Interview: Bruce Joel Rubin
The Oscar-winning author describes for the first time how an acid overdose changed his life.
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Bruce Joel Rubin
This interview didn't go as expected. Bruce Joel Rubin was meant to talk about his musical Ghost, the stage version of the 1990 movie that won him his Oscar for best original screenplay. He was meant to ruminate on the challenges of adapting his own screenplay for the stage and to look back on what has to be one of the strangest of Hollywood careers.
Strange because what kind of mind is capable of creating not only the shamelessly sentimental love story at the centre of the hit movie Ghost, but also the disturbing Jacob's Ladder, a cult psychological mystery in which Tim Robbins plays a Vietnam veteran struggling to stay sane as he is haunted by demons? What kind of writer comes up with movies as diverse as the blockbuster Deep Impact, the family entertainment Stuart Little 2 and the most personal of projects, My Life, in which he directed Michael Keaton as a man who knows he is going to die.
I wait for Rubin in a windowless room somewhere under the Piccadilly Theatre's stage where the show opened last week. Overhead, director Matthew Warchus is watching a rehearsal. The music, written by rock legends Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard, permeates the building. It's like sitting in a giant speaker with the bass turned up.
The room's oak door opens and in walks a rather timid-looking grey-haired man in his late 60s. He is followed by a biblical surge of sound from the stage above. The heavenly voice that is singing at full throttle belongs to Caissie Levy, the musical's American (and Jewish) co-star. Levy plays artist Molly, the character played by Demi Moore in the film. And just before the door shuts, Levy's voice is joined in tight, anthemic harmony by the voice of Richard Fleeshman playing Sam, Molly's beefcake fiancé.
Caissie Levy and Richard Fleeshman in Ghost.
After Rubin sits down there is some small talk which actually turns out to be not so small. "I'm not typically Hollywood. What drives me is not the money. I'm driven by wanting to say something to the world." This isn't self-aggrandising propaganda. Rubin resisted Hollywood's big money offers to make a sequel to Ghost, and was also dead against doing a musical version.
"Putting a very nice movie into the hands of people I didn't trust and who would write songs that were awful and music that I would hate…" (This was before Stewart and Ballard came on board.) "Why would I do that?" he asks. He speaks softly and articulately. I ask him about his childhood in Detroit.
"We were like many people in Reform Judaism", he says. "We went to shul on the high holy days. I found prayer meaningful. I did the shema everyday by myself. I carried more religiosity in me than my parents did. And the thing I loved about Judaism is that it was so big and open. I loved biblical stories", he says, which probably explains the abundance of biblical and heaven and hell imagery in his movies.
"But in the end, it didn't serve me. I had a barmitzvah, but I didn't want to. I was looking for something deeper."
And it is here that the conversation takes an unexpected turn with something that is not in the countless interviews and profiles that were written about him after he won the Oscar.
What they don't say is that about 40 years ago something happened that has not only informed his life but all his work with a message about death and what comes after, which after all is very much the subject of Ghost and Jacob's Ladder too, in a much more subtle way. The moment happened when Rubin was in his late 20s and living in New York. He took a tab of LSD supplied by the godfather of mind-expanding experimentation, Timothy Leary.
"It may sound like I was druggy but I wasn't," says Rubin. The drug didn't work. But coincidently Rubin's flat- mate was looking after a jar of liquid "pure LSD" which another friend was going deliver to Leary.
"So my friend says 'I'll give you a drop', because all you need is one drop. And he takes an eye dropper, and he goes 'Whoops!' And the whole contents of the eye dropper, and I'm talking thousands and thousands of micrograms, goes down my throat. And that's on top of Leary's dose. I was like, 'Well, here we go'."
The overdose led to a trip that Rubin describes as not only terrifying, but dismantling. "I was completely taken apart," he says. "Imagine yourself hanging over the edge of a skyscraper, looking at the ground below and at the moment you leap you are frozen in that space and that terror. That's where I was for a very long time." When Rubin says a long time, he means two to three billion years. In real time he estimates that the effects of the drug took about eight hours before beginning to wear off. It is hard to describe this without making Rubin sound like a post-hippy loon. But in fact, it is hard to imagine a more sane, measured view on human existence than that put by Rubin.
"I'm definitely not trying to promote LSD", he assures. "Aldous Huxley wrote a wonderful book called The Perennial Philosophy and in that book I discovered that every religion was talking about the same experience. And I'd had it - in a drug. But I wanted it without the drug. I've practised meditation for 40 years and now I've arrived at that same space without drugs."
He calls it his awakening. In fact, the awakening - when the final shreds of ego blew away - happened while he was working on Ghost. The experience was so profound he did not even know if he would be able to work on the musical. In fact Rubin says he does not exist anymore. Or if he does, he exists as a tiny part of the cosmos, so much so that even his writing is nothing to do with him. So there is no is such thing as talent?
"Great talent to me is the universe at work," he says. His sense of self is now so diminished by the journey that started with the LSD overdose and ended up recently with "enlightenment", that even when he sits in rehearsals and has to come up with a new line, he can only do so by summoning his earthly persona. Occasionally he does the same for interviews. Though normally, the earthly self just sticks to the stuff about a great Hollywood career.