Success doesn’t exactly come easy
to Ron Bass, but Bass, the co-writer and co-producer of The Joy
Luck Club and Significant Other, is not one to complain.
Bed ridden in childhood by an illness that was never positively identified,
he became a voracious reader, tackling Dostoevsky and Faulkner before
he hit puberty. When he finally recovered, he set his sights on following
in their footsteps, and by the time he was seventeen he had completed
"Unfortunately," he says now, "I lost
confidence in it and burned the only copy. I decided that being
a writer, since it was the most wonderful thing in the world to
be and was done by the people I admired the most, was obviously
something that I wouldn’t be good enough to do. It’s like being
center fielder for the Yankees or a rock star-it was just beyond
the grasp of an average person like me."
But the writing bug, unlike his mysterious childhood
malady, wouldn’t go away. Years later after graduating from Harvard
Law School and establishing a successful career as an entertainment
lawyer, he decided to take another shot at his old novel. He began
rising every morning between two and three a.m. to write, and two
years later he published The Perfect Thief. Two more novels
followed, and when the screen rights to his third novel were purchased,
he convinced the producers to hire him as the screenwriter. While
that script was never produced, it led to enough writing assignments
that he finally quit practicing law. His big break came on Rainman,
the Dustin Hoffman-Tom Cruise-Barry Levinson film for which he won
a Best Screenplay Oscar.
Now one of Hollywood’s most respected and sought-after
screenwriters, Bass has gone on to write such hits as Sleeping
With the Enemy and Black Widow. Nevertheless, he still
gets up between two and three every morning to write, and after
taking a break for breakfast with his wife Christine and their two
daughters (Jennifer, 13, and Sasha, 9) he works straight through
It’s no wonder, then, that Bass sounds just a bit tired
as he sits down to discuss The Joy Luck Club, the acclaimed
film version of Amy Tan’s novel about the relationships between
three generations of Chinese and Chinese-American women, and Significant
Other, a drama about alcoholism that stars Meg Ryan and Andy
Garcia. Still, he’s anxious to talk, for The Joy Luck Club is
a film near and dear to his heart, particularly since he has become
close friends with Tan (who co-wrote the screenplay and co-produced
the film) and director Wayne Wang. Indeed, the film has become such
a success that the threesome has already announced that they will
reteam for an adaptation of Tan’s second novel, The Kitchen God’s
MM: According to your publicist, you
get up between two and three very morning to write. Don’t you sleep?
RB: I try to. I like sleeping, but I don’t get
as much sleep as I should, or want to. But there’s just a lot to
do. And the early morning is a very good time for me. Everybody
else is sleeping, the world is really quiet. It’s a great time to
get up and start the work and get a tremendous amount accomplished
before six or six-thirty, when my kids get up. My work day starts
then, and I usually work straight through until I have dinner with
my family, at around six-thirty.
MM: Is it true that you’re booked as
a screenwriter three years in advance?
RB: No, not anymore. I used to be, but it upset
people. Now I try to keep it down to a year, or eighteen months,
which is much more manageable.
MM: Doesn’t that make it hard if a
great project comes along?
RB: I’ve never been someone who has to be available
for the next hot thing. If there’s something like that out there,
I’m glad to let some other wonderful writer do that. I like having
a gestation period, I like having a year or a-year-and-a-half to
think about things, and to use that time to do research and think
about the characters and live in the story. Then, when it’s time
to start writing I’ve got a notebook full of ideas and I’m really
bursting to get started. That way I never really face a blank page.
MM: Amy Tan said that in that first
meeting you told her that in adapting The Joy Luck Club you
were going to show her "the poetry of the scene." What
did you mean by that?
RB: Well, I would never fault Amy on her memory,
but I hope I didn’t say it quite as grandiosely as that. I probably
said, or would like to remember that I said, that writing a screenplay
would enable her to discover the poetry of the scene, which would
be useful to her fiction writing. I don’t mean to suggest that novelists
think their material through less thoroughly than screenwriters.
I don’t think that’s true. But there is something challenging about
my saying to Amy: I want to start the scene on this shot, I want
to cover this amount of emotional material, and I want to go out
on this shot, this image, this thought, this line, and I want to
name that tune in about two-and-a-half minutes. When you say that,
you then start to look for the emotional core of what that scene
has really got to be about. You can’t just walk around in it and
depict that scene in the way it naturally presents itself to you.
You have to decide why the scene is in the movie, and exactly what
you want. There is poetry in something that has to make a much greater
distillation of image and a much more powerful concentration of
expressed intent, because of its very limitations of structure and
MM: Was it ever intimidating for you
to work with the author of the novel you were trying to adapt?
RB: No, it wasn’t intimidating in any way. Amy
is truly one of the kindest, smartest, most generous, most ego-free,
delightful people I’ve ever met in any walk of life. She has become
a dear friend. Even though she is a literary giant-her books are
required reading in high schools across the country; it’s like working
with Faulkner or Fitzgerald – she always cast herself as the student,
because I had written more for the screen. It was two friends writing
together, we always had fun.
MM: Significant Other is about a marriage
that nearly disintegrates when one of the partners undergoes treatment
for alcoholism. Where did the interest in that subject come from?
RB: Every marriage, every relationship really
, is an unspoken series of contracts that we don’t even know we
have. You do this for me, and I do that for you. I handle this and
you handle that. You lean on me and I’ll lean on you. That’s how
we fit together and complement each other. That’s how marriages
really work. Even in a marriage where two people are completely
independent of each other, then that’s their contract. But most
of us don’t ever really examine the way our relationships work,
particularly when things are going well.
But when things break down, it makes you re-examine
what your marriage is actually based on. And that’s what happens
in this story. Once she goes into rehab and starts to get counseling
and face up to herself – and face up to what it was in her that
let her become an alcoholic – she has to re-examine everything.
And he doesn’t want to look at these things. He thinks it’s all
a lot of psychobabble and a lot of baloney. The point of this movie
is that to really love another person, and to be there for him or
her when the going gets rough, is the toughest thing in the world.
And that’s what this couple has to go through so that they can be
MM: In addition to dramatic films like Significant Other and The Joy Luck Club, you’ve written
some films that are more strictly genre entertainments, such as Sleeping with the Enemy and Black Widow. What are your
feelings about the role of film as art versus its role as entertainment?
RB: Well, BlackWidow and Sleeping with
the Enemy were films that, however successful you may think
they are, turned out quite different from the scripts-that I wrote. Black Widow was written originally as quite an intelligent
psychodrama about two women who were more intelligent than any men
around, and how they became sisters and really loved each other
while they were becoming mortal enemies because they were the only
two people who could understand each other. It was about something
that I thought was really quite fascinating, which didn’t end up
being expressed in the movie.
Sleeping with the Enemy was based on a wonderful
book by Nancy Price, and if you read the original script I wrote
it didn’t end up looking much like the movie. The script that I
wrote didn’t focus on the abusive husband, it was really about the
relationship between the Julia Roberts character and the boy that
she meets, who was originally supposed to be played by Aidan Quinn.
There were 11 or 12 scenes of her coming out of her fear and unfolding
like a flower and falling in love with this very patient and terrific
and normal guy. The movie was about how hard it is for women to
trust men, told through the metaphor of a monster, an abusive husband
who is the ultimate example of why women shouldn’t trust men. But
using that metaphor written large, it was really about the kind
of attentiveness and attention and ability to listen and ability
to observe that it takes for a man to prove himself worthy of a
woman’s trust. So it was about something that I thought was very
important and very interesting. But Joe Rubin, who is a terrific
filmmaker, came on, and he just had a different conception of the
movie. He wanted it to be more of a classic thriller, so the Aidan
Quinn scenes started to come out one by one, and new scenes were
ordered for the husband, and finally Aidan actually pulled out of
the movie because he had only four scenes left. That’s how it became
the movie you saw, which was an extremely effective thriller and
very popular commercially, but not really about the things that
I wanted the movie to be about.
What I’m really saying is you judge a writer’s work
by what the final film looks like, but there are a lot of other
people whose decisions came into how that 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. In terms of my feelings
about art versus entertainment, I think they’re generally a lot
closer than most of Hollywood gives them credit for being. If you’re
shooting a subject matter of interest, then usually the decision
that makes it the most commercial has a lot to do with what makes
the most sense. I don’t think it’s commercial for every film to
have a happy ending. I think what’s the most commercial is what
works the best: it’s a better ending for Romeo and Juliet that they
died than that they find each other. I don’t think it’s like: Here’s
the artistic movie, here’s the crass, commercial movie; now do we
sell out our art for commercial reasons? The best ending for a movie,
the most commercial ending, is the one that makes sense. I think
that Hollywood can make a lot of money not underestimating the intelligence
of the American people.
MM: Is there such a thing as a Ron
Bass film? Do you have a specific vision of the world that you see
in all your films? A common thread?
RB: I certainly have a lot of strong opinions
about a lot of various themes that do recur from piece to piece.
I think there’s more than one common thread. 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. So the themes that I have are basically
themes of how hard human connection is to achieve, and yet how absolutely
essential it is that we do whatever it takes, go through whatever
brick wall there is to make that connection, because that’s the
stuff that makes life worthwhile. That is the point of view that
I think film is most uniquely adapted to depict.
MM: A moment ago, you said that the
director is the author of every film, and that is something that
has often irked screenwriters. Is one of the reasons you made the
jump to producing with The Joy Luck Club, to have more influence
over the finished product?
RB: No, I think that somebody has to make the
decisions as to everything in terms of the film’s content, and that
person has to be the director, it can’t be the screenwriter. So,
no, it wasn’t like that, it wasn’t in order to get more control.
The title producer or executive producer is negotiated in the contract,
and it has a lot to do with the clout or the visibility of the writer.
What really counts, what’s really substantive, is how much input
you get. This is a project that Wayne and Amy and I went into together,
and we really had a basically equal decision-making authority, at
Wayne’s generous insistence. He was still always as far as Amy and
I were concerned the final arbiter. While it happens that I’m a
producer on this film, the pleasure of it was that partnership.
I would rather have pleasure of that partnership than the title
producer. But the final say has to go to the director.
MM: Since you feel that way, do you
have any plans to direct?
RB: I sure don’t plan to direct for a while.
My youngest child is nine, and I’ve seen the life of a director.
I know that there are some guys who manage to be terrific fathers
and directors at the same time, but I just think it would be very
hard for me. The time that I spend with my children, and being there
and being present in their lives, and being able to travel with
them and make my own schedule and be there for the significant moments
in their lives, is critical to me and my wife. There are only so
many years of that, and then they’re gone, never to come back. So,
for that one reason, I wouldn’t be interested in directing until
The other thing is, I write on so many things sometimes
six or seven pictures a year. And I love that diversity. I love
being in the middle of many stories that are moving forward at different
stages at the same time. It’s creatively much more exciting for
me than I think it would be to be locked into one story for a year
and a half. It’s also a good insulation from the ups and downs of
this business. You put all your heart and soul into one project,
and a lot of things can go wrong. When you’re a writer, and tragedy
strikes a project, you can turn around in the morning and say, ‘Well
I gotta get up and write on this one.’ Life feels less subject to
instant destruction. MM