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An Interview with Bruce Joel Rubin
BRUCE JOEL RUBIN, 48, was recently awarded the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Ghost, 1990's top-grossing film. He also wrote the original screenplay, Jacob's Ladder. Influenced by The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Jacob's Ladder was acknowledged as one of the" best unproduced screenplays" in Hollywood for a decade until Adrian Lyne took it on last year. Rubin's life has been informed by his encounters with Buddhism in the Himalayas and by his continuing meditation practice. Recently he spoke with Tricycle's On Film editor Gaetano Kazuo Maida about film and spirituality.
Tricycle: What has inspired your work in film?
Bruce Rubin: The inspiration in a sense is my entire spiritual upbringing. Once you have a meditative life you start to see that the world is really far different than what it appears to be. What appears to be finite is really couched in the infinite, and the infinite imbues everything in our lives. To be unaware of that is to miss what is really going on in the life around us.
Hollywood is the dream factory, the place that takes people into the most secretive parts of themselves. Sitting in a dark theater staring at a big screen, people are very vulnerable. In this openness you can, if you want to, give very important lessons to an audience. You can touch the deepest part of the mass mind, and that's what I wanted to do.
Tricycle: Do you think it's possible to evoke an authentic experience through film?
Bruce Rubin: I don't know if it happens very often in film or theater. The aim of theater in its original incarnations—in Greece, even in prehistoric periods—was to evoke the real experience, to enable a cathartic effect, so the viewers didn't have to live through the experience itself.
Tricycle: You're obviously familiar with the film, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. How did you encounter it?
Bruce Rubin: In one of my first film classes in college. That movie has more impact than any other in terms of transforming one's vision of things. I thought about it for days, probably for years.
Somewhere in the middle of writing Jacob's Ladder, I had a revelation that my movie really was a feature length version of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. My obligation was to take that twenty-minute movie, which explored the mind of a man who was dying, and make it into a two-hour movie. I had to expand it to deal with the journey of the soul from the moment of its recognizing its death until the moment of its experience of that death, going through the actual moment of dying. I drew this journey from The Tibetan Book of the Dead and the idea of the bardo passage, where one goes from the perception of the clear light into the final moment of liberation. Jacob's Ladder is the bardo of the journey.
Tricycle: How did you handle this journey in the film?
Bruce Rubin: It starts out with a man being bayoneted in Vietnam, who at that moment imagines that he is in a subway station in New York City, and there are vast lights screaming toward him. In my mind, it is the light of reality, the clear light that is the light of liberation. According to Tibetan teachings, many people are unable to recognize the nature of this light. They see it as a fearsome event. With Jacob, as that light comes screaming at him, it becomes a subway car, and he sees himself about to be destroyed. It's not until the end of the movie that the light comes back to him, and now it's a light at the top of a staircase, and his son is carrying him up into that light.
Tricycle: Is there a lesson here?
Bruce Rubin: The journey between the subway and the light on the staircase is really a journey of learning to let go, learning how to recognize the light, and how to accept the truth of your demise; to recognize that there is a possibility for liberation.
Tricycle: So the entire film is the bardo—what you refer to as the "journey?"
Bruce Rubin: Except for the brief sequences in Vietnam, Jacob's Ladder is that journey. It's all taking place in his mind. He's trying to create a life that draws from his past life, with its guilts, hopes, loves, fantasies; he tries to weave them together as something that he can hold on to. But you can't hold on to that which is being pulled away from you. You cannot hold on to a life that, as it's said in the movie, doesn't want you anymore. Or is that in Ghost?, because I went for a very simple message.
Tricycle: Which was?
Bruce Rubin: Essentially that man does have a spiritual being that survives his physical life and that the one thing that continues with man beyond this physical world is the love that he shared in this life. Love, and in a sense the soul, transcend the experience of material existence. I think the movie speaks to people about that.
Tricycle: Didn't you run the risk of having your film interpreted as simple fantasy?
Bruce Rubin: I didn't want that. I really wanted a film that affirmed the spiritual nature of man and I think Ghost does that.
Tricycle: Aren't there two messages in Jacob's Ladder? There is certainly the extraordinary struggle for surrender, but there's also the message that perhaps there are malevolent forces willing to sacrifice people in furtherance of their own agendas.
Bruce Rubin: I always took the Vietnam sequence and the military experiments as merely the story line. I wrote that material without thinking of it as a polemic against a larger evil. To me evil is just deep unconsciousness—a terrible inability of people to comprehend the oneness of humanity. The willingness to war against other people is a consequence of this.
Tricycle: What do you mean by that?
Bruce Rubin: I really look at the world as a depiction of the internal state of man. The external and the internal mirror one another, and I see that larger evil as basically a depiction of man's own unconscious relationship to himself. The ability to war against others mirrors the ability to destroy one's own self. Most people are in the process of destroying themselves rather than trying to build or enlighten themselves.
Tricycle: And Jacob?
Bruce Rubin: It's partly why someone like Jacob has to struggle for surrender. I mean there's so little in Western culture that leads people toward surrender, toward an understanding of the power of love over the force of hate. Even our religious icons show us the hatred of man.
Tricycle: What is your sense of the spiritual nature of man?
Bruce Rubin: Buddha sitting under the Bo tree and having all of the illusory forces, good and evil, tempting him away from his basic inner detachment. To me that speaks of the real spiritual nature of man.
Tricycle: Did you try to communicate this?
Bruce Rubin: Jacob was a renegade existentialist who had been Jewish, and who now is a man of no religion. I portrayed him as Jewish because I didn't want him having archetypal forms at the core of his religious belief. I didn't want him having angels and demons to fall back upon as part of his religious heritage. Jews tend to be fairly abstract in their depictions of the cosmos.
Tricycle: Why was this necessary?
Bruce Rubin: I wanted him to discover the biblical archetypes. He finds angels and demons in his own soul, and they come into play at the moment of his death.
Tricycle: Do you think these archetypes are universal?
Bruce Rubin: I really believe that these archetypes are at play in all of us and come into play particularly at those moments when we need them. Most of our lives are lived in a state of denial so that we don't sense their presence at all. But I think in the moment of departing this world, these forces come into play. Unless you've devoted a lifetime to overcoming the ignorance in your life, these forces will be very powerful.
Tricycle: Do you think everyone connects with this" clear light" ultimately?
Bruce Rubin: Jacob's Ladder is about a man who pulls it off. I don't know that everybody does. I think a lot of people leave this world kicking and screaming. Maybe there is an extraordinary act of grace that occurs for every soul that departs this world, giving it its peace and recognition of the clear light. Buddhist theology doesn't quite give that to every departing soul. Wherever you are, wherever your mindset is, that's what you're going to continue with, and if you haven't practiced enlightenment in your life, you won't leave this world in an enlightened state.
Tricycle: What do you mean?
Bruce Rubin: If you don't have the Judaic-Christian sense of God, or illumination in the Buddhist sense, you leave in a very dark state. You don't even know to look for light. If you're lost in darkness you don't even know what light is, and if you're lost without God, you have no sense of what God is. The time to discover hope and to explore the realm of hope is during life, not at the moment of leaving it.
Tricycle: It could be argued that all your films are parts of a series.
Bruce Rubin: They are. They're about the journey, especially the journey beyond this world. My son Joshua once said to me, "Dad, why are all your movies about death?" I've had to argue that I'm really life obsessed. You can't understand life without understanding death. Life doesn't have meaning, poignancy, fragility, unless you understand how rapidly it can be over. All I'm trying to do is to point people to an inevitability. Acknowledging that changes everything, changes how you live your life. That's what I'm trying to tell people—stop and look, and live differently.
Gaetano Kazuo Maida is a filmmaker and photographer in Berkeley, California. Peace is Every Step, his documentary on Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, will be released this fall.