How "Ghost" Became One Of The Most Successful Movies Of All Time
On the 25th anniversary of the film's release, screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin looks back on the making of a blockbuster.
This summer marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Ghost, starring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, and Tony Goldwyn. We spoke to its Oscar-winning screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (pictured below) about the origins of the story, and the long, often tortuous process of making the movie.
We have an LSD trip to thank for Ghost.
"Fifty years ago, almost 25 years to the day that Ghost was released, I took LSD in New York City. It was life-changing in every possible way. That new level of total insight into the nature of the reality of our lives, in a way that I'd never anticipated or imagined could exist, was profound. It was very mystical in the deepest sense of the word. It's an experience that's never left my side, and turned into a very long spiritual pursuit."
The film took its inspiration from Shakespeare.
"I wrote a few early scripts as a way of learning how to be a screenwriter. One of those got made by Brian DePalma, called Brainstorm, which was Natalie Wood's last film. I was working on other scripts and ideas – in this time I wrote the script for Jacob's Ladder [made into a movie in 1990] – and while I was doing that, I decided I wanted to tell a ghost story from the side of the ghost.
"I didn't know what the story was, except I knew that it should be a about a man who didn't believe in anything. I originally thought he would be a suicide, but then I saw a production of Hamlet. In the second scene, his father's ghost appears and says, 'Avenge my death.' When I saw that, something in me went, 'Yes! That's the engine I need to drive this film.' I loved the idea that a guy who is dead has to figure out who killed him and why, but it wasn't enough, so I had to add one more element, which was the urgency of having to save the life of the woman he loves."
The writers of Stand by Me played a pivotal role in the development of the movie's scene-stealing character.
"I had a wonderful agent named Geoff Sanford who started sending me out to all these studios and producers to pitch the idea for Ghost, but it just hadn't found its fullness as an idea. One of the pitches I delivered was to a pair of writers named Bruce Evans and Ray Gideon, who had written Stand by Me. They started laughing when I was describing this character of the psychic – it was a male character, originally – and they kept saying, 'This would be a great storefront psychic who was a fake.' So I turned the psychic into Oda Mae – named after a maid I had as a child who I really loved – and she started to come alive, and suddenly my pitch became better and better."
Yoda was one of the first people approached to direct.
"I spent about six to nine months writing the original script, and then we started looking for a director. The first we went to was Frank Oz, who was Yoda in Star Wars and directed Little Shop of Horrors. He's a wonderful director, but he had ideas for shooting the film that were not practical. Primarily he didn't want to have any shadows on any of the walls, and demanded that we basically have an effects budget that cut out shadows from every shot. That effects budget was in the tens of millions of dollars, and the studio said no. I tried to persuade Frank that we didn't need to worry about it, but I couldn't convince him."
Jerry Zucker, the director of spoof comedies Airplane and The Naked Gun, ended up getting the job.
"The movie Beetlejuice had come out a little before this, and I suddenly had this horrible fear that we were gonna be turned into that kind of wacky movie. I was really disturbed by that. But Jerry and I met, and became good friends immediately, but when we sat down to discuss Ghost, that was when the knives came out. He wanted to cut everything! Man, he had some horrible ideas! I spent an entire year with him rewriting the movie.
"About six months in, it was so far from its original intent that I thought we should quit. I couldn't bear it any more it was so painful. Eventually Jerry said, 'None of this is working, let's try to do this,' and we started edging all the way back almost to the point where I started. The best part of that process was that the Oda Mae character became funnier than ever. One day, we realised we had the script right, and we had a movie that flowed pretty much like it does on the screen."
Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman could have been Molly.
"The first person we wanted was Demi Moore [for the role of Molly]. We interviewed some other actresses, including a very young Julia Roberts, who I really loved. Nicole Kidman sent us an audition reel that was just brilliant – it made me fall in love with her, and I cast her in another movie of mine [My Life, 1993]. But it was clear to both of us that nobody was more perfect than Demi. She was the first – she said yes immediately. She's brilliant in it: She used to say to us that she could have tears in one eye, or the other, or both, and she could produce it. Her tears are astounding in this film!"
Zucker initially didn't want to cast Patrick Swayze – his exact words were "over my dead body".
Just about every leading man in Hollywood turned down the role.
"Patrick Swayze was not our first choice. We started off with Harrison Ford, but he said to us, 'I've read this thing three times, but I still don't get it.' Michael J. Fox and Paul Hogan, and a whole list of guys, all turned it down. It looked like the movie wasn't going to get made.
"One night I saw a Barbara Walters interview with Patrick Swayze, and he started talking about his father who had died, and he started crying. It was the most incredible, unaffected masculine cry I'd ever seen, and I thought, 'We should approach this guy.'
"So I called Patrick's agent without anyone knowing to tell him to call Jerry to ask if Patrick could read for the role. I pushed Jerry to let it happen, so I called Patrick directly on the phone, told him to wear a suit and tie, carry a briefcase, and told him a few scenes to read, including the last one in the film. He came in, did that, and by the end we were all crying. And that's how we got Patrick, and that's how the movie got made. Because if we hadn't been able to cast Patrick, the studio was going to can the film."
In an alternate universe, Oprah played Oda Mae.
"This is really painful for me, because my line when it came to casting Oda Mae was 'anyone but Whoopi'. Here's the thing: I thought of Whoopi as this stand-up shtick comedian. The person I wanted was Oprah Winfrey. I thought she would be great. We ended up interviewing just about every major black actress in Hollywood, and nobody was getting it right. I thought it was me, that I'd written a terrible character.
"Patrick takes credit for suggesting Whoopi – I can't remember exactly how it happened – but Jerry and Patrick went to Kentucky to visit Whoopi on the set of a movie. They did a video with her, brought it back, and when I looked at it, I roared laughing. It was the funniest thing I'd ever seen. I was so completely wrong about her."
Goldberg and Swayze in 1995 at the 21st Annual People's Choice Awards.
Goldberg was the movie's undoubted breakout star, and won an Oscar for her performance.
"Thank god we found Whoopi: She was the key element to making this movie go beyond the romantic movie it wanted to be into something else. Whoopi wasn't even hardly in the trailer – it looked like it was a different movie – but when people came to the see the film, they didn't expect all of that.
"Whoopi and I were very close on the set, and I love her so much, but I think the story about my thinking 'anyone but Whoopi' came to her a few years ago. I've never been able to explain to her my faulty reasoning and sadness for having felt that. I feel bad about it, honestly."
About that pottery scene...
"Basically, I originally thought of Molly as a sculptress, not a potter. Jerry suggested she be a potter; interestingly, my wife is a potter, and I know a lot about pottery. So it wasn't hard to turn it into that. The jukebox was Jerry's own, and producer Lisa Weinstein had brought in the music for 'Unchained Melody' one afternoon and we all knew that was it. Then the plan was for Molly and Sam to dance and then make love under the parachute-type tarp on the floor. And it was going to be full of light, and we were going to see images of them, some underneath and above the tarp. It was a very nice visual scene.
"So we shot the pottery scene first – she's making this big, almost phallic pot, and then it collapses. The look on their faces was so real and funny and immediate, and whatever that was, we all thought, 'This is so sensual. This is so erotic.' So when it came to editing the film, we decided we didn't need the lovemaking scenes – the sensualness of the pottery scene was everything. But we didn't know it would ever become iconic – who would think that?"
The advance word on Ghost was practically mute, or so it seemed.
"Nobody told us that people wanted to see this movie so much. We never thought the movie would be a big hit. In fact, I'd done an interview on the day of a preview where the interviewer asked me, 'Oh, are you with that movie Ghost Dad [starring Bill Cosby]?' I replied, 'No, my movie is called Ghost.' And honestly, the reporter seemed so disappointed that I wasn't Ghost Dad."
But Ghost went on to become one of the biggest "sleeper hits" in Hollywood history.
"There was a preview of the film around the country, a week before it opened in July 1990, tagged on to the Tom Cruise–Nicole Kidman movie Days of Thunder. I'm sitting in the theatre waiting for our movie to start, and when DOT ended, the audience all left! I was sitting there with my mom and a few people, and I thought, 'Nobody is going to turn up for this preview.' I was so humiliated, I just kept my head down, and couldn't even look around the theatre.
"All of a sudden I started seeing people filling in the rows ahead of me, and soon the entire theatre was full. People ended up sitting in the aisles. I didn't know where these people were coming from or how people had heard of it. Jerry told me later that every theatre in America that was showing the preview was full.
"Then the night the movie opened, we drove to a big theatre in Westwood to see it, and when we were about three to four blocks away, we started to see these massive lines crossing the streets. Then we discovered they were all lined up for a showing of Ghost that was three or four hours later."
In contemporary terms, Ghost was as big a blockbuster as Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
"Screenwriter and blogger John August calculated that, with inflation rates, Ghost would have been made today for around $40 million [$22 million in 1990], and it would have grossed $900 million [$505 million in 1990]."
There was a very rough idea for a potential sequel.
"In the beginning there was some pressure to make a follow-up, but neither Jerry nor I wanted to do that. Jerry and I did briefly discuss that maybe Molly was pregnant and had a baby and Sam would come back to help her, something like Carousel. And the studio did hire people to try to make a sequel, because they had the rights and we had refused. I'm told they came up with a number of scripts but nothing was filmable."
The cast of Ghost: The Musical pictured on opening night on Broadway in April 2012. From left: Richard Fleeshman, Caissie Levy, director Matthew Warchus, and actors Da'Vine Joy Randolph and Bryce Pinkham.
Did you know there's a Japanese remake of Ghost?
"They did make a version of it in Japan, called Gôsuto, with Molly being the one who died and Sam who survived. I never saw it though.
"I don't know if Hollywood would remake it – why would they? You don't luck out that often. They're trying to remake both Braindead and Jacob's Ladder now. It's weird for me. There was an effort to make Ghost as a TV show, which had nothing to do with me. That was very weird for me, to have lost ownership of it on that level.
"It's astounding that people still talk about it all these years later, and I had the great joy of turning it into a stage musical. Kids are performing it now – amateur groups getting to play Sam and Molly. It's been the best ride ever."
The 25th anniversary of the movie is bittersweet in light of Swayze's death in 2009.
"It's very strange for me to watch the movie now knowing a number of people involved with it are no longer here. It adds a depth of poignancy to the film. We miss Patrick."
Rubin beat the likes of Woody Allen, Peter Weir, and Barry Levinson to the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
"That was very completing. That was one I had hoped to get, but there's no direct path to an Oscar. But it happened. How it happened I still don't get, but I do know that it was very significant. I'd finished an important part of my reason for being here, and now I'd moved on."
He has a theory about the movie's enduring appeal.
"It sunk into the unconscious of most people, but it probably has to do with its mythic aspect, almost like Orpheus and Eurydice. There's an idea of someone coming back from the other side for one last moment to say the thing that almost all of us want to say: 'I love you.' And if you forget to say it, if you don't say it to someone every day, you can potentially leave this world and not have a final moment of completion. Many of us have that incredible hunger – 'if only I could do this or say that' – I think that's what speaks to viewers."
Finally, this is how you know a movie has embedded itself in popular culture.
"There's a plane that landed in the Hudson River [in New York] some time ago, and a guy who was on board escaped on to the wing of the plane and he survived. But he said to the New York Times, 'The last thing I thought of when I was getting off the plane was Patrick Swayze in Ghost, and all I could imagine was that my body was on the plane, and it was my spirit standing on the wing.' And I thought, 'If the last thought a person had on this planet was my movie, then that movie had touched something very deeply.'"