Rabbit Hole is a raw, intimate drama about grieving parents. Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart star as the devastated parents. Originally a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Rabbit Hole was adapted by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. Kidman produced the film, and John Cameron Mitchell ( Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus) directed.
Mitchell and Eckhart came to Denver for the 33rd Denver Film Festival, where Rabbit Hole is the opening-night movie.
The morning before the show, Mitchell and Eckhart talked about the work involved in creating and capturing the emotion required to tell the story.
Part of the work involves creating the right environment. Much of the film takes place inside the Corbett’s house, and the crew was able to stay in one location for a long time. Eckhart made the point that by staying on set and working, the cast and crew were able to create a sense of camaraderie.
“We filmed this in the same house so we were all together. There were no trailers. John stayed there overnight...” Eckhart gestures to Mitchell, who confirms that it beat commuting in Manhattan traffic. “You camp out, you stay together, you prepare each other’s food....”
Asked how this dynamic compared to a bigger-budget production like Batman, Eckhart says it’s not about the budget. “Chris [Nolan] comes from making independent film,” he says. The bigger budget went into production value, he says, “but it didn’t go into changing the dynamic of the film, which is ‘we’re actors, we’re filmmakers here, let’s go make a movie.’”
Always Be Prepared
For his part, Mitchell says he planned accordingly.
“My job was to reduce as much friction as I could to get to their characters.” For example, smoking can be a distraction when you have to worry about continuity (the length of the cigarette) between takes, so nobody smokes. Setting a scene under the shade of a tree means that the lighting can be more static and predictable — same for shooting in a house. “Whatever is going to relax the actors and not make them think about their marks or lines,” says Mitchell, is what helps them stay focused on emotion.
Being prepared helps, too. “I worked with the same cinematographer on all my films, so we had a shorthand. Having two cameras helped a lot.”
Mitchell says he used two film cameras for Shortbus and Hedwig. For Rabbit Hole he shot on Red (a cinematic high-definition digital camera). He was skeptical at first, but was happy with the flexibility it provided. “You can shoot longer takes on digital, you can keep rolling,” he said. “It’s very important when you’re doing an emotional scene. You gotta keep going, and start over from the top without cutting. Cutting and reloading [with a film camera]..., you lose a moment.”
DFF 33 (2010)
DFF 33 (2010)
Part of the secret to capturing an emotional performance is to set conducive habits. Like a lot of actors’ directors, Mitchell doesn’t shout “Action!”, which he says is tantamount to shouting “Tense Up!”
“I’d say ‘in your own time’ or ‘whenever you’re ready,’” says Mitchell.
Alfred Hitchcock famously said that all actors should be treated like cattle. Mitchell has a similar but different view. “You know how they raise Kobe beef? They play music all the time for these cattle, and they massage them, and they play beautiful music....”
”... While they’re killing them,” he adds wryly.
Eckhart adds his view of the process. “I think of creation, or acting, as a little bird, and you spend three months before you’re making the movie getting to know this little bird,” he says, lowering his voice, “getting that little bird to go fly off the tree, into your hand. That morning you talk to the bird, ‘come down, come down’,” he whispers, “and somebody goes ‘ACTION!’”
Mitchell sees young directors — particularly those that approach their job more technologically — making similar mistakes. “I love actors. You have to be there with them, literally right behind camera,” he says, explaining that it’s not enough to be across the room, looking at a monitor. “You can’t yell a note.”
Eckhart reminds Mitchell, “Well you are an actor, so....”
But of course, it’s ultimately an actor’s responsibility to create and convey an emotion. And for Eckhart, that means lots of research — the Internet is full of raw, grieving people pouring their hearts out to any who will listen — and digging deep into personal experience.
As for letting go of that emotional state between takes, Eckhart says he prefers not to. “First of all you can never get away from it. When you go home and go to sleep, it’s always very close to you. And you never want it to be too far away because you worked so hard to get it close to you.”