John Cameron Mitchell’s “Rabbit Hole” premiered back in September at the Toronto International Film Festival and has been gaining considerable buzz and acclaim ever since. A filmed adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s 2005 play of the same name, “Rabbit Hole” stars Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as a couple grieving the death of their young son. Mitchell took some time out of his busy schedule during awards season to provide indieWIRE with an extended clip from the film, along with written commentary to accompany the scene.
“Rabbit Hole” explores particularly intense subject matter and David Lindsay-Abaire adapted his own play with great subtlety and aplomb. Some of the new scenes provide welcome bursts of comic relief. The two adjoining scenes that I chose involves Gabby, played by Sandra Oh, a character referred to only obliquely in the play but who here plays an important role in the fracturing relationship between Howie (Aaron Eckhart) and Becca (Nicole Kidman). Grief has forced Becca to withdraw from her husband. As a result, Howie gravitates towards Gabby, an eight-year veteran of the bereaved parents’ support group he attends. Gabby is a breath of fresh air and he soon discovers how fragrant that air can be. He stumbles upon her getting stoned in the parking lot outside group. Afterwards, we find them brutally baked in the midst of a meeting. I still love to pop into screenings during these scenes just to watch the audience.
In my view, one of the unsung stages of grief is hilarity: the gallows humor that allows us to rise above and look down upon our sad selves with screams of laughter (do levity and levitation share a root?). Lindsay-Abaire strategically inserts such scenes just when the intensity threatens to overwhelm the viewer. I gratefully milked every laugh.
In the group scene, a grieving parent played by Rob Campbell is bogarting the talking stick, so to speak. Rob’s a veteran New York actor that you may remember as the pathetic stoolie in “The Unforgiven” and the bass player unlucky enough to put a bra in a dryer in “Hedwig & the Angry Inch.”
This scene was a particular joy to shoot. I used multiple cameras to keep the reactions fresh and immediate: one on him and his grim-faced wife played by Teresa, one on other group members and one on Aaron and Sandra. We were shooting on the Red digital format which is great for performance because the large hard-drive means you really never have to cut.
It took a bit of time to find the right tone. We didn’t want to make fun of the characters’ grief. I told Rob that it was “Rage Day” at group and to riff on that. In the first few takes, Rob felt too sincere and the laughter seemed cruel. Suddenly, I caught sight of the coffee station. A lightbulb went off. I suggested Rob do the speech while eating a giant chocolate chip cookie. Suddenly, the character kicked in and Aaron and Sandra really lost it. The next take was a bit forced all round. I whispered to Rob, “Rage has gastrointestinal repercussions.” He launched into a tirade: “I haven’t taken a shit in months. Why aren’t we talking about this?” Behind camera, the crew was falling out. Silently, of course, we’re talking about professionals here. I goaded Rob on. His voice rose, “When are we going to address the fact that rage gives me an erection?” Cut, print, wrap! Somehow we knew all this wouldn’t end up in the film (gag reel?) but we certainly got what we needed.
We all headed home purged, refreshed and ready to face another day in the “Rabbit Hole.”
Check below for previous In His/Her Own Words features:
“You Wont Miss Me”
“The Legend of Pale Male”
“Prince of Broadway”
“The Disappearance of Alice Creed”
“The Dry Land”