Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter returns to the Jerry Zucker well after llistening to the Airplane! commentary last week, but this time it’s for something wholly different… the supernatural rom-dram/horror/pottery lesson that is Ghost.
Ghost (1990) was the kind of surprise hit that no one saw coming. A romantic thriller about a dead guy? From the director of Top Secret! (1984), the writer of Deadly Friend (1986), and the stars of Steel Dawn (1987) and Wisdom (1986)? Good luck Paramount Pictures. But then the $22 million dollar movie opened in the summer of 1990 and went on to earn over half a billion at the box office.
Ten years later that creative duo of Jerry Zucker and Bruce Joel Rubin reunited to record a commentary track, and two decades after that? We gave it a listen. Keep reading to see what I heard on the Ghost commentary!
Commentators: Jerry Zucker (director), Bruce Joel Rubin (writer)
1. It was Zucker who decided to “put stars around” the mountain in the Paramount logo. This is not true.
2. Rubin had wanted to tell a ghost story from the ghost’s perspective for some time, an idea partially inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the clincher for the script was cracking the idea of who/what/how the ghost would be able to contact the living.
3. Rubin used to work in New York City renovating old buildings and lofts, and capturing that visual — tearing down walls, dust through the air, junk laying around — was important here.
4. Heads up job seekers, Rubin has a tip. After graduating from college he went to an employment office and found a pile of applications for an editing gig at NBC News. He took the whole stack so no one else could apply, and he got the job.
5. “I cried,” says Rubin about the time he first discovered that his serious script about ghosts and love was going to be directed by one of the guys behind Airplane! (1980). There’s a slim chance he’s joking, but I think he’s being sincere as he mentions that he expected Zucker and the studio to turn it into a Beetlejuice (1988) inspired romp. His view changed after sharing some deep conversations with Zucker about the script in which the director shared criticisms — something no one at the studio had done.
6. The sensual pottery scene between Sam (Patrick Swayze) and Molly (Demi Moore) was originally scripted to be followed by a sex scene on the floor. They quickly realized that the pottery shenanigans were all they needed. “We decided to cut it after I interviewed about twelve body doubles for Demi,” says Zucker.
7. Tony Goldwyn is married to the film’s production designer, Jane Musky.
8. Nicole Kidman auditioned for the female lead, but while they loved her tape they went with the more well-known Moore instead. Kidman’s tape made it up the Paramount ladder, though, and it led directly to her landing a role in Days of Thunder (1990). Rubin also cast her later in his directorial debut, 1993’s My Life.
9. Both Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford turned down the lead role. Can you even imagine either of them here? They went with Swayze after Rubin saw him cry on a Barbara Walters interview special. Zucker was doubtful, but Swayze was a big name so he said yes to letting the actor come in and read for the part — and Zucker quickly realized how wrong he had been to discount him.
10. Zucker refers to Road House (1989) as being not among Swayze’s finest films. Crazy bastard.
11. Rubin says that people would ask if ghosts can walk through walls why don’t they fall through chairs? “Your mind creates the world.”
12. They already liked Moore, but it was her performance in 1988’s underrated apocalyptic thriller The Seventh Sign that convinced Zucker she could do this role. “That was the first movie I saw her in where she played a mature character.”
13. It was editor Walter Murch’s idea to have physical material — like the door at 31:43 — affect the ghost as they try to pass through it. Here the door’s color bleeds up Sam’s arms while his hands are “in” the door.
14. Rubin says the mirror that Molly is glimpsed changing in is now in his bathroom, and Zucker adds that “I have that bra in my closet.”
15. They shot five weeks in New York City and the rest in Los Angeles.
16. They wrote nineteen drafts of Ghost‘s script beyond the several Rubin had already written solo.
17. Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) was “the most fun character” Rubin has ever written. He originally envisioned the character as a real psychic, but friends convinced him she’d be far funnier as a phony revealed to have the gift only through Sam’s presence.
18. They had a major disagreement regarding the scene where Oda Mae yells up to Molly’s window from the street. Neither of them recall the exact line, but Rubin had written a bit of dialogue involving a passerby that Zucker “refused” to shoot.
19. Zucker was horrified after hiring Moore while she had her usual long hair only to have her show up for filming with it short. Fool. He realized she looks fantastic once he saw her on film.
20. Carl Bruner (Goldwyn) is named after Rubin’s teacher in elementary school who never let him put on the plays he wanted to do in the auditorium. “I hated her, so I made her name the bad guy.”
21. Molly originally threw the glass jar against a wall, but Moore felt she’d be far more subtle and suggested she simply roll it down the stairs.
22. Zucker didn’t like the scene where Carl “accidentally” spills coffee on his shirt and has to take it off — an effort to seduce Molly — and had the editor try a cut without it. He immediately realized how wrong he was.
23. They saw thirty or so actors for the the role of Subway Ghost, but “no one really got the anger of it” until Vincent Schiavelli.
24.The sound made by the shadowy demons that rise up to claim bad people when they die consists of various noises including recordings of crying babies slowed down to creepy levels.
25. “Demi did not like to smile,” says Zucker, adding that he had to ask her for “a little one” at 1:46:52. He ran the camera at a speed where they could create slow-motion so he could stretch her smile out just a little bit longer than it lasted in reality.
26. Rubin’s original script had Sam enter Oda Mae’s body and then make love to Molly. He says some producers only wanted to make the film because of that scene, but Zucker wisely nixed it.
27. An early test screening saw the audience giggling at the scene where Sam — in Oda Mae’s body — and Molly touch and kiss, and it drove Zucker nuts as he saw no way around it. He tried various things to address it but eventually decided to simply accept that “the movie’s a roller coaster” and would take audiences all over the place emotionally. “So I took all of the sound out, and… this part of the roller coaster is just gonna make people feel as uncomfortable as possible.”
28. Oda Mae dies in early drafts of Rubin’s script, “and it took a while for Jerry to persuade me that that wasn’t the best way to end the movie.” He adds that she was killed by other bad guys but then possesses her own mangled corpse to attack them. And now I want this crazy, sex and violence-filled, hard-R version of Ghost that Rubin originally wrote?
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“I believe in a world in which ghosts can exist, and probably do exist.”
“Bruce was sitting cross-legged in a monastery, and I was writing fart jokes.”
“The audience didn’t hate him for killing Sam as much as they hated him for seducing Sam’s girlfriend.”
“It defies genre, this film.”
“We don’t know exactly how he got the penny from the floor to the door.”
“It’s the old ‘gun on the end of a string’ gag.”
“Now how does this rate on the schmaltz meter, do you think?”
Final Thoughts on the ‘Ghost’ Commentary
The Ghost commentary is a solid enough track that feels at times as if it’s been edited together in some way due to quiet gaps, an occasional lack of interaction or response, etc, while at other times sees the two men in conversation. Still, it’s rarely uninteresting. Zucker reveals numerous moments where he was majorly wrong about something — he didn’t originally want Swayze, Goldwyn, or Goldberg, he thought certain scenes weren’t needed, he inexplicably didn’t like Moore’s short hair — and it’s enough to leave you wondering about his intuition on things. That said, this was his first dramatic turn after a decade of spoofs and comedies, so it appears it was a learning process from beginning to end.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.