Written by Denis Faye
As Hollywood’s apparent go-to scribe for films regarding the acceptance of death, it seems likely that Bruce Joel Rubin would have been New Line’s first choice to adapt Audrey Niffenegger’s bittersweet metaphysical romance novel The Time Traveler’s Wife. At least, that’s what Rubin was hoping when he first heard about the book.
“I read it, and I just said, ‘Oh my God, I love this story. I love where it’s going and I love what it’s about,’” claims the writer of Ghost, Jacob’s Ladder, Deep Impact and My Life, which he also directed. “I wanted to do it. I never in my life reached out for a movie before but I wanted to do this one.”
But when the producers chose another writer, Rubin, who’s practiced meditation for over 40 years, kept Zen about the whole thing and moved on – sort of. Four years later, he was spending Christmas in Costa Rica with his family when the phone rang. A new director had come aboard the project and wanted Rubin to take a crack at the script. The writer said yes and cranked out a draft in one month – an easy task considering he’d been never stopped thinking about this dream assignment.
“This movie had been baking inside me for years,” he says. “It was really ready to come out of the oven. So many movies are what I call ‘microwaved.’ They’re forced into being too fast. They don’t have time to find their flavor. They don’t have time to find their lightness and texture. And so I was ready. I don’t really feel like I wrote it. It just knew what it wanted to be.”
Rubin spoke recently with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about turning this “wonderfully disjointed” novel into a movie, as well as how to make transcendentalism palatable for the masses, and why it’s always important to have paper and pencil on hand when achieving higher consciousness.
How did you end up as the go-to writer for movies about accepting death?
It’s an area that has compelled me for 40 years or more. It goes back to the psychedelic ‘60s is all I can tell ya. I was very much a very early indulger in all things psychedelic and had some rather remarkable, life-changing experiences.
Photo: © 2009 New Line Cinema
Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana in The Time Traveler's Wife.
I’ve also been practicing meditation for a very, very long time and I have to say that much of what that is about, meditation itself, is about a kind of arriving at a still point in yourself that is a doorway to something rather remarkable that announces a way of looking at the world that sees death and life as part of the continuum and sees life in a much larger context. That information is rather extraordinary in the way that it opens you up to appreciating life in ways that you might not have appreciated it, knowing the vastness of this universe we’re all caught up in.
Does that meditation work into your creative process?
Yes, of course. Meditation is not unlike going to sleep. It’s like going to sleep, awake. So you pass from a conscious state into a sort of daydream-like state between deep sleep and awakened consciousness. That state is fertile with imaginative power. I can, when I consciously begin the journey deep inside, stop at that place. I often keep a pad next to my meditation altar so I can take notes. I take them very quickly and then I just go deeper and go past all that creative noise and arrive at a place that is very still and very embracing.
It sounds like the ultimate tool for writer’s block.
I think it’s the best tool for writer’s block because it gets you out of mind, as such. Mind has the capacity to run you ragged. From that perspective, mind is just this sort of noisy tool. If you can gain perspective or get a distance from it, you can use it rather than have it use you. There’s something very valuable about that.
Your “psychedelic experiences,” did they affect your creative process?
They kind of were the initiation factor in what became the creative juice of my life. I really didn’t have much to write about when I was still in college, and I ended up leaving college with a lot to write about.
How do you take all those deep concepts and use them in screenwriting, which is very nuts and bolts?
I’m very much of what’s called an intuitive writer. I don’t know what I’m doing at any particular point. I just sort of do it. I’ve watched a lot of movies and known the stories I wanted to tell, having learned along the way that characters have arcs, and that we have to root for something in the movie that we care about and audiences care about. We have to make the audience deeply engaged in the journey of the character and you have to make it very hard for them to get what they want. Those are simple ideas, but they really are at the core of what I’m trying to do when I’m writing a movie.
Then you just have to figure out what the characters really reach for. Of course, I have a very strong interest in having characters reach for something of a metaphysical nature and, unfortunately, most audiences don’t root for that. For example, trying to get someone to root for transcendence is almost impossible, so you have to find the thing that people do root for. In some ways, these subjects are kind of codified versions of transcendence. For example, love. The experience of love is, for most people, a very risky, very challenging experience and very scary experience. One has to reach beyond oneself often to give oneself over to another human being. And although we don’t understand it as a transcendent act, in many ways it becomes that. So, one of the great rooting interests in all literature, all storytelling, is for people to find love, to find the thing that makes them larger, that makes them leave the confines of their simple, isolated self and become a bigger entity.
What’s an example of that?
When people ask me what the great spiritual movies are, I just say Casablanca. It always throws them a little bit because people don’t think of it as a spiritual movie, but it’s probably the best in a sense that we’re never rooting for Humphrey Bogart to have this transcendental experience, but what he learns is to give up the very thing he most loves for something greater – meaning humanity, the good of the world. When he walks away saying, “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” he’s really walked away from a great deal, but he’s found this unbelievable nobility in himself. We don’t realize until that point that was really what we were rooting for. We wanted him to know that part of himself more than we wanted him to end up with Ingrid Bergman.
Regarding The Time Traveler’s Wife, the narrative hops around. How did you make that work without being too confusing?
What I understood about it is that it had a very simple spine. Earlier writers on the project had tried to follow the book, which is wildly and wonderfully disjointed. But you read a novel differently from a movie. I really believe you don’t watch movies with your head. You read with your head, and it also permeates the rest of your body -- your heart and your gut -- but movies are much more just heart and gut. On occasion, you sort of reach into your mind and bring that into the equation and bring a sort of full-bodied response to a film, but mostly when you go into your head, you lose the movie and it takes a little while to get back into the movie... This is a love story, and I’m going to follow the arc of the love story. I can jump forward and backward in time, as long as I am following the truth of that story. That’s all I did. It didn’t matter I where I was in time, as long as the emotional arc was true.
I haven’t read the book, but it felt like there were a lot of B, C and D stories that had been there but would no longer make sense.
I had to let go of some of the main stories. They’re interesting stories, and they’re wonderful in the book, but the movie had to find a spine and that spine was the love story of the two characters who were the stars of the movie. So the other characters are given little, brief moments to punctuate the movie and to give it reality, but it’s really the story of two people.