Actor, writer and director John Cameron Mitchell's unique aesthetic and talent cannot be questioned. His first film, 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch,' began as an off-Broadway play showcasing Mitchell as a frustrated transsexual from East Berlin whose musical stylings are stolen by the young man she's in love with. Mixing animation, outrageous musical numbers in suburban restaurants and rec rooms, and a dark humor (Hedwig's operation didn't go smoothly, so to speak, hence her "angry inch"), this heartbreaking rock opera that was more or less workshopped in the downtown NYC party Squeezebox won two awards at Sundance and later nabbed Mitchell a Golden Globes nom for best performance by an actor in a musical or comedy.
Mitchell's second film 'Shortbus' is equally boundary breaking, as it examines the physical and emotional relationships between New Yorkers. Combining real sex, real New Yorkers (like the joyfully anarchistic Hungry March Band and performer Justin Bond) and a real search for meaning in a post-9/11 world, 'Shortbus' proved once again that you can't pigeonhole Mitchell.
'Rabbit Hole' is John Cameron Mitchell's third feature film and stars Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as parents who are dealing with the loss of their young son in very different ways. Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire won a Pulitzer for this strange, sometimes funny and always honest look at grief and how, as the tagline says, the only way out of it is through. While some might be surprised that the man who wrote and starred in a musical with a song solely dedicated to "a Barbie doll crotch" is now helming an Oscar-worthy drama, it actually makes perfect sense.
Read on to find out what Nicole Kidman's character has in common with Hedwig, how Mitchell mentors young artists and his exciting upcoming projects with Dash Shaw and Neil Gaiman.
Updated: Mitchell dishes on 'Hedwig' on Broadway, 'Glee,' and more.
You described 'Rabbit Hole' as "a quiet film in a noisy season."
The first instinct I had with reading the script was the final result, the audience should never be thinking about the director and the camera. You know, the camera should be a witness; there shouldn't be fancy shots. We should really be thinking about the character and the camera's quite a witness, a silent witness, and in this kind of busy Internet age, ADD age, [the] camera has gotten really busy and afraid of pauses and lulls and in case someone wants to check their texts or something. We made an old-fashioned film that going to take a little bit more time to get out there because [of] its subject matter. It's funny; even in the '80s there was a ritual of, like, let's go see the movie that's going give you a good cry and make you feel all cleansed at the end and we can go on and have a good time. But now there's a little more resistance to intense feelings that aren't purely sensational. You know, every film now tries to up the sense -- I'm talking about the eyes, the ears, the rollercoaster ride of pure sensation as opposed to a rollercoaster of the emotions, which somehow people are a little bit more worried that they can't handle lately, which is strange.
I was watching your Dior commercial earlier today and I was struck by how incredibly tender everything you do is, even in the middle of the most outrageous musical number in 'Hedwig' or sex orgy in 'Shortbus,' it's so tender, and I think 'Rabbit Hole' really reflects that.
Most of the questions I've been getting are, why would you do this? Was this hard? It's such a departure. It doesn't feel like a departure to me. It feels like another story of characters who are trapped in their emotional prisons who are desperately trying to get out, and Hedwig shares that with Nicole's character. I mean, they're freaks in their own world. Becca is in a more -- well, it's no more normal than Hedwig is [in]. You know, Hedwig is on a tour of Bennigan's, basically, and Nicole is ensconced in suburbia and clearly didn't go through the same experiences as Hedwig, but she is marked by the tragedy. Hedwig's tragedy is a more physical one, perhaps more unusual, but Nicole is nonetheless marked. She's alone; none of the usual sources of comfort work for her -- religion, therapy, family -- and the strange, unique event, the story that really attracted me is that the only person she can get comfort from is the kid who killed her son, which is just beautiful, unexpected, and tender.
When 'Rabbit Hole' was over, I had this urge to tell you about my experience with grief. Do you get that a lot?
I do, you know, and it's a privilege to have a film like this that -- I felt very cathartic making it, and doing scenes, kind of experiencing scenes as the actors did was a privilege. That is the privilege of art. I always feel like it's a window to self-knowledge and healing, and I lost a brother... [It's] a different experience than a lover, a son, and it's just as heavy but different experience. I imagine losing a child at the beginning of their life is completely different, but you know, Dianne Wiest's character says it well... That strange weight in your pocket that doesn't go away, but you forget about it and you're almost grateful for it because it's still reminding you that the person is there, and it's not pleasant and it's strangely comforting at the same time, and that's what I want this film to be. Not necessarily pleasant but comforting at the end. And fewer people are going to see it right off. It's going to sneak up on them later, and they're going to be surprised.
In interviews for 'Shortbus,' you were famously quoted as saying that you took part by performing oral sex on one of the actresses. So I have to ask -- one of the scenes I love the most involves two of the characters smoking pot and going to group therapy and totally cracking up. So did you smoke pot to bond?
[laughs] No. No. I didn't. We didn't do any research for that scene, but I had a blast doing it because for us it was a release as well as for the audience. The guy who plays the meeting hog, you know the annoying guy, played the bass player in 'Hedwig,' and he's just a brilliant actor, so I had him improvise a lot, stuff that didn't end up in the film but... served its purpose cracking up Sandra [Oh] and Aaron [Eckhart]... It was "rage day" [in group] so I encouraged him to talk about rage [so] he's like, "I haven't talking a sh*t in a week. Why aren't we talking about this? Gastrointestinal affects? Rage gives me an erection. Let's talk about it. Let's not hide." So he went on and on. He went on way longer than he was supposed to be, but we were all screaming with laughter, and we really needed it after some of these scenes, so it was a hoot and a half, and then we get back to the intense scenes the next day.
Aaron is a brilliant improviser. He threw in stuff where he was selling the house to the couple with those lines like, "I still feel him here," you know, and, "Would you like to see the master bedroom?" It was so easy with these actors.
I'm a huge comic book fan and I love how you worked Dash Shaw's book into the movie. I'm also a fan of Neil Gaiman. How involved will Neil Gaiman be in the adaptation of "How to Talk to Girls at Parties"?
Well, he's checking in. We did a very detailed treatment before we showed it to investors, which he loved, and he guided us down a certain path of avoiding sci-fi tropes and kind of getting more personal, which I loved, and you know, there's a little punk rocker and everything, and everything's going to be perfect, easy with him. We've become friends and Amanda Palmer, his [fiancée], is a good friend, and we've performed together so that's going to be back to my roots and fun. And I'm also producing an animated 2D feature written by the guy who did the comic book in 'Rabbit Hole,' Dash Shaw ['The Ruined Cast'].
Comic books fans know who he is, but you're really nurturing him in this cool way, in the same way you did with the director of 'Tarnation,' Jonathan Caouette, and stuff like that.
I love being a father figure, or an uncle, for people who clearly have their own wonderful aesthetic and encouraging them to move into other realms with that aesthetic. And we've been working with Dash for a year and a half on his screenplay, and graphic novelists don't get notes from people, so it's kind of shocking for him, but you know, I'm learning so much from him as well. I love his super-pure vision of stuff, and we're gonna make this film and people are going to be rocked by it.
There was news that you might be doing a 'Hedwig' revival on Broadway. Is this still a possibility?
It's been on the backburner but we're determined to make it happen!
Will Glee ever use Hedwig songs? It seems like a natural fit, and there are definitely Gleeks who have written about it on the forums.
That's a question for Ryan Murphy. I'd gladly put the wig back on for a guest performance. Maybe "Origin of Love" sung as a duet with Kurt in identical drag.
Do you think there is still an underground artist scene in New York City like you portrayed in 'Shortbus?' Is it still possible, or do you think it's easier than ever because of social media to meet other people and become part of bigger projects?
There is still an underground scene, perhaps not the same as was in 'Shortbus.' But despite the rising cost of living, the toughest young people still come to town to eke out their art. The internet can help get people together but i worry that social networking can become an end itself, spinning the wheels of shallower and shallower communication rather than getting things done. I've always avoided it for that reason, but if I was young I'd try to find a way to use it!
'Rabbit Hole' opens in select theaters December 17th.