LOS ANGELES (Back Stage) - John Cameron Mitchell, the man behind the campy rock ‘n’ roll musical-turned-feature “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and the sexually laced ensemble drama “Shortbus,” received a lot of lucrative offers following his successes -- including a role in an “X-Men” film and directing a Target commercial campaign.
But he declined most of them in favor of developing his own projects and decided to hold out for something extra special. That came in the form of the adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play “Rabbit Hole.” After Sam Raimi dropped out, producer-star Nicole Kidman called Mitchell with an offer to be a director for hire.
Mitchell had a couple of concerns. He had never shot a film he did not pen himself, and he would not have the luxury of complete creative control the way he had previously. However, the drama about a grieving married couple (Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) learning to live eight months after the death of their 4-year-old son deeply affected Mitchell. When Mitchell was 14, his younger brother Samuel died of a heart problem.
“Samuel was an event that defined our family. That happened in 1976 when I was in Kansas, and the woman who inspired Hedwig was his babysitter,” recalls Mitchell, who won best director at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival for “Hedwig” and scored a Golden Globe nod for his performance in the title role.
“I think I lost my faith in the kind of God that I was taught existed when my brother died. It kind of didn’t make sense after that. I dedicate the film to him and to my boyfriend who passed away in 2004. (‘Rabbit Hole’) has a lot of resonances in my life.”
The end result is a beautiful, touching film that is, surprisingly, much more uplifting than depressing. As the steely and sensitive Becca, Kidman gives her finest performance since “To Die For,” the actress looking all 43 years of her age.
BACK STAGE: YOU’VE SAID IN A FEW INTERVIEWS THAT EACH OF YOUR THREE FILMS HAVE ALL HAD THE SAME UNDERLYING THEME -- ISOLATED PEOPLE DECIDING WHETHER OR NOT TO BE ALONE. WHAT IS IT
ABOUT ISOLATION THAT SPEAKS TO YOU?
John Cameron Mitchell: I was an Army brat, so I was always the new guy in town. You find a way to fit in quickly but you never feel like you really belong. Until I got to New York, I didn’t really know what it meant to have a friend for more than a couple years, so you just feel isolated. You feel self-sufficient too, but you have to remind yourself that you’re not alone. And also being gay, at the time that I was growing up it had to be a secret thing, so that kind of makes you feel more like an outsider. So I’m drawn to outsider characters.
BACK STAGE: WHAT WAS THE MOST CHALLENGING PART OF MAKING THIS FILM?
Mitchell: It was challenging not to be fully in control, creatively, because “Shortbus” and “Hedwig” I was very lucky to pretty much do it my way and finish it my way. I didn’t have final say. It was basically two producers and me who triangulated the film, but I think that it wouldn’t have been as good a film without them. They forced me to exhaust all possibilities to make it better even though the amount of time it would take for everybody to approve was frustrating. The bigger the budget, the more trouble there is.
BACK STAGE: I READ THAT, ASIDE FROM A BAD EXPERIENCE WITH AN UNNAMED FEMALE STAR DROPPING FROM ONE OF YOUR PROJECTS, YOU HAVE NEVER WORKED WITH A STAR BEFORE. DID YOU ACTUALLY CALL
SEVERAL DIRECTORS BEFOREHAND WHO HAD WORKED WITH KIDMAN?
Mitchell: I do that with everybody, with all films. Investors, producers, actors -- a lot of people don’t and they have a terrible experience with someone. It’s part of your responsibility to find out how it is to work with someone if you can. Certainly some people have better chemistry than others, but you get as much information as you can because I’m too old and life is too short to work with an asshole no matter how good they are; there’s always someone who’s as good who’s a nicer person. I did do my research (on Kidman) and it bore itself out. I was very happy. I loved Nicole in “Dogville” (with whose director, Lars Von Trier, she had a three-hour screaming match during filming.)
BACK STAGE: I KNOW KIDMAN WAS ATTACHED FIRST AND SHE ASKED ECKHART TO PLAY HER HUSBAND. BUT WERE THERE ANY INTERESTING STORIES BEHIND CASTING ANY OF THE REST OF THE PARTS?
Mitchell: We offered the role to Dianne (Wiest). She was our first choice. The other three main characters -- Izzy (Tammy Blanchard), Jason (Miles Teller), and Gabby (Sandra Oh) were exhaustive auditions actually. A lot of people wanted to be part of it because of the reputation of the play and Nicole and everything. So I just said straight out that everybody has to audition who wants to be considered for those roles. Sometimes in Hollywood, agents say, “My client doesn’t audition,” and I just thought it’d be easier to have everybody audition so no one’s feelings were hurt.
BACK STAGE: WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR WHILE CASTING? WHAT TYPES OF ACTORS EXCITE YOU?
Mitchell: It’s the same as anybody -- people who can take direction, people who have a quality that’s close to the character, and people who can surprise you. I know what it’s like to audition, so it’s very important to me that everybody who auditions, even if I know right off that they’re not right for it, has a good experience. So I’ll never just have someone do one pass at it and say, “Thank you.” I would always give some direction, so that they feel good that they did the best they could.
If there’s anything I know about directing, it’s how to make actors comfortable. It’s where I started and it’s what I know and it’s what I love. My favorite directors are actors’ directors. I can appreciate (directors like Robert) Bresson and (Michelangelo) Antonioni but, as filmmakers, acting is not their priority, so you often have kind of bad actors in those movies or just blank, model-like people, which doesn’t interest me. I like when the actors are really partners and I want them to be excited and I want them to surprise me. I don’t want them to be puzzle pieces.