Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart play a couple trying to cope with the death of their young son in “Rabbit Hole,” a drama with flashes of humor written for the stage and screen by David Lindsay-Abaire.
Before he won the Pulitzer Prize, David Lindsay-Abaire’s adventures in Hollywood amounted to two middling family entertainments: the animated feature “Robots” and the Brendan Fraser bomb “Inkheart.” Lindsay-Abaire says that there’s not one word of his in one of those movies (he won’t say which one) and the other was so torn apart that he has never claimed ownership.
No wonder the writer concentrated primarily on the theater, where he found success putting a contemporary spin on the screwball farce. Plays like “Fuddy Meers” and “Kimberly Akimbo” continue to be produced on stages from coast to coast. He was also Tony-nominated for his work as a book writer and lyricist for “Shrek the Musical,” which is now at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre.
In 2006, Lindsay-Abaire stepped away from comedy to write “Rabbit Hole,” a drama about grief with surprising flashes of humor as a couple deals with the accidental death of their young son. Then the play, which starred Cynthia Nixon, John Slattery and Tyne Daly on Broadway, won the Pulitzer Prize, an award that occasionally makes Hollywood notice a piece of theater.
John Cameron Mitchell, a Broadway actor turned film director (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “Shortbus”), signed on to direct with Nicole Kidman co-producing and playing Becca, the grieving mother.
Lindsay-Abaire agreed to adapt his play for the screen, and after generating some positive buzz at the Toronto Film Festival, “Rabbit Hole” opens in theaters Christmas Day.
Speaking on the phone from his New York home, Lindsay-Abaire, 41, says it took him three viewings of the movie to really see it. The first time he was caught up in the way the editing shaped the characters. The second time, he appreciated it more but was still in a screening room by himself.
Then, in Toronto, he saw it with a full audience. “After the first laugh I was so relieved,” he says. “The play works because there’s a lot of comedy, and that gives the characters the breathing room they need to go on this journey. For the film, we cut so much that worked in the play that I worried we had cut all the laughs. But there were all these other laughs I didn’t know were there.”
While the movie filmed in Brooklyn, with Kidman joined by Aaron Eckhart as Becca’s husband and Dianne Wiest as her mother, Lindsay-Abaire hovered around the set.
“I basically sat in a corner squeezing my thighs together thinking, ‘We’re making a movie!’ ‘There’s Nicole Kidman!’ ” Lindsay-Abaire recalls. “I was in disbelief it was actually happening. And they were doing it right! It’s not like I walked in and they were doing some Brechtian deconstruction. John had the tone right, so I knew it wasn’t going to suck.”
As a play, “Rabbit Hole” refers to a lot of off-stage action and people, which made it easier to open up for the screen.
“We hear about the husband going to a support group in the play, so in the movie we actually go there,” Lindsay-Abaire says. “A shopping scene that is only described in the play is now one of the best scenes in the movie. I embraced the chance to tell the story in a completely different way while keeping the stuff that worked.”
One of the best compliments Lindsay-Abaire can get is from someone responding to the movie who had no idea it was a play.
“I’m incredibly proud of myself for not being precious with what was in the play,” Lindsay-Abaire says. “A lot of adaptations don’t escape their roots. They try to open up but don’t succeed. I hope we’ve done that. If we have, John Cameron Mitchell gets the credit.”
People who saw the play were undoubtedly affected by it, which may make it harder for them to experience the movie with fresh eyes, but Lindsay-Abaire hopes people don’t get caught up in play/movie comparisons. “They’re completely different animals,” Lindsay-Abaire says. “The best thing about the movie is that the story can be experienced by millions of people who never saw it on stage.”