John Cameron Mitchell had never spoken to Nicole Kidman before he agreed to direct “Rabbit Hole,” the first movie from her Blossom Films shingle, in which she cast herself as a grieving mom coping with the loss of her 4-year-old son in an auto accident.
The closest he had come to meeting the actress was being in the same room with her at a Golden Globes ceremony. “It was like high school,” he recalled. “There were cheerleaders and there were jocks, and I was hanging out in the smoking area with David Lynch and Steve Buscemi.”
Then “Rabbit Hole” came his way. Mitchell wasn’t looking to direct just any film. “I’m good at saying no because I have cheap rent,” said the New Yorker, known for a long acting career and for directing “Shortbus” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
But his agent had a “special feeling” about the ‘Rabbit Hole’ script, adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own play. After he read it, Mitchell met with Kidman and told her he felt linked to the project because as a teenager he lost a younger brother to illness. “I felt I needed to do a little healing through this story.”
Once onboard the low-budget, performance-driven production — reported as costing around $4 million — Mitchell found ways to stretch limited resources and deploy various techniques to get the best out of the actors during a relatively short 28-day shooting schedule during the summer of 2009. “I knew the performances had to be first and foremost,” he said. “When you have a short amount of time, you have to decide between more takes or more fancy shots. This was a more-takes movie. It was about capturing Nicole’s and Aaron’s best performances.” (Aaron Eckhart plays Kidman’s husband.)
“I used lots of tricks I learned over the years to keep the acting fresh and immediate,” he said. Those tricks included the use of multiple cameras shooting in opposing directions over people’s shoulders so no actor is ever off-camera and keeping the cameras stationary or hand-held, avoiding dolly shots that “can wear an actor down.”
Plus, after some initial resistance, Mitchell decided to shoot “Rabbit Hole” digitally with the Red camera. “My producer suggested it for budgetary reasons,” he said. “At first Nicole and I were like, ‘Oh, this feels like a celluloid story.'” But after testing the camera along with d.p. Frank DeMarco, his longtime collaborator, Mitchell concluded that the Red could indeed capture “that film feeling.”
Another advantage of digital shooting, said Mitchell, is that “you never have to say cut. You can do a scene several times in a row” and not have to worry about film stock being used up. That capability is critical for scenes that rely on the actors’ concentration and momentum.
But other factors conspired to interrupt that concentration. To take advantage of New York City film incentives, the producers of “Rabbit Hole” shot much of the film in the borough of Queens at a location that turned out to be right under a flight path of LaGuardia airport, with planes roaring overhead every 40 seconds.
“It was a nightmare,” said Mitchell, especially during the shooting of an emotional scene that takes place outdoors on a park bench in which Kidman’s character reaches out to the teenager — played by Miles Teller — who drove the car that ran over her son.
“It’s hard get a teenage actor to access tears,” said Mitchell. “You just can’t loop in those kinds of things (in post). That’s where the Red came in really handy. We just kept rolling and rolling till we got everything.”
Other below-the-line contributions on “Rabbit Hole” came from production designer Kalina Ivanov, who had worked on “Grey Gardens” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” and costume designer Ann Roth, who had previously worked with Kidman on “The Hours.” Joe Klotz, who cut “Precious,” edited the film.
Mitchell is now developing an animated feature with Dash Shaw, the graphic novelist and animator who created the comicbook art that ends up connecting Kidman and Teller in “Rabbit Hole.” “It’s an adult comedy — kind of like Philip K. Dick meets ‘The Simpsons.'”