Jacob’s Ladder is a 1990 psychological thriller / horror film directed by Adrian Lyne, based on a screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin. It stars Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello, and Jason Alexander. Actor Macaulay Culkin appears in an uncredited performance.
Tagline: The most frightening thing about Jacob Singer’s nightmare is that he isn’t dreaming.
- All SFX were filmed live, with no post-production. For example, to achieve the famous ‘shaking head’ effect, director Adrian Lyne simply filmed the actor waving his head around (and keeping his shoulders and the rest of his body completely still) at 4fps, resulting in an incredibly fast and deeply disturbing motion when played back at the normal frame-rate of 24fps.
- The Bergen Street station in the film was actually an abandoned, lower level portion of the station, which had to be re-tiled and fixed to look as if it was still in working condition.
- All ads in the subway and Bergen Street station are anti-drug ads.
- According to the original script, the subway station Jacob arrives at in the beginning of the movie was supposed to be Nostrand Avenue – not Bergen Street.
- According to the original script, after Jacob is nearly run over by the subway train, a sequence involving a man being raped in the subway station mens bathroom was supposed to occur. It was filmed but deleted from the final cut (parts of the scene can be seen in the Making-Of featurette Building ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (1990) (V)).
- Writer Bruce Joel Rubin wrote the script for Jacob’s Ladder in 1980 after he had a dream of being trapped in a subway. He spent ten years trying to get it produced, but the script remained languishing in developmental limbo. During this period, Rubin’s agent told him that the film would never be made as “Hollywood doesn’t make ghost movies”. After the Rubin scripted Ghost (1990) became a smash hit, coupled with the success of Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987), studios became more open to the possibilities of Rubin’s script. After taking on the role of director, Adrian Lyne spent over a year refining the script with writer Rubin.
- Adrian Lyne made sure Jacob and his visions never appear together in the same shot.
- The hospital gurney that carries Jacob was deliberately unbalanced by Adrian Lyne. He raised one wheel slightly off the floor, causing it to rattle and spin.
- The confrontation between Jacob and Geary originally takes place in a courtroom corridor. Lyne moved them to the stairs in order to downplay the height difference between Tim Robbins (who is 6′ 5″) and ‘Jason Alexander’ (who is 5′ 5″).
- Some additional scenes from the original script which were changed or removed by director Adrian Lyne: – During the dance scene, ALL the dancers turn into demons. – During one of his Vietnam flashbacks, Jacob has a vision of a “celestial staircase” accompanied by heavenly music. – Jacob watches a reverend on TV who rants about the world coming to an end. – Jacob sees an image of a demon on the wall of his living room, which, when he looks closely at it, becomes a portal to Hell. – A scene following the “antidote” sequence in which the ceiling explodes and Jacob is surrounded by a vision of Heaven. – A different ending, where Jezzie turns herself inside-out and transforms into a huge demon, which Jacob has to fight before ascending to heaven.
- The closing legend of the film mentions the testing of a drug named BZ in Vietnam. BZ is NATO code for a hallucinogen called 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate, which was rumored to have been administered to US troops during the Vietnam War in an attempt to increase their combat abilities.
- After initial test audiences reported that the film was overwhelming, director Adrian Lyne cut out almost thirty minutes of material, almost all of which came from the last third of the film. Four major sequences were removed after Jacob (Tim Robbins) first meets Michael (Matt Craven); a scene where Michael gives him an antidote for the Ladder, a scene where Jacob thinks he is cured but turns out not to be; a scene where he goes to Michael’s apartment and finds Michael decapitated; and a scene just prior to his final meeting with Gabe (Macaulay Culkin), where he meets Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña), who shows her true form.
- For all of the chiropractor scenes, director Adrian Lyne ensured there was a real chiropractor on-set, who would work with actor Danny Aiello so as to ensure authenticity. According to Lyne, chiropractors often approach him and thank him for going to the trouble of getting what they do exactly right.
- According to director Adrian Lyne, most of the dialogue in the opening scene between the soldiers was improvised on set by the actors themselves, especially the conversation between George (Ving Rhames) and Jacob (Tim Robbins) about masturbation.
- Prior to the commencement of filming, former US marine Dale Dye took actors Tim Robbins, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Eriq La Salle, Ving Rhames, Brian Tarantina, Brent Hinkley and Anthony Alessandro to a 5-day military boot camp.
- Adrian Lyne also heavily rewrote the scene involving the biblical Jacob’s ladder at the end of the film. Writer Bruce Joel Rubin had written the scene to involve a massive staircase ascending into the clouds, with crowds of people lining it, towering columns, and huge gates at the summit. Again however, Lyne felt that such an image could come across as preposterous (he refers to Rubin’s original conception as the Liberace scene’ on the DVD commentary track). As such, Lyne rewrote the scene to involve simply the staircase in Jacob’s house, basing this on the principal that heaven is wherever you were happiest.
- In the original screenplay, writer Bruce Joel Rubin had created a typical Biblical hell, complete with winged demons, cloven hoofed devils with horns, people with beaks and strange objects lying randomly around (director Adrian Lyne likens Rubin’s vision to the work of Hieronymus Bosch). As with Rubin’s general depiction of demons however, Lyne felt that such scenes could very easily make an audience laugh. As such, he decided to rewrite the scene of Jacob’s descent into hell; ultimately coming up with the hospital sequence where Jacob is wheeled on a gurney into a metaphorical hell which becomes more and more grotesque as he moves.
- In Bruce Joel Rubin’s original screenplay, all of the demons who appear throughout the film were typical biblical demons with horns, wings, cloven hooves etc. Director Adrian Lyne felt that this kind of imagery could very easily come across as comic, which would destroy the film. He felt that the fact that the imagery was so far from human lessened its impact, and as such, he decided he wanted the demons to be humanesque, but not quite human. During his research into this (which was when he discovered the photography of Joel-Peter Witkin), Lyne came across the Thalidomide scandal. Thalidomide was a drug made available for purchase from 1957 to 1961. Ostensibly, it was designed to treat pregnant women; primarily as an antiemetic to combat morning sickness, and secondarily as a sleeping aid. However, prior to its release, inadequate clinical tests were carried out, leading to roughly 10,000 children in Africa and Europe being born with severe physical deformities because their mothers had taken thalidomide during their pregnancy. The most common defects were phocomelia, dysmelia, amelia and polymelia; all conditions which affect the appearance of the limbs. During his research, Lyne studied the Thalidomide case, and came to feel that the birth defects caused by the drug represented the perfect starting place for his redesign of Rubin’s demons. The Thalidomide scandal was also the inspiration for David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981).
- According to director Adrian Lyne, the drug aspect of the story was inspired by the Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain book, “Acid Dreams: The CIA, LSD and Sixties Rebellion”.
- Director Adrian Lyne used the art of painters William Blake, H.R. Giger, and Francis Bacon and photographers Diane Arbus and Joel-Peter Witkin as his primary influences for the visual style of the film.
- The film was green-lit by Paramount Pictures (with whom Adrian Lyne had made both Flashdance (1983) and Fatal Attraction (1987), and with whom writer Bruce Joel Rubin had made Ghost (1990)), but there was a change of leadership in the studio and the new executives were unsure of the film. They demanded that the end of the movie be changed, but both Lyne and Rubin refused, and so Paramount pulled the plug on the film. It appeared as if the project was going to have to be completely abandoned until Mario Kassar and Andrew G. Vajna of Carolco Pictures saved it with a budget of $25 million. They also gave Lyne complete creative control as well as final cut of the film.
- In an ironic reversal, Adrian Lyne turned down directorial duties on The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) so he could direct Jacob’s Ladder. His first choice for the role of Jacob Singer was Tom Hanks, but Hanks turned down the film so he could make The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990).
- According to writer Bruce Joel Rubin, the script was heavily inspired by the Bardo Thodol (The Tibetan Book of the Dead), the biblical story of Jacob’s ladder and Robert Enrico’s Oscar-winning short film La rivière du hibou (1962), based on the 1890 Ambrose Bierce short story ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’, in which much of the narrative is a man’s experience of an imagined life in the spilt second before he dies.
- Actors who were allegedly interested in playing the leading role of Jacob Singer included Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Richard Gere. For the role of Jezzie, director Adrian Lyne auditioned roughly 300 women, including Julia Roberts, Andie MacDowell, Madonna and Jennifer Lopez. The role eventually went to the very first person who auditioned – Elizabeth Peña.
- Sidney Lumet, Michael Apted and Ridley Scott all tried to get the project green-lit during its ten-year period of non-production.
- Don Johnson and Mickey Rourke both turned down the lead role.