Ron's Rules

Post by 
Jeff Hays
Published 
September 14, 2020

I just spent the morning with Academy Award winning writer Ron Bass  in a script meeting. He wrote Rain Man, and lots of other films that we’ve all seen.

Holy cow, talk about brilliant.

About 10 minutes into the meeting, I began to think that I should just hang it up, there’s no way I should be in the film business when there are guys this good working.

After about 10 more minutes I realized that it was just a skill set, just experience, just learning and effort that I was seeing.

Here’s a guy that has paid his dues, put in his “10,000 hours

Impressive, but nothing I can’t do also.

Ron has set up camp on a daily basis at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills. He and his 2 writing assistants (brilliant writers on their own) sit outside in the restaurant and hold meetings and write every day. It’s his office.

Next time you’re in BH, stop by and see him, they’ll be there working away. (And you’ll never know who will be there with them.)

So, as we’re there working in “his office”, he used the phrase a couple of times, “well, in our company we have a rule about that.” These “rules” are the guiding principles that inform him on how to script a film, develop a character.

I realized if I could collect all of Ron’s rules, I could write more like Ron. If I really understood them all, I could write exactly like him. (except without the talent… but talent is not nearly as important as hard work, right? I’d love to be Michael Jordon, but I can name you some other top 50 players of all time who had much less talent but just worked their way to the top.)

So we’re working on the script for a film called Pitchman, and this was the first real writing meeting. The film is designed to inspire and uplift, it’s an “entrepreneurial Rudy” or an “entrepreneurial Rocky”.  An amazing true story, but we have to come up with the frame to use to view the story.

Is it linear? A standard biopic that starts when our character is born and ends at some point?

Is it a day in the life?

Is it someone sitting in some situation in the future, telling their life story?

None of these?

The director Sean McNamara  was also there, the producer David Brookwell, and the subject of the film, Dean Graziosi.

Can I point out that each of these guys is also brilliant?

So, now that I’ve set the table, I’ll tell you what I learned at this early session. I’ll keep collecting and sharing these rules of Ron’s over the next few months. I think you’ll see that they apply to far more than writing a script… there’s some magic here.

(These “rules” are random, because they came up in the course of a real work session, not a class. Just ride the wave, ok?)

  1. “Literature is about one person’s mind, their thoughts. Movies are about interaction, the connection and interaction between people. It’s about what happens between people.”

Such a great distinction! Think about reading a book, learning what the character is thinking, why they make their choices, what drives them. But we don’t have that running narration in a film, you have to show it. Where does this come up? In the interaction of the characters.

I’m going to play with this thought and see how I can apply it in my documentary work. Stay tuned.

  1. “Do the work! (This is his rule one.) Don’t make easy choices in a script. Work hard and come up with all of the choices, put them on the table and make the best choice.”

I’ve had a tendency to feel such a relief when I solve a creative issue that I pounce on the first solution and then fight for it. He keeps going, looking for lots of other options then chooses the best option.

  1. Some rules for characters and their interactions:
  1. You can’t give yourself self-esteem. It comes from the eyes of the people you love and care about.
  2. You can’t find what you want in life until you feel you deserve it. (yes, this is a rule he follows in his stories for fictional characters. But it has a ring of real advice, right?)
  3. No one wants to see a rich guy get even more money. You make a rich guy sympathetic by having him make a new choice, to walk away from money for something more important.
  4. You don’t have to choose between getting money or getting the relationship. You can have it all!
  1. Use a frame.

I was thinking of Dean’s story linearly: Born, faced tough early period, fought his way through challenges and false success, faced a big challenge, won. The end.

Ron suggested we do a day in the life of someone else, who is interacting with Dean. (I’m not going to give away too much here, who knows where it will end up.) But in this “frame” Dean can face his own tough day in real time, while helping someone else in a real time problem, while telling bits of the story of his past that made up the knowledge that is serving them both on this critical day.

It’s brilliant, because it allows the storyteller to just tell the good parts, skip anything boring that might have to be there to tell a linear story.

  1. “Movies are about what is happening now, not the past. You have to take the audience on a real time journey. The spine of this story is today.”

  1. “I hate antagonists.” What? When he said this, I couldn’t believe it. How can you tell a story without a villain? He pointed out that when you have a villain, everyone knows the story. You know the villain is going to lose, so it ruins it from the start.

This is Picasso-like to me.

I didn’t like Picasso as an artist, until I saw his early work that was so realistic. Once someone really owns the basics, then they can abandon the rules and chart new territory. I realize this is what separates him from a rich hack writer who can churn out formula scripts that work, but only so well. This is what makes an Academy Award winning writer, not a journeyman/hack writer.

So, it was an amazing day, the first of many that I’ll report to you on. But if I had to zero in on one take away, one key lesson?

“You can’t find what you want in life until you feel you deserve it.”

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