“Eckhart saw Hell too. He said: The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won't let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they're not punishing you, he said. They're freeing your soul. So, if you're frightened of dying and you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.” –– Louis (Danny Aiello) in “Jacob's Ladder”
I first viewed “Jacob's Ladder” on VHS several years after its release in theaters, when it received a lukewarm response from audiences (it grossed around $26 million by the end of its run) and received a polarizing response from critics: Roger Ebert called it “powerfully written, directed and acted” while The Washington Post's Hal Hinson charged it with being “garbled and cliched.”
My initial reaction to the film was closer to Ebert's than Hinson's, thanks to sequences of such evocative, mysterious visual power that I couldn't shake them. The famed scene at the party lingered longest, with its irresistible mixture of the sensual and the demonic: the throbbing, carnal bassline of James Brown's “My Thang”; the reptilian tail snaking around Elizabeth Pena's exposed thigh; the snapping, disembodied jaws, materializing out of thin air.
“Jacob's Ladder” was released on November 2, 1990, only a few months after its screenwriter, Bruce Joel Rubin, enjoyed a career-defining hit with the blockbuster supernatural romance “Ghost.” The former would not experience the kind of steep trajectory enjoyed by its more mainstream predecessor, but with its fractured narrative, suggestive imagery and enigmatic denouement, it had all the qualities of a lasting cult hit that would become a staple of the late-night rental market and a defining horror film for slightly more adventurous viewers of a certain age.
On the film's 25th anniversary, HitFix spoke with director Adrian Lyne and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin about the cult classic, collecting their memories of the film's development and production period and getting their reflections on its cultural legacy. (Note: Though Tim Robbins was not made available for an interview by deadline, you can read his followup comments on the film's 25th anniversary here.)
Bruce Joel Rubin is a soft-spoken Buddhist whose path to Hollywood fame and fortune was long and circuitous and sometimes aimless. Born in Detroit on March 10, 1943, this son of Sondra and James made his first steps at NYU film school in the early '60s, where he befriended such future A-listers as Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma before taking a trip that sent him on a path of personal discovery and spiritual transformation. “The whole eyedropper full of thousands of micrograms of LSD went surging down my throat,” he related of his most formative adult experience, an accidental overdose of pure acid produced by LSD pioneer Sandoz Laboratories. “That was the beginning of a very life-changing experience. And that experience…is referenced on some level in 'Jacob's Ladder.'”
The acid in question had been procured by Timothy Leary, a friend of a friend who was then the country's fiercest LSD advocate and, in some quarters, considered Public Enemy No. 1 (he was once deemed “the most dangerous man in America” by President Richard Nixon). Leary championed the drug for its mind-expanding properties, a promise that bore itself out in profound ways for Bruce Joel Rubin, who would go on to hitchhike through Asia and briefly make his home in a Tibetan monastery in Kathmandu. One of his most important discoveries was Leary's influential 1964 book “The Psychedelic Experience,” ostensibly an “instruction manual” for acid trips that Leary and his co-writers Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner loosely based on the famed Nyigman spiritual guide the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Both books would later serve as, in Rubin's words, “the source of what 'Jacob's Ladder' became.”
“Here I was, just another kid from Detroit, who suddenly tapped into something that I was totally unprepared for,” said Rubin, who won an Oscar for writing that other 1990 supernatural-themed film “Ghost.” “And when I came back from it, I kept saying 'why did I come back?' Because as far as I knew, I was, at that point, completely no longer existing on any level. And this voice in my head said, 'well, you're back to tell people what you saw.' And out of that, somehow or another, I was able to get a Hollywood career, which remains for me kind of an amazing thing. I don't know how it happened.”
Finally locating the “voice” he had been searching for as a young film student but never honed in on (“I had an inclination and a desire to write, but I had never had anything to write about”), Rubin merged his film school education with this new awareness to eventually pen the script for “Jacob's Ladder,” a screenplay spawned from a dream he had experienced about being trapped in a subway (a scenario that would eventually find its way into the finished film).
“I was trapped, alone completely, in the subway station,” Rubin recounted. “I figured the only way to get out of here was to go to the other side of the tracks. And somehow, I don't remember all of the dream, but the realization was there was no way out. The only way out was down, and down meant Hell. And that I was on a journey into Hell, and the only way to free myself of this entrapment was to go through it. I woke up from that saying very vividly to myself, 'this is a great idea for a movie.'”
Rubin began work on “Jacob's Ladder” in 1980, and three years later the script would pick up momentum after being mentioned on a list compiled by American Film Magazine of the ten best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. Despite this exposure and several close calls — at one point Ridley Scott was interested in directing, a call that caused the budding scribe to “miss [his] exit by an hour” — the script remained in limbo until Lyne, then one of the hottest directors in Hollywood following the massive success of his last three films (“Flashdance,” “9 1/2 Weeks” and “Fatal Attraction”) chose it as his next project — even backing out of an opportunity to direct the coveted adaptation of Tom Wolfe's “The Bonfire of the Vanities” in the process.
“I spoke to a friend of mine called Tracey Jacobs — she was a writer's agent, now she's an actor's agent as well — and I said, 'What have you read in the last year or two that hasn't been made?'” said Lyne, speaking to me from his home. “Cause I was reading such junk, awful, awful scripts. And she said 'This is a movie that's been around for a long while and I think it's marvelous but it's never got made.'…and I agreed with her.”
Part of Lyne's fascination with “Jacob's Ladder” was tied to his love of Robert Enrico's 1962 adaptation of the Ambrose Bierce short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which similarly features a doomed man hallucinating an entire episode during the limbo between life and death. Ironically, it is just this structure that may have alienated mainstream-minded audiences during the film's initial release, a fact that Lyne acknowledges: “It was a complicated thing for people to get their head around,” he said. “I think people maybe needed to see the movie twice to understand it.”
Rubin, fiercely protective of his dense script, told the New York Times in an interview just prior to the film's release that he felt some “trepidation” at Lyne's involvement (“I don't know exactly what my wariness was, it may have been 'Flashdance,'” he offered when I asked him about those comments), but he ultimately came around at a dinner party during which the two men had the opportunity to talk in-depth about their respective visions for the film.
“I could feel we were on the same page,” said Rubin. “He was very enthusiastic about the script. Scared of it. But I appreciated that he was scared of it, because it was not an easy film. Not overtly commercial, but it had enormous power. The script was unusually evocative. …It taps into something very universal and very deep in people. The movie actually does a lot of that as well. I don't know if it goes quite as deeply as the script did. But it really does tap into something that is a kind of underlying insecurity in people — 'is this world real or not?'”
Photo Credit: Sony Pictures
Though this first meeting would cement Rubin's faith in Lyne's abilities to do justice to the script he had put so much of his personal experience into, some clashes arose later in the development process when the director began challenging the screenwriter's grandiose visuals, particularly those inspired by the works of Romantic poet and artist William Blake.
“The script I wrote, it was Blake. The images of Blake,” said Rubin. “They were very classical, hellish images. There were demons with horns and all of those things that are so much a part of Western Biblical imagery. And I was very compelled by that imagery, and I thought it would have a really strong visual impact on the screen. And Adrian said he thought people would laugh at people with horns, that it wouldn't have power.”
“Bruce and I talked about it forever,” Lyne recounted. “We literally talked about it for about a year…the differences I had broadly was that Bruce sort of saw it very much in sort of Biblical terms. The Devil, and Heaven, and angels, and this sort of thing. And what I wanted to try and avoid was sort of familiar imagery. You know, I used to joke about it — I used to say the Liberace version of Heaven. The staircase, and the clouds, and the pillows…and equally the imagery of the Devil. That guy with the pitchfork and that funny tongue, cleft whatever. I wanted to avoid imagery that had been seen before, that we were familiar with.”
Known for his use of natural light and an aversion to special effects (“'Tell me one thing: how many carpenters do I need to build the void?'” Rubin recalled Lyne asking of one of his vivid descriptions), Lyne's conception of the visions experienced by Jacob were somewhat more grounded than Rubin's, inspired by, among other things, the abstract paintings of Francis Bacon and Joel-Peter Witkin's transgressive conceptual photographs that in many cases featured actual human corpses among their tableau.
“I tried to make all of that sort of devilish image, if you like, to be sort of flesh-based,” said Lyne. “You know, I used to call it thalidomide. Like a distortion of flesh. Something you couldn't quite get a fix on, and that you couldn't reject as something you'd seen before.”
Though an article at the time mentions that Lyne and Rubin “bartered and argued violently” over the direction of the film's supernatural imagery, the passage of time seems to have softened their perceptions of the period. When I asked Lyne whether his conceptual changes had been difficult for Rubin to swallow, he put it in terms of a “transition” rather than a fight: “I think he grew to sort of like what I wanted to do.” Rubin, for his part, now admits that Lyne was absolutely correct in taking things in a more grounded direction.
“Adrian started talking about something that really hit me, which is that if you see people — instead of having horns, having little tiny growths on their head that were kind of crusty and biologically disturbing, that that would have much more power than an actual physical ram's horn growing out of your head,” said Rubin. “And I know, because it worked, that he was right. That kind of imagery speaks to us in a much more powerful way. It's not dismissable in the same way that something like a demon's horn would be.”
Despite Lyne's reputation for directing blockbusters, “Jacob's Ladder” was seen as risky by the suits and changed hands relatively early on in the process, moving from Paramount (“they sort of chickened out, as far as I remember,” recalled Lyne) to Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna's Carolco Pictures, the upstart production and distribution company that made its reputation on the “Rambo” series and would later reach its commercial peak with films like “Total Recall” and James Cameron's “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”
“Mario is great, he's like one of the old producers,” said Lyne. “Like a Sam Spiegel or something, you know. Or one of those old guys from the '50s. …he did things on a whim, if you like. And there aren't too many people like that.”
Paramount may have lost faith, but Hollywood's A-list certainly didn't. Actors rumored to have vied for the lead roles include such boldfaced names as Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Richard Gere (for the tortured protagonist Jacob Singer) and Madonna, Julia Roberts and Andie MacDowell (for Jacob's lover and post-office co-worker Jezebel). Among these, Rubin only remembers sitting down with Gere, an established star at that point whose elevated profile and sex-symbol status may have ultimately worked against his being cast.
“Adrian was looking for [an actor] that would allow an audience to deal with someone they didn't know as well, so that they could more enter, I think, into the unknown,” Rubin noted. “And that if it's an actor who anchors it with a kind of a personality and a history and a sense of their past reality onscreen, that that would hold people back a little bit, that it wouldn't be quite as immersive.”
Then again, Lyne did have serious discussions with a post-“Big” Tom Hanks for the role of Jacob, lending credence to the idea that while the director wasn't necessarily looking for a star, he was open to casting the right one. Nevertheless, when Hanks exited talks to take the lead in Brian De Palma's heavily-publicized adaptation of “Bonfire of the Vanities” — ironically the film Lyne had turned down to direct “Jacob's Ladder” — the role was left open for relative screen newcomer Tim Robbins, who had received acclaim for his supporting performance as baseball pitcher Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh in “Bull Durham” but was not yet a major star. Notably, Robbins had earlier vied for the Patrick Swayze role in “Ghost,” though his lack of marquee name value kept him out of the running despite a major push from his representatives. (“Tim was not gonna be in 'Ghost,'” Rubin offered.)
Though Robbins certainly missed out on the bigger fish that year, as far as audiences are concerned it worked out for the best; with his Everyman good looks and aw-shucks grin, his performance is by turns disarmingly sweet, naturalistic and, as Jacob begins to grapple with the existential questions that arise from his fiendish hallucinations, startlingly sympathetic.
“There was a moment I always remember, when he's in that hospital which is kind of a Hell and people are telling him that he's dead. And he's saying, 'I'm alive,'” Lyne recalled. “Which was extraordinary, I thought…and I was looking around while we were shooting, and the camera operator was crying watching him.”
Photo Credit: Sony Pictures
When it came to casting the role of Jezzie, Pena — whose profile was then on the rise thanks to major turns in Paul Mazursky's “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and the 1987 Richie Valens biopic “La Bamba” — brought an “Otherness” to her audition that made her stand out for Rubin in a sea of bigger-name actresses.
“I didn't [write Jezzie] as in any way Hispanic or anything like that. But when Elizabeth came on, she had a lot of specificity as a person, as a persona,” said Rubin of the actress, who died unexpectedly last year. “And to me, that specificity was worth everything. I just loved it. She was earthy and such a wonderful…she was Jezzie in my mind. Adrian saw it before I did, I think. …That's always the great thing in doing a movie, when you find an actor to take on a part that makes the character more real than anything you envisioned. And she did.”
The role of Jezzie was perhaps the most complicated in the film to play, in that the audience is never meant to be entirely certain of her intentions or function in the story. This ambiguity made the part an occasionally difficult one for Pena, and Lyne recalled some difficulties early on in terms of modulating her performance to the proper pitch.
“In the end, I suppose she was playing the Devil in a sense. And when she started off acting, performing if you like — working on the film — she started giving…kind of a demonic undercurrent that didn't work at all, because it was kind of giving the game away,” Lyne recalled. “So that was a little bit of a problem for awhile, just to sort of throw that out the window and for her to be absolutely play it straight, rather than any undercurrent of anything else.”
Photo Credit: Sony Pictures
Having settled on their two leads and the tone of the film's imagery — which was not so much a compromise as a protracted movement towards Lyne's less overtly Biblical conception — production on the film began with a cast that also included Danny Aiello as Jacob's oddly angelic chiropractor; Pruitt Taylor Vince and Eriq LaSalle as two former Vietnam comrades who have been suffering similarly nightmarish visions; Jason Alexander as a slimy attorney; and Matt Craven as a former Army surgeon and chemist who informs Jacob that his hallucinations resulted from a secret government experiment which tested an aggression-fueling drug (“the Ladder”) on U.S. soldiers.
That latter (rather half-baked) subplot serves as something of a political red herring in a film that's ultimately intended as a story about one man's existential throes, and indeed, for all of its merits, this somewhat muddled intersection of ideas left some audience members confused.
“The trouble was…it's a movie you kind of need to see twice…if you see it once, you're left going, 'fuck, what was that?'” said Lyne. “Then you think about it afterwards and piece it together. And maybe if you see it again, you understand the premise. But it wasn't your typical commercial movie.”
Also cast in the film was a pre-stardom Macaulay Culkin, who, like Rubin, was primed for a big 1990 (“Home Alone” hit theaters only two weeks after “Jacob's Ladder”). As Jacob's tragically-deceased child Gabe, Culkin's character was not present in the original script but rather added during Rubin and Lyne's re-rendering of the world. His function in the story is made clear in a climactic scene in which he leads his dying father up a staircase into a heavenly beam of light, itself a much more subdued version of what Rubin had originally scripted. As the screenwriter put it, his pre-Lyne screenplay offered a “big, big…Spielbergian version” of Jacob's (solo) ascent that involved a level of elaborate imagery which didn't jibe with Lyne's more earthbound leanings.
“[The original ending] had a lot to do with Jacob's Ladder in the Biblical imagistic sense of a ladder descending from Heaven,” Rubin described. “Almost a stairway, and Jacob moving up the stairway. Only at that point he was no longer biological — he was no longer a physical being, but a being of light — and it was his journey into light. It was very scary in its writing, but very vivid and very — from my mind — kind of Buddhist.”
“[Bruce is] a very — what's the word — spiritual person,” said Lyne. “And I am sort of less so, I think. I try to ground everything. So when he goes to Heaven — when Tim Robbins goes to Heaven — he's going up steps in his own house, you know? A staircase in his own house with his kid.”
Photo Credit: Sony Pictures
Though Rubin conceded Lyne's points on a number of stylistic issues and even praises them in hindsight, this final sequence is one he still considers misjudged. “The ending was very obscure to us,” he told me after noting that, as a compromise, Lyne shot (and ultimately discarded) scenes that hewed somewhat closer to his original ending. “And unfortunately, to this minute, it's the weakest point of the story. The ending happens way too fast, and it's not earned…thematically it works, but I think dramatically it's not quite as evolved as I as a screenwriter would've liked it to have been.”
Its weaker elements notwithstanding, part of the power of “Jacob's Ladder” lies in the disturbingly brief glimpses we're afforded of monstrosities that straddle the line between the real and the supernatural, from the violently shaking heads of the humanoids Jacob encounters throughout the film to the winged demon at the party, its full measure suggested only by its assorted parts — lashing tail here, pound of excoriated flesh there. “I always think that things are frightening if you can't see them too clearly — if it's a fleeting moment” said Lyne.
These fleeting moments also worked well in obscuring effects (all of them in-camera; Lyne doesn't trust in post-production trickery) that may have come off hokey if revealed in their entirety. As Lyne indicates, the party scene which so burned itself in my memory simply wouldn't have worked as well as it did had we been granted full, unobstructed visual access to the beast that infiltrates Jezzie's orgiastic revelry.
“We had a stunt man, and he put his arms into the legs, if you like, of the creature, of this thalidomide-looking, flesh-like thing,” said Lyne. “And this poor bastard was hung, literally hung from the ceiling, so that he could work his arms within the legs of this thing, the hooves of it. And most of it, again, looks stupid. But then when you had a bit of that, and you had a bit of that tail that sort of whipped around, which was a sort of phallic-looking thing…[and] the wings you talked about. When you put it together, it started to work, when you had flashes of all that. But at the time, it was brutal. You just [thought], 'Oh shit, this is gonna look ridiculous.'”
As for those famous spinning heads — arguably the most well-remembered and frequently homaged aspect of the film's arresting visual arsenal — Lyne, clearly influenced by Francis Bacon's malformed human portraits, accomplished the effect by shooting his actors moving at four frames per second. As was the case with the majority of the film's nightmarish images, the effect was so successful for its very inexplicability, producing, in Lyne's words, “sort of a strange blurred thing that you couldn't quite get a fix on.”
After all was said and done, Lyne was saddled with an embarrassment of riches in a visual sense; indeed, a full fifth of the film was excised from the final cut after those scenes were deemed, in Rubin's estimation, to be a case of “spinning wheels.” Reflected the writer: “It didn't develop more, it just gave more information.” Nevertheless, test screenings conducted prior to the film's release indicated that audiences were indifferent when it came to the longer vs. the shorter version, and today Lyne laments that he cut the scenes that he did, including one terrific extended sequence that sees Jacob being threatened by a bloody, tentacled demon descending from the ceiling.
(Incidentally, this scene was hell not only for the character but for Robbins, who at one crucial moment was placed on a “mechanical, kind of massive thing that shook the shit out of him,” in Lyne's words. The experience proved to be so intense that the actor came away thinking he had suffered brain damage.)
“I remember [Carolco founder and producer Mario Kassar] saying 'oh, just put everything [in],'” said Lyne of the excised scenes. “I had a sequence of stuff coming through a ceiling. Blood and stuff coming through the ceiling, and this eye coming through the ceiling…it was one of the extra scenes. And Mario said 'Ah, just put it all in, fuck it. Just put it all in.' And I thought it was overkill and I didn't. And to be honest, now I wish I had, really. Because I think the scenes were very strong. …I think it worked quite well.”
Another scene snipped from the final cut took off from Jezzie's dance with a demon in the party sequence, in a passage that suggests she and the winged creature are one and the same. This scene, for which Lyne hired a ballet dancer to execute moves within a large “black bag,” represented another example of the director's talent for isolating the most unnerving milliseconds of movement into a terrifying whole.
“Most of [the dancer in the bag stuff] sort of looked dumb, it didn't work,” said Lyne. “But then there was like a half a second where you thought 'fuck, I don't know what that is.' You know, where it had mystery and was just strange and disturbing. And I put that bit in. Whereas 95 percent of it was useless. Depending on the amount you use, something is silly at one second, but it's great at half a second.”
With the final edit complete, a meeting was called by the studio to strategize marketing a film that nearly defied description. Though pitched as a serious “art film” by Rubin, baffled execs ultimately went with a more traditional horror-movie campaign, which the writer now suggests was to its commercial detriment.
“I said, 'it's not a horror film'….[I told them] that they should take it seriously,” Rubin recalled. “I think they tried to change the advertising and they tried to get it some veneer of being an art film. But they never totally were behind it, because they didn't completely know what they had. So it was mis-marketed, and I think a lot of people who went to see it as a horror film came out of it and went 'what was that?'”
Indeed, Rubin experienced this reaction firsthand during the film's opening week, when he was greeted by an angry moviegoer outside a theater in Westwood, California.
“I stood outside this theater waiting to hear people's reaction as they came out,” Rubin recalled.”And I'm standing there kind of expectantly, and I knew the movie had just ended, and somebody ran out of the theater and stood not in the lobby but in the street outside the lobby, and he yelled to nobody in particular, 'If I ever meet the guy who wrote that movie, I'll kill him!'”
This unexpected encounter was certainly jarring (if not necessarily surprising) for Rubin, who was “pretty blown away by” the film upon first viewing the final cut but understood how audiences might not experience it in the way he'd intended: “It kind of confirmed a number of things for me,” he said. “One of them was that this movie had impact. And two, that it was not necessarily going to satisfy an audience looking for horror film resolution. It took you somewhere else, and not the place you necessarily wanted to go.”
Indeed, “Jacob's Ladder” was not a success at the box office. The film finished at No. 1 in its opening weekend (No. 3 was “Ghost,” in its 17th weekend) with a gross of $7.5 million but dropped precipitously thereafter, ending Lyne's extraordinary run of solid-gold hits (though he would reclaim his commercial crown with 1993's “Indecent Proposal”).
For Rubin — then “riding high” thanks to “Ghost's” massive success — even the film's disappointing box office couldn't kill his spirits (“I had a great year, you have to understand,” he chuckled). Lyne took it in stride. “You know, it did quite well,” he said. “It wasn't like a hit or anything. But the grosses weren't bad, I remember.”
Not bad, though certainly not on the level of “Fatal Attraction.” Lyne takes solace in the fact that the film (the one he claims to be “most proud of”) remains relevant 25 years later, even spawning a potential remake that at one point had “House of Cards” director James Foley attached at the helm (“It's kind of flattering, really,” Lyne said of the remake).
“People bring up [the film] a lot to me,” said Lyne, “and people have written to me, for example. I got a very moving letter from somebody who was HIV positive, and he said that the movie had made him look at life in a more positive way, that the movie had helped him. And that's terrific, if you hear that.”
Though less pleased with the idea of a remake, Rubin similarly takes pride in the film's lasting impact.
“I think that's one of the great successes of the film, that it really has a hallucinatory power,” he said. “It really pulls you into, pulls you over the borderline of reality into irreality or unreality or superreality or whatever you want to call it. It does it in a way that I think for some people is not something they experience in movies all the time. Which may be a reason that you and I are talking 25 years later.”