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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 24, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 52
John Cameron Mitchell enters the Rabbit Hole
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John Cameron Mitchell enters the Rabbit Hole

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

I admit to being caught off guard when I heard that John Cameron Mitchell, the mind behind Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus, had been brought on board to direct the feature film adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Rabbit Hole. For one thing, he didn't seem to me the type to take up the reigns of another person's script. For another, the story of a married couple dealing with the mess left behind after their only child is tragically killed didn't fit my idea of what he'd find interesting.

Color me wrong on all counts, because Mitchell decided to direct Lindsay-Abaire's script (adapted from his play) as his follow-up to Shortbus. Starring Nicole Kidman (whose company also produces), Aaron Eckhart and Diane Wiest the movie is a wonderfully moving drama filled with laughs, tears and delicately probing insights. It moves at its own pace and doesn't push any sort of agenda, allowing the characters, their actions and the events taking place in their lives to refreshingly speak for themselves.

I got a chance to spend a few minutes over the phone with the openly Gay Mitchell a few days before the film's Seattle release. We touched on numerous topics, including the death of his brother and how that both hindered and helped him as he traversed Lindsay-Abaire's emotional minefield. Here are some of the highlights from our all-too-brief conversations.

Sara Michelle Fetters: The film is getting rave reviews, and Nicole Kidman just got nominations by both Screen Actors Guild and from the Golden Globes for Best Actress. I imagine all this has you feeling pretty great right about now.

John Cameron Mitchell: It does, yes. I'm happy that people seem to be responding in such a positive way towards the film, and I'm very happy for Nicole, getting those [nominations]. It's wonderful. But while I want to talk about the film whenever I can, I'm just as ready to move on to something [new]. It's hard to always be getting so teary-eyed in the mornings. I'm tired of talking about my brother dying. I miss my friends. I miss my family. I'm sure it's been helpful to talk so much about my own life and about my brother but at a certain point it does get a little wearying.

Fetters: How about I try to keep those questions to a minimum, then? I'd be remiss if we don't touch on it just a little but we definitely don't have to dwell.

Mitchell: [laughing] Sure. Very cool. I'd appreciate that.

Fetters: As a filmmaker who has prided himself on writing his own scripts and coming up with his own uniquely original stories, what was it like when Nicole's company approached you about making Rabbit Hole? We're you immediately interested?

Mitchell: My agent sent me the script pre the Wall Street crash and I was just bowled over by it. I very rarely come across other people's stuff that effects me like this did. Probably because, you know, of my own family history and experience losing a brother, it felt necessary to be a part of [making the film]. It felt very smooth during the read, I could imagine immediately how I would direct it and could foresee it as being an emotional touchstone much in the way that Ordinary People was for a lot of people. It felt like a quiet film in a noisy time, and I wanted to be a part of bringing something like that to life. It was unusual for me not to have final say, final cut, if you will, but we had producers involved who knew how to trust that I could get the job done. When you have more people involved it ends up taking longer to make decisions, especially in editing. But they let me take the steering wheel, and we tried some things my way and we tried some things their way - some of which worked - but at the end of the day we were able to come up with a finished product all of us were happy with. It just took longer in editing than I was used to is all.

Fetters: How does Rabbit Hole fit in with your previous films, Shortbus and Hedwig and the Angry Inch? Is there a commonality that ties them together?

Mitchell: There is, and I could see it right away. It wasn't like, what am I going to do with this new kind of subject matter and more restrained style of filmmaking; there wasn't any panic. Because I'd been acting for 20 years before making Hedwig I was comfortable with taking a different approach in regards to directing [Rabbit Hole]. You approach every script as an actor differently but also trying to find the commonalities with past projects that speak to you. It's just the same as a director. With this, I knew immediately that stylistically this would be a more restrained [picture] than either Hedwig or Shortbus obviously were. At the same time, the characters of Becca and Howie aren't too different than those found in my other pictures. They're searching, trying to figure out how they fit in with the rest of the world, the only difference being that they've lost a child not an angry inch or something similar.

Fetters: You've said in the past you didn't have a lot of interest in working with stars and here you are with Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart.

Mitchell: And Diane Wiest. We can't forget her. [laughs] To be serious, it was great. In many ways they were working in my style, the budget here was a third less than the one for Hedwig, so it wasn't much different than working with my casts on my previous films. At the same time, these are the best film actors around, and they know how to make [David Lindsay-Abaire's] words sing. Becca was a perfect fit for Nicole. It's a character she was born to play. You always think of [her] best characters as being these fortresses that you can see the emotions pouring out violently from underneath a very contained surface, and that's Becca, and personally I think this is Nicole's greatest performance. This character is so unadorned and down-to-earth, and her performance feels more multidimensional than anything else I've seen her in.

Fetters: Where did you pull inspiration from before you started shooting? We've talked already about how restrained it was, how the camera almost disappears, and I wonder if you had any sort of mantras you forced yourself to follow during filmmaking to make sure you never overplayed the drama and let things drop into overt sentimentality.

Mitchell: If you look at the play, it calls for a certain level of reality, also for a certain amount of gallows humor or respites from the intensity, if you will, to make it come to life. I knew I wouldn't shoot it like a play but I looked at films from my youth that rang true that were also not too challenging in style like Ordinary People, like Tender Mercies, like Kramer vs. Kramer, that I felt got it right. It was Robert Benton and Alan J. Pakula and Robert Redford and Bruce Beresford, all of whom would do believable stories that were gentle, that had emotion and had tragedy and showed what life was really like but were also for moms, for dads, for kids, for families; these were directors who made movies about something but made them in a way in which everyone could watch them. They didn't talk down to their audiences. Didn't treat them as any sort of lesser beings you had to explain every little thing to.

Fetters: So, I do have to ask, were there times where you felt like your personal experiences losing your brother so early on like you did ended up helping the project? Did this give you an added insight into Becca and Howie's plight you otherwise would not have had?

Mitchell: Maybe it's just the actor in me but, when I was younger and after we lost my brother we weren't allowed to express our feelings, it wasn't allowed in that time [or] in that place. Military family. Catholic. Midwest. We didn't talk about it.

So [directing this movie] allowed me to feel everything, to experience it all, and that's of course what we expect from actors when they're playing these sorts of characters. With this emotional A.D.D. that we tend to be in now as a society, it was nice to be involved with a movie that allowed me to express how I was feeling openly and honestly, and it was even better that my doing so could also help the production, help Nicole, Aaron and Diane connect with their characters.

That is what I wanted it to be, but it [might] take more time for people to be reminded that a good, honest cry is just as important as a thrill ride. I hope not, of course, because I think we accomplished something here with this. It was cathartic for me to make and I think the audience will see that. The movie is a 90-minute emotional release, a quiet film in a noisy time.

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