Magic, Mysticism and Meaning: Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin

At the last online Screenwriters Festival I interviewed Bruce Joel Rubin, who wrote Brainstorm, Ghost and Jacob’s Ladder. His work was profoundly impactful on me, as often it examines the veil between this life and the next. The session is fascinating for writers who want to deep dive into meaning and a great listen. If you have never seen Jacob’s Ladder, rent it tonight, it’s a reminder that movies can tackle big ideas and themes and still find an audience. It’s very moving.

Below is a summary of the conversation, along with the soundtrack for Jacob’s Ladder and trailer.

Chapter Headings For Quick Access

00:00:07: Introduction and Setting the Stage – The host introduces the guest, Bruce Joel Rubin, and sets the stage for a deep conversation about storytelling and screenwriting.

00:02:03: The Value of Stories and Finding Your Voice – Bruce discusses the value of stories in expanding awareness and finding one’s voice as a storyteller.

00:06:15: Bruce’s Personal Journey and the Importance of Letting Go – Bruce shares his personal journey of finding his voice and emphasizes the importance of letting go as a writer.

00:11:20: Brainstorm and Exploring Death Experiences – Bruce discusses the movie Brainstorm and the exploration of death experiences in his films.

00:18:07: Jacob’s Ladder and the Mystery of Death – Bruce talks about Jacob’s Ladder and its exploration of the mystery of death.

00:24:38: Writing Authentically and Finding Your True Self – Bruce encourages writers to write authentically and embrace their true selves in their work.

00:30:07: Letting Go – The concept of letting go and embracing death is explored through a conversation about hell and angels.

00:31:26: Writing and Insight – The importance of conveying a message through emotion and plot formation in movies is discussed, along with the role of a character as a guide.

00:33:13: Writing as a Gift – The impact of writing on self-discovery and storytelling is emphasized, along with the importance of putting material out there.

00:34:04: Finding the Way – The process of writing and finding the right elements to bring a story together is compared to painting.

00:34:58: Ghost and Spirituality – The distinction between the supernatural and spiritual aspects of the film ‘Ghost’ is discussed, along with the balance between humor and drama.

00:40:51: Emotional Spectacle – The emotional impact of films and the ability to create awe and wonder in the audience is highlighted.

00:42:45: Fulfilling a Dream – The fulfillment of a childhood dream through the creation of impactful stories is expressed with gratitude.

00:44:29: Inner Depth – The importance of stillness and going within to access creativity and a sense of oneness is emphasized.

00:47:42: Finding Your Voice – The advice to new writers is to find their distinctive voice and share their unique perspective.

00:51:3: Impactful Stories – The power of storytelling to connect with others and evoke emotions is highlighted.

00:53:07: Gratitude and Fulfillment – Reflecting on the impact of their work and feeling grateful for the opportunity to share stories.

The Importance of Authenticity

Rubin emphasizes the significance of writing from a place of authenticity and staying true to oneself. He advises against writing solely for the industry or the market, as it can lead to a lack of fulfillment and a loss of personal voice. Instead, he encourages writers to delve deep into their own experiences and emotions, allowing their stories to flow naturally and genuinely.

“You will be much happier as a human being writing what you want the way you want it than to write it to them and having them give you a big paycheck.” – Bruce Joel Rubin

The Journey of Self-Discovery

Rubin shares his personal journey of self-discovery, which played a significant role in shaping his storytelling. Through experiences such as an LSD overdose and a deep dive into mystical traditions, he found his voice and a unique perspective on life. He believes that these personal insights and revelations are what make a writer’s voice truly authentic and powerful.

“Your true self is something bigger. It’s greater. It’s massive. It’s universal. And that true universal self, writing for itself, speaks to everybody.” – Bruce Joel Rubin

Exploring Spiritual Themes

Rubin’s films often touch upon spiritual and metaphysical themes, rather than simply being categorized as supernatural. He believes in the power of storytelling to provoke deep emotions and provoke change in the audience. Whether it’s the exploration of life after death in “Jacob’s Ladder” or the spiritual journey in “Brainstorm,” Rubin’s films aim to expand the audience’s awareness and provide a profound experience.

“Finding what you really need to say is better, that it never received a light of day, than that it get made badly, or that you write something that creates a path for you that is not who you are and not what you’re about.” – Bruce Joel Rubin

The Magic of “Ghost”

One of Rubin’s most iconic films, “Ghost,” combines elements of thriller, love story, and supernatural intrigue. The addition of humor through the character of a fake psychic, played by Whoopi Goldberg, brought a new dimension to the story. Rubin’s ability to blend different genres and create a 4-quadrant movie, appealing to a wide audience, demonstrates his versatility and mastery as a storyteller.

“The film was pretty much a thriller at first, but then the idea of a fake psychic added humor and created what Hollywood calls a 4-quadrant movie.” – Bruce Joel Rubin

The Power of Storytelling

Throughout his career, Rubin has recognized the transformative power of storytelling. He believes that stories have the ability to touch people’s hearts and provoke change. Whether it is through emotional connections, thought-provoking themes, or a journey of self-discovery, storytelling has the potential to make a lasting impact on both the storyteller and the audience.

“When you’re surprised in your own storytelling by what happens, trust me, your audience will be surprised. Allow yourself not to know. Allow yourself to just dive in the deep end and work your way through, and it will reveal itself.” – Bruce Joel Rubin

In the next section of the transcript, Rubin discusses the importance of stillness and going within oneself to access creativity and create meaningful work.

The Power of Stillness

Rubin believes that the secret to accessing creativity and creating meaningful work lies in stillness. He advocates for the practice of meditation, which he has been engaging in for half a century. According to Rubin, stillness allows writers to tap into depths within themselves and discover surprising insights and ideas.

“In stillness, we have this idea of meditation, which I have been a practitioner of for half a century, it’s a gift. It really, it opens a door to depths inside that you are going to be amazed by, and it allows you entry through your mind, and your egocentric self, and your heart, and your gut, and even your sexuality. All of this gets opened up and draws you into the world and then if you can link all that together and create a flow, you become a whole person and a whole person with great inner depth.” – Bruce Joel Rubin

Embracing Inner Depth

Rubin emphasizes the importance of embracing inner depth as a writer. By going within and exploring the deeper parts of oneself, writers can tap into a vast reservoir of creativity and create work that is rich and meaningful. Rubin believes that this inner depth allows writers to become whole persons and connect with their audience on a profound level.

“So much of the secret of everything we’re looking for in our lives resides within. And the approach to going in, you know, knock and it shall be opened unto you, seek and you shall find, is finding an entry point, and you do that through stillness.” – Bruce Joel Rubin

The Creative Piece Within

Rubin acknowledges that accessing the creative piece within oneself can be challenging, especially in a world filled with external distractions and noise. However, he encourages writers to persevere and find moments of stillness amidst the chaos. By quieting the mind and diving into the deeper parts of oneself, writers can unlock their creative potential and bring forth their best work.

“Sit quietly and just get past the noise of your mind, which is hard. That’s the real problem. And then go into the deeper, deeper parts of yourself and see what’s waiting for you. You’ll be amazed.” – Bruce Joel Rubin

In the next section of the transcript, Rubin reflects on the impermanence of the outer world and the importance of connecting with something greater than oneself.

Embracing Impermanence

Rubin shares a Buddhist perspective on the impermanence of the outer world. He acknowledges that external achievements and material possessions are fleeting and can lead to fear, doubt, and attachment. However, he believes that by delving deep within oneself, writers can discover a sense of permanence and connection to something much larger.

“If you go inside deep enough, you start to discover these surprising places of, permanence is the wrong word, but embrace something much, much bigger than you. You become very tiny in it, but there’s no loss. You become actually 1 with this mass of wholeness and oneness, and that’s worth looking for.” – Bruce Joel Rubin

The Significance of the Journey

Rubin emphasizes that the inner journey of self-discovery and connection is more important than any external achievement. While writing screenplays and creating films can be fulfilling, Rubin believes that the true essence of life lies in the exploration of one’s true self and the connection to a greater whole. He encourages writers to embrace their journey and seek the profound experiences that come with it.

“That’s more important than writing screenplays, but that’s your journey. Everybody has an opportunity. Certainly in the middle of a pandemic, you have a lot of opportunities. Sit quietly and just get past the noise of your mind, which is hard. That’s the real problem. And then go into the deeper, deeper parts of yourself and see what’s waiting for you. You’ll be amazed.” – Bruce Joel Rubin

In the final section of the transcript, Rubin expresses his gratitude for the opportunity to share his stories and the impact they have had on others.

Gratitude and Fulfillment

Rubin expresses deep gratitude for the ability to share his stories and have a positive impact on others. He acknowledges that the journey of a writer is not about personal achievements or accolades but about serving a greater purpose. Rubin feels blessed and gifted to have been able to bring his stories into the world and touch the hearts of audiences.

“I have real, real gratitude that I was used well, that in this lifetime I was told to tell people what I saw, and I’ve done that, and for children, for adults, for everyone, and that really, It feels good. I don’t walk around carrying it around with me.” – Bruce Joel Rubin

The Legacy of Work

Rubin reflects on the legacy of his work and the fulfillment it has brought him. While he acknowledges the significance of awards and recognition, he believes that true fulfillment comes from knowing that his work has served a purpose and made a difference in the lives of others. Rubin’s Oscar, hidden away on a bookshelf, symbolizes a childhood dream fulfilled and a reminder of the impact his storytelling has had.

“The fact that it’s all past tense, but what’s really lovely in the end is knowing that you’ve been used well, that you served well, that you came into this world and something wanted to be spoken, and you let it find its voice, and you typed your story and its story onto the page or the screen, and it got into the world.” – Bruce Joel Rubin

In conclusion, Bruce Joel Rubin’s insights into the world of storytelling provide a valuable perspective for aspiring writers and filmmakers. By staying true to oneself, exploring personal experiences, embracing stillness, and connecting with something greater, writers can create authentic and impactful narratives that resonate with audiences on a deep level. Rubin’s journey serves as a reminder that storytelling is a powerful tool for self-discovery, connection, and transformation.


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