In “Rabbit Hole,” Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart play grieving parents dealing with the accidental death of their 4-year-old son. The film, adapted by David Lindsey-Abaire from his Pulitzer-Prize winning play, was “a passion project for Nicole,” Mr. Eckhart said last year when they were filming in Douglaston, Queens.
Films, and Ms. Kidman, as a producer, made an unorthodox choice for director in John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”), who had never before directed a movie he didn’t write. “Rabbit Hole” was made for about $4 million and eventually bought for distribution by Lionsgate. It opens Friday.
In a wide-ranging interview in a SoHo hotel room recently Ms. Kidman and Mr. Mitchell spoke with Melena Ryzik — and with each other — about the constraints of indie filmmaking, childhood and adult inspirations. This is an edited version of their conversation. A longer version, in which they discuss early theater experiences, future projects and their mothers, can be found on the Carpetbagger blog.
Q. Nicole, you hired John after a phone conversation. What was it like when you first met?
JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL We met in Nashville first. We met at a Comfort Inn or something.
NICOLE KIDMAN It’s like a Holiday Inn. Just down the road, it’s really nice. We met in a meeting room. You showed me some pictures. It was very easy, actually. We talked through, I suppose, the way we both work, and we clicked on that.
MITCHELL We talked about music a little bit. I played some Sigur Ros maybe. The guy from Sigur Ros has a band called Rice Boy Sleeps. I played some of his music, and I played a little Duke Ellington. So we just started talking creatively.
KIDMAN It’s a beautiful way in, through music and through, say, pictures, and I’m used to that. I’ve worked with other directors where they approach it — like Baz [Luhrmann] does the same thing.
Q. Can you talk about the constraints of the budget?
MITCHELL In some ways it concentrated the mind. Nicole is, like, we don’t have trailers, whatever, we’ll have holding areas with a blow-up mattress. Fine. Let’s just get it done. Our producers were, like, “We think we have to use digital cameras as opposed to film.”
KIDMAN Which I was fighting because I was still stuck on: Film, film, film. That’s what we have to work on.
MITCHELL It’s a film type of story. Some stories are video stories. And then we did experimentation with the Red [a type of digital camera].
KIDMAN We were told it would save an enormous amount of money, and we’d be able to get a lot more done. Ultimately this film lives and dies on performances.
MITCHELL You can keep it rolling. You don’t have to cut because you run out of film in your mag, so you can run for 40 minutes if you have to. And we often did scenes over and over and over without cutting to get actors in a certain vibe, to get the camera in a certain vibe.
KIDMAN Which is interesting because you’ve got to stay anchored, even if you’ve got a huge budget. I remember working with Kubrick, and he would very easily move off a location because it was too expensive. I thought, that’s astounding. You would think it would be opposite, right?
MITCHELL Yes. “I’m building a castle next to my house to make it convenient.”
Q. Do you wish you had a bigger budget?
MITCHELL I think sometimes more money can get in your way.
KIDMAN You want the investors to make money, so they’re just as willing to invest again. And with a film like this it shouldn’t cost $7 million because the chances of it making money for the investors is slim.
MITCHELL That’s our Scottish and Australian common sense.
KIDMAN Waste not, want not.
Q. Did you talk a lot about how to build these characters?
KIDMAN It’s so personal. I’ve done an enormous amount to get there, but strangely enough with this character, with Becca, I think it existed in me on a cellular level. The minute I read it, I could feel her, and there’s elements of my family in there. It was an arresting reaction the first time I read it, and it’s kind of an uncomfortable place, it’s a disturbing place to exist in for two or three months.
Q. And during shooting your daughter was a year old. Were you able to avoid taking the work home with you?
KIDMAN I think I would go home with relief. It certainly penetrated my dream landscape where I would have very bizarre dreams, and Keith [Urban, her husband] was just very understanding. Luckily, when you’re married to somebody who is artistic, he has his own artistic nature. There’s fear, all of those things somehow manifest in my sleep. That’s probably why I wear a mouth guard, grinding my teeth. I tend to play a lot of stuff out in those eight hours. I would wake up many times through this film, panicked or weeping.
MITCHELL She would describe it while shooting as having to “vibrate” the character. It was partially involuntary because you’re just doing the scenes but also voluntary because you have to stay at a certain place to be able to leap into those scenes.
KIDMAN So much of this film is about holding it in. We would move around the same emotion in different ways. That’s disturbing. It just is. People can say, “How could you bear to go there?” And I just feel that’s what we do as actors and as storytellers. I’m not drawn to stories that are just sort of fluffy. I’m just not, and I’ve tried to, and as a kid I was never drawn to them. I always chose complicated.
MITCHELL What did you watch when you were a kid?
KIDMAN I always watched weird stuff. I read “Crime and Punishment” when I was very young because that’s what interested me far more than the other literature. “Rabbit Hole” for me was something that is so painful, and that’s what life is. Life is extremely painful, and we all live with an enormous amount of that and that thing of, “How do you live with that?” It makes me feel alive. I hope this film pulsates with life because it’s two people dealing with death but choosing life, if that makes sense, or trying to choose life. That’s fascinating to me.
Q. John, you were nodding along there. Did you read “Crime and Punishment” as a kid too?
MITCHELL No, I was reading “The Lord of the Rings.” I was always fascinated with death. I had a little brother who died when he was 4, and I was a teenager, and death was our constant companion. We thought about it in a religious way is how we got through it at that time. It didn’t quite work for me, and I had to think about it in other ways later in terms of stories.
Q. Working with people that you didn’t know is new for you, right?”
MITCHELL Yeah. “Shortbus” we rehearsed for two years. I had two days with Nicole. We talked about the film a lot, but actually sitting in the sets with scenes, it was two days. Any more would have been bad. This is the kind of film where you can overrehearse. Emotional scenes like this are like explosions.
Q. At the screening I went to, I heard people wondering who would see a film about such a difficult subject. Did you worry about that?
MITCHELL You can’t tell someone they’re going to have an experience that’s useful to them. Whether we like it or not, at some point we’re going to be dealing with loss, and if you don’t have tools — you’re not given tools by your religion, by your parents, by whatever — all we have is stories to help us. This is not throwing you into the abyss and destroying you and reminding you that life is horrible, we wouldn’t want to make it if that was the case. We already know things can be rough. This was necessary for me to revisit some feelings I never dealt with as a kid because we weren’t supposed to talk about stuff in the ’70s. I think going through fire by watching a movie is the safe way, doing it vicariously and experiencing what the Greeks call catharsis. You can be cleansed, you can be purged and you can be ready for life. That is the point of art.
By MELENA RYZIK