There are so many ways for a movie to go wrong, especially a grief-stricken family drama like Rabbit Hole. It could easily have become emotionally overwrought, too sincere or depressing, or been-there predictable.
But it isn’t.
That’s partly due to the skill of the writing, by David Lindsay-Abaire, who won a Pulitzer for his original play and made considerable changes to open up the film’s visual palette. And director John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus), who seems odd casting for this material, kept the movie simple, natural, and real. Clearly, producer Nicole Kidman, who developed this material as a vehicle for herself, also gets credit for making many of the right calls.
The writer and director stopped by our last Sneak Previews class for a Q & A, below. The $4-million indie, which was picked up out of Toronto by Lionsgate, opens limited on December 17.
AT: John, does it upset you to hear that you wouldn’t be the first person to come to mind for a movie like this?
JCM: People tend to have less imagination. As an actor and a writer, people want you for the last thing you did and can’t see beyond that. I, as a director, try to have an imagination when I’m casting and working with other people because I just remember, as an actor, people being very short-sighted, but I approach a script as a director the way I do as an actor: What can I do to serve it, rather than pee all over it.
AT: There’s risk involved when making something that was written as a play. How did you meet that challenge?
DLB: Before the movie was made and and someone said, ‘John Cameron Mitchell was directing it,’ they were like, ‘that’s a crazy idea; it doesn’t make any sense.’ For me it made perfect sense, I was thrilled by it for two main reasons: one is, he had already taken his own stage work and turned it into an incredibly successful cinematic piece of film work — the guy knows how to do it –but besides that, I love those two movies, Hedwig and Shortbus. Yes, Hedwig has the big costumes and wigs and musical numbers, and with Shortbus everybody says, ‘oh, those sex scenes,’ but to me those were just wrapping paper — wonderful, fantastic wrapping paper — and underneath those stories there are people that are desperate to connect, people in upside down worlds trying to make sense of and find their place in that world. So yes, the films are different, but they are exactly what Rabbit Hole is about. And John has an incredible sense of humor and a very big heart, his spirit, I felt, was a perfect match for Rabbit Hole, so it didn’t scare me for a second.
AT: How was working with Nicole Kidman as both producer and star?
JCM: She was more the godmother. Her producing partner was the moment-to-moment person, with incredible intellect, he’s a filmmaker himself, and Lesley Urdang came on as the other brain behind it. So Nicole would check in at certain points and I would talk to her about music and how I wanted my directorial hand invisible in the final equation, you know, you shouldn’t be thinking about the camera or what the director is doing. You could do crazy camera angles, but it would be gratuitous. So Nicole and I talked about Ordinary People, like, this is the kind of film Hollywood used to make all the time, in my youth in the late seventies, early eighties, they were audience-friendly, they went deep. Hollywood doesn’t really see the profit margin anymore, because of the overall opening gross idea. These films are ceded to independents.
AT: David, how did you approach adapting your stage play into a visual movie?
DLA: What the play had in its back pocket, which a lot of plays don’t have, is a fairly extensive off-stage life. The play takes place just in the house with the four family members and the boy. But in the course of the play, they talk a lot about things that happen outside of the home. The support group is talked about, and Howie’s affair is only hinted at–and that obviously became one of the backbones of the plot. Izzie describes a bar fight she got into, and obviously in the movie the call comes in the middle of the night when she gets bailed out. And when the wife finally meets the boy, he talks about his prom, and all sorts of things are talked and talked and talked about. So when I decided to do the screenplay I thought, ‘oh, I can actually go to all those places and meet all those people who are fairly clear in my head.’ Because when it came time to actually do the screenplay, I had been living without he characters for three or four years so I knew them fairly well. So it was an opportunity for me to re-investigate the story and re-examine the characters and tell it in a completely different way.
AT: When did John get involved and how did you both work on the screenplay?
JCM: I read the second draft, my agent showed it to me, and said Nicole’s company was looking for someone. I just thought it was such a strong restructuring. I saw the tape of the original production afterwards, which was very moving, but I found the screenplay that much more powerful. It was the strong spine of the parallel relationship: the outside man and the outside woman that they both go to, who turn out to be their catalysts for change, which is different from the play. Of course the family members are very important but all these powerful scenes that I thought must have been key moments, none were in the play. The comic book, which originally was a short story, that the boy wrote, you don’t see or read the whole thing, but the same story of the scientist and the rabbit hole in the midst of the alternate realities is presented in a more visual way and I just thought it was fantastic. I told Nicole that in a twenty minute phone call. We talked about my own history of loss and how the film seemed to be a bond to those feelings. So after a twenty minute conversation she said the next day, ‘I think you are the person,’ I thought there was going to be a meeting, but she had an instinct.
AT: What was the loss in your life that you were remembering?
JCM: I lost a brother when I was a teenager, who’s the same age as the character in the play. It was a sudden, unexpected thing and it marked our family, we weren’t really allowed to talk about it, apart from in a religious way, which seemed very limited. And so reading the script reopened wells of emotion and I found it very healing. I didn’t find religion very comforting, though my mother did. I think the moment he died is when God died for me, actually. The way he was described to me at the time, ‘God is good,’ well then why? Why? I don’t understand. And therapy wasn’t allowed, I don’t think it had been invented at that point. The family didn’t want to talk about it, we kind of just wanted to move on, so I was just incredibly moved by the irony, the most unique thing, there is so much that is honest about this piece, but what is most unique to me is that Nicole’s character can get comfort from nowhere, right? None of these sources of comfort that we are supposed to have work for her, and ironically the only comfort she can get, the only person she can bear to be around is the kid who killed her son. And at first, ‘What?’ and then ‘Yes!’ The only person, you sense, that he talks to is her at that time. Plus, he does have this prom, there is an opening up that they both have, I think of it as a chaste affair, a spiritual affair rather than a physical one.
AT: They are somehow healing each other. Why or how is that happening?
DLB: They are both desperate to connect with someone. It’s not insignificant that they are the only two people that were at the event and shared that really traumatic experience. At the same time, I tried really hard to also show these characters as they might have been before the event, and so one of the aspects of her character I wanted to show was that she was a mom. She had maternal instincts. Because the movie starts eight months after the death of her child, the only time you get to see it is when she’s with that teenager, right, and so you see her saying things like ‘you shouldn’t play hooky, you’re just getting home now,’ and she bakes him lemon squares and she’s very caring for him so all these maternal instincts come out and he becomes many things to her. So all of that is in there, I don’t think she knows why she’s following that bus, all she knows is that she has this impulse to connect with this person.
AT: So you went to Toronto with no distributor?
JCM: Yeah. It was great to create it without too many middle people, or people trying to save their jobs, giving inappropriate notes while they’re texting. So we had a great long editing process, to really think about details. The producers were very involved with that, which took longer than I was used to, there were more people than when just I had been in charge. It was really weird but I’m really happy with the way it turned out and they suggested things that I didn’t want to do, and they were right. We all know brilliant directors, for example, who sort of peaked in the seventies, and you wonder, ‘why aren’t they as good anymore?’ It’s not that age, necessarily, breeds a lack of curiosity or wisdom, some people keep challenging themselves. I think Robert Altman always knew the place he needed to be to challenge himself and was excited to try new genres. But others seem to kind of fade into irrelevance or boredom and I think part of it is that they’ve surrounded themselves with ‘yes’ men. They’re just talking to themselves. They haven’t actually left their compound in awhile. And so they don’t know what’s going on. Or they’ve been in LA or NY too long and everything is about LA or NY. Even the best filmmakers in LA– often their films are about LA. It’s not that they aren’t being honest, they just need to get out of LA for awhile and go to, I don’t know – Peru?
AT: So many cooks in this case wasn’t a bad thing?
JCM: They all had great taste, they were just sometimes slightly different cuisines.
AT: But Nicole was front and center, it was her vehicle. Was her character at the nexus of the play as well?
DLA: Yes. I think the biggest difference between the play and the movie is that the play is much more about the woman stuck in her life and stuck in her house. And opening it up, and adding this potential affair, it became much more about the relationship between them. The movie is about that couple and not just that woman. So in a funny way, the play is even more about that character.
AT: Miles Teller, to me, is a real discovery. How did you find him?
JCM: He’s so good. I loved him. But I created him, and I can destroy him if he crosses me [laughter]…he was going to NYU and we saw pretty much everyone of a certain age who had an agent or manager, we could have done a lot more, but he wasn’t really flagged, you know, I didn’t see all the initial auditions, they were taped, he wasn’t flagged as perfect. Agents tend to now engage people who are more good looking than is natural, so we have a weird thing where all of television and movies, including the cleaning lady, is exquisite. People were like, ‘if you put glasses on him he’ll be a nerd,’ and I was like, ‘No. This character has to be real.’ It had to be someone you could read as a real guy. And this kid’s audition was just so real. He came off the street, and you are always afraid when you direct someone you can’t reproduce it, but his callback was just as good, and I carefully edited it for Nicole to see and we all agreed. There were other great people but he was it. You can imagine some of my concern in the face of the Nicoleness, and he really didn’t, I took care of him. Everybody needed a little something special, even Dianne Wiest.
AT: What is your method for working with the actors?
JCM: I think it’s part therapy, part husband. The best thing to do is just say ‘what do you need from me?’ and put it in their court. Aaron and I needed a lot of schtick, we liked laughing a lot, he’d crack me up, oh my god, I really want to do something with him that is just pure absurdist. He would do off-camera stuff – I would encourage him – just to crack myself up. It wasn’t unnecessary, I tried to squeeze every laugh I could out of this. They were plenty to work with. And he would put them at the right point, after a very intense scene, we’d have that release. Of them stoned in the meeting, selling the house, it would be just at the right time when you needed it. But I wouldn’t go overboard when we were shooting it, because we all needed some laughs, just on the crew. But Aaron, that scene where he is selling the house, I said, ‘just throw curveballs in there,’ I wanted to get reactions from the realtor, so I said throw her something so she’s a little surprised. So he just went off, like ‘yeah, um, he died, yeah, just out front, he’s still here, I talk to him, in the house…’
Audience question: What did it cost?
JCM: It was around $4 million, which was right after the recession hit, and probably a year before with the same people involved it would have cost at least twice as much. You know it’s interesting, almost all budgets were immediately cut by at least a third. We didn’t have trailers and things. Hedwig cost a third more. It was a different time. I had a trailer for Hedwig. I’m not a cheapskate –what’s the word? — I’m thrifty. I like to keep things cheap because you have more freedom and the investors get their money back and everybody’s happy. I don’t think you need to pour money over things.
AT: Well, for example, how many takes would you usually do?
JCM: Well that’s the most important thing– the number of days of shooting. When I look at Lisa Cholodenko’s film (The Kids Are All Right), she had 23 days, we had 28, and that’s a huge difference for emotional scenes. We shot on the RED camera so we could have the digital format, which is nice, my DP and I really tested it, and used certain lenses, you don’t get that digital feeling. You can keep rolling, it helps the momentum of the acting, we shot simultaneous cameras, shot rehearsals, everything we could do to maximize the time on screen
Q: In writing this, you really got into the minds of the characters. How did you do that?
DLB: That’s my job. The way the play came about, I was a student at Juilliard and our teacher Marsha said, ‘if you want to write a good play, write about the thing that frightens you most.’ And when I was in my early twenties, I didn’t know what that was. But a few years later I became a dad, and when my son Nicolas was three or four, I heard several stories of friends of friends who had children die very suddenly. And as a relatively new father, I of course put myself in the shoes of those parents, and in so doing, I understood fear in a profound way, in a way I never had before. And I thought, ‘oh, I know what Marsha is talking about now, I know what scares me most in the world,’ and that became the seed of the play. I had experienced loss — not the loss of a child, but I had access to grieving–and it was really imagining the worst possible thing that gave me the most feel for it.
Q: In the editing room, what are some examples of the producer’s bringing in ideas that you hadn’t thought of?
JCM: Well I actually didn’t think Aaron walking the dog scene was good — I thought it was too maudlin. And then we tried a screening with and without. And it makes sense that without it, the balance of sympathy shifted to Becca because he was screaming in all of his scenes, he was trying hard, but we realized at the screening that David wrote that — not because it propels the plot– but because it has a wonderful respite for him, also knowing that the dog had something to do with [the death of their child], the dog pulling him. The leash was probably the precursor to what happened, him being aware of that, so that’s an example. There were other things, we really hashed everything out. Other things that I had to convince them was better, including the ending, which is really the way that, visually the film kind of ends…you see them saying those words about what might happen in the future at the cook-out, you see her taking his hand, and that was in the play, there is no need for anything more than that. You don’t need to see a shooting star or Danny’s face…which could happen in a different version of this, over my dead body. I got my way, but we all agreed in the end.
Q: The “who deleted the video” scene — did she delete it and how many takes did it take to get that scene?
JCM: That scene was torture to shoot. That is another example of the producers saying how can we make it more ambiguous about whether she erased it or not? It’s a very aggressive act if she did, obviously. But we chose a different take when she says she didn’t do it. I don’t think she did it but I don’t think it matters. It was a difficult day. David was there [he was on set a lot]. I knew this was a scene the actors get nervous about so I didn’t want to give them more to worry about, like this is your blocking, etc. I said, ‘you can do whatever you want, we’ll follow you we’ll light the room for every angle,’ so we didn’t have to stop and edit. My DP and I have worked together for many years and we know what actors need, especially when they are having sex — to be honest, when you are shooting sex, an explosion, and this scene — you shoot it the same way, which is you let it happen and you try to capture it with as many cameras as you can. We tried two cameras but there were mirrors and it was a nightmare, so we went with one. Everyone was very nervous, Nicole and Aaron were in character, they’re yelling at me, ‘I think I’m running out of steam here, I don’t think I can do another take,’ and I’m like ‘Shut up!’ No, I didn’t say that…but it was a horrible day for me because I was being like a marriage counselor, and they get to release all that energy and they are like happy as clams and I have to go lie down in the grass and conduct everything into the ground, it was so upsetting.
Q: John, did you have any input with the script?
JCM: Well writers are often shunted to the side at a certain point, and that just seemed wrong to me. It seems wrong in general. We are both from the theater and were writers there, and granted there are things that happen on set that you can’t control, you have to make snap decisions about dialogue at times, and even story if you run out of time, if it rains, in editing, etc, but I wanted David to approve the shooting script up to the first day of shooting when all hell would break loose. And there were some things I encouraged him to do, which we agreed on some, and some we didn’t, some where he was right, others where I was right, and then I did whatever I wanted in editing, but it was great. It was great to work with him. That’s the way it should be on a film. There are also lots of fun things that happen that don’t always happen with a play, like letting actors ad-lib a bit, not necessarily internally with a scene, but at the end of a scene. When you get actors like Dianne Wiest and Aaron Eckhart in there. I love to not say ‘cut’ and just let the actors see what happens. And they like it too.
DLA: John also really understood the script, so we shared a sensibility for the tone of it and what was going on. I think there is an inherent trust between us. It felt like we were working together. So on set I really did have to say anything because he knew what he was doing. I was in a very safe place as a writer, which I am very seldom in.
Q: Is the way you end the play the same as you end the movie? How does the play offer what the film does in the end, which is very concise and masterful, because it gives comfort while not taking away from what these characters have experienced.
JCM: Well this is the ending, it’s the perfect ending because you often remember the ending of a film more than anything else. A great film that ends badly is awful. This works for me because it’s another alternate reality. This scientific theory that the universe is infinite and everything is eventually possible– it’s actually science. You know, eventually 100 monkeys will type the constitution of the WGA; Eventually everything happens again and slightly differently — you know she says there’s a version of her out there that’s happy– that’s what gives it comfort. And moment by moment he describes an alternate reality, a possible reality, and in the film you get to go to that reality and talk about it. And then she says ‘what’s next?’ and he says, ‘I don’t know; something.’ And the thing that happens of course is she takes his hand– that’s the next thing. And that’s perfect. We don’t know if they are going to make it but they very well might. If she hadn’t taken his hand, I would have withdrawn my request to make this film. Because you can’t leave an audience with nothing, you have to be responsible. I am annoyed by directors who artfully tell us there is absolutely no hope…it’s like, ‘We all know there is no hope.’ [laughter and applause]