"I can hold the tape recorder," filmmaker John Cameron Mitchell offers. "I tend to speak quietly." Graciousness appears to be second nature to Mitchell — once an altar boy, always an altar boy — who has agreed to brave an increasingly cold L.A. afternoon by taking an outside table at a Hollywood coffeehouse, thereby easing my fear that the shop's stereo system will drown out his voice.
Mitchell's mild demeanor is a stark contrast to the transgressive, in-your-face characters he has brought to stage and screen. In 1998, he caused a sensation when he starred in the off-Broadway sensation Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which he created with composer Stephen Trask. As Hedwig, an East German rock singer formerly named Hansel, whose misguided attempt to marry a U.S. soldier had led to a "botched" sex-change operation, Mitchell dazzled with his garters, pumps, and fury. The 2003 film version, which Mitchell directed, has become a cult classic, with devotees showing up in costume at Saturday night midnight screenings.
Mitchell stayed behind the camera for his follow-up film, Shortbus (2006), which opens with a gleefully explicit masturbation scene, and then goes on to explore the sexual dynamics among a broad range of lovelorn young New Yorkers. Dirty-minded but sweet-souled, Shortbus has a cast composed largely of nonactors, all of whom trusted Mitchell to guard their integrity even as he asked them to strip themselves bare, literally and figuratively.
How to follow a transgender musical and an improvised sex drama? To the surprise of many, Mitchell didn't try; instead he sought out and landed the plum assignment of directing Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart in the movie version of David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize–winning play Rabbit Hole. Deploying what he calls "gentle nudges," Mitchell led Kidman and Eckhart to give exquisitely ragged performances as Becca and Howie Corbett, an upper-class New Jersey couple whose world has been shattered by the accidental death of their 4-year-old son. One year later, the couple's marriage is hanging by a thread.
Rabbit Hole is a movie about grief, a topic its 47-year-old director has been intimately familiar with nearly all of his life, though I haven't come here expecting Mitchell, whom I've interviewed twice before, to explore his personal history in much detail. Yet, when I raise the subject of a loss he and his family suffered long ago, he surprises me with his candor.
"One of the reasons I did the film was so my family could see it," he says, as he stares off at the unceasing flow of Sunset Boulevard traffic. "My brother passed away when he was 4 and I was 14. He'd had a heart problem from birth, but it was unexpected. It changed our whole family, but back then, you didn't discuss your feelings, you just got on with it. We're a military family, a Catholic family, so you just pray."
Barely pausing, eyes dead ahead, Mitchell continues: "It was very difficult for me because I was quite religious, and pious, in a way, up to that moment. I remember my mom waking me up and saying there was something wrong with Samuel and seeing him in the bed and my dad trying to give him mouth-to-mouth and the ambulance coming, and just praying. My other brothers woke up and we prayed, and then, a bit later, Mom came in and said, 'He's in heaven,' and that was the end of God for me."
Deep breath, and then more: "We didn't know how to deal with our feelings. The rage and the grief and the confusion. It was just 'He's in heaven and he's looking down on us as a saint.' And that wasn't enough for me. So each of us sort of separated from the family. My mom into religion, my dad into work, my brothers into ... kind of becoming bad boys. Delinquents, in a way. And I went into stories and art. That was my salvation."
When I inquire about his family's response to Rabbit Hole, Mitchell offers a tight half-smile. "I showed them all the film on a DVD at home," he says. "It was weird. I was kind of hoping for a group hug, or some kind of release, but nobody could really deal with it." He takes a moment to think. "It was kind of a cold response, actually. I should have known better than to think that one thing was going to undo decades of not dealing with his death. In subsequent viewings, I think they've felt it, in their own way. My parents got to see it with their friends in Denver last week, which was a thrill for them. But it was never going to be a group thing for us."
Mitchell admits that his family's initial response was "a bit of a disappointment," but it's equally clear that making the film was invaluable for him personally. "Sometimes, just watching Nicole from behind the camera helped me to purge some things about my brother's death that I'd never really thought about," he says. "Watching her, watching Aaron, I could let some feelings go. In that way, it was very necessary to do this movie."
If all this makes Mitchell sound like a sad, haunted man, it shouldn't. More often than not, he's wearing a sweet (sometimes sly) smile, and generally seems present, even while sitting in a cold wind telling dark tales of the past. The trick of being engaged in life while honoring the past is something Becca and Howie are only beginning to learn at the end of Rabbit Hole. "It's going to be fucking hard for them. I don't know if they'll make it," Mitchell acknowledges. "But they're trying."