WATCHING Nicole Kidman stroll unencumbered through the streets of Queens is like seeing an out-of-place apparition, Marilyn Monroe on the subway platform instead of on the grate above. Yet there she was, walking down Bell Boulevard in Bayside in a long flax-colored cardigan, hardly noticed by the locals one bright morning this summer.
No, Ms. Kidman doesn’t come to Queens often. But she gladly spent a few weeks around the borough filming “Rabbit Hole,” an adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer prize-winning drama about a fraying family. In the film version Douglaston stands in for Westchester, and Ms. Kidman toned down her glamour to play a suburban mother dealing with the loss of a child.
She took on another demanding new role as well, as a producer of the movie, the first from her production company, Blossom Films. With a modest budget of less than $10 million, a brisk 28-day shoot, a surprising director in John Cameron Mitchell, few frills (no trailers for the stars) and many interns, “Rabbit Hole” is more like an indie than a Hollywood production. Make no mistake: it was Ms. Kidman’s wattage that got it made, and quickly. But it does not yet have distribution.
“This is a passion project for Nicole,” Aaron Eckhart, who plays her husband, said after shooting a scene at Papazzio restaurant in Bayside. “The reason why I’m in the movie is Nicole. If she wants to work with somebody, then that’s what happens.”(Dianne Wiest, Tammy Blanchard and Sandra Oh are also in the cast.)
Mr. Mitchell noted that he received the call to direct in February and began working soon after. “That never happens,” he said, “but it was a priority for her.”
A downtown actor known for adapting his own often raucous and sexually explicit work — “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Shortbus” — Mr. Mitchell was an unorthodox choice to direct an intimate story about the differing ways a couple cope with the accidental death of their young son. (In fact he was the second unorthodox choice: Sam Raimi was originally attached, but withdrew to do the next “Spider-Man.”) And it was strange for him to want to do it. “It’s the first thing since ‘Hedwig’ 10 years ago that made me drop everything,” Mr. Mitchell said.
He was attracted by Mr. Lindsay-Abaire’s taut script, and by a personal connection. “When I was 14,” he said, “we lost our brother, who was 4, to a heart problem. It was a sudden, unexpected event. It defined a family forever and recovering from it was something we’re still doing.”
But Ms. Kidman said Mr. Mitchell hardly needed to pitch her to get the job. “He already had it,” even before the phone call when he told her his story, she said. “Talking to someone, I don’t think words and talking is ultimately the way that you choose to do a piece,” she added over a cappuccino in the back of the set. “It’s all based on a sensation, on an instinct. That’s what my whole life’s been based on, a gut instinct. And either it goes way off and it’s something else, or it’s exactly what I thought it would be, or it’s way more.”
Her instincts have not always served her well lately. Ms. Kidman’s last three big-budget films, “Australia,” “The Golden Compass” and “The Invasion” were box-office disappointments, and an auteur-directed indie, Noah Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding,” was a moderate success at best. So while her red-carpet appeal is undiminished (her life in Nashville with her husband, the country star Keith Urban, and their daughter, Sunday Rose, is still tabloid worthy), her big-screen clout may be. That there are fewer boutique studios releasing the “odd stories” Ms. Kidman says she’s interested in — Paramount Vantage, which distributed “Margot,” is much diminished, for example — means she may have a harder time following her gut.
“It’s definitely a rough time,” said Bob Berney, the former president of Picturehouse, a division of Time Warner that was shut down last year. “There’s fewer buyers than ever before. On the other hand, I think the market in terms of audience is stronger than ever, in terms of the number of theaters there are, in terms of people who are interested in something unique or different.” (Mr. Berney has just opened a new distribution company, Apparition.)
Blossom Films has a first-look deal with 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight specifically for “Rabbit Hole.” “We get to finish at the pace that we want to,” Ms. Kidman said, “and then if people respond to it, we get to place it somewhere, with people that we feel are as passionate about it as we are.”
Ms. Kidman did not see “Rabbit Hole” on Broadway in 2006, but after reading a review, she called Per Saari, Blossom Films’ producer, and he flew to New York from Los Angeles that night, he said. He saw the show, for which Cynthia Nixon won a Tony in the role of the grieving mother, and set up a meeting with Mr. Lindsay-Abaire. Ms. Kidman read the play and later saw an Australian production.
“When I first responded to it, it was because I read it, and it was about grief, which fascinates me,” she said. “Loss and love seem to be themes that run through my work.” This film is about “a marriage and the way that people fuse through pain, that you can either be pulled apart or you can come together. In the same way that ‘Birth,’ a film that I did, was about loss of the loved one who’s your partner in life, this is the most profound loss, and it’s the worst place to tread. And so my nature tends to be to explore something that I’m terrified of.”
Shooting a tense scene at the restaurant, Ms. Kidman and Mr. Eckhart remained in character between takes, continuing their conversation as husband and wife or staring intently down in concentration. Ms. Kidman didn’t deviate from the text, but made subtle changes in her inflection, giving the moment, in which she reveals that she no longer wants to attend a support group for grieving parents, a tinge of sadness or bitter resignation.
Asked if making a smaller-scale movie was a refreshing change, Ms. Kidman seemed to bristle. “I’ve always done them,” she said. “I mean, I won the Academy Award” — in 2003, for “The Hours” — “and I went straight into making ‘Birth.’ ”
True: for an A-list star, her career is a patchwork of quirky choices. And in conversation she was personable and down to earth, asking for recommendations of things to do in New York. “A good jazz club is what I need,” she said, “something that is really underground.”
Mr. Saari said she reminded him of his last boss, Robert Redford. “Redford has always had one foot outside of Hollywood,” he said. “I think Nicole, although she’s known to be a movie star, she has this independent spirit to her. It’s the same part of her that lives in Nashville and has a farm. She brings in these giant squash, and says, ‘Look what I grew in my garden.’ She wanted to enter them in a competition.”
Ms. Kidman said her goal with Blossom Films was to promote the vision of directors like Mr. Mitchell and writers like Mr. Lindsay-Abaire, who was surprised to find himself a part of the production even after he submitted his draft. “They haven’t changed anything without my permission, which in my experience never happens,” he said.
Of course vanity production companies in Hollywood are nothing new, nor are pet projects. Most of the films that Blossom is developing, including “The Danish Girl,” based on a novel about the first man to have a sex change operation, have roles for Ms. Kidman. (One that doesn’t is a remake of “How to Marry a Millionaire” in which a man is the gold digger; Ms. Kidman said it was her idea.) But surprise: Ms. Kidman said she has no plans to direct, though she would like to write. “I’m not interested in just producing movies,” she said. “I’m actually interested in protecting the material, because you don’t want this stuff to get hacked to pieces and commercialized and taken into a place that isn’t authentic and real.”
That may be true as an actor, but as a producer, doesn’t she want her films to be commercially successful? Ms. Kidman dismissed the question.
“Films are so ephemeral,” she said. “You can have all of the components and still miss horribly. That’s the beauty of art.”