Saturday, January 8, 2011

A few words with John Cameron Mitchell

A director explores a deeply emotional subject.
John Cameron Mitchell began his film career on cinema's wilder fringes. In 2001, he made a major splash at the Sundance Film Festival with a big-screen adaptation of his off-Broadway musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. With composer Stephen Trask, Mitchell told the unlikely story of an East German transgender rock star who toured the U.S. Mitchell played the lead role in the movie.
And just in case Hedwig wasn't outre enough, Mitchell followed in 2006 with Shortbus, an explicit look at a group of New Yorkers trying to work through a variety of sexual and relationship issues.

With Rabbit Hole, the 47-year-old Mitchell, has taken an entirely different tack. He has directed an adaptation of a 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire, who also wrote the movie's screenplay. Rabbit Hole employs an A-list cast -- Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart -- to tell the story of a couple attempting to cope with the death of their 4-year-old son.

Rabbit Hole, which opened last year's Starz Denver Film Festival, already has been released in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, and is beginning to make its way around the country.* Mitchell visited Denver for the movie's November film-festival showing, which was attended by his parents, who currently live in Colorado Springs.

The unavoidable question for Mitchell: What led a director whose previous interests hardly can be described as mainstream to a project of this kind?

"The script obviously was deeply mature because David had been through the play. He’d made the screenplay even better. The characters were cut like diamonds, and the structure was really tight. But there was also a humanity and a lack of sentimentality that felt different from any other film about the same subject matter."

A strong screenplay was bolstered by a personal connection that brought the material close to home for Mitchell.

"When I was a teen-ager I lost a brother, who was four. That experience completely defined our family. Working on the movie, a lot of the feelings came flooding back, feelings I hadn’t really dealt with because in the ‘70s you weren’t encouraged to talk about your feelings, especially with the military and the Catholic background I grew up in. (Mitchell's father is a retired U.S. Army Major General.)

So how did folks cope in those stiff-upper-lip days?

"You might pray, but you just got on with it," said Mitchell. "We never really talked about it, so this was my chance to purge some stuff."

*Rabbit Hole opens in Denver Jan. 14.

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