Rabbit Hole   

Useful Stories
by director John Cameron Mitchell

When I read the Rabbit Hole screenplay I dropped everything and reached out to the producers, Nicole Kidman and her partner Per Saari. They simply listened as I blabbered on about how the story knocked me out. I found it so true, so gimmick-free, so moving, so funny. And I told them not only that I wanted to direct the film but that I had to.

My brother Samuel was born with a heart problem but it was still unexpected when at four years old his heart stopped beating on February 22, 1977 in Fort Riley, Kansas. My mother woke me in the middle of the night. I remember my father giving him mouth-to-mouth on my parents’ bed. I remember the ambulance taking him away. I remember waking my two other brothers and each of us in our separate rooms praying to God for him to be spared. Then the front door opened and my mother said Samuel was in heaven. I don’t remember crying though I must’ve. I do remember that it was the moment that I, a devout young man, stopped believing in God. That was the 70’s: there were no therapists, no support groups. It was considered indulgent to talk about your feelings. Each member of our family moved away from each other—towards whatever could comfort us. My mother towards the church, my father towards his Army command, my brothers towards sports, drugs, deliquency and me towards my books. Sci Fi and fantasy became my new gospels. Authors who could twist science and poetry into exotic rope-bridges across the abyss, comic book writers who could make death necessary and meaningful. Later, I discovered Pinter, Beckett, Bowie, Waits, Cassavetes, Altman, Bergman. More storytellers that helped to explain what happened to me.

Yet I realized I had unfinished emotional business when I encountered Rabbit Hole.   Nicole and Per trusted that what I needed dovetailed with they needed in a director. We rushed into production.

In a key climactic scene, Nicole’s character Becca finally releases all the emotion she’s been tamping down since the loss of her child. The day we shot the scene, it was raining nonstop and planes rumbled overhead every 40 seconds. Then the fates converged, skies and planes suddenly cleared. Nicole was in position—alone in her car. I called out “Action!” I watched one of our greatest craftsmen untie her heartstrings and open a torrent of grief that brought me back. Becca was me in that moment: someone who thought he could withstand the hurricane alone and unprotected. I wept like a mirror image on the other side of the lens. Finally Becca was spent, and Nicole allowed her to breathe, to rest, to reflect, to begin to move on. I whispered “Cut” and the heavens opened. I got in the car and Nicole and I held hands for a long time as the crew worked around us.

We were only granted a single take that day but it was long enough to get the shot, long enough to provide the film its emotional lynchpin, long enough for me to do what I needed to do. We know life is hard, we need stories to let us know it’s going to be all right. 

I hope Rabbit Hole will be useful for you too.

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