Mitchell channels childhood grief in ‘Rabbit Hole’

For 'Hedwig' director, filming meant catharsis for a childhood loss

John Cameron Mitchell might not at first seem like an obvious choice to direct “Rabbit Hole,” a screen adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s play about a couple (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) grieving over the loss of a young child. His two previous helming credits were an adaptation of his cult stage show “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and the graphically pansexual “Shortbus.” But assumptions can be misleading.

Inspiration: “This script was the first thing that made me want to drop everything I was working on for myself. And I campaigned for it — by which I mean I had a conversation with the producer and then spoke with Nicole on the phone. She originated the project and developed the script before I came on.”

It’s personal: “I lost a brother when I was four, and he was 14. At that time, in the 1970s, you didn’t talk about your feelings. You just prayed to him in heaven and got on with it. So this film seemed like a purging of those feelings, which maybe I didn’t address at the time. I knew instantly that I had to be part of it. It worked for me emotionally.””

Cracking the storytelling nut: “I was adding my sensibility to what already existed. So it was more about peeling the onion than about cracking the nut. I was taking away some of the drier chaff left over from the stage and getting to the moist, pungent stuff underneath. And then — as with an onion — you end up in tears, right?”

Literary tradition: “I think it’s a little bit Greek tragedy. Becca (Kidman) even mentions Orpheus and Eurydice to Jason (Miles Teller), who is inadvertently responsible for her sadness. It did that classic Greek catharsis thing on me and let me work out some stuff. That happened when Nicole breaks down in the car. I was behind the camera breaking down myself. And she allowed me to let it go.”

Visual style: “I realized from the beginning that my job was to be as invisible as possible — to both the viewer and the actors. So I kept the camera stationary and simple, and I used a handheld camera if necessary. And because this was bare-bones cinema, even if I wanted a crane, we couldn’t have afforded it. My job was really to disappear in order to let the actors and the audience do their work.”

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