Raising hell in the movies is scriptwriter’s challenge. Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin is Hollywood’s resident expert on heaven and hell. Driven by deep rooted metaphysical impulses, Rubin’s career might be described as a chutzpah laden attempt to sneak a movie camera into the Next World and return with the footage. Understandably, it’s been a rough journey. The prospect of death leaves Rubin, 46, relatively undaunted. But as for most screenwriters, having his personal sensibilities filtered through a director has too often left him with a taste of purgatory. “Brainstorm,” a 1983 sci fi yarn, is best known because Natalie Wood died on the set. But Rubin remembers how director Douglas Trumbull tinted his script, about a machine capable of recording the experience of death, with Christian imagery. “The angels flapping around in there were not mine,” says Rubin. “Ghost,” a tale of love after death and a recent box office hit, portrayed the world to come in terms far too Spielbergian for the writer’s taste. Twice frustrated in the art of heaven and hell raising, Rubin is now banking on Adrian Lyne, the British director of “Fatal Attraction,” to get it right in “Jacob’s Ladder.” The script languished in Hollywood for more than a decade and was rejected by every major studio, earning it a place on American Film magazine’s list of the “ten best scripts never made.” Finally filmed by Carolco Productions, it is scheduled for November release. The film’s hero, Vietnam veteran Jacob Singer, is working as a postman in New York when he begins to witness demonic apparitions.
Is he hallucinating, or is New York, as his girlfriend protests, just a truly hellish place? A former philosophy student who decided to “stop thinking” after the war, Jacob begins to suspect that the army had experimented upon him and his platoon with psychoactive chemicals. In “Jacob’s Ladder,” says Rubin, “we find a man on a journey that is inexplicable. He is seeing archetypal demons that belong in medieval times, not in twentieth century America. In my script, Jacob was a renegade Jewish existentialist a philosopher who had no religion, just a universal sense of absurdity.” Lacking a religious background, Jacob has no tools for interpreting his visions. The film is still being edited by Lyne, whom Rubin describes as “an intuitively brilliant cineaste.” ” The sequences Rubin has seen so far has shocked and astonished him. “The emotional depth charges Adrian set off in me were amazing,” he says. Still, Jacob’s Jewishness has been washed out of the film, an all too typical phenomenon in Hollywood. Rubin considers this a shame, not least because he considers Jacob’s predicament a metaphor for that of modern, secular Israel, which appears to him caught up in a biblical scenario of the end of days. “Part of the script which did not survive is about an apocalypse,” says Rubin. “An individual experiencing his own demise experiences an intimation of the world’s demise. “We’re moving into an apocalyptic, fin de siecle period,” he continues. “It happened before in the year 999, and you can sense another proliferation of messianic sensibilities beginning now. But this isn’t necessarily bad. The 90s should become a time for modern man to take stock. With all the distractions facing us in our lives, this could be a useful time for each of us.” Rubin says he got his first peek at the nature of heaven from a Tibetan monk, who had papered the walls of his hut with nude photographs of Elke Sommer. That was in Nepal in the 60s, as Rubin, a native of Detroit, wandered the world in search of answers to the usual big questions. “I was raised as a Reform Jew,” he says, “but I was rarely satisfied in my deeper spiritual yearnings by any of my religious practice. I always found a sense of emptiness, of talking about arhx (but not touching arhx) the truth I was hungry for.” Undeterred by the monk’s worldly fantasies, Rubin continued his quest. “I eventually became interested in the mystical traditions of all religions,” he says. “I discovered that the potential is there, in every human being, to know God in a personal sense. In the mystical teachings of Christianity, in the Kabbalah and in Buddhist and Hindu traditions, there are practices whose purpose is this communion. “Rubin has come to believe that the here and now and the hereafter are intertwined. “For me, God was not something to be met with or dealt with after you’ve left this world, but something you could tune into and touch while you’re alive. Expressing my sense of the hereafter has probably been the prime motivating factor for my writing. I want to make people understand through film that there is more to their lives than sensory reality tells them.”
Originally published on October 1, 1990, in The Jerusalem Report