'Ghost' Writer Bruce Joel Rubin Talks Adapting the Musical, Dropping Acid
The Oscar-winning screenwriter recalls a drug-induced moment in the '60s that helped launch his career.
For screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin, it all started with a hit of acid he dropped back in the sixties. He took a journey in his mind that lasted two or three billion years and returned with a mission to tell people what he saw.
Part of what he saw is Ghost, the Oscar-winning 1990 film that is now a musical playing at Hollywood's Pantages Theatre from June 27 through July 13. Directed by Tony winner Matthew Warchus (God of Carnage), with a score by Dave Stewart (The Eurythmics) and Glen Ballard, Ghost the Musical was nominated for three Tonys.
The thing is Rubin didn't want to turn Ghost into a play. But when producers Adam Silberman and David Garfinkle traveled to his upstate New York home to convince him, he suddenly saw the movie in a different light. "I certainly understood that there were a lot of gray tones in the original material that didn't go into the movie," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I got the sense that I could modulate things that I didn't do in the film. I could go deeper, I could dig under the surface, and that really just hit me and I got really excited."
Anyone who went to the movies in the eighties saw Ghost, the supernatural weepie starring Demi Moore as a potter who loses her lover (Patrick Swayze) in a mugging, but gets him back (in spiritual form) with an assist from quack clairvoyant Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg). Directed by Jerry Zucker, Ghost earned over $500 million at the box office.
While Rubin was a longtime writer with many screenplays to his credit, like 1990's Jacob's Ladder and 2009's The Time Traveler's Wife, songwriting was new to him. He had already gone through a failed collaboration with an unnamed pair of composers when Stewart and Ballard came aboard. They logically assumed they were hired to write songs, but Rubin had already written about 20 of them, so he suggested they provide the music. When director Warcus joined the team, Rubin was overruled and Stewart and Ballard were asked to take a run at the songs. "They altered them in a way that made me understand what my limitations were," confesses Rubin. "They really showed me how these songs could get much better."
Aside from the added music, the stage show's practical effects (such as ghosts walking through doors and a fight on a moving subway car), garnered three Tony nominations and are often the focus of what favorable reviews the show receives.
"In London the reviews are rapturous. The reviews in some of the American papers all sound like people trying to audition for The New York Times," says Rubin, dismissively. That may sound bitter but it's not. Rubin is a self-proclaimed child of the sixties and he has long since learned to let go of negativity, which brings us back to that acid trip.
"It was actually scary at first and then amazingly beautiful," he recalls what, for him, was a seminal moment that launched him on his career. "At the end of it, I was pretty aware that I had died. There was no more me left. Wherever I was, I was in gray space. Then the chunks of the universe cleaved into two, then four, then 6, then 8, 16, 32. Then the entire universe re-established itself in galactical form into chunks of my room, chunks of my body and I was suddenly reassembled. I said, 'Why did I come back into the world?' And the response was tell people what you saw."
What he saw first led him to NYU Film School, where Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma were his classmates, and later led him to the podium on Oscar night with a statue in his hand. "I was scared to death on some level," Rubin remembers about his best original screenplay win in 1991. "The Oscar moment is very powerful and when you walk away with that statue in your hand, it's a moment of reality. It got my career going. I had a long run for a writer in Hollywood and I'm very grateful for that. That's kind of incredible for a kid from Detroit who had no pathway other than an LSD trip that suddenly said, 'Tell people what you saw."