Winning the game by breaking the rules

READING TODD McCARTHY’S excellent biography of Howard Hawks, I’m instantly reminded of one peculiarity of Hawks’ era: Back then, filmmakers, writers and other artists actually built up a body of work. Today, even “hot” directors work only sporadically. Paul Brickman made a remarkable debut 16 years ago with “Risky Business”; he’s directed only one movie since. Quentin Tarantino finally is directing a movie again; it’s been more than four years since he shot “Pulp Fiction.”

All of which has heightened my curiosity about the career of a prolific character named Ron Bass. 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. And under his lavish new deal with Sony, he will now also be producing his and others’ writings.

In so doing, Ron Bass has managed to break all the rules. While most writers plug into a certain style and genre, Bass’ movies are all over the map, from “The Joy Luck Club” to “Waiting to Exhale” to “Dangerous Minds” to “Rain Man” to “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”

Most writers pride themselves on being proverbial “outsiders” railing against the system; Bass has always been a resolute insider. Before taking up screenwriting full-time, he was a partner in a top-rung show business law firm, working alongside Barry Hirsch, an attorney renowned for making every negotiation seem like a root canal.

ULTIMATELY, THE GRIND got to Bass. He started setting the alarm clock at 3 a.m. so he could get up and write. He focused on novels at first, and when his third novel elicited a movie sale, turned to screenplays, writing for six hours every morning, then donning his suit to embark on a full day of lawyering.

By 1984, he decided to surrender his day job. Slowing his pace, he set his alarm an hour later to 4 a.m. and put his suit in storage. The deals soon started falling into place, starting, of course, with the Oscar-winning “Rain Man.”

While Bass’ success has been formidable, he’s well aware that some of his fellow scenarists write him off as a nice guy who also happens to be a pain in the ass. His movies, they argue, lean towards the mawkish, always delivering an upbeat message. The same goes for Bass’ conversation. He loves everything about his new calling. He uniformly admires the people he works with. He thinks his new studio home, Sony, is the greatest company since the MGM of Louis B. Mayer. He insists this is a great moment in Hollywood history, that the studios are appropriately turning out a wide range of product.

He even likes most members of his old fraternity — yes, lawyers — a fact that truly sets him apart from everyone else in his new profession. Drawing upon his legal background, he even writes provisions into his deals stating that he cannot be rewritten by anyone. (On “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” the director, P.J. Hogan, nonetheless did a little fine-tuning, anyway.)

ON THE OTHER HAND, why shouldn’t Ron Bass be cloyingly content? He’s finally doing full-time what he wants to do, and he owns a big slice of the Napa Valley as his just reward. And now, thanks to Sony, he also has the chance to tell other writers how to improve their scripts rather than listening to producers lecture him on his craft.

To be sure, if you ask Bass whether he likes the producers he has encountered along the way, the lawyerlike persona takes hold: “The more I learn what producers do, the more I respect them,” he says.

Sure.

“The important thing for me is to expand on what I know how to do, to work with a larger team on a larger canvas.”

Translated, that means that like every other writer, he wants to protect his young. Even the relentlessly upbeat Bass will admit that most of his scripts were never made, that some were mangled and that he got tossed off movies (like “The Bridges of Madison County”) where he felt his talent was misjudged.

Did those experiences discourage him? Perhaps. On the other hand, absolutely nothing will ever keep Ron Bass away from his computer. He’s got a million more stories to tell.

Upbeat ones, at that.

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