As a veteran Hollywood screenwriter once pithily observed “Nobody knows anything” and this aphorism regarding the unpredictability of audience favour could well be applied to the 1990 movie version of Ghost.
A film which wins a couple of Oscars and achieves a worldwide Box Office gross of more than $500,000,000 must have had every Hollywood studio rolling out the red carpet to writer Bruce Joel Rubin when he came to sell the movie. Not a bit of it!
“I spent two years pitching the idea to producers and to studio executives and the story got better every time,” Rubin wryly recalls. “They’d sit there with a glazed look in their eyes and I had to find a way of grabbing their attention. So I clapped my hands at the moment I was telling them about Sam being shot and the shock was so great that they jumped up and started listening to me. They were really intrigued by the idea of Sam looking at his own corpse.”
Apart from collecting the Oscar for Ghost, Rubin’s other screenplays include Jacob’s Ladder, Deep Impact and The Time Traveller’s Wife. But perhaps none of these stories would have been written, had Rubin not undergone an extraordinary experience in the 1960s. It was the dawning of the age of psychedelia, when experimentation with drugs as a means of expanding one’s mind was becoming part of the vibrant counter-culture. One day Rubin, almost unknowingly and due to a bizarre combination of circumstances, absorbed a lethal amount of LSD.
“I ended up being taken on an extraordinary journey. In fact, I thought that I had died- I ought to have died. But I believe that I was deliberately spared by whoever- whatever in order to tell stories. I feel as if I have a mission.”
Rubin also went on a physical journey through Central Asia, steeping himself in Eastern philosophies and learning how to use meditation as a means of exploring the mysteries of life.
“I remember spending the night in a roofless hut in Afghanistan, looking up at the stars. I knew I had stories to tell but I didn’t know what those stories were or how I could put those stories into words.”
One of the themes which Rubin has explored in his work is the area, as depicted in Ghost between life and death, between existence and non-existence, about the meaning of life itself. When we die, is that the end? Or is there something after death, shaped by a single all-consuming intelligence?
“Your life is a very big deal but is it a complete blank-out at the end? When you reach that stage of your life, are you held accountable for what you may or may not have done? And if you are held accountable, who or what is judging you? Often people are not so much bad- they simply don’t follow the rule-book. The Ten Commandments I use as my rule-book.
Even after Ghost had been made and was being prepared for its release, Rubin was not optimistic about its chances at the Box Office.
“I was in a car with Jerry Zucker, who directed Ghost, and with the President of Paramount, and we were driving towards the movie theatre where the film was due to open. We were amazed to see all those people standing in line, waiting for the late night screening. The worldwide success of Ghost was unexpected in every way. We had no idea how it would be received and I still don’t quite understand the effect it had on people.”
Rubin has always had a weakness for ghost stories with a particular affection for Caspar the Friendly Ghost and for Topper, the hero of a number of films in the 1930s and 40s, with Cary Grant as the charming spectre.
“In a way, I wanted to tell a ghost story from the point of view of a ghost, looking back on his life” he explains. “Hamlet’s father was a key part of my thinking. He orders Hamlet to avenge his murder and I started to wonder how this story would play in New York City in 1990.”
As it turned out, it played extremely well. Given the film’s broad international appeal and spectacular success at the Box Office, it is not surprising that Rubin came under considerable pressure to write a sequel or to give his permission for the story to be turned into a stage musical.
He firmly rebuffed every approach until two producers appeared with whom Rubin felt an immediate rapport.
“They came to my home and we talked for so long that they missed their train back to New York and had to stay over. ”recalls Rubin. “I had a vision of how the emotional moments in the story could be sung and how in that way, it would be more deeply felt. I saw opportunities. It is so seamlessly achieved that even with seventeen songs, the stage show runs for the same length of time as the movie.”
Rubin pays a generous tribute to Ghost director Matthew Warchus and his colleagues.
“Matthew is a genius. “he enthuses. “It’s the first time I’ve worked with such creative flair. I’ve been blessed. I was determined to be at rehearsals every day, although Matthew was against the idea, arguing that the actors would look at me to see if I agreed with what he was saying. I promised that I’d keep my mouth shut and I became a kind of a presence. I’ve found that the more you open your mouth, the less of a presence you become.”
Rubin’s interest in the musical theatre dates back to the early 1950s “The King and I was my first play” and as well as contributing the book and a number of the lyrics, he had a ringside seat as the show took shape.
“I sat in a state of awe, surrounded by an extraordinary level of creativity. I watched as the show developed stage by stage, as it flowered into full bloom. When we opened in Manchester, I didn’t know what to expect. At the end of the first performance, there was a level of response which I’d never experienced- people stamping their feet, whistling and cheering. Matthew warned me that this kind of audience reaction was all very well but we couldn’t be certain about what we had until it happened five nights in a row, and we had it on every night. Something in Ghost The Musical speaks to the audience. They laugh, they cry and in the transfer from screen to stage musical, I think that the story has deepened emotionally.”
Rubin genuinely feels that his life was spared for a purpose “the experience told me to write about the experience”. “I just want to plant seeds in people’s minds,” he continues “and to encourage them to think about death, about not being alive. Most people have only a month, perhaps, or even a couple of seconds to prepare for the next stage and we have a duty to let go. You should use your life to let go of your life. When that plane landed in the Hudson a couple of years ago, one of the men involved went out on to a wing of the plane and apparently said to himself –Am I dead? And is my spirit like the guy in Ghost? You write a movie and you hope to expose people to the mystery of life and death. Perhaps Ghost, the movie and the stage musical, gives people their Sunday School moment of realisation about the mystery of life.”
Ghost, the Musical, is currently on a UK wide tour, coming to Manchester’s Opera House on July 2. For tickets visit the website here
**This is a syndicated interview