Harrison Ford Turned Down ‘Ghost,’ Frank Oz Almost Directed, and More Behind-the-Scenes Stories

In the late 1980s, Bruce Joel Rubin was a screenwriter with two interesting credits on his resume — “Brainstorm” (1983) and “Deadly Friend” (1986) — and a screenplay (“Jacob’s Ladder”) that everyone in Los Angeles agreed was terrific but which no one at the studios would green light. Rubin’s fortunes and reputation changed seemingly overnight on July 13, 1990, when his romantic thriller “Ghost” opened and became a worldwide smash. A few months later, “Jacob’s Ladder,” which had finally been brought to the screen by director Adrian Lyne, opened as well, and Rubin’s status as one of Hollywood’s top screenwriters was secure.

While “Ghost” ultimately garnered Rubin an Academy Award and went on to become a classic — one of those rare cases where personal expression seamlessly intersected with popular and artistic success — its path to the screen wasn’t always smooth. In the following exclusive excerpt from Rubin’s new memoir, “It’s Only a Movie,” he details the circuitous route “Ghost” took from conception to release — a journey that involved a wildly varied collection of prospective directors, a series of rejections from A-list movie stars, and a few lessons for Rubin about working in Hollywood that would serve him well in the years that followed.

More from IndieWire

Excerpted from “It’s Only A Movie” by Bruce Joel Rubin. Copyright © 2024. Available from Sticking Place Books

The original idea for “Ghost” was a question: What would it be like to tell a ghost story from the side of the ghost? I knew from my 1960s acid trip and decades-long spiritual journey that life doesn’t start at birth or end at death. What I didn’t know was how to dramatize that. Then one day, after watching a production of Hamlet and seeing the ghost of Hamlet’s father standing on the parapet, telling his son to avenge his death, I came up with the idea of a story about a ghost trying to solve his own murder. Up to that point, my treatments were like outlines for novels, but the one I wrote for “Ghost” was very sparse, very simple. You could read it and see the entirety of the story at a glance.

I spent two years pitching “Ghost.” Everyone said no. I honed my pitching skills over time. Studio executives are like jaded kindergarteners who listen to story ideas all day long. The hard part is getting their attention, so I decided something different was required. At the moment in the story when Sam gets shot, I clapped my hands loudly. It startled them every time, and I had their full attention for about two minutes – long enough to deliver the rest of the story.

As I pitched “Ghost,” the story became richer, and I became more and more connected to it. I really had it down to an art. At one point my agent, Geoff Sanford, set up five meetings at five different studios, all in one week. Everyone wanted it. At Paramount, we pitched it to Lisa Weinstein. While I was telling her the story, she started crying. And I immediately knew, I want to make my movie with this woman. Lindsay Doran loved my pitch and took the project to Dawn Steel, president of Paramount, who instantly said yes. And that was it. I started writing the script immediately. It was the beginning of the best experience I’ve ever had in Hollywood.

I had an office in the writer’s building on the Paramount lot, down the hall from three writers – Scott Frank, J.J. Abrams and Phil Alden Robinson – all of whom built major careers for themselves. We cheered each other on.

I wrote a full script for “Ghost” in ten weeks. The plot unfolded with ease, following the blueprint I had created with the treatment. It was a simple story. We meet Sam and Molly moving into a New York loft with the help of their friend Carl. Molly is a potter, Sam is a banker, Carl works for him. Sam and Molly are deeply in love, but Sam finds it hard to express his love in words. Whenever Molly tells him that she loves him, Sam always responds, “Ditto.” His inability to say “I love you” seems a minor failing, but it’s what drives the movie. We can tell from the first scene that Carl is attracted to Molly and loves Sam.

One night, coming home from a play, Sam and Molly are confronted by a gunman who wants Sam’s wallet. There is a fight and BOOM – the gun goes off. Sam runs after his attacker but can’t catch him, and when he returns to Molly he is horrified to discover his own dead body being cradled in her arms. He is a ghost. He wants desperately to communicate with Molly, to let her know he loves her, but doesn’t know how. He is helpless. Then he meets a fake psychic in Harlem named Oda Mae, who is shocked that she can hear him. Sam persuades her to visit Molly, but Molly doesn’t believe her for a second. Then Sam asks Oda Mae to tell Molly that he loves her. “He would never say that,” Molly insists. “Tell her ‘ditto’!” yells Sam. Molly’s eyes light up and the movie clicks in. (Spoiler alert). Eventually we discover that Carl is the villain. He has financial troubles and needs secret codes that Sam keeps in his wallet to help steal money from the bank. He hires someone to rob Sam, but the robbery goes wrong and Sam is killed. From that set-up, everything follows.

When I handed in the script, everybody liked it, except our producer Lisa Weinstein, who said, “It’s not a movie yet.” Lower-level executives seemed excited. I remember walking out of the Paramount commissary after having lunch with one of them. He said that my early draft of “Ghost” was the best script he had ever read. It was hard to bring my head back to earth after that. Several days later, I was walking out of the commissary with a friend and the same executive was in front of me talking to another writer. I was close enough to hear him say, “Your script is the best script I’ve ever read.” The sky opened up. I never took praise in Hollywood the same way again.

It took a long time to get the third act of “Ghost” right, and I was frustrated that I couldn’t figure it out myself. Lisa kept repeating, “It’s not a movie yet,” but I didn’t know what she meant. Eventually I understood that nobody in Hollywood knows what works, only what doesn’t work. I kept writing and writing and writing. In earlier drafts, Oda Mae, the psychic, dies at the end, shot by Carl, and her ghost re-inhabits her own dead body and kills Carl, saving Molly. At some point, I decided to have Sam use his evolving physical powers to kill Carl. That way Sam has his “I love you, Molly. I’ve always loved you,” ending and Oda Mae remains alive to comfort her. Lisa read the draft and said, “Okay – now it’s a movie!”

None of us were prepared for the avalanche of excitement that greeted the script. Dawn Steel called me personally to say she would drive me to the premiere. We immediately began a search for a director. I figured we would be in production in a few months. I had once again forgotten that it can take years to get a film up and running, even when a studio wants to make it.

GHOST, Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze, 1990, (c) Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection
“Ghost”©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

Frank Oz, who had voiced and developed many of the Muppets characters along with Jim Henson (and was also the voice of Yoda), was interested in directing “Ghost.” He had made two movies – “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” – that I especially liked, and I wrote a new draft of the script for him, incorporating his ideas. We were both happy. But Frank insisted that Sam’s ghost not cast a shadow, and wanted every one of his shadows in the movie digitally removed. This raised the budget to astronomical levels. I took him to see “Heaven Can Wait,” in which Warren Beatty’s ghost casts a shadow everywhere, but that didn’t change Frank’s mind. I took him to see “Blithe Spirit” on Broadway. Same thing. Lots of shadows and nobody cared. But Frank cared, and eventually the studio said they couldn’t afford to go with his vision.

Then Miloš Forman, a superstar whose films “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Amadeus” had both won him Oscars, said he wanted to direct. I was both terrified and hopeful, because I knew that with him behind the camera, I wouldn’t have much leverage in terms of what might happen to my script. But I also knew that if Miloš wanted to make “Ghost,” it would get made. The studio flew me to Connecticut to meet with him at his home. It was winter, and there was no heat in his house. And no food. “I don’t eat lunch,” he told me. I did, or wanted to, but that didn’t seem to register. I sat there for seven hours with no food, freezing (he did offer me a blanket), listening to his ideas. The first thing he said was that he wanted Molly to commit suicide at the end – to jump out the window so she and Sam could be together for eternity. All I could think was, Well, it’s over. Miloš was one of the biggest directors around and I was certain the studio would throw me off the picture if I didn’t agree with his vision. His ideas only got worse. On the way back to my hotel in New York, I drafted a letter to Lindsay Doran, detailing every idea that Miloš had come up with. “Thank you,” Lindsay and the other Paramount executives said after reading it. “We’re moving on to another director.”

Not long after that, I got a call from Lindsay. “I have your director,” she said. I was breathless, waiting for her to say Spielberg or Scorsese. “Jerry Zucker,” she announced. I was confused. Did she really mean Jerry Zucker, director of “Airplane?” The movie “Beetlejuice” had just come out and done well at the box office, and I assumed the studio wanted to do a similar all-out comedy version of my script. I told the studio executives I couldn’t accept that decision. I was convinced they were going to kill my baby. “Just meet with him,” they said. “Hear what he has to say.” I went to dinner with Jerry and set one ground rule: I told him we could talk about anything except “Ghost.” Over the course of dinner, we discovered that we had a lot in common. Right away, we became old friends.

But things deteriorated quickly after that. Jerry started telling me his thoughts for the movie – and I hated them. This is worse than Miloš, I thought. I wrote nineteen drafts for him, one after another, and for a while the story got further and further away from where I thought it should be. Jerry was trying all these different things, and none of them fit the movie I wanted to make. About nine drafts in, I thought, I should walk away from this. I can’t kill my own child. Luckily, Jerry kept saying, “No, you’re right. This isn’t working.” Slowly, we started working our way back to the original idea. Only now, it kept getting better and better.

Jerry understood every scene the way I did. We had been writing and rewriting together for nearly a year and were on the same page. He ended up shooting the script we had created beat for beat.

Making “Ghost” was the best creative experience of my life. But it didn’t start out so easily. Casting was a problem. Finding Molly was simple. Both Jerry and I wanted Demi Moore for the lead, and she wanted to do it. Piece of cake. We were so happy. But finding someone to play Sam turned out to be a nightmare. Every major actor in Hollywood turned us down. Harrison Ford said he read the script twice and still didn’t get it. Why would anyone want to play a dead guy? Paul Hogan, a huge star after “Crocodile Dundee,” turned it down. So did Michael J. Fox. The list goes on and on.

GHOST, Patrick Swayze, 1990, (c) Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection
“Ghost”©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

The only actor who Jerry didn’t go to was Patrick Swayze. “Over my dead body,” were Jerry’s exact words. But we were running out of possibilities, and it looked like the movie might be shelved. Then I saw Patrick being interviewed by Barbara Walters and at one point he started talking about his dad. Suddenly he was crying. But he was crying like no one I had ever seen before. Here was a real man crying real tears, and it moved me so deeply that the next day I called his agent, Nicole David, and asked if he might read for the role of Sam. I didn’t ask Jerry’s permission and sensed it was the wrong thing to do, to go behind his back in this fashion. But I wanted our film to be made and felt this might be our last chance.

When I got to the production office the next morning, Jerry said I wouldn’t believe what had happened. Patrick wanted to read for us. I feigned surprise and innocence. Jerry was still insisting he would never go with Patrick, but I said, “Jerry, when a major movie star offers to read for you, don’t say no.” Jerry agreed, and Patrick arranged to come in. I secretly told Nicole that I needed to talk to Patrick first, and we arranged a phone call. I told Patrick to wear a suit and tie to the audition and carry a briefcase, to look like a banker. I also suggested he read the final scene of the film, his good-bye to Molly.

The next day he came into the producer’s office wearing a suit and tie and carrying a briefcase, and read his goodbye speech to Molly. Lisa Weinstein started crying. We all had tears in our eyes. We thanked him for auditioning. As he left the office, Jerry came up to me and whispered, “Whenever I say, ‘Over my dead body’ – that’s who we hire.”

The Oda Mae part was more complicated. “Anybody but Whoopi,” I told the casting agents. I was afraid of an over-the-top comic performance and didn’t trust that Whoopi could deliver the part. And so we saw every major black female actress in Hollywood. None of them could deliver. We even had singers like Tina Turner try out. It just didn’t work. I began to think I had written a terrible part. Finally, Jerry said he wanted to audition Whoopi, and I relented. Patrick was also on board with Whoopi. The two of them went to audition her and came back saying she was perfect.

GHOST, Whoopi Goldberg, 1990. © Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection
“Ghost”©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

I watched her audition tape. I’ve never been so wrong about anyone. Whoopi was funny, humane, deep, caring and loving – more perfect for Oda Mae than anyone I could have imagined.

Casting the role of Carl was also hard. He was clearly an evil guy with designs on Molly, but the audience has to be blindsided. They have to love him at first. We were despairing after meeting with a lot of people in town, none of whom quite measured up. Then one night my son Joshua, a senior in high school, came in while I was watching audition tapes and sat down to join me. We looked at all the Carl casting tapes again and were both struck by one actor, Tony Goldwyn. He was in a courtroom drama and really jumped off the screen. Joshua and I looked at each other and said, “Him.” I took the tape to Jerry, who had the same reaction.

Jerry not only allowed me on set when he was filming, he wanted me there. I was beside him for every shot, and every time we got the reading we wanted, we both did a thumbs-up to show our agreement to each other. Actors started looking for those two thumbs-up, so Jerry and I learned to keep such things to ourselves.

It was fun to be with the cast. Patrick was like a buddy. We talked about everything. I wondered how much he had to work out to get that body. “I never work out,” he told me. Maybe it was the dancing, maybe he was just born that way. Patrick was a wonderful presence during the making of the film.

Whoopi, too, was a joy, a constant source of laughter. She was very free in sharing her life story and opened her heart and home to all of us. I hadn’t conceived how brilliant she would be as Oda Mae. Every line delivery was better than I had imagined. When she said to Molly, “You in danger, girl,” the entire set nearly fell on the floor laughing. I could feel the script come alive every time she spoke.

Demi was more complicated for me – more of a star and less approachable. I often felt her annoyance or anger. The moment where Carl says, “Molly, you’re not the one who died,” and she slaps him across the face, wasn’t in the script. I wasn’t happy, and we shot it again without the slap, but her instinct was right and mine was wrong. In the movie the slap turned out to be a real deepening of the character and worked in ways I hadn’t imagined. I learned to trust Demi’s sense of Molly. It turned out she was always right.

Tony Goldwyn was the nicest guy in the world, a perfect trait for the character he played. No one would believe that he could be so conniving, which is why it’s so shocking when it’s revealed to the audience who he really is. It so contradicts the essential good nature of his persona.

GHOST, Tony Goldwyn, 1990
“Ghost”©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

The most famous scene in the film involves pottery. You know the one. I originally wanted Molly to be a female artist who made big and imposing work, and had written her as a sculptor. My thinking was that if she would be left alone at the end of the movie, we needed to feel she would be strong enough, self-motivated enough, to survive on her own. The sculptor Marisol became a model for me. But then Jerry decided he wanted Molly to be a potter. Blanche was a potter, so I knew something about pottery, and I couldn’t picture Molly making bowls and pots. I wanted something more dynamic. But Jerry insisted, and Demi went off to pottery school. In the end she became so good at throwing pots that she was making large ceramic pieces.

The scene of Sam coming into Molly’s studio late at night and sitting behind her was supposed to be a prelude to their making love. Patrick was supposed to sit there and admire her, and when he touched the spinning and somewhat phallic pot she is making, we all watched in astonishment. When the pot folded in half, Demi’s instant smile and sense of forgiveness lit up the scene. As they started to build the next pot, the merging of their hands covered in moist clay was clearly going in an erotic direction. That wasn’t planned or anticipated, but Jerry let it roll. Walter Murch, our editor, decided to move straight from the pottery to the dancing and lovemaking. The scenes were shot maybe a day apart, and because of that when we cut to the dancing, their hands are clean. But the energy was so hot between them that Walter knew nobody would care.

One of the key elements of the scene is the song “Unchained Melody.” We all knew we needed a strong piece of music, but were at a loss as to what it should be. One day producer Lisa Weinstein walked into our production offices carrying a cassette player. “I have our song,” she announced. We all gathered around, and the Righteous Brothers began to sing. It was surprising to see such instant agreement among a creative group. Sam plays it on the jukebox before the pottery scene. In a sense it has become the theme song for all of our lives. I imagine that when we die, it will be playing at our funerals.

Music arrives late in the film process, after nearly everything has been locked. You already know the look and feel of the film. You know the performances. And then the music is added – and everything is transformed. The movie is enhanced, experienced anew. Nothing quite prepares a writer for it, and so to hire someone like legendary French composer Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Fatal Attraction), which we did for both “Ghost” and “Jacob’s Ladder,” is money in the bank. It gives you great comfort. Jerry’s first words to Maurice were, “Look Maurice, we need something brilliant here, so don’t give us any of that Lawrence of Arabia crap.” Maurice burst out laughing. His work was brilliant. Watching the film with his score for the first time was otherworldly. It far exceeded the vision I had lived with for years.

There appeared to be no word of mouth or general excitement for the film outside of the studio. On the Saturday before it opened there were going to be preview screenings in Detroit and thousands of theaters across the country. I wondered if anyone would show up. The Detroit preview followed a screening of the Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman film “Days of Thunder.” That showing was so crowded that my wife Blanche, our two boys and I had to sit in the third row from the front. When the film ended, nearly the entire audience left and the theater was empty. My heart sank. I sat huddled with my family and a growing sense of despair, unable to turn around to face the empty seats. All those years of effort, and nobody cared. But then a couple took two seats in front of us, in the second row. I wondered why they would choose to sit so close to the screen. Slowly I turned around and discovered that those were among the only seats left. The auditorium was full to capacity. I couldn’t believe it. Once the film started, I could tell from the opening moments that people were loving it. They laughed and cried and even cheered when Carl was killed. When I called Jerry in LA that night, he told me that every single preview was sold out.

The night of the actual opening, Paramount hired a van for all of us, including the actors and the president of the studio. As we were driving to Westwood and the Bruin Theater, we saw long lines of people nearly three blocks away. We all figured there must be a rock concert nearby. But no – the Bruin had added a midnight screening for the overflow for “Ghost” and people were lining up three hours early to get in. The next morning Jerry called to say that the numbers for the opening were huge. The question was whether they would hold up the following week. They did. “Ghost” opened on Friday, July 13, and months later was still the number one film in theaters. It was still playing at Christmas. Most of the reviews for “Ghost” were so-so. The critics didn’t love it, but we were the number one film in the country for 1990, and became one of the most commercially successful films of all time. Adjusted for inflation, a film made for $27 million grossed something approaching a billion dollars.

Soon the receipts were coming in from all over the world. “Ghost” was a huge success everywhere. I couldn’t contemplate what all this meant or would mean for the rest of my life, my family’s life. Financial security didn’t exist in the Rubin lineage, but for the first time I was experiencing a new kind of foundational comfort. My percentage of the grosses didn’t equal that of the director or the stars, but it was more money than I could ever have imagined. My sense of awe and gratitude were hard to contain. I smiled day and night for a year.

“Ghost” was nominated for a slew of awards, including Golden Globes, BAFTAs and Oscars for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Whoopi) and Best Original Screenplay.

A few weeks before the Oscars, Jerry Zucker had a dinner at his home with screenwriters Ron Bass (“Rain Man”) and Tom Schulman (“Dead Poets Society”). Both predicted I would win because mine was the only original script that was also nominated for Best Film. I wanted desperately to believe them.

Nothing focuses more attention on the fragility of the ego than knowing that a billion people might be listening to you and hearing the thirty seconds of brilliant hyperbole you’ve been storing up for decades. When we rode to the Oscars in a long stretch limo, Blanche said I was shaking. I was scared that I would lose. I was scared that I would win. I feared how I would be perceived. Blanche and I got out of the limo and stepped into our red-carpet moment, only to discover that not a single camera was pointing in our direction, and was once again reminded that no one cares about writers. Once past the red carpet we entered the theater and took our seats in the fourth row on the aisle. I stood up at the front of the auditorium as people were still entering, and quietly and unassumingly delivered my acceptance speech to mostly empty seats. I figured, if nothing else, I would give myself the moment I had dreamed of since I was a kid in the shower accepting my Oscar. It didn’t matter that no one but Blanche was listening.

When Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster announced my name as the winner, I went up on stage and nervously delivered that same speech. I said I was grateful for writing a film that not only acknowledged the spiritual nature of man, but also affirmed it. I sensed a groan from the audience. I thanked Jerry Zucker and said how his beautiful heart was on every frame of the film. I thanked everyone at Paramount, “past and present” – which got a laugh because there had recently been a regime change at the studio. I singled out Lindsay Doran, who happily was still there. I thanked Whoopi, who also won that night. I thanked my parents, my children, and especially Blanche, who, six years before had quit her job, put our house on the market, and brought us all to Hollywood. I’m looking at this big clock counting down, telling me how many seconds I have left, and then telling me to get off the stage. I have a recollection that it actually said “GET OFF THE FUCKING STAGE,” but I can’t be sure of that.

The next day I had lunch with Martin Bregman, the producer of “Platoon,” who told me, “Now your tombstone is going to say ‘Oscar-winning writer Bruce Joel Rubin.’ Nobody can take that away.” That’s when I realized it was already a past-tense thing. It was done, finished. I had completed that journey. Everything in this lifetime had been building to that moment, and now I could put it all behind me. Even if “Ghost” wasn’t a masterpiece, it had been acknowledged as something worth creating.

Best of IndieWire

Sign up for Indiewire's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.