Mitchell had a couple of concerns. He had never helmed a film he did not pen himself, and he would not have the luxury of complete creative control the way he had previously. However, the drama about a grieving married couple (Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) learning to live eight months after the death of their 4-year-old son deeply affected Mitchell. When Mitchell was 14, his younger brother Samuel died of a heart problem.
"Samuel was an event that defined our family. That happened in 1976 when I was in Kansas, and the woman who inspired Hedwig was his babysitter," recalls Mitchell, who won best director at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival for "Hedwig" and scored a Golden Globe nod for his performance in the title role. "I think I lost my faith in the kind of God that I was taught existed when my brother died. It kind of didn't make sense after that. I dedicate the film to him and to my boyfriend who passed away in 2004. ['Rabbit Hole'] has a lot of resonances in my life."
The end result is a beautiful, touching film that is, surprisingly, much more uplifting than depressing. As the steely and sensitive Becca, Kidman gives her finest performance since "To Die For," the actress looking all 43 years of her age. Here the director discusses auditioning actors, whispering directions, bringing a "Hedwig" revival to Broadway, and why he's "too old to work with assholes."
Back Stage: You've said in a few interviews that each of your three films have all had the same underlying theme—isolated people deciding whether or not to be alone. What is it about isolation that speaks to you?
John Cameron Mitchell: I was an Army brat, so I was always the new guy in town. You find a way to fit in quickly but you never feel like you really belong. Until I got to New York, I didn't really know what it meant to have a friend for more than a couple years, so you just feel isolated. You feel self-sufficient too, but you have to remind yourself that you're not alone. And also being gay, at the time that I was growing up it had to be a secret thing, so that kind of makes you feel more like an outsider. So I'm drawn to outsider characters.
Back Stage: You've said that the "Rabbit Hole" screenplay was 50 percent better than the play, both of which were written by David Lindsay-Abaire. Had you seen the production on Broadway?
Mitchell: I didn't see it on stage. I saw a tape of it after reading the screenplay, and I do think the screenplay is better. I think the play is very powerful, but there are some key scenes in the film that I thought would have been in the play. You get those meat-and-potato scenes between the main characters, but there's the whole Sandra Oh subplot that's not in there. It's hinted at but it's not really in there. Nicole's character is sort of pursuing this teenager that has something to do with what happened to her child. You don't get that pursuit in the play. You don't get all the group therapy meetings.
I encouraged [Lindsay-Abaire] to pare down the sister character. Every character seemed to push Becca and Howie's journey along except the sister. [Lindsay-Abaire would] say, "I've gotta keep that joke," and sometimes one too many jokes that are verbal should be replaced with something visual in the film, which I certainly learned doing "Hedwig." I mean, rarely do I think a film adaptation improves upon the play, but in this case I think it does.
Back Stage: What was the most challenging part of making this film?
Mitchell: It was challenging not to be fully in control, creatively, because "Shortbus" and "Hedwig" I was very lucky to pretty much do it my way and finish it my way. I didn't have final say. It was basically two producers and me who triangulated the film, but I think that it wouldn't have been as good a film without them. They forced me to exhaust all possibilities to make it better even though the amount of time it would take for everybody to approve was frustrating. The bigger the budget, the more trouble there is.
Back Stage: I read that, aside from a bad experience with an unnamed female star dropping from one of your projects, you have never worked with a star before. Did you actually call several directors beforehand who had worked with Kidman?
Mitchell: I do that with everybody, with all films. Investors, producers, actors—a lot of people don't and they have a terrible experience with someone. It's part of your responsibility to find out how it is to work with someone if you can. Certainly some people have better chemistry than others, but you get as much information as you can because I'm too old and life is too short to work with an asshole no matter how good they are; there's always someone who's as good who's a nicer person. I did do my research [on Kidman] and it bore itself out. I was very happy. I loved Nicole in "Dogville."
Back Stage: I know Kidman was attached first and she asked Eckhart to play her husband. But were there any interesting stories behind casting any of the rest of the parts?
Mitchell: We offered the role to Dianne [Wiest]. She was our first choice. The other three main characters—Izzy [Tammy Blanchard], Jason [Miles Teller], and Gabby [Sandra Oh] were exhaustive auditions actually. A lot of people wanted to be part of it because of the reputation of the play and Nicole and everything. So I just said straight out that everybody has to audition who wants to be considered for those roles. Sometimes in Hollywood, agents say, "My client doesn't audition," and I just thought it'd be easier to have everybody audition so no one's feelings were hurt.
Back Stage: What do you look for while casting? What types of actors excite you?
Mitchell: It's the same as anybody—people who can take direction, people who have a quality that's close to the character, and people who can surprise you. I know what it's like to audition, so it's very important to me that everybody who auditions, even if I know right off that they're not right for it, has a good experience. So I'll never just have someone do one pass at it and say, "Thank you." I would always give some direction, so that they feel good that they did the best they could.
If there's anything I know about directing, it's how to make actors comfortable. It's where I started and it's what I know and it's what I love. My favorite directors are actors' directors. I can appreciate [directors like Robert] Bresson and [Michelangelo] Antonioni but, as filmmakers, acting is not their priority, so you often have kind of bad actors in those movies or just blank, model-like people, which doesn't interest me. I like when the actors are really partners and I want them to be excited and I want them to surprise me. I don't want them to be puzzle pieces.
Back Stage: Miles Teller said that when it came to blocking a scene you would just say, "Surprise me."
Mitchell: Yeah it's true. We had like two days of rehearsal and a 28-day shoot. I wanted to make sure Nicole and Miles had some time together because I didn't want him to choke. His first day was that scene where he gets yelled at in the kitchen and it's very hard. He was very nervous and I had to ask Aaron to kind of lay in even harder than he might have imagined doing this scene from off camera to knock Miles out of his nervousness. You know, he just scared the shit out of him, basically, and it really worked.
You have to find out very quickly how different people work. Some people are better in their first take or their third take and you have to decide who to shoot first, coverage-wise. Ask them what they prefer. Everything I was doing was trying to reduce the resistance between the actor and the moment they were trying to get. So if that meant fewer dolly shots, more hand-held, or paraphrasing off of the lines, great. It was everything we could do to get the performances that you see, which I'm still galvanized by. It's like they're all doing their best work. They're at the top of their game.
Back Stage: I hear that you prefer to whisper directions right into the actors' ears.
Mitchell: Some directors are scared of actors and they hide over by their monitors and direct from a distance, which actors hate. No actor likes to be directed by being yelled at from across the room. They want it to be a private process, so whenever I give notes it's always whispered in the ear. That often helps the other actor not to know what the person is going to give them. Say someone's reaction is burned out a little from too many takes—I'll whisper to the other actor off camera to throw them a curve ball.
Aaron was brilliant at taking my suggestions. Sometimes people off camera do their best work. I was very careful about mic-ing everybody all the time no matter whether they're on camera or not. I avoid saying, "Action" because I think that's something that, as an actor myself, would make me tense. It was almost like saying, "Tense up." So every trick I had ever learned as an actor and as a director I used in this film.
Back Stage: Where are you with adapting Neil Gaiman's short story "How to Talk to Girls at Parties"?
Mitchell: It's actually another writer that I'm supervising who's doing the writing. I've become friendly with Neil Gaiman. He's such a great guy. That would be a feature that is this punk-era British story with an alien character involved, and we're trying to get that financed right now. And then I'm producing an animated feature called "The Ruined Cast" by graphic novelist Dash Shaw, who did the art for "Rabbit Hole." I grew up with science fiction and comic books, so I'm excited about it. It's a really cool kind of Philip K. Dick sci-fi meets "The Simpsons" or something.
Back Stage: Are you still writing something about your Catholic Army family?
Mitchell: Yeah, I am. That's something that really will probably take awhile because it's really about my family and I have to kind of make sure it's right because there's the sensitivity of family members. It's investigating heavy Catholic stuff that I dealt with growing up.
Back Stage: Are there any other upcoming projects?
Mitchell: Well, we're hoping to get "Hedwig" on Broadway, which has a lot of obstacles but will happen.
Back Stage: Who would play Hedwig?
Mitchell: I don't know. I'd like to do it again, but I also don't want to do eight shows a week, which you have to do. Maybe I'll share it. There are thoughts about getting the perfect person. I don't want to throw just anybody into it. I'm sure I'll act again at some point. I did it for a long time, so it's got to be something super special. I don't have the same craving that I needed, and I get a lot out of directing actors. I feel like I'm performing behind the camera.