The Hole Story

Indie film legend John Cameron Mitchell snags his first Hollywood feature directing gig with Nicole Kidman

Director John Cameron Mitchell with Actress/Producer Nicole Kidman on the set of “Rabbit Hole.” Photo Credit: JoJo Whilden.

In “Rabbit Hole,” a little boy’s death tears his parents’ lives apart. Actor-turned-filmmaker John Cameron Mitchell (“Shortbus,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) connected deeply with the material — adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play — and won over star/producer Nicole Kidman, snagging his first high-profile, Hollywood feature directing gig.

As close to a sure bet for an Oscar nomination as one can get, Kidman delivers a stunning, natural performance opposite an equally strong Aaron Eckhart. While somber in tone, “Rabbit Hole”’s wit-bitten dialogue, smart editing, alternating flashes of humor and explosive emotion and excellent supporting actors — including Sandra Oh, Dianne Wiest and newcomer Miles Teller as the teenager who accidentally caused the child’s death — combine to make a memorable, compelling, and entertaining new classic.

Mitchell recently directed a stunning online short film for Dior starring Marion Cotillard and Ian McKellen as a burlesque siren and a wheelchair-bound fan, respectively (he says that more spots will follow). He is also producing graphic novelist Dash Shaw’s debut animated feature, which he describes as “a mix between Philip K. Dick and ‘The Simpsons.’” Just prior to a “Rabbit Hole” press conference with Kidman and Eckhart at New York’s Trump Soho hotel, Mitchell sat down with me for a revealing one-on-one.

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When you were a teenager your four-year-old brother died and you witnessed firsthand how that can break up a family, which served as a significant personal connection to “Rabbit Hole.” But have you ever experienced a loss or tragedy that tested an adult relationship of yours?

Well, my most serious relationship was with someone who had a drug problem. Over many years it was an off-and-on element because he was in rehab at times. It was too much. It was too much for us. And, it wasn’t just the drugs, it was other issues, but it was a very loving relationship and he passed away soon after we broke up. That was six years ago. I lost a brother when I was 14, a very different experience from losing a lover, but [there were] the same symptoms. There’s this horrible period right after and guilt, rational or not, usually not, and then this kind of exhilaration of that period is over — and then it comes back. So, the last six years have been a bit of roller coaster where the dips get longer and shallower as you go. I haven’t really talked about that much. But, this was necessary to think about and release some stuff about both of them.

You went from working with unknown indie actors and bohemian gender-benders to Nicole Kidman. Strange?

Well, Nicole’s about to play a tranny in a film [called “The Danish Girl”]. And, of all the A-list female stars, I think of her as the most adventurous. It was surprising that I found myself on this job, but she really heard how passionate I was when I spoke about it with her. And, it was this instinctive thing. She’s like, “I have a feeling — I want to work with Lars Von Trier.” Kate Winslet doesn’t do that. Even Meryl Streep. These are brilliant actors, but when was the last time they threw themselves a little bit in the gutter the way Tilda Swinton or Nicole does? “I’m going to work with Apichatpong Weerasethaku from Thailand [who just won the Palme D’or at Cannes] because I like his work.” Not because as a career move, what do I do next. I was surprised but it felt comfortable.”

What difference was there between directing “Rabbit Hole,” which was a work for hire, and your previous films, which were auteur projects you curated and controlled from beginning to end? Was there any specific instance where this version of the filmmaking process worked out for the better?

It was the first time I didn’t have final say, but it was great because it was three people, [myself and two producers], making the decisions. If there are only two people, there’s no tie-breaker and sometimes trouble. And, we all had different taste. Somewhere in between we knew this was an audience-friendly film. We’re not necessarily going for…the same treatment of the material, death of a child, the same set-up, could be [Lars Von Trier’s] “Antichrist.” And, it’s not “In the Bedroom” where there’s more schematic of going to get revenge.

I liked Miles as the teenager who accidentally ran over the child. So sullen and restrained, yet I read that he plays the goofy, outgoing Chris Penn character in the upcoming remake of “Footloose.”

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He’s actually quite different from that [“Rabbit Hole”] character. He’s quite happy-go-lucky. At the wrap party he was dancing like Michael Jackson. He’s like a really brilliant dancer.

Are those scars on his face real? I was wondering if they were there to suggest he had been hurt in the accident that killed the child.

Yeah, those scars are from a real accident that he almost died in. I let the question [remain]…we all have these scars.

After tons of false starts a la “Milk,” a film of Larry Kramer’s seminal play about the AIDS crisis, “The Normal Heart,” is finally getting made with “GLEE”’s Ryan Murphy at the helm. In the early 1990s, you appeared in Kramer’s stage sequel to “The Normal Heart,” “The Destiny of Me.” Although you’re semi-retired from acting, would you seek any involvement with “The Normal Heart?”

I am semi-retired and periodically a part makes me wants to step out, but it has to be something I have to do emotionally and there are very few of those. Oddly, one of them was playing Laura Bush in a reading of Tony Kushner’s play about her in 2004, a brilliant one-act play. Tony makes me want to act. I’m gonna act again. It’s just timing. : :

— For more on the film, including limited and extended release dates, visit rabbitholefilm.com.

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