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