John the Divine
BY Ari Karpel
January 11 2011 4:00 AM ET
When John Cameron Mitchell was directing his new movie, Rabbit Hole, he hated the idea of commuting nearly three hours round-trip from his West Village apartment to the house on the outer edge of Queens where the film was shooting. So he did what any frugal, old-fashioned artist obsessed with his work would do: He slept at the house in Queens.
“I’d see his toothbrush and his breakfast in the morning in the sink,” says Nicole Kidman, laughing at the memory of her director’s unusual habit. “He bathed in the house. The only other person I knew to do something like that was [avant-garde Danish director] Lars von Trier.”
The queer writer-director-actor behind such peerless creations as the transgender glam-rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the sexual boundary–pusher Shortbus has headed into international movie star territory for the first time, but he has definitely not gone Hollywood. Instead, he’s bringing the red-carpet regulars over to his way of doing things. “The movie stars are learning the pleasures of making it on the cheap,” says Mitchell, who shared an on-set bathroom with Kidman. “These people are working on our level,” he explains. “I’m very Scottish in my keeping everything under budget and hating anything to go to waste. The most important thing to me is creative freedom.”
But creative freedom doesn’t always come cheap, and Mitchell’s come by his with another recent project — writing and directing a seven-minute “commercial” for Dior, featuring Marion Cotillard and Sir Ian McKellen, that debuted online in December. “Hopefully this will pay some bills and I won’t have to do my films for money,” he says.
The 47-year-old didn’t do Rabbit Hole for the money; he says he took the job because he felt a connection to David Lindsay-Abaire’s script, based on the screenwriter’s own Pulitzer Prize–winning play, which starred Cynthia Nixon and John Slattery on Broadway. It’s about a couple (Kidman and Aaron Eckhart in the film) whose 4-year-old son has died in a horrible accident. Mitchell was 14 when he lost his own brother. “All the feelings that the characters deal with came up in our family,” he says. “So it felt like a necessary experience for me, something I had to do.”
Despite — or perhaps because of — Mitchell’s transgressive work, Lindsay-Abaire and Kidman, who is one of the film’s producers, knew he was right for the job. “Obviously, most people think of John’s films as being so out there and bold, [whereas] Rabbit Hole is, by design, incredibly naturalistic and unadorned,” says Lindsay-Abaire. “And yet I think the heart of Rabbit Hole and the heart of John’s stories are the same. The wigs and the sex scenes, those are just the wrapping paper. Underneath that, both Hedwig and Shortbus are about people desperately trying to connect and trying to make sense of an upside-down world.”