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Rabbit Hole: John Cameron Mitchell

The director of Rabbit Hole talks genres, aesthetics and porn's effect on the young. Yes, he went there.


 

John Cameron Mitchell is not exactly the first director who comes to mind when thinking of potential candidates for helming an intimate, quiet portrait of grieving ex-parents. Having built a directorial career from two manic, excessive boundary-pushing works that combine genres and aesthetics (Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus), one might more closely associate him with the independent avant-garde than the Hollywood studio system. And yet here he is with his third feature, an adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Rabbit Hole (adaptation also scripted by Lindsay-Abaire), starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart.  

 

The film has little plot to speak of, and its lack of overt narrative structure is one of its more original elements. Rabbit Hole simply centers on Howie and Becca, trying to piece their lives back together not days, not weeks, but months—eight, to be exact—after their 4-year-old son was killed in an auto accident. They attend grief seminars, talk with other parents who have lost children, and find various methods of coping, or not coping. Becca strikes up a friendship, of sorts, with the teenage boy who accidentally ran over their son. Howie tries to immerse himself in their son’s things—his drawings, his toys, and so on. The film maintains a distance and contemplativeness throughout, opting for restrained emotion rather than all-out melodrama, as found in a picture like In The Bedroom, which also deals with parents grieving over a lost son.  

 

Conventional though the film may be (at least, relative to his prior work), Cameron Mitchell himself has clearly lost none of his flair for the controversial. My interview with him at the Trump Soho on Rabbit Hole’s New York press day quickly veered off course, and off course was where I kept it, curious to see the inner workings of this provocateur’s brain. 

 



Rabbit Hole

 

Tribeca: How did you go about choosing the house in the film? It became like a character, especially with the foreboding exteriors you got of it—the Victorian architecture. It had a sense of foreboding.  

 

John Cameron Mitchell: We took a long time for the house. We ended up with two, one which was even more Grey Gardens-y, out in Yonkers. The one we used was in Queens, Douglaston, right on the Long Island Sound. It was originally written for Larchmont, so water was involved. It was a part of Queens I had never experienced—it was fancy. There were kids living there. The guy who owned it had made a documentary where he followed the path of Marco Polo. They were really cool. It was open, easy to shoot.

 

So much of the film was rather claustrophobic in terms of what was going on, I think we needed that extra expanse of the water. It also had that kind of pale—it was important for me to keep the color leached out of it. So that when color came into the film, it either had to do with the kid, who was gone, or the comic book, which had super-saturated colors.  

 

Tribeca: There was something kind of anachronistic about it. Which was interesting, because I feel like there’s something kind of anachronistic about the narrative.  

 

John Cameron Mitchell: Well, the only anachronism—in the play, she erases a VHS tape of the son, by mistake. And I figured we had to update that to a phone video.  

 

Tribeca: What I mean is, there’s something very classical about the tone.

 

John Cameron Mitchell: Yeah. I don’t know if it’s anachronistic as much as classical. It’s definitely influenced by some of the classics of my youth, which was really the 70s and 80s, where you had a lot of dramas with a similar tone—Ordinary People, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Kramer Vs Kramer. Which were audience-friendly, with humor, but about dramatic events. There were a lot of them, and they were big hits, and they weren’t considered “art-house films.”

 

This is being marketed in art-house theaters, which is weird to me. What kind of dramas does Hollywood do now? They’re either kind of giant historical things, or they’re super-related to the Holocaust. They have to have something epic. I guess the most recent antecedent to this was probably Brokeback Mountain. The tone was kind of classic 70s Hollywood.  

 

Rabbit Hole: Nicole Kidman

 

Tribeca: Don’t you think so much of it is about this idea of branding? You know, with Facebook and whatnot, we live in a world where personality branding is very strong, and I think that reverberates back out into older forms of media, and now Hollywood feels like it needs to brand its own films very strongly.  

 

John Cameron Mitchell: I think that’s true. When people read a script, they think of how the trailer would play—which of course would have excluded any number of films that we think of as the great ones. There was an interesting thing of, not to put myself in that pantheon, but I thought, I wonder what category Hedwig is in, what shelf? And you can find it categorized in a lot of different ways, which I consider a compliment. I don’t like things to fit into boxes. But we all know people who are really smart, whose bar is so low for movies, they’re almost expecting it to suck. But they keep going anyway.  

 

Tribeca: It reminds me of an interview with David Foster Wallace, I don’t remember where it was, but he basically argues that mainstream audiences want to be challenged a lot more than people realize—but the reason so many people go to such crap is because they don’t know that there’s an alternative, and so they just kind of go to what is marketed to them.  

 

John Cameron Mitchell: People aren’t any stupider than they ever were, but I think technology, celebrity culture, a reality-show way of looking at the world—has changed brains, not necessarily to make you dumber, but to make you more receptive to crap. The most intelligent people we know have a certain cynicism, like, well, I might as well watch Jersey Shore. Jersey Shore is great, it’s hilarious, but if you’re only ingesting that, where’s the nourishment? You’re gonna get fat. You’re gonna wonder why you feel nothing at the end of the day.

 

I do get a little worried. It’s funny—I have a friend who just moved to a loft in Greenpoint with all these guys who want to be filmmakers, and he said it’s like a reality show: they’re all exploding one second and making up the next. And he’s like, what is going on? Everybody’s really weird.  

 

Rabbit Hole

 

Tribeca: It’s kind of like, as more and more things become recorded as images, we sort of learn to behave as if we’re constantly being filmed by an invisible camera. Acting out.  

 

John Cameron Mitchell: And I mean, when you do that you’re outside of yourself. That’s partly why I did Shortbus. Young people now saw Internet porn before they had sex. So right away, what they’re supposed to do in sex is—I mean, when I was a kid I saw a little bit, friends talking, you had a diversified view, but most of your experience with sex was from having it. You blunder into it. You create it. Now, people see sex first, very young, and I like porn, but if you only learn from that—it has to happen in this order, you have to come in that way, so how can you enjoy it?

 

I’ve had sex with people who were young in the last couple years, and it’s a completely different experience from having it when I was younger, or from having it with someone my own age. It’s frightening, because they’re acting like they’re in a porn movie, and not knowing anything else. And then I realize—because I caught up as much as anyone with the Internet—I mean, I can’t remember the last time I didn’t masturbate to porn. And I’m remembering that masturbation used to be creative. You had an active imagination right before you went to bed—you think about some people you saw that day, and you come up with a scenario. It’s often more interesting than anything that could have happened in life.

 

But when you’re watching porn, you’re not as creative. I think porn can be great, in its place, but if it’s the only way of doing that, something’s getting lost, and you’re maybe less responsive when sex really happens. (Pause) So—I guess the purpose of this interview is to encourage young people to masturbate without porn.  

 

Rabbit Hole

 

Tribeca: (Laughs) So, to get back to Rabbit Hole for a moment—how did you go about striking the atmospheric balance in the film? Obviously there was the potential for it to tip over into melodrama, but you kept it restrained. You weren’t going for Douglas Sirk.  

 

John Cameron Mitchell: I was thinking about Ordinary People, more recently The Savages, Brokeback Mountain, which have a tone that’s not too dragging-you-into-the-abyss. I mean, Antichrist had the same setup, but this doesn’t go there. You know it when you see it. It’s like porn. (Laughs) You can’t define it. I’m sorry I’m bringing it back to that.  

 

Tribeca: Well, that was the Supreme Court’s definition.  

 

John Cameron Mitchell: Yeah. Which is totally terrible. But in this case, it was true. We did a lot of variations in shooting so we had a lot of material in editing. Editing was frame by frame, take by take. She’s crying—we can’t have her crying until she actually cries. It was measuring, beakers and test tubes, just trying a lot in editing, having the time to shoot, shooting with multiple cameras, which allows for a lot, shooting on the RED—but with old lenses, my DP did a good job, I usually hate video—so you can keep rolling for half an hour. It was a luxurious process, with virtuoso actors like this.  

 

Tribeca: Did you ever get worried you were going to push them too far?  

John Cameron Mitchell: No, because you know when they’re over the top. Over the top is a pejorative, right, you no longer believe it. And I don’t feel like the actors ever went there. These kind of people wouldn’t.

 



Catch Rabbit Hole in select theaters this Friday.

 

Watch the trailer:

 

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