The Spiritual and Creative
Bruce Joel Rubin is an Oscar-winning screenwriter, meditation teacher and photographer. His films often explore themes of life and death with metaphysical and science fiction elements. Prominent among them are Jacob’s Ladder, My Life and Ghost, for which he received the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Ghost was also nominated for Best Picture, and was the highest grossing film of 1990. “Each film was an attempt, successful or not, to witness and explore the unseen world of our lives. I wanted to speak to adults and to children and to touch the inner mystery of our shared being.”
Bruce was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, where a series of childhood experiences shaped and inspired the spiritual and creative forces of his adult life. At the age of four, he had a spiritual experience while playing in a sandbox in the middle of the afternoon. The sun disappeared and a dense night sky appeared in its place. Infinite galaxies were swirling in the vastness of his own head and he sensed the entire universe was contained within him. He knew he was somehow one with all there was.
At the age of five his Aunt took him to see his first play at a local high school. His confusion and wonder turned to amazement when the curtain opened on a lighted stage, and at its center stood two children and his mother, who was playing Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins. His love of theater started then, and in his teens he became an actor and director in school plays.
Also at five, he had his first intimation of mortality. While driving with his parents, they saw a crowd of people ahead and pulled over. When they got out of the car Bruce saw a girl his age lying on the ground covered with a blanket, obviously in pain and mortally wounded. “The idea that someone my age could die was shocking to me. At some point, my father took me back to the car. He didn’t say anything about it, but I never forgot. After that, I couldn’t understand why people never talked about the fact that they were going to die. It seemed to me like the one inevitable thing in life, but nobody addressed it. Everybody was just trying to have a good time and make a lot of money, but it was clear to me that it was all very temporary. I kept thinking, ‘Don’t they get it?’”
As a teenager, Bruce’s love of filmmaking began when he saw the Ingmar Bergman film Wild Strawberries at the Krim Theater in Detroit. After two years at Detroit’s Wayne State University, he transferred to NYU film school.
THE SPIRITUAL AND CREATIVE
At NYU, Bruce nearly failed the only screenwriting course he took. His classmates included Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma, who directed Bruce’s first student script, Jennifer. During his last year at school, one of his jobs was selling hot dogs and beer at the New York World’s Fair. Every day at lunch Bruce would go to the Johnson’s Wax Pavilion to see a 20-minute movie, To Be Alive! by Francis Thompson, about the commonalities of human experience, filmed in the United States, Europe, Africa and Asia, and viewed on three separate screens. A single screen 70mm version won the documentary short Academy Award. He was always moved by the ending, when the narrator said, “Simply to be alive is a great joy.” Bruce has commented, “I wanted to bring that feeling into the world somehow—that it’s wonderful to be alive.”
By the summer of 1965, LSD had been used both as a therapeutic drug and as a hallucinogenic means to induce mystical states of consciousness. Bruce was 22. He roomed with a friend of a Harvard professor named Timothy Leary, and had read Leary’s book “The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead.” His roommate found LSD life-changing and gave Bruce an LSD pill, suggesting he try it when he felt ready. Bruce carried it around in his wallet for six months but when he finally took it, though it was a strong dose, nothing happened. Earlier that day, a person had arrived at Bruce’s apartment carrying a bottle of pure liquid LSD from Sandoz Labs in Switzerland. He asked if he could store it in the refrigerator overnight before bringing it to Dr. Leary at Millbrook. Bruce’s roommate knew his LSD pill hadn’t worked, so he got the Sandoz LSD and filled an eyedropper, meaning to give Bruce only a drop, but accidentally gave him the entire dropper, leading to an extraordinary journey. “I got the sense that my life had only been about two seconds long, and now I was resuming a larger journey that was a multi-billion years long. I sensed that it was going to take away everything I thought I knew.”
Two weeks later, Bruce was hired as an assistant film editor at NBC working on the critically-acclaimed evening news program The Huntley-Brinkley Report, but his LSD experience had sparked a desire for answers and a teacher. Some friends were about to leave a $12 a month rental home on the Greek island of Paros and asked if Bruce wanted to take over the lease. Though his parents and many others argued that he was on a serious career path at NBC, Bruce said yes. He left his job and traveled to Greece with a typewriter and knapsack full of books on topics like Tibetan Buddhism, Christian theology and Jewish mysticism. His plan: to meditate and “read himself into enlightenment.”
After four months in Greece, Bruce sent the books and typewriter back to the U.S. so he could trek to Tibet. It was 1966. He hitchhiked through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, feeling embraced and expanded by each culture. He lived in ashrams in India, a Tibetan monastery in Kathmandu and a houseboat on the Ganges in Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in India. He met with myriad teachers including Anandamayi Ma, the Maharishi Yogi, the Dalai Lama and a police captain who offered him tea and bananas and gave one of the most beautiful spiritual talks Bruce had ever heard. Bruce continued his travels, going through Laos to Cambodia, spending a week sleeping on the floors of the temples at Angkor Wat, which was still being excavated from the surrounding jungle. He stayed at a Buddhist temple in Bangkok and a Sikh temple in Singapore, then spent a month in Japan. He had been traveling for nearly two years. Though he hadn’t found his teacher, he decided it was time to go home. Shortly after Bruce arrived back in New York City he met Rudi, just blocks from where he’d begun his journey. Rudi taught a meditation practice that became the foundation for Bruce’s spiritual life. He began meditating every day, a practice he continues to the present.
Right after meeting Rudi, Bruce met Blanche Mallins, the woman who would later become his wife. During that time he struggled to establish a film career, taking on an assortment of jobs from sound recording to film editing. He worked with the Joffrey Ballet Company on the multimedia rock ballet Astarte, and with Francis Thompson—the director of the documentary short he’d so admired, To Be Alive!—on another three-screen film, Cathedral at Chartres. He was Assistant Director for his former NYU classmate Brian De Palma on Hi, Mom! starring a young Robert DeNiro. Then he worked with De Palma and Robert Fiore on a two-screen film interpretation of an off-Broadway play, Dionysus in ’69.
Bruce was hired as an assistant by his good friend, David Bienstock, an independent filmmaker who was Curator of Film at the Whitney Museum in New York. While there, Bruce gradually became Assistant Curator of Film and helped establish a program called The New American Filmmakers Series, an important launching pad for independent filmmakers in the early 70’s and a precursor to Sundance. (The first film of the series was narrated by Robert Redford, who attended the opening.) Together they also began writing a science fiction script, Quasar. Bruce recalled, “We came up with a story about an astronomer who discovers what he thinks is a giant quasar, but it turns out to be something that spiritually changes his life. That was the breakthrough. My spiritual life and my creative life merged. It all became one journey, one unfolding.” Two years later the script was optioned by Ingo Preminger, fresh off producing the Oscar-winning movie MASH, but that option expired after Richard Zanuck, President of Warner Brothers, said he did not understand the ending. Bruce’s career stalled. Interestingly, almost 30 years later, Zanuck would be the producer on Bruce’s film, Deep Impact.
When David Bienstock and Rudi both passed within six months of each other, Bruce and his family moved to Bloomington, Indiana where he and his wife continued their meditation practice with another student of Rudi’s. Bruce began teaching meditation while struggling to find jobs that included working at a bakery and then a wine and cheese shop. He got his Master’s degree and Blanche got her Doctorate at Indiana University during this time. Six years later, in 1980, they moved with their now two sons to DeKalb, Illiniois, where Blanche was hired as a professor at Northern Illinois University while Bruce wrote the script that would become Jacob’s Ladder and the treatment for what would become Ghost.
In 1979 Bruce had sold The George Dunlap Tape, a script he had begun writing in New York years before. Doug Trumbull, the director, brought in other writers and it was produced at MGM in 1983 as Brainstorm, starring Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood (in her last film). In September of that year, Bruce and Blanche borrowed money to fly to Los Angeles for the premiere of Brainstorm. While there, they had lunch with Bruce’s friend Brian De Palma who strongly advised Bruce to move to LA if he wanted a career in Hollywood. Though Blanche was on a tenure track as a professor, she knew how much Bruce wanted this career and was completely supportive. On their return to Illinois, she gave notice at her job, put their house up for sale and said they were moving to Hollywood. Bruce considered it the most selfless and courageous act he'd ever witnessed.
On the day Bruce and Blanche sold their Illinois house, two weeks before they were to leave for LA, Bruce’s LA agent called to say he would no longer represent him because his work was “too metaphysical and nobody wanted to make movies about ghosts.” Bruce reminded him of all the pitch meetings he was arranging. His agent revealed he had never set up any meetings, wished him well and hung up. With no agent, no money, and no job prospects, Bruce considered it a devastating ending. Blanche considered it a beginning and the best thing that could have happened because Bruce could now find an agent who understood him and his work. Their plans to move to LA proceeded.
While still in Illinois, Bruce had finished Jacob’s Ladder and sent it to his previous agent in New York. What he didn’t know is that Stephen Rebello had been intensively researching the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood (an early precursor to Hollywood’s annual Black List), scripts that he said “were just too good to get produced.” Rebello read 125 scripts recommended by respected industry connections and narrowed them down to the best ten and wrote about them in an article titled, One in a Million, published in American Film magazine in December, 1983. They included The Princess Bride, Total Recall, Eight Men Out, Miracle Mile and Jacob’s Ladder. About Jacob’s Ladder, Rebello wrote in part: “Admirers of Bruce Joel Rubin’s Jacob’s Ladder flat out refuse to describe this screenplay. Their only entreaty? ‘Read it. It’s extraordinary.’ And it is… page for page, it is one of the very few screenplays I’ve read with the power to consistently raise hackles in broad daylight." Bruce was surprised to arrive in LA and find his script had been widely read and admired, establishing his reputation. It was a very different position from when he’d first written the screenplay:
“The script idea for Jacob’s Ladder began as a dream: A subway late at night; I am traveling through the bowels of New York City. There are very few people on the train. A terrible loneliness grips me. The train pulls into the station and I get off. The platform is deserted. I walk to the nearest exit, and discover the gate is locked. A feeling of terrible despair begins to pulse through me as I hike to the other end of the platform. To my horror, that exit is chained, too. I am totally trapped and overwhelmed by a sense of doom. I know with perfect certainty that I will never see daylight again. My only hope is to jump onto the tracks and enter the tunnel, the darkness. The only direction from there is down. I know the next stop on my journey is hell. Partly that came out of my own fear and despair, because nothing in my life seemed to be working. In Illinois, I felt like my story had evaporated completely. My story was, ‘You don’t have a story.’ Here you are, living in a cornfield. No friends. No work. Your wife is supporting the family. Basically, in my mind, the story was over. I could have given up my filmmaking goals and settled into a different kind of lifestyle… My story would have been: ‘Okay, you tried.’ Instead, I woke up from my subway dream and said, ‘That’s a great opening for a movie.’ I then tried to write my way out of hell…”
Bruce, Blanche and their boys arrived in LA in the summer of 1984 with enough money to last four months. Bruce quickly found a new agent who found him a job writing a screenplay for a major film company, making more money than he’d ever earned, and Blanche was offered a dream job as Program Evaluator at the J. Paul Getty Institute for Education in the Arts where she helped to create a national program still used in schools today.
Over the course of a 30-year career Bruce wrote over 30 scripts, with more than a third of them produced, listed below in the Filmography section. Throughout his time in Los Angeles and later in New York as well, Bruce continued his meditation practice, as well as teaching meditation classes weekly with students on both coasts.
Recently, Bruce’s creative focus has shifted to photography. He discovered photography as an unexpected opportunity for communicating his spiritual vision. The result of always carrying an iPhone in his pocket, he describes this new phase in his creative life as the discovery of seeing. As Bruce explains, ‘The mystery and magic of the world is not hidden. It is under our feet, on old walls, in rusting garbage cans. The beauty, the wonder, never ends.’”
“Although Bruce’s film career has been entwined with the imagery of cinema, his primary focus has always been on narrative storytelling more than the visual. In recent years, he has shifted his focus to the image itself and has discovered that photographs, even in abstraction, have wonderful stories to tell.”
Brainstorm (1983) IMDb
Deadly Friend (1986) IMDb
Ghost (1990) IMDb
Jacob’s Ladder (1990) IMDb
Sleeping With the Enemy (1991, uncredited) IMDb
Deceived (1991) IMDb
My Life (1993) IMDb
Deep Impact (1998) IMDb
Stuart Little 2 (2002) IMDb
The Last Mimzy (2007) IMDb
The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009) IMDb
Ghost the Musical (2011) Playbill
Bruce and his wife, Blanche, split their time between Los Angeles and San Francisco, where he teaches weekly meditation classes. His meditation talks can be found on YouTube and here on his website. Blanche is an artist with a Doctorate in Art Education. She taught at Indiana University, Northern Illinois University, California State University at Northridge, and was the Program Evaluator at the J. Paul Getty Institute for the Arts. She is also a student and teacher of meditation and an avid horsewoman. Their younger son Ari, a pilot, screenwriter and former board member of the WGA, is now in law school. Their son Joshua and his wife Evangeline have two children. Joshua has worked as an award-winning writer of major video games like Assassin’s Creed 2 and Destiny. He is now involved in the development of virtual reality projects and works as an Interactive Narrative Consultant with clients in the U.S. and Europe. More information can be found on his website here.