a traumatized vietnam war veteran finds out that his post-war life isn’t what he believes it to be when he’s attacked by horned creatures in the subway and his dead son comes to visit him.
dir.: adrian lyne
drama / horror
tim robbins as jacob singer
elizabeth peña as jezzie
- all sfx were filmed live, with no post-production. for example, to achieve the famous ‘shaking head’ effect, 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, 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’).
- lyne made sure jacob and his visions never appear together in the same shot.
- 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.
- for all of the chiropractor scenes, 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 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.
- 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. 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.
- according to 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”.
- 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.
- in an ironic reversal, lyne turned down directorial duties on the bonfire of the vanities 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.
- 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.
- the track “rabbit in your headlights” from UNKLE takes its title from a quote from the film; dialogue from the film is also one of many samples on the song.