John Cameron Mitchell on Rabbit Hole, Nicole Kidman's Face and How to Share Power on the Set

rabbit_hole_tiff_500.jpgIt was just a matter of time before the Nicole Kidman/Aaron Eckhart drama Rabbit Hole found a buyer up in Toronto, and now that Lionsgate has staked its claim, the Oscar race is reportedly next. It's strikingly new territory for John Cameron Mitchell, the writer-director best known for the cult-classic fringe musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the sexually explicit ensemble dramedy Shortbus. Here, directing David Lindsay-Abaire's adaptation of his own celebrated play, Mitchell settles admirably into a suburban idyll riven by grief, guilt, frigidity and dark humor eight months after the accidental death of Becca (Kidman) and Howie's (Eckhart) young son. And then there was the year of editing.

Movieline caught up with Mitchell this week to discuss working with one of world's biggest stars on such a intimate scale, collaborating in altogether new and challenging (and rewarding) ways, and that eternally hovering subject of his leading lady's face.

How are you?

Good. I was out late last night -- there's this long-standing DJ gig, which is at the Queer Party. I thought my work was done, and then I had to have a meting about distribution. And I'd already started my evening, if you know what I mean. But maybe that's why it went so well: because I was so relaxed. "How do you feel about this movie?" Everyone got very real! It was kind of cool.

What was your first encounter with Rabbit Hole? Did you see it performed?

No, I just read the screenplay. My agent said, "This script is free suddenly. I think Sam Raimi was going to do it for Fox Searchlight, but this was kind of pre-recessionary, and it was like $12 million or something. They said, "We can't make it work, even with Nicole." So we have the same agent -- me and Sam, who's a lovely guy -- and he gave me the script and I read it and I'd never read anything so ready, you know? And so moving. Having lost a brother when I was a kid, a lot of the same feelings and events echoed that, and I'd never dealt with that in my work.

So I dropped everything I was doing. I talked to Per Saari, Nicole's producing partner, who I'd met, and told him how much I cared about it. I imagined the camera would be quite invisible, and it would be all about these performances. I got Nicole on the phone, and told her the same thing. She really got an instinct from how strongly I felt about it; she liked that I was a director who was pushing things. You know, she's one of the few A-list people who reach out. You know? Like to Lars von Trier, to Noah Baumbach... She says, "I want to do something with that guy."

You largely cast non-professionals and unknowns in Shortbus. Now you've got Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart. Is there a learning curve for dealing with actors like these?

There always is; every actor has his or her needs. I've had bad experiences with movie stars before -- especially a female one who will be named eventually. The worst manners. You know: Best friends, and then dropped out. No comment, no discussion why. Just the kind of bad movie-star manners where they think they don't owe people the same respect because they're in that position.

"Named eventually?" When?

Probably when I bump into her and give her a piece of mind -- which I'm looking forward to, actually. Those kinds of things don't stop unless people mention them. It's just this unnecessary kind of stuff, which happens all the time in the film business: People promising, dropping out, and never even explaining it to you. That kind of stuff. Bad communication all around the line. Thousands of producers, right? Who don't even know what each other want! And then you, as the director, say, "Well, why didn't you tell that producer that you can't do this." "Oh, you don't understand, John. There's a real..." "Agenda?"

I can't deal with that sh*t. I thought if this is how it's going to be, even for a small film in Hollywood... Small! $5 million. And when we started, there was a bit of, "Nicole has her schedule; you can't just call her. She has to do this, and eventually she will arrive here for two hours." And it's like, "Oh, OK," rather than, "What do you think about that?" She has a remove.


She's so in the public eye that she has to protect herself, and I understand that. But it's just a little odd. I wasn't sure how we were going to meet. But her producing partner was her eyes and ears, and a budding director in and of himself. His taste was exquisite, his attention to detail was frightening -- cut one frame instead of two, that kind of thing. Usually I do it, but it was amazing to see producers getting that specific. Sometimes it was a lot of [asking myself], "Am I allowed to say 'no' because I'm hired?" I'm not just going to say "no" because I feel threatened. I'm going to say "no" because I want to say no. Then I would take their point of view and see what the real problem is. Their solution might not have been right, but there was a problem. So we had three people in charge of every decision, which was great, because you had a tiebreaker. It's just that it took a year of editing to get this right.

Really? You relinquished that much control?

Well, you know, I didn't have it, being for hire. I could have pulled up a wall. Certainly other people who don't have final cut say, "I'm not doing it."

I'm thinking of Kenneth Lonergan right now.

That's right. And there were a couple of moments where one of them said, "This music is perfect." And I said, "This music is perfectly wrong. You can go over my head, legally, and put that in, but I will always hate it. And I will never be quiet about it." And so we decided to use something that was a little of both of what we want. This is only at the end because we got all panicky, but there were really few of those moments because we had this amount of time. I think when you have expedited time -- "Oh, God, we've got to open that day" -- that's when people start getting bitchy. In this case, I have to say, they made some calls that I came around to that people point to as very important bits in the film. I acknowledge that. They also came around to my choices. Like composers -- we had three different composers.

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  • Borrego says:

    You are really obsessed with Kidman's face, huh? FYI, you're the only reviewer making a big deal of it. 95% of the reviews I've read (about 40 reviews total) absolutely rave her PERFORMANCE, saying she's a big contender for the Best Actress Oscar. MOVIELINE is really losing credibility (well the little remaining credibility it has-Nobody cares about this magazine anymore) with people like you...You sound like Perez Hilton...

  • Corey says:

    Lol, nice try in trying to cover it up by saying it "isn't gossip."
    Yeah. Not gossip at all. Sure.

  • maza says:

    um, you should totally post te rest of this.

  • no, it is a legitimate question and bravo to Cameron for being honest. When an actor PURPOSELY does idiotic things to themselves in the name of vanity to the point where it hurts their performances, then it becomes open for discussion. I have a hard time watching certain actors and performances now because the actors LOOK, and sound ridiculous. Thankfully, the botox phase seems to have peaked, or at least they've improved the technques of this "enhancement".

  • Jcar says:

    This is a really good interview. And it's nice to see a director be so candid for once. I think Mitchell has had a really interesting career, and I loved "Shortbus." Plus, I think Kidman is a great actress. She had a hot streak in the mid to late 1990s and early 2000s (working with Jane Campion, Gus Van Sant, Stanley Kubrick, Lars Von Trier and turning in one great performance after another, and generally having impeccable taste in her choice of projects), but after "Dogville" she kind of fell into a rut of doing one awful coimmercial film after another (except for the excellent "Margot at the Wedding" which she should have been nominated for). So she's in dire need of a comeback which will re-establish her credentials as an actress, even if not as a bankable hollywood star, and I hope this film is it.
    As to her face, I think it's a perfectly legitimate question given the nature of the film. As much as I like her, there have been times over the past decade when she seems to have been abusing botox. A role like "Rabbit proof" requires a completely naturalistic performance, so if she comes in with the frozen owl face that so many hollywood women have nowdays, it would have turned out awfully. But most of the reviews I've read so far have singled out her performance as being very good, so I assume this isn't the case.
    It's a shame, though, that Owen Pallet couldn't do the score. That would have been awesome.

  • jcar says:

    Doy, I'm an idiot. I meant "Rabbit Hole"--Ialways got the title of the play confused with the film "Rabbit proof fence" for some reason as well.

  • Gregory Sawyer says:

    I think it's a good and fair question too. Kim Cattrall's face really pulled me out of "The Ghost Writer;" I can't imagine what the botox issue would do to a movie like "Rabbit Hole."
    As for Kidman, I've always been unusually fond of "The Hours."

  • Little MY says:

    Some people need to get over Kidman’s face, JCM answered your question outright that she hasn’t had any plastic surgery and didn’t use botox during the shoot. What more do you want? Can’t believe you didn’t let it go and went in for seconds.
    Too Bad JCM didn’t appease you concerns before you saw the film, then you would have focused on the film itself rather than wondering if Nicole’s throat has been slashed. Not gossip, of course its not because you’re spreading it you clown.

  • vans says:

    WTF is this? Do you think this is an interview? My God. You're pathetic Mr Vanairsdale, simply pathetic.
    Look at this and keep your mouth shut.
    How dare you? You're so irrespectful and full of yourself to not understand your big mistakes and your unability to recognize and respect the talent of a great actress. You're embarrassing

  • stolidog says:

    f.r.e.a.k.y. friday.

  • sweetbiscuit says:

    Nicole is a great actress and I even think a brave actress in many ways, but you must admit that is not a normal 40-year old forehead (or face, even) in your link's picture. She should just stop with the fillers and immobilizers. That would be brave.

  • vans says:

    What are you talking about? My God...You're not a plastic surgeon so you don't know what she's done and first of all you're not God to call a woman's face "not" normal.
    And if you use fillers and "immobilizers" (please explain what they are because you're a comically talented) I'll doubt you can make something like that:
    She's got wrinkles...isn't this enough?? This is RIDICULOUS.
    The truth is this botox's story went behind every imagination and became too big and too relevant, and it hasn't got a single logic reason why it became relevant. People don't even know what botox is just say "She uses it" because all the other people say it. YOU DON'T THINK WITH YOUR BRAIN, you're using other's people words and this is ridiculous. You've been brainwashed by media and gossip, this is horrible.
    Try to think with your brain and have the courage to express YOUR IDEAS not be influenced by the media.

  • Marsha says:

    Thank God! Somebody had the guts to ask about Nicole's face. It's what everybody has been talking about since 2005. Kidman fans need to be a little less defensive.

  • Dude says:

    The Nicole Kidman fan commenting here needs to calm down. It was absolutely a fair question, and I am glad someone addressed it. This trend for actresses to take their most important instrument - their face - and render it emotionless, to supposedly look younger (it simply doesn't: young skin isn't even that smooth, it isn't puffy looking, and it MOVES) is truly insane. I think it's great someone is openly discussing with a filmmaker that this is a concern for film lovers.
    I like Kidman, and found it very sad to see such a good actress with a self-inflicted paralysed face. The effect with those heavily botoxed faces is both an absence of expression, coupled with strange head movements as they strain to emote. It is incredibly frustrating to watch.
    By the way, the pictures the unreasonably angry fan on here is showing to support his case don't help. Kidman still looks like she's overdone it there. Being able to form a few forehead wrinkles means she's toned it down, but there is plenty of evidence her face is still not 'natural'. Look at her lips - in her youth, they were (at least) half that size, and suited her better. Hope she comes to see she is beautiful naturally and lets those 'improvements' fall away.

  • Steven Timm says:

    We ought to win big to triumph over the cheating we’ve already found out about. It’s not new but what the heck is new is that prohibited vigilant and are learning about this now instead of a couple months from now. are going to exposed for the cheaters they may be, just as their bad campaigning has shown them as liars and devoid of their own ideas. Now is not enough time to slow down but rather to pile the item on. It is time to leave no doubt spend money on where the American men and women stand.

  • josef silva says:

    Come on! I don't think the questions he asked about Nicole Kidmans face were mean or over done. After all it is her face. Her face is her instrument. If she were a doctor and she had her hands numbed it would certainly produced peoples interest. I think it's the same here. Movies are after all a product that people buy ( you , me , and the movie going audience). In this day and age we all want to know what's in the product we're buying. Is it organic, is it toxic, was it produced articalfisically. These are all questions we hear or hear ourselves say on a daily basis. Right. Certainly when we're looking for a doctor we ask those questions about him and his product(instrument). It's no different here.
    The same about the question on the film score. Sampling has been the undoing of the music industry. Nobody or almost nobody reads, writes, or plays mucic anymore. It's all acomplished by sampling poeple who have talent and then mixing it together. There was a time when we spent 10 to 20 percent of our salaries on music. Now most of us spend less than 1 percent on music. Stop hiring poeple who have no talent. I mean stop buying product from people who have used other people's music to make recording products to sell to you and me. The insanity has to end!

  • Rachandroll says:

    It is distracting when the actors look unnatural. Nicole Kidman's lips pulled me out of the story of Rabit Hole. The actor who brought me into the story was Dianne Wiest.

  • LB816NYC says:

    Nicole Kidman looks like a freak in Rabbit Hole! What the hell DID she do to her face? Sad, she has totally destroyed her looks. She has that "cat woman" look and so tragic for somebody so young! Idiot.