During his more than three decades as a screenwriter, Bruce Joel Rubin’s friends, colleagues and even his own son have asked him why he is so preoccupied with death.
“But I’m actually obsessed with life,” insisted Rubin, the Academy Award-winning author of the hit 1990 supernatural thriller “Ghost” and “Ghost the Musical,” opening at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood on June 27. “It’s just that you can’t know life without knowing death, because death informs life and makes it impermanent. It gives meaning, value and beauty to the experience of being alive. If life were something you could hold onto forever, it would be meaningless.”
Indeed, most all of Rubin’s films have explored in some way issues of life and the afterlife and the finite hidden in the infinite — all informed by his Jewish childhood and the Eastern philosophies he studied on a youthful trek from India to Japan.
“Brainstorm” (1983), for which Rubin received story credit, stars Ellen Burstyn as a scientist who invents a device that captures and replays an individual’s experiences, and who eventually uses it to record the moment of her demise and beyond.
“Jacob’s Ladder” (1990) spotlights a disturbed Vietnam veteran (Tim Robbins) who is plagued by nightmarish visions of demons as he hovers between life and death.
“Ghost,” starring Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore, revolves around a young couple, Sam and Molly, whose fairytale romance is cut short when Sam is shot and killed by a mugger on the streets of New York. While standing over his own dead body, Sam is first in denial and then shocked to discover that he is dead; when he learns that he has, in fact, been murdered and that Molly’s life is also in danger, he seeks the help of a fake psychic (Whoopi Goldberg) — who is astounded that she can actually hear Sam — to help him protect Molly and to bring his killers to justice.
Now, “Ghost the Musical” closely follows the plot of the movie, with book and lyrics by Rubin and pop ballads composed by Dave Stewart of the iconic 1980s band The Eurythmics, as well as Glen Ballard, a co-writer and producer for Alanis Morissette. Video projections display images ranging from gritty subway stations to the concrete canyons of Wall Street; illusions by magician Paul Kieve depict ghosts levitating and make Sam seem to disappear and then re-materialize through solid doors, among other phenomena.
“Everything I’ve ever written is an exploration of how death isn’t necessarily what we think it is,” said Rubin, whose other films include “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and “My Life,” starring Michael Keaton as a man dying from a brain tumor, which Rubin also directed. “It’s that we continue to exist after this life, and, also, before we are born. And screenwriting is my way of exploring these ideas for a mass audience.”
During an interview from his home in Redmond, Wash., Rubin, 71, peppered a conversation with references to Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, the biblical Moses and Rubin’s days in a Tibetan monastery in Katmandu, in a discussion that ranged from mythic journeys to Rubin’s own complex spiritual odyssey.
“My parents were not well-versed in Judaism, but I went to Hebrew school and was bar mitzvahed, and during all of that I always felt a kind of holiness in biblical teachings,” Rubin said of his childhood in Detroit. “Reciting the Shema prayer daily was always important to me, because I loved the idea of oneness. I just felt a calling to something higher, bigger.”
Fast-forward to 1965, around the time that Rubin graduated from New York University’s film school, in a class that also included directors Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma, at the dawn of the psychedelic era. Back when LSD was still legal, Rubin’s roommate, a participant in Leary’s acid experiments, placed an eyedropper of pure liquid LSD on Rubin’s tongue and then accidentally squeezed out the entire contents — “so I knew this was not going to be a simple journey, and it proved not to be,” Rubin recalled.
“I experienced that I died, and it was this long and powerful experience, lasting what [seemed to be] three or four billion years,” he continued. “I was being dismantled in a way; the experience was very Hieronymus Bosch — hellish and terrifying — and everything you could imagine from Jewish and Christian theology, even Buddhism … But ultimately the dismantling of the self is very liberating. And eventually I was back in the room I started in, reborn.”
Rubin wanted to re-create that kind of transformative experience without the use of drugs, so he set off on a 1 ½-year spiritual trek, studying religious philosophies and meditation throughout Asia.
Along the way, he resolved to transmit what he had learned through the medium of film, even though early on he had no contacts in Hollywood. Instead, while living in Bloomington, Ind., years ago, he would rent a cheap motel room, “take all the paintings off the walls, put the television in the closet, and tell myself that I wasn’t coming out of that room until I had a finished screenplay.” By the mid-1980s, Rubin moved to Los Angeles to further his career.
“Jacob’s Ladder,” inspired by “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” captured the terrifying hallucinatory experiences of Jacob Singer, a lapsed Jewish man who initially refuses to let go of his life at the moment of his death. “It’s a journey from avoiding the light to going into the light, which is exactly what happens in ‘Ghost’ as well,” Rubin explained. The story was also influenced by the teachings of the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, “who said that if you’re afraid of dying, you see demons tearing you from the earth, but if you’re open to death, they are angels trying to set you free,” Rubin said.
He first conjured up the idea for “Ghost” when he aspired to tell a ghost story from the point of view of a spirit. Then he chanced to see a production of “Hamlet,” and when the ghost of Hamlet’s father appeared to the young prince and declared, “Avenge my death,” Rubin was prompted to set a ghostly vengeance story in modern Manhattan.
The film went on to become the top-grossing movie of 1990 and to earn Rubin an Oscar for best original screenplay.
Yet as theater producers kept approaching him in the following years, Rubin staunchly refused to allow the film to be turned into a musical. He worried about his story being embellished with potentially embarrassing songs. “And I just thought it would mess up the waters,” he added. “ ‘Ghost’ was a successful film and I thought a musical wouldn’t necessarily add anything to the equation.”
Then, about eight years ago, theater producers David Garfinkle and Colin Ingram visited Rubin at his home in upstate New York and proceeded to talk with him so late into the night that they missed their train back to Manhattan. “Somewhere in the middle of it all I saw how a musical could work,” Rubin said. “I just saw that there were emotions to be expressed that were hinted at in the film or shown by close-ups that could be elaborated upon and deepened, and I got quite excited about that.”
The experiences of writing “Ghost” the film, as well as the musical, “have been among the most joyful of my life,” Rubin said. But, he added, he is probably done with writing films. “Most movies these days go into and out of the mind as soon as you leave the theater, and I’m not much interested in that.”
Instead, Rubin and his wife, Blanche, have moved to Washington to help care for their two grandchildren, and will soon follow them to their new home in Marin County.
After decades of studying and teaching meditation, is Rubin ready for his own death? “More than ever,” he said. “For me, it doesn’t matter at all. I came close to dying a number of times, one of them when I had a pulmonary embolism a couple of years ago. And I was lying there thinking, ‘This may be the moment,’ but I knew I had told everyone who mattered that I love them, and I could go. I have nothing left that needs to get done. The only thing I’m doing at this point is being the happiest grandfather possible. I can’t even describe the joy of what I’ve arrived at and I’ll miss that, but I’m certainly not going to miss Hollywood.”
“Ghost the Musical” runs June 27-July 13 at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. For tickets and information, visit hollywoodpantages.com.