Down the Rabbit Hole, Together
In “Rabbit Hole,” Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart play grieving parents dealing with the accidental death of their four-year-old son. The film, adapted by David Lindsey-Abaire from his Pulitzer-prize winning play, was “a passion project for Nicole,” Mr. Eckhart said last year, when they were filming in Douglaston, Queens. It was the first movie from her production company, Blossom Films, and, as a producer, Ms. Kidman made an unorthodox choice for director in John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”), who had never before directed a movie he didn’t write. “Rabbit Hole” was made for about $4 million, and eventually bought for distribution by Lionsgate. It opens Dec. 17 in limited release. In a wide-ranging interview in a SoHo hotel room recently, Ms. Kidman and Mr. Mitchell spoke about the constraints of indie filmmaking, their childhood and adult inspirations. This is an edited version of their conversation.
Q. Nicole, you hired John after a phone conversation. What was it like when you first met?
Mr. Mitchell. We met in Nashville first. We met at a Comfort Inn or something.
Ms. Kidman. It’s like a Holiday Inn. Just down the road, it’s really nice. We met in a meeting room. You showed me some pictures. It was very easy, actually. We talked through, I suppose, the way we both work, and we clicked on that.
Mr. Mitchell. We talked about music a little bit. I played some Sigur Ros maybe. The guy from Sigur Ros has a band called Riceboy Sleeps, I played some of his music and I played a little Duke Ellington. So we just started talking creatively.
Ms. Kidman. It’s a beautiful way in, through music and through, say, pictures, and I’m used to that. I’ve worked with other directors where they approach it, like Baz [Luhrmann] does the same thing. He’ll approach you not so much through the text but he’ll start with the same thing you did, music and pictures.
Mr. Mitchell. I remember I played an Al Green song for you in your apartment, which we couldn’t afford.
Ms. Kidman. I so wanted it in the film.
Mr. Mitchell. We tried very hard. That’s how they make their money now. They don’t make it selling records. We used another Al Green.
Q.Can you talk about the constraints of the budget?
Mr. Mitchell. Right when the recession hit is when we were starting to think about it. Budgets were being slashed and it didn’t frighten us. In some ways it concentrated the mind. Nicole is like, we don’t have trailers, whatever, we’ll have holding areas with a blowup mattress. Fine. Let’s just get it done. Our producers were, like, ‘we think we have to use digital cameras as opposed to film.’
Ms. Kidman. Which I was fighting because I was still stuck on film, film, film, that’s what we have to work on.
Mr. Mitchell. It’s a film type of story. Some stories are video stories. And then we did experimentation with the Red [a type of digital camera]. Frankie [Frank DeMarco, the director of photography] used old lenses.
Ms. Kidman. We were told it would save an enormous amount of money and we’d be able to get a lot more done. Ultimately this film lives and dies on performances.
Mr. Mitchell. You can keep it rolling, you don’t have to cut, because you run out of film in your mag, so you can run for 40 minutes if you have to. And we often did scenes over and over and over without cutting to get actors in a certain vibe, to get the camera in a certain vibe. And I’m glad we had the Red.
Ms. Kidman. Yeah. Which is interesting because you’ve got to stay anchored, even if you’ve got a huge budget. I remember working with Kubrick and he would very easily move off a location because it was too expensive.
Mr. Mitchell. Really?
Ms. Kidman. Yeah. It was a great lesson as an actor but a great lesson as a filmmaker, too, because you can always shift and move. If you know what the essence of what you’re trying to create, if you get stuck on one thing and he was very much about – oh well, it’s too expensive, we’re going to do it over here. I thought, that’s astounding. You would think it would be opposite, right?
Mr. Mitchell. Yes. ‘I’m building a castle next to my house to make it convenient.’
Ms. Kidman. I think he just wanted time.
Q. Do you wish you had a bigger budget?
Ms. Kidman. I don’t wish that for this.
Mr. Mitchell. I think sometimes more money can get in your way.
Ms. Kidman. You want the investors to make money so they’re just as willing to invest again. And with a film like this it shouldn’t cost $7 million because the chances of it making money for the investors is slim.
Mr. Mitchell. That’s our Scottish and Australian common sense.
Ms. Kidman. Yeah, waste not, want not. If you can make it for this price and we did, I really don’t think we would have done, I mean, we would have shot on film, we would have had a different Al Green song.
Mr. Mitchell. I don’t think it would be any better.
Ms. Kidman. We wouldn’t have had an explosion.
Q. You would have had trailers maybe.
Ms. Kidman. I’m so glad we didn’t have trailers because I much prefer being in the house. It takes an enormous amount of time going back to the trailer, walking back out, the trailer is 500 yards down the road so you gotta drive to the trailer. I was like, can we just have a room next door.
Q. Can you tell me about choreographing the look of the film?
Mr. Mitchell. In terms of the way we wanted to present to the camera, our byword was ‘invisible.’ Frank and I, we don’t ever want to be thinking the director is what the camera is in terms of a character, it’s not in the shoot, we should never be thinking about that. Self-conscious camera moves and angles weren’t part of our vocabulary. We looked to Robert Benton, Alan Pakula and Sidney Lumet, very subtle films, and Robert Redford in the late 70’s or early 80’s, which were Hollywood films but they were ‘Ordinary People,’ ‘Kramer vs. Kramer,’ these films that were audience friendly. It’s simple and going to the heart of it without trying to scare the hell out of the audience. ‘Antichrist’ has the same setup. A couple who’s lost a child –
Q. Did you and John talk a lot about how to build these characters?
Ms. Kidman. Yeah. I think you do the normal work, and luckily John’s an actor so there’s immediate understanding of what’s needed, and you create the marriage, the life, every detail and that takes each of us working separately and then coming together and mapping it out. And then I do my own process, which is when I arrive at rehearsal I’ve already done an enormous amount of work and I’m not one of those actors that likes to go through step by step how we get there because…
Mr. Mitchell. It’s your own thing.
Ms. Kidman. It’s so personal. I’ve done an enormous amount to get there but strangely enough with this character, with Becca, I think it existed in me on a cellular level. The minute I read it I could feel her, and there’s elements of my family in there, there’s elements of many, many things. It was an arresting reaction the first time I read it and it’s kind of an uncomfortable place, it’s a disturbing place to exist in for two or three months. You go, I don’t want to go there. I’ve had that on other projects. I did the same with “The Others.” But it’s almost like there is no choice, I’m going to go there because I have to do it.
Q. During shooting your daughter was a year old. Were you able to avoid taking the work home with you?
Ms. Kidman. I think I would go home with relief. It certainly penetrated my dream landscape where I would have very bizarre dreams and Keith [Urban, her husband] was just very understanding. Luckily when you’re married to somebody who is artistic so they have a sense of – he has his own artistic nature. There’s fear, all of those things somehow manifest in my sleep. That’s probably why I wear a mouth guard, grinding my teeth. I tend to play a lot of stuff out in those eight hours. I would wake up many times through this film, panicked or weeping. I hate that.
Mr. Mitchell. She would describe it while shooting as having to vibrate the character. It was partially involuntary because you’re just doing the scenes but also voluntary because you have to stay at a certain place to be able to leap into those scenes. You can’t just go from 0 to 60 sometimes.
Ms. Kidman. I can’t. Some people probably can but I can’t.
Mr. Mitchell. A lot of it was me making sure she felt safe in terms of physically and also it’s weird when she’s shooting on the street because there’s paparazzi, they’re very rude and that’s not something you want to be thinking about, so kind of having to protect…
Ms. Kidman. Go into a bubble.
Mr. Mitchell. Even literally protect. Like, ‘please John, help me get out of this car, there’s that guy with the telephoto lens.’
Ms. Kidman. And you’re crying in the scene and then you’re on the cover of some paper or magazine as though it’s in real life. I remember that with “Margot at the Wedding,” where I had a huge scene where I had to break down and throw things on the street and have a massive hysterical breakdown. And they then took the photos and put them in magazines as though that was me having them. But there’s a point where you just go, I have to honor this character and I have to honor the performance and none of that means anything. That’s where we get to. I’m very much about, I’m going to give you a wide array of different things and then let’s choose what’s right because with this film you never know when you’re going to want in the editing room, something more or something less. So much of this film is about holding it in.
Mr. Mitchell. A lot of our takes were huge variety. You would just present on a tray these incredible variety of takes –
Ms. Kidman. We would move around the same emotion in different ways. That’s disturbing. It just is. People can say, how could you bear to go there and I just feel that’s what we do as actors and as storytellers. I’m not drawn to stories that are just sort of fluffy, I’m just not, and I’ve tried to, and as a kid I was never drawn to them, I always chose complicated –
Mr. Mitchell. What did you watch when you were a kid?
Ms. Kidman. I always watched weird stuff. I read “Crime and Punishment” when I was very young because that’s what interested me far more than the other literature. I suppose that still plays out in a different way and I’ll do things like “Fur,” where people go, what is that film? She’s climbing stairs seeking out a man covered in fur. I’m like, yeah, but it’s a metaphor! “‘Rabbit Hole” for me was something that is so painful and that’s what life is. Life is extremely painful and we all live with an enormous amount of that and that thing of how do you live with that? It makes me feel alive. I hope this film pulsates with life because it’s two people dealing with death, but choosing life, if that makes sense, or trying to choose life. That’s fascinating to me.
Q. John, you were nodding along there. Did you read “Crime and Punishment” as a kid, too?
Mr. Mitchell. No, I was reading “Lord of the Rings.” I was always fascinated with death. I had a little brother who died when he was four and I was a teenager, and death was our constant companion. We thought about it in a religious way, is how we got through it at that time. It didn’t quite work for me and I had to think about it in other ways later in terms of stories, but I would read really extreme comic books and science fiction and fantasy with a lot of death and a lot of heroism and a lot of confusion.
Ms. Kidman. So, mythical.
Mr. Mitchell. Yeah, mythical. I liked martyrs, I liked the saints, martyring themselves and that was my way of figuring stuff out. And then in high school my first play was a Harold Pinter play for some reason.
Ms. Kidman. Mine was “Sweet Bird of Youth,” but I was 12.
Q. Who put on a 12-year-olds’ production of “Sweet Bird of Youth”?
Ms. Kidman. It was a children’s theater thing. We had a very avant-garde theater. We would read Tennessee Williams and for whatever reason I was cast as the Princess and also played Amanda in Glass Menagerie at that same age – not Laura, Amanda. I did the accent. I barely understood but I also understood, it was that weird combination of how could I understand, because particularly someone like the Princess with the whole sexual – you know, I did it. And Jane Campion saw me do it and cast me in a student film. I think I was just very bold.
Mr. Mitchell. She’s still very bold.
Q. John, working with people that you didn’t know is new for you, right?
Mr. Mitchell. Yeah. “Shortbus” we rehearsed for two years. I had two days with Nicole. We talked about the film a lot but actually sitting in the sets with scenes, it was two days. Any more would have been bad. This is the kind of film where you can over-rehearse. Emotional scenes like this are like explosions. You have to be ready and cameras at the ready and shoot the rehearsals. We never did a camera rehearsal without shooting it. It was always, what can we do to lubricate the actors’ path towards the character and if that meant settling down on certain technical things – let’s light for the whole room, let’s not worry about relighting for certain shots, let’s shoot the two cameras going both ways – so the actors are firing on all cylinders.
Q. At the screening I went to, I heard people wondering about who would see a film about such a difficult subject matter. Did you worry about that?
Mr. Mitchell. You can’t tell someone they’re going to have an experience that’s useful to them. Whether we like it or not, at some point we’re going to be dealing with loss and if you don’t have tools, you’re not given tools by your religion, by your parents, by whatever, all we have is stories to help us. We already know things can be rough. This was necessary for me to revisit some feelings I never dealt with as a kid because we weren’t supposed to talk about stuff in the 70’s. I think going through fire by watching a movie is the safe way, doing it vicariously and experiencing what the Greeks call catharsis; you could do it vicariously and you can be cleansed, you can be purged and you can be ready for life. That is the point of art.
Ms. Kidman. It’s real. I’m not going to defend the film. If people don’t want to go see it they’re not going to see it, but I’m so glad we made it and there’s a reason to make films like this. [She gets visibly upset.] I don’t want to be part of homogenizing. I get prickly when people are like why would you even – why not? You can always say why. Why do this now, why have a child now? Phillip Roth told me that, because I remember saying to him why, why, why and he literally said to me, stop asking the question why, why is not the answer. You can always find a reason not to do something. Then you end up – in my estimation – not brave. Why not choose to be a little braver and – so you fall flat on your face? You can get back up, with a little help from your friends.
Q. When you’re doing press or when this movie moves forward in awards season and you have to keep coming back to it, is that difficult?
Ms. Kidman. This has taken four years to get made. I loved doing it, talking about it. I can’t quite believe that we managed to get it made. We were so lucky to sell it.
Mr. Mitchell. My mom likes it.
Ms. Kidman. My mom loved it! And my mom doesn’t always.
Mr. Mitchell. And my mom doesn’t always..
Ms. Kidman. Neither does mine. She’s very vocal about it
Mr. Mitchell. What is her quote?
Ms. Kidman. I took it back to Australia early on and they were like, it’s a good film, make sure you don’t give up on this one. ‘What’s happening with ‘Rabbit Hole,’ they’d say.
Mr. Mitchell. My mom would always be like, ‘you’re squinting.’ I’m like, mom, I’m Hedwig! ‘You’re squinting again, just like you did when you were 12 and playing the Virgin Mary. Let them see your beautiful eyes. Get your hair out of your face.’ It’s a wig! ‘Why are you ashamed of your eyes?’ I’ve got giant lashes on, mom. They’re in shadow because of it.
Ms. Kidman. My mom saw the Oprah show the other day that Keith and I just did and she’s like, don’t ever wear that dress again. I said what was wrong with it? She goes, a tall girl should never wear a high-waisted dress. Well, I disagree, I said. I’ll now never wear a high-waisted dress. Is that true, that a tall girl should never wear a high-waisted dress? I said, we have different fashion taste anyway. She goes, I don’t think we do. It’s hilarious. It is what it is. That’s why we’re all here.
Mr. Mitchell. That’s why we’re still doing it. My mom couldn’t see my last film, it was too risqué. Though my aunt, the nun who came to our premiere in Toronto, 75-year-old nun, awesome liberal nun, demanded to see ‘Shortbus.’ Nuns get a bad rap sometimes, but they are the backbone of the Church.
Ms. Kidman. I’ve always wanted to play a nun.
Mr. Mitchell. Really? Wow.
Q: Do you have plans to work together next?
Ms. Kidman. No, I offered him a few more things and he’s not interested.
Q. You told me that’s because you have a rent-controlled apartment.
Mr. Mitchell. I’m 47. I’m 47 and I have a rent-controlled apartment.
Q. You’re 47?
Ms. Kidman. He looks so young. He still looks like a boy.
Mr. Mitchell. I still live like a boy.
Ms. Kidman. What does that mean, living like someone much younger?
Mr. Mitchell. Like it’s dirty, but not too dirty.