John Cameron Mitchell’s “Rabbit Hole” tears away at the damaging scabs that form when people lose loved ones. Appropriately, it has been a somber press tour for Mitchell, screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire and stars Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart and Sandra Oh. We recently caught up with them to talk about the difficult emotional landscape of the film. In “Rabbit Hole,” Kidman and Eckhart play a married couple still trying to understand how to cope with the loss of their son, taken by a car accident eight months before the start of the movie.
Both lead actors prepared for the role in their own way, but while Kidman was denied entrance into grief counseling sessions, Eckhart was admitted while in character. “It was raw, people had just lost their child, two days, three days before,” he remarked. “There was a lot of emotion in it. I gave my story in character, which was interesting. I thought it was a little unethical and duplicitous.”
Kidman, who also served as a producer on the picture, works more instinctually. “I immediately connected with the subject matter,” she raved, noting how much she had enjoyed Mitchell’s previous work. “When I read the play, the story was so available, I could just jump in and feel. We didn’t approach it in an analytical point of view.” She credited Mitchell’s hiring with being interested in off-center directors who don’t play by a set of rules, praising him for his “big heart.“ But that didn’t stop her from being overwhelmed by the subject matter. “I can’t even watch some of the scenes, they affect me so deeply,” Kidman said, pressing her hand to her face sadly. “And I’ve never had that happen to me before. I had to see the film a number of times, because I’m the producer, but I don’t think I’ll ever watch it again.”
Mitchell found several motivations to tackle the material, but there was one nakedly therapeutic assist the material provided. “I lost a brother when I was a teenager,” Mitchell sighed. “He was the same age as the character in this film. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of grief counseling as part of the culture. We had religion, and it was about moving on, letting go before you were ready to. So it was books and stories that helped me through that. I realized when I read the script that there was some unfinished business for me to think about what had happened to me and maybe work through some stuff while working on this beautiful piece."
“And it was really wonderful to work with such a virtuoso cast because as they did their scenes I felt like I was in the scenes with them and feeling the things they were feeling behind the camera, and it allowed me to release some stuff. And that’s the point of work like this. The Greeks always told us, safely, vicariously experience something so you don’t have to.” Mitchell was thrilled to work with the cast but couldn't quite share completely in the emotion catharsis their characters undergo and he related some wisdom from Todd Haynes about that difficulty. “He said, ‘I’m really jealous of actors because they get to relieve themselves, enjoy the release, and a director never gets to do that.‘ Which I can totally relate to.”
David Lindsay-Abaire penned the play that “Rabbit Hole” is based on (he also wrote the screenplay), a work that has resulted in an avalanche of praise and awards. But to him, the roots of the story are moored in a new understanding of our existence. “I probably share my main character’s worldview,” he said. “I have difficulty finding comfort through organized religion. For a character like Becca, she can’t find solace in her family, or support groups, or psychology, or psychotherapy and so trying to figure out where is this character going to find comfort. Science seemed like the most logical place to find it. And what she finds in this scientific theory is hippy dippy and odd, I like that it adds an ethereal quality to it, you can’t just pin it down and grasp. And it still had qualities of something you might find in religion.”
Mitchell was also affected by the science-heavy approach. “I was really into comic books when I was talking with my brother, and somehow the fantasy of a heroic death giving meaning to death. I was a big fan of Legion of Super Heroes, which was in an alternate reality. I love the idea of, in the same space is another reality. But the way David described it, I never thought of it. If space is infinite, everything is possible. Which means, its not an alternate reality, its in the same reality. If its infinite, eventually we’re here having a press conference, and I’m saying something different.”
Sandra Oh co-stars in the film as a fellow grieving parent who’s revealed to be seeking counseling for over eight years, driving a wedge through her marriage. Her thoughts on loss and coping helped form the backbone of her characterization. “Loss doesn’t go away, it just is. After the loss of anything, somehow people are supposed to get over it. And I don’t agree with that. As my character is further down the line, she represents where you can go. You set up certain needs -- she needs this group. Perhaps this has caused a certain amount of stress with her husband, but that’s what she needs. What I would like, I think it is scary when someone is grieving after eight years. I think that is scary, but I think you can manage.”
In the end, Mitchell echoes the cast and crew in tackling this project because of the sense of hope that permeates the material. The hopes are that “Rabbit Hole” can help anyone who’s lost someone close to them. “We want this film to be a tool,” Mitchell said somberly, “to help people who have experienced loss in their lives.”
"Rabbit Hole" is currently in limited release in theaters around the country.