Trusting the Journey: Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin on Life Before and After ‘Ghost’

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In the summer of 1990, screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin became an overnight success with the release of “Ghost,” a romantic thriller that would go on to become the top-grossing film of the year and earn Rubin an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. At least that’s how it seemed from the outside; the truth is that the 47-year-old filmmaker had been kicking around the industry for decades, working as a TV news editor, film museum curator, and writer-for-hire before “Ghost” (and then “Jacob’s Ladder” a few months later) established him as one of the most original voices in Hollywood cinema.

Rubin tells the story of everything that led up to “Ghost” — and everything that came after — in “It’s Only a Movie,” a book that’s half-show business memoir, half spiritual inquiry detailing his lifelong quest for enlightenment. That quest informs Rubin’s best films — “Brainstorm,” “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Ghost,” “My Life” — all of which inject the screenwriter’s preoccupation with the soul and what happens to it after we die into expertly crafted entertainments that are as intellectually profound as they are emotionally affecting. In “It’s Only a Movie,” Rubin explores what it has meant to pursue enlightenment while forging a career as a Hollywood screenwriter, and the result is an autobiography as unique and compelling as any of Rubin’s scripts.

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The book is filled with interesting surprises ranging from the personal (the revelation that Rubin was a closeted gay man for most of his 81 years) to the professional (like his early friendships and collaborations with Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma — the latter of which yielded a documentary on the British mods and rockers scene that seems to have vanished into oblivion). Yet Rubin didn’t plan to write a book at all; it began with a series of interviews he gave to one of his meditation students, a writer of film books who wanted to hear Rubin’s life story. Once the interviews were done, Rubin looked over the transcript and didn’t necessarily think it needed to be published. “I kept thinking there wasn’t an ending,” Rubin told IndieWire. “The spiritual side of the story was the core element, and I felt I hadn’t become enlightened or awakened.”

JACOB'S LADDER, Tim Robbins, 1990, (c)TriStar Pictures/courtesy Everet Collection
‘Jacob’s Ladder’©TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Eventually, several things happened that persuaded Rubin to complete the story and publish the book. “One, I started to let go of the need to awaken and the need to be enlightened,” he said. “Something came into me, and it just said, ‘You know, all you need to do is become a good person. Just become a kind person, period. That’s enough of a goal in life. I started letting go of everything I thought knew about how the world worked and spiritual dimensions, and I discovered that as you let go of all that knowledge and ‘wisdom’, you get lighter inside. That enlightenment might be more of a ride into not knowing than knowing. That was very, very powerful for me and sent me on this journey of thinking, OK, maybe there’s an ending for the book.”

When author and publisher Paul Cronin read the manuscript, he urged Rubin to put more about his family and deeper personal issues into the book, and that gave Rubin another incentive to complete and publish it. “I thought the book would be, if nothing else, something for my grandchildren,” he said. “And there’s this idea, it’s in ‘Jacob’s Ladder,’ that at the end of your life when you die, you go to another realm where you have to look at your entire life. It’s all broken down and analyzed in order to arrive at the angelic moment of being lifted out of your life and freed from it. If you can’t do that, then it’s demons tearing you apart. Well, I decided when I get to that place, I’m going to hand them my book and just say, ‘Here, this is the whole thing. Nothing hidden. All done.’ And that’s what the book was for me.”

The first half of “It’s Only a Movie” is a fascinating origin story in which Rubin explores the circuitous route he took to professional success, while the second details how that success both did and did not affect his inner life. After the release of “Ghost,” Rubin’s fortunes changed almost instantaneously, and while the validation was welcome after years of uncertainty, the fact that he could now do anything he wanted created its own set of challenges. “It was traumatizing,” Rubin said. “What was the next movie? Every door was open — whatever I came up with would probably get a yes at that moment in time.” Rubin considered following “Ghost” with a number of ideas, but ultimately, he found that the idea that would become “My Life” kept rising to the surface. “It kept percolating, and one of the things I’ve learned over the course of time is pay attention to percolating.”

The core idea of “My Life” was that a man with terminal cancer (played in the film by Michael Keaton) makes a series of videos about himself for his unborn child, a baby his wife (Nicole Kidman) is carrying but who might not be born before the man’s death. It was, after “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Ghost,” another of Rubin’s scripts dealing with spiritual matters. “I liked the idea of making a movie about a workaholic guy who lived a normal human life, what I would call the horizontal — a life flat out in the world and with no concept of the vertical: reaching upward into something higher or going deeper into yourself,” Rubin said. “As I was writing it, the idea came to me that this guy would start to discover the vertical.”

MY LIFE, Michael Keaton, 1993, (c) Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection
‘My Life’©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Rubin knew that the success of “Ghost” gave him leverage he had never had before and likely never would again, so he used it to get himself hired as the director of “My Life,” in the process making one of the great directorial debuts, a delicately crafted drama that balances moments of both humor and devastating loss with precision and clarity. Yet for all the control that the completed film exhibits, Rubin hardly felt that sense of control on set. “On the first day, I realized how little I knew and how challenging it was,” he said, noting that by the end of the day, he was already behind schedule. “The producer came up to me and said, ‘Bruce, I got a call from the studio. If you’re not done in an hour, you’re being fired from this project.’ That was my first day of shooting.”

While Rubin was ultimately happy with the film and loved his experience working with the actors, he never directed again. “I realized that if I wanted a career in directing, I would be starting all over again,” he said. “I’d be a neophyte director. The problem with that was financial more than anything else; I had two kids in college, I had home payments, and I was being paid a lot more for writing movies than directing them. So I just said, I have to put aside the directing part of my life because I can’t support my family starting out in a whole new genre of work at the age of 50. And you know, I thought I had some talent, but I was not Scorsese. I was not Spielberg or De Palma. And so I thought if you have a skill set, use it. And that was writing.”

Although “My Life” wasn’t a critical or financial success — Rubin says the only one of his movies that got mostly positive reviews when it was released was “Stuart Little 2” — it yielded a moment that shaped Rubin’s way of looking at the film and at his work in general. “A few months after the movie, a woman came up to me at a party and said, ‘I have to tell you something. My husband died of cancer three years ago and my son and I never got to talk about his father’s passing. It was really painful for me, and then I discovered recently that I have terminal cancer. I was so afraid that my son and I would never have a dialogue, and then we went to see ‘My Life,’ and my son sat there sobbing, and we went home and had the talk that I needed in order to leave the world, so thank you.’ And that’s when I saw, oh, I made this film for these two people, and that was enough.”

That led to Rubin’s overall philosophy, which is that “it’s not about if you touch millions. If you touch just one person and change their life in some way, you did it, you did what you’re here to do.” After a lifetime of writing and searching, Rubin says he has found that the answer to life is relatively simple. “Trust the journey,” he said. “I look back at my life as having had extraordinary purpose, and I got to meet wonderful people. ‘Ghost’ had such a standing in the Hollywood community that it kept me working for decades, and I got to make a lot of different films that I felt good about. I just enjoyed the ride. It was a really wonderful ride.”

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