The stars of “Rabbit Hole,” Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, play mourning parents eight months removed from the death of their son, each so consumed by individual grief that neither is attuned to the other’s emotional and physical needs.
It is the kind of domestic melodrama Hollywood studios rarely make anymore, and perhaps the last man you would expect to direct it is John Cameron Mitchell, best known for 2001’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” his seminal comedy about a transsexual punk rocker, and the 2006 bohemians-in-heat drama “Shortbus.”
A versatile talent who made his acting debut in the 1984 TV movie “The Roommate,” Mitchell wrote the original screenplays for the films he directed.
Does “Rabbit Hole” — adapted from David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play — reflect a radical change in his professional approach?
Simply put, no.
“I’m up for anything that sounds like a good time and affords me creative freedom, as I had here,” says Mitchell, 47, who was hired for the job by Kidman, the movie’s producer.
“The Coen brothers have a system of keeping their budgets low and haggling with big stars to get them in their movies, and then there are movies like ‘Shortbus’ where big stars would be detrimental. I want to do it all, work within all genres and styles, just like I did as an actor,” he says.
Mitchell describes “Rabbit Hole” as an anomaly in the current marketplace — an intimate but accessible family drama in the tradition of one of his favorite 1980s films, “Ordinary People.”
To make movies like that today, with enough backing to reach a wide audience, you need star power — sometimes in more ways than one.
That is where Kidman, as producer and leading lady, made such a difference. (Mitchell lavishes praise on her co-stars as well. He says Eckhart would be a bigger star if not for his uncompromising choice of films, and he describes Dianne Wiest as America’s closest thing to a dame, “like Judi Dench.”)
The director did not know Kidman prior to the phone call that earned him the job, but while winning her trust in a mere 20 minutes, he found all he had to do was be honest.
“I told her how moved I was by the story, having lost a brother in high school myself,” he says. “It was a tragedy that defined my family. I told her I wanted to make a very restrained movie — so restrained that you wouldn’t think about the camera or the director. And impulsively, she said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”