"It's like a cozy, Hollywood movie from a different era," John Cameron Mitchell said of his latest film "Rabbit Hole" earlier this week. "When you didn't need huge orchestras and backlighting when someone's taking a dump."
While avoiding huge orchestras and backlighting for life's more private moments is probably something you could suggest of any of Mitchell's films, it's the first part of his description that might catch some of the director's fanbase off guard. Adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Rabbit Hole" is a far cry from what people are used to seeing from the filmmaker.
"I imagined myself just withdrawing into the woodwork and letting the actors take the stage," he said. "Which is different from other stuff I've done. You know, with 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' and 'Shortbus' the director's eyes are more obvious. Tone-wise, [this film] just reminded me of the films that I loved when I was young, like 'Ordinary People' and 'Kramer Vs. Kramer.' These Hollywood films from the late 1970s and early 1980s that they don't really make anymore. Family dramas that are small, but use humor and are audience friendly. They're not heavy, European-type drag-you-into-the-abyss versions of the same story. And [this film has] a very simple story... the story of a couple that's lost a child and are now learning how to live."
Not to say there isn't something personal in "Rabbit Hole" for Mitchell. Talking with indieWIRE in the basement of Toronto's Elgin Theatre, where "Hole" had debuted to widespread acclaim a night earlier, Mitchell recalled the story he told the film's star and producer, Nicole Kidman, when they were discussing his potential involvement.
"I talked to her on the phone on my couch for twenty minutes," he said. "I just told her how much the script moved me, and how I imagined shooting it very simply... and I talked to her about my little brother. I lost my brother - who was the same age as the character in the film when he died. This was when I was a teenager, and the event completely changed our family dynamic. Almost destroyed it, and definitely defined it. So it felt purging to do it. When I was shooting it, I would get very emotional. It was almost like I was working through a lot of stuff myself with my own family. Back then, in the 1970s and in our very specific Catholic, military environment, you were not allowed to talk about your feelings. There was no therapists at school or anywhere. It was more like Diane Wiest's character's point of view. 'Pray to him.. he's an angel in heaven looking down on us.' All we were really allowed to do was look at it that way. So all of things really struck home for me."
Mitchell said that he really felt it was necessary for him to take on this project, and that Kidman heard that.
"She didn't really say much during this conversation," he said. "I was just talking about how I felt about it. She went on instinct when she agreed to have me come on board, and she wasn't necessarily going on my earlier stuff. There was never any discussion about 'Shortbus' throughout this entire process. No one even acknowledged seeing it because I think it was such a different world for them..."
"Rabbit Hole" was also quite the different world for Mitchell. It was the first time he didn't have final say, the first time he didn't produce, and the first time he didn't originate the work himself.
"It was strange at first to be a director for hire," he said. "It takes longer to make decisions when there's more approvals necessary. These two producers - Per Saari and Leslie Urdang - had great taste, but you had to go through a process with these people to make decisions and they were very painstaking about every decision. Editing wise, music wise, shooting wise... So it took a lot longer to finish the film than it would have had I'd been in charge. And there's some decisions I didn't think were quite right at first, because of the amount of time it took. But now I know that their input made it a better film. They were right. We ended up making a better film than if just one of us had been in charge. I fully acknowledge that they made it a better film, and that I made it a better film with them. Everyone was necessary, and Nicole was very hands off with the direction. She stepped in once in a while and looked at it but her notes were more like 'I don't believe that moment. I'm not moved by that.' And she was right by coming at it from this very instinctual actor's point of view. So it was a great partnership."
For his part, Mitchell said it was actually quite important not to overdo it.
"I wasn't thinking in terms of any fancy style," he said. "In fact, I thought the style of the film should be almost invisible. You shouldn't be thinking about who is directing it. You shouldn't be thinking about fancy camera shots. You should just be thinking about the characters, the performances and the script - which is just so strong. It's like, let's not overdo this. This is a very subtle story."
Mitchell also said that it's that subtlety that makes the film such a challenge to distribute in this day and age.
"It's not exactly an art house film," he said, "but it's not 'The Blind Side' either. You have to carefully put it out the right way."
In the days since the interview, "Rabbit Hole" has been picked up by Lionsgate, with a push for 2010 awards season reportedly part of the deal. It should hopefully do justice to the film, which despite being a new direction for John Cameron Mitchell, has clearly proven his talents just the same.