The Joyful Noise of Bruce Joel Rubin
At 47, he became an "overnight" success story as the screenwriter of the megahit Ghost, then saw the movie of his script Jacob's Ladder bomb. Now, at 50, he's making his directorial debut with yet another life-and-death saga he's penned, My Life. Here, Hollywood's self-appointed metaphysical Mr. Fixit reveals why his flicks "might even be better than going to church."
My Life was three days into shooting when the phone rang in the production office. The Columbia studio executive on the other end didn't want to speak to either of the film's stars, Michael Keaton or Nicole Kidman. No, the studio suit wanted to speak to writer-director Bruce Joel Rubin. It was the call Rubin had been dreading. This sort of call has wobbled the knees of even Hollywood's sturdiest directors. And Rubin, directing his first feature, was no redwood. True, he'd won an Oscar for writing Ghost, and yes, he'd written Jacob's Ladder, but this was different. Here, he was directing a major star in an emotionally wrenching picture about a man with terminal cancer who makes an autobiographical video for his unborn son. At the end of the film, to no one's surprise, Keaton will be history. Now, Rubin was about to hear that--professionally speaking--he was close to the same fate, only he wasn't even going to make it until the end of filming.
To appreciate the chemical currents that must have been juicing through Rubin's gut as he put the receiver to his ear, you must realize how high the stakes were for this guy. First of all, Rubin is 50 years old. That's five-OH, folks. He's a bona fide tortoise who long ago lost sight of the hares. His long and winding road to Hollywood began when, as a kid growing up in Detroit, he fantasized about making movies and Oscar acceptance speeches. (His speech at 12, he says, was better than his actual Oscar speech.) Directing is the only job he's ever really wanted, so--to put it mildly--he bided his time. Oh, how he bided. He attended NYU film school in the early '60s where he met a couple of guys named Scorsese and De Palma. While they directed early features, Rubin went off to hitchhike through Asia, stopping in Nepal, where he lived in a Tibetan monastery and studied the religious practices which still guide him today. Eventually the Nepalese government, thinking him perhaps a CIA agent, asked him to leave. When he returned to America, he found work as a film curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Then he married and followed his professor wife to her university job in the Midwest. While his NYU cronies won fame and fortune, Rubin found himself marooned in rural Illinois mailing spec scripts to Hollywood agents and making a few bucks writing "horrible industrial films." Why no trips to Lotusland to peddle his wares? Wasn't the dream dying? Wasn't the doppelganger taking over and elbowing out the real Rubin?
"I was afraid of going to Hollywood," Rubin readily admits. "My hope was that if I could just write my scripts and send them to Hollywood, someone would recognize their value and send me checks [so I could] provide for my family and live removed from Hollywood. The fear of coming out here was the fear that I'd get here and they would say, 'No, you can't have this.' And I had no alternatives. Other than writing, all I can do is type." But Rubin's wife, Blanche, could apparently sense her husband's frustration, and she knew that it was time for Rubin to confront his demons. Unbeknownst to him, she put their Illinois home on the market and quit her job to force the move to Hollywood. "She had a lot of faith in me," he says.
The day Rubin got his fateful call on the set of My Life, the Columbia executive on the line didn't share his wife's faith. "Bruce," he said, "you went two hours over today. The movie is hemorrhaging. It's out of control." He realized that the threat of being removed from the picture was very real. And then what? Then it would most likely be back to the word processor and handing over scripts to directors who didn't share his vision, as had happened on Deadly Friend and Deceived (which Rubin took his name off of).
"I knew the next day's shoot was going to be even more arduous, and I was up all night cutting scenes, rearranging shots," says Rubin, "so that I could make my day. Which I did." From then on, Rubin changed his modus operandi on My Life, in hopes of avoiding further problems.
No more extended colloquies with cast or crew. "We moved quickly," he says, although once he moved too quickly--and Keaton's temper flared. "I had staged a scene with 300 extras and then I brought Michael into the shot, and he said, 'Why did you do all this without me? Why wasn't I included in the discussion? I would rather do it this way.' I said my concerns were logistical more than performance. I thought the performance would come. He didn't agree. He felt I should have been more attuned to his needs rather than the needs of the larger production. This happened because I was a new director worrying about extras, a crane, and I just assumed Michael would give me what I wanted." Wrong. "So things stopped dead and Michael and I went off, and I tried to placate him and convince him that the choice I made was right. And, in the end, he agreed to go forward and do the shot."
ubin and I are talking in his office in the David Lean Building on the Sony lot. Covering one entire wall of his office are rows of pictures cut out from books depicting young couples, withered couples, men holding babies, pregnant women, old people cuddling young people. Rubin stares at the wall for inspiration. There, in those faces, you can see all his themes: Life, Death, Life After Death, Death in Life. They are not the sort of pictures you would have found on Louis B. Mayer's wall, or Sam Goldwyn's, but Rubin maintains that he's not all that far removed from those guys. "All drama is conflict. And conflict has to do with opposing forces. And what opposes life? The experience of death. Dr. Richard Kimball in The Fugitive is running from incarceration and death." But--and here's the difference, Bruce--death itself isn't chasing Dr. Kimball; there is an antagonist who personifies death, just as there is in most Hollywood thrillers. What Rubin explains he's done, in My Life, is to dispense with the antagonist; instead
the Keaton character internalizes the struggle so that the drama becomes a battle between his yin and yang. Rubin says, "My movies go for it right on the nose. I name the demon."
Of course, villains in human form do serve a purpose--as Hitchcock put it, good villains make good pictures--so when you jettison these fellows, you run the risk of boring your audience. If, like Rubin, you denude your story of the conventional plot devices, you sure as hell better have some compelling characters on the screen. Rubin thinks he's filled that bill. He says, "Michael Keaton can be funny, compassionate and an asshole. People don't understand how good he is. He has range. And I think Nicole Kidman's going to be a major movie star."
efore Rubin walked onto the set of My Life, he'd been out of film school for almost 30 years. "Did you take a refresher course?" I ask.
"No, but I watched Adrian Lyne [direct Jacob's Ladder] and I stood next to [director] Jerry Zucker on the set of Ghost. We worked very closely on the making of the film. But no matter how closely you work with a director, the relationship is really that of the driver and the passenger. You can watch the driver all you want, but until you're parallel parking, you're not going to understand what it's all about. It's too bad that Hollywood doesn't have an apprenticeship system. Instead it's, 'Here's $20 million, don't blow it.'"
Without Jerry Zucker's encouragement, Rubin might not have been directing at all, and yet, their relationship at the start was bumpy.
"I was very unhappy when I heard Jerry Zucker (of the Airplane! troika) had been hired to direct Ghost. I wanted Spielberg, or Peter Weir or Milos Forman. I saw the movie in grandiose terms. When I heard Jerry was attached, I thought it was a total betrayal. I thought the studio didn't get it.
"I went in to meet with Jerry and we started talking about the script. Keep in mind that everyone who read Ghost loved it. And Jerry said he liked a lot of it, but. . . and then he launched into his long list of proposed changes. It was agonizing. I was in tears for a month thinking, how am I going to deal with this guy? Jerry wasn't easy about the rewriting. He never said, 'I love this.' He just said, 'Get rid of this, cut that...'" As the writer who'd sold his script, Rubin had no leverage. "The only choice I had was to be on-board with Jerry or get kicked off the picture. So I decided we should have dinner and during that dinner there would be one ground rule. That is, we could talk about anything except Ghost."
My Dinner With Jerry was a tremendous success. "One of the great dinners of my life," says Rubin. "We hit it off. Something very sympathetic happened, and I realized that with this dialogue we could approach the script. With Jerry's continued input, I wrote 19 new drafts, subjecting each one to the shit detector. My willingness to make changes, to surrender to the process, was what kept me on the project. Some writers, by draft 11, have had enough and they jump ship."
"What did Jerry bring to the process?"
"Jerry dragged me into the mainstream." He made Rubin realize he was no longer working at the Whitney Museum. The jeopardy was emphasized, the Whoopi Goldberg character was given more screen time, and the finished film, according to Rubin, "lost its subtle tones. It became more black and white. It's not necessarily great art, but it's terrific entertainment. And to make a joyful noise in the world is a good thing."
"Is that enough for you? Don't you want to go deeper than that?"
"Yes, part of me is an indie filmmaker who'd like to run around with a video camera and work 20 hour days like we did in film school and open people to things that they would not have been open to before. The other part of me wants to make films like Lawrence of Arabia." But ultimately whatever kinds of films he writes and directs, Rubin does feel the need to be responsible. "Many people's lives are based on the movies they see. And I, as a Hollywood filmmaker, have this incredible access to a mass audience. I have two hours to talk to the world. I want that two hours to be a personal expression, not corporate entertainment which is empty entertainment. It's a meal without nourishment. I want to find new ways to get the old messages across."
"What old messages?" I ask.
"The messages of why we're here and where we go afterwards. Life is a journey during which we're striving for some kind of completion. And in movies, we cheer for people who try to attain that completion-- think of Rocky just wanting to go 15 rounds. Trying to understand why we live the way we do and what happens at the end of a life are huge issues. Why make movies about anything else? Why make movies about kick boxing?"
In 1982, Rubin wrote a movie that tried to tackle these "huge issues," Jacob's Ladder. This was one of those scripts he mailed in from the Midwest. He says it was inspired by The Tibetan Book of the Dead and was an attempt to explore the soul's journey after death. The script became one of the most widely read in Hollywood. American Film magazine picked it as one of the 10 best unproduced screenplays. Then, during the writer's strike in 1988, Adrian Lyne was sent the script by his agent and flipped for it. He turned down The Bonfire of the Vanities to accept the job. Now wouldn't Adrian Lyne--he of 9 1/2 Weeks and Indecent Proposal--be about the last director you'd expect to sign on to such an inward-looking, sexless project? Rubin certainly thought so, and his fears, at least initially, were borne out. After he and Lyne fought for a year and a half, the film finally made it into theaters in 1990. Lyne said, "I was afraid that if I shot many of the things Bruce described, they'd look like some Liberace version of a light show. They were brilliant descriptions, but very literary." Rubin says, "I knew Jacob's Ladder had a certain esoteric aspect. I knew there wouldn't be a big public for it, but I didn't care. Writers can sabotage themselves by becoming inflexible. Still it remained an esoteric film. That it got made in Hollywood at all is amazing to me."
ubin's relationship with Hollywood and its movers and shakers has, from the beginning, been perilous and unpredictable. His first brush with success came, ironically, after a Midwest shopping-mall magnate pulled the plug on an indie that Rubin had written and was about to direct. That script became Brainstorm, the Douglas Trumbull film that was plagued with all kinds of problems, the most gruesome of which was the off-the-set drowning death of its star, Natalie Wood. When Rubin came out for the film's premiere, he ran into Brian De Palma, who encouraged him to move to Los Angeles. Rubin didn't take the advice.
When he finally moved to the West Coast, Rubin's debut was inauspicious. His agent dumped him, saying, "No one wants to make movies about ghosts." After his first story meeting, Rubin had to borrow money from an executive so he could get his car out of the parking lot. But then the tide turned. His new agent, Geoffrey Sanford, found him a job at Embassy Pictures and suddenly Rubin was a working writer. He slogged through a number of projects that were never made and then did an uncredited rewrite on Sleeping With the Enemy. When Ghost and Jacob's Ladder hit the theaters, Rubin, at age 47, became an "overnight" sensation.
ubin is so low-key that I can't imagine him getting worked up at a pitch meeting, but he assures me that when it's time to do the dance, he can get as animated as necessary. "I lean forward, I'm in their face. I had people crying when I told the Ghost story, and in one week, four people offered to buy My Life after hearing the pitch."
He went first to Paramount with the idea for My Life, because they were the only studio in town that would guarantee, in writing, that he would be the director. But by the time the script was ready, the old regime at Paramount was out and Brandon Tartikoff was in. Tartikoff told Rubin that My Life reminded him of a TV movie he'd once made, and he passed. Rubin says, "I'm not convinced he read it. I think he read the coverage." No doubt the coverage did make the material seem like TV-movie fodder but, says Rubin, "When you're the head of a studio, you have to see the differences between a subject and the development of the material." When Paramount put My Life into turnaround, Columbia snapped it up. After two major actors turned down the role of the terminal man, Rubin then went to the studio brass and made a pitch for Michael Keaton, who turned down two other big-budget scripts to do My Life with a first-time director.
"What attracted him to the material?"
"There's a scene in which Keaton, speaking to the video camera, tells his unborn son how he met the boy's mother. And it's a love letter from all men to all women. And after we had shot it, Michael came over to me and said, 'That scene is why I did this film.'"
With his four feature films, Bruce Joel Rubin has carved out a niche for himself in Hollywood. He's our self-appointed mainstream metaphysical poet doling out cinematic dollops of spiritual nourishment in a society he's certain is starving for such. He doesn't vary the formula: In all his scripts, a man (always a man) must either die or face death before he can perform heroically and find some sort of fulfillment and completion. But death is not an end, because Rubin doesn't believe that life is bracketed by the experience of being born and dying: "We preexist our lives and continue to exist beyond them in infinite time and space."
"What do you find scariest about Hollywood?" I ask.
"What's scary about Hollywood is having people expect everything I write to be good. One of the problems in Hollywood is that people get so excited just to have 120 pages that work, that they make it into a movie. Many times it's too early. It's not baked yet. I need a year to write a good script."
When I ask him what he's reading, Rubin says, "I don't read much. I'm a painfully slow reader, possibly dyslexic. My great pleasure is to meditate. I sit quietly and reach into myself, and, in a sense, anything that's ever been expressed or taught came out of an inner source and that which is in me is in everyone else. So if you go into yourself deeply you'll touch a common self. From that self all great literature and music and art spring. So I try to go right to the source, right to the primal state rather than the manifested state. Is that too obscure?"
"It sounds great, but will it get you through grad school?"
"Actually I did go to grad school and got a 4.0 which is better than I did in college." Take that, Evelyn Wood.
"Would it be fair to say that you're obsessed with death?"
"No, I'm obsessed with life. But if people don't have a sense of how life ends, they don't have a way of living. All your decisions about what your life is about have to come from acknowledging what life goes toward. What it ends in. Heaven or hell. Nothingness or somethingness. If you keep putting off that decision or if you keep saying, 'I'll find out when I get there,' then your life is lived in an unknown space. A world without value. In the past, the religious environment used to dictate daily choices. Today we live in a world designed to distract us from choices." Rubin hopes his movies will make people less fearful of death.
"I want to make it seem more of a transition than a blackout. My movies are like entertaining sermons. For some they might even be better than going to church."
Jeffrey Lantos interviewed Meg Ryan for the June Movieline.