the Rosalind Chao character
reconciles with Andrew McCarthy because, when her mother,
who's watched her own mother committed suicide
because she couldn't have--
because the man she was with didn't understand her worth,
and when she responds to what her mother says by standing up,
and saying it, and doing it in a way that wasn't really
in the book in those words, once you've changed that,
you've impelled a different result.
- I died
for my daughter's sake.
Now get out of my house.
- It's not your fault.
None of it.
I was the one who told you that
my love wasn't good enough.
That your love is worth more than mine.
I was so full of [bleep].
- Did another film with Meg Ryan and Andy Garcia
called When a Man Loves a Woman .
- Let's go there.
- And partnered with Al Franken.
It's partly his life story.
His wife's a recovering alcoholic,
and you walk into the movie,
expectation has to be reversed.
Of course, Andy Garcia is the hero.
He's the good husband who really, really wants to be--
to take care of his wife,
and the one line that went through nine drafts
of the movie and never changed was,
"I'm not your problem.
I'm not your problem to solve."
- Is it me?
- It's not your problem.
- No, it's not my problem.
It's just my [bleep] fault.
Everything is my fault.
My sick wife is not making it in her home environment.
- I mean, I am not your problem.
I am not your problem to solve.
It was so much more fun in the old days.
Wasn't it, Michael?
I get drunk.
I pass out.
And you put me back together.
That was the best.
That made you feel good.
And that's what hurts.
- What I appreciated was that there was never one moment,
or one thing, that was pinpointed about
why she was an alcoholic.
You know, similar to Black Widow.
- Black widow.
She mates, then she kills.
Your question is, does she love?
It's impossible to answer that
unless you live in her world.
Such an intriguing gift.
Makes me wish I had more to share with you.
- Black Widow , first major film.
It's a movie where Theresa is a serial killer,
but she makes men fall in love with her,
and she loves them,
and she marries them,
and she gives them two to four years of unbelievable happiness,
and then she kills them.
- And she really loves them, she said.
That's the whole point of this show.
- How many have you had?
That's how I got rich.
- Once wasn't enough to get rich.
- Rich is hard.
You never really figure you're quite there.
- That sounds pretty romantic.
- Well, I used to think of it as my job.
Making myself appealing.
I was a professional.
I loved every one of them.
- I'm sitting there at the rehearsal table
and Bob Rafelson, who's the director, says to me,
"So why did she do it?"
and I said, "I'm never going to tell you."
And he said, "Why not?
"This is a movie.
Just, you know."
I said, "Because the second I tell you,
you going to put it in the film."
And once it's in the film, it trivializes everything.
Oh, the storyteller says she's doing it because da da da da da.
- Did you know?
- It's a story.
You're so great to interview.
So you're leading me right to the next thing.
Of course not.
He says, "Theresa has to know and she'll never tell me.
"And you have to have lunch with Theresa and tell her
"what her motivation is
because she doesn't know what she's doing."
So I go there, and I go there to tell her that
I'm not going to tell her.
That was my goal to go there.
So I didn't really think of it before.
- You also didn't know.
- I didn't.
I could have invented something
and I wanted to invent something.
So, but I'm sitting there and it's like the experience that
I'm sure many of us have who write is, when you write,
you go there, and you are those people,
and you then realize who you are and what you're doing.
So as I'm talking to her,
I go there and I realize what she did.
So then I say, "So, what happened was this.
"It's not that your father abused you at all.
"In fact, it's quite the opposite.
"You were daddy's girl.
"Your mother was very cold-hearted.
"You adored your father.
"He died of cancer when you were seven years old.
"And now you will take charge of the leaving.
No one will ever leave you again who you love."
[Ron] She started to cry at the lunch.
She said, "That's it, that's perfect.
I swear to God, I won't tell Bob."
And it doesn't show up in the movie.
[Narrator] You've been watching a conversation with Ron Bass
on On Story.
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