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A simple connection

Director and actress both wanted to approach ‘Rabbit Hole’ with restraint

Nicole Kidman and John Cameron Mitchell loved the play by David Lindsay-Abaire. Nicole Kidman and John Cameron Mitchell loved the play by David Lindsay-Abaire. (Josh Haner/The New York Times)
By Loren King
Globe Correspondent / December 24, 2010

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As the actor/director responsible for the gender-bending musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch’’ and the sexually spirited ensemble indie “Shortbus,’’ John Cameron Mitchell isn’t who comes to mind as the director of a prestigious adult drama such as “Rabbit Hole.’’ But he’s exactly what producer/star Nicole Kidman wanted.

“Nicole liked the idea of a bolder director doing restrained material. My favorite directors are always trying new things; they go where their hearts go,’’ says Mitchell, 47, on the telephone from New York City, where the Texas native has lived since arriving as a young stage actor 25 years ago.

What drew Mitchell’s heart was David Lindsay-Abaire’s screen adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play — Mitchell hadn’t seen “Rabbit Hole’’ on Broadway — about a suburban couple struggling to cope in the aftermath of their 4-year-old son’s death. “I lost a brother so I understood the grief process. When I read the script, it was so healing in its trajectory; it felt necessary for me,’’ says Mitchell. “I thought it could be useful to people.’’

Mitchell knew that the challenge would be to bring Lindsay-Abaire’s searing script to the screen without melodrama. “Rabbit Hole’’ begins eight months after the tragedy, as Becca (Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are struggling to figure out how to go on with their lives and their marriage. They attend a support group for bereaved parents, endure the well-meaning visits of family and friends, and agonize over what to do about things like Danny’s clothes and his drawings still on display on the refrigerator.

To exorcise the maudlin or Lifetime-ish, Mitchell worked closely with Lindsay-Abaire in preproduction and urged him to cut extraneous scenes, such as several between Becca and her pregnant younger sister (played by Tammy Blanchard), and even the last line of the play. “I was fighting to pull back with the music and reduce the dialogue. This was [Lindsay-Abaire’s] baby but he understood the shooting process, so we solved our problems in preproduction. Editing was my rewriting time,’’ Mitchell says. “I think his script is even better than the play. He didn’t fall in love with things just because they’d worked so well onstage.’’

The Tony Award-winning play starred Cynthia Nixon and John Slattery and took place entirely inside the couple’s house. “There are events mentioned in the play that we show in the film. You see the parallel relationships threatening the marriage, and the richness and humor of the group therapy. I tried to milk every laugh while still keeping the tone,’’ says Mitchell. Scenes in which Becca stalks the teenager (Miles Teller) who was behind the wheel of the car that killed her son are now dramatized because, says the director, “they get the film’s engine moving. The prom scene isn’t in the play, but it’s vital to the film because it’s when Becca finally releases emotionally.’’

In attempting to create sophisticated drama with deep emotional and spiritual resonance, Mitchell looked to “the films I grew up with in the ’70s, such as ‘Tender Mercies,’ ‘Resurrection,’ ‘Kramer vs. Kramer,’ which were all audience-friendly but didn’t slap you around and treat you like a child. I admire the work of directors like Robert Benton, Bruce Beresford, and Sidney Lumet who understood that less is more.’’

The top-of-their-game performances from the movie’s two leads, as well as supporting actors Dianne Wiest and Sandra Oh, might have something to do with Mitchell’s long résumé as a stage and television actor. In 1998 he decided to create a personal vehicle for his talents and wrote (with composer Stephen Trask) an Off-Broadway musical called “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,’’ about a transgender East German rocker chasing after an ex-lover who plagiarized her songs. It won an Obie Award and a cult following. Three years later, Mitchell directed and starred in the film version of “Hedwig,’’ which earned him best director honors at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival and a Golden Globe nomination.

Next, Mitchell and his “Shortbus’’ (2006) producer Howard Gertler are producing an animated feature, “The Ruined Cast,’’ based on Dash Shaw’s graphic novel. He’s also developing the Neil Gaiman short story “How to Talk to Girls at Parties’’ for the screen. “Punk rock and aliens,’’ notes Mitchell. “I’m returning to my roots.’’

But the departure from his comfort zone has resulted in a film that, Mitchell admits, “my mother can love.’’

“Rabbit Hole’’ may refrain from easy sentiment but it isn’t hopeless, stresses Mitchell. “I’m a person for whom hope is vital. I’m not Fassbinder or Lars von Trier who believe we’re doomed. I needed to send the audience out on a positive note but without pandering and bringing in the strings at the slightest opportunity. Even with these great actors, we did lots of takes, some with more emotions, some with less. Usually those with restraint worked best, so when the characters do break down, it’s earned.

“This isn’t a flashy film but it seeps through over time. Certainly Nicole will get attention, but it’s a quiet film in a noisy age. It’s an emotional balm.’’

Loren King can be reached at loren.king@comcast.net.

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