Director John Cameron Mitchell found himself alternately weeping and laughing the first time he read the script for the film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Rabbit Hole, David Lindsay-Abaire's bitingly honest portrayal of a couple coping with the death of their four-year-old son.
When Mitchell was in his early teens, his own brother died, also at the age of four.
"I don't know how David did it without experiencing it himself," says Mitchell, whose film, starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, opens Friday and is already garnering Oscar buzz. "Our family didn't quite recover from it - we weren't allowed to talk about it in an emotional way. There was no therapy at the time. So this film seemed like unfinished business for me."
Rabbit Hole begins eight months after Becca and Howie Corbett's son darts into the street in pursuit of the family dog and is struck by a car. In order merely to function, Kidman's Becca turns off all emotion, pulls away from her husband, and tries to purge painful reminders of their son from their home: She cleans out the young boy's room, gives away his clothes, removes crayon doodles that had been lovingly posted on the fridge. Eckhart's Howie reacts differently, clinging fast to memories of his son, constantly replaying home videos of their once-happy family.
During an interview after the film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, the two actors sat side-by-side and showed obvious warmth for each other. At one point, Eckhart asked his co-star, who was also a producer on the film, why he didn't have his "own toilet" during the shoot, and both joked about having only blow-up beds in their dressing rooms.
But they also talked about the rawness of the script and the layers of emotion into which it demanded they plunge. It was that very darkness and depth, they agreed, that attracted them to the low-budget project, which was shot over a scant six weeks in New York State.
"The material was just so pure," says Kidman, who has a young daughter with country-singer husband Keith Urban. "I immediately connected with Becca, who is living the unimaginable - a parent's worst fear. I would hope I'd stay the course with my partner, because that's what I find so beautiful about this story. They are both so isolated, and they try to run away from each other. But in the end, they're eternally bound and you can almost see them when they're old."
To prepare for the role, Kidman talked to families who had experienced the loss of a close family member. But the bulk of her performance, she adds, was based on instinct. "Loss of love reverberates with me and, for some reason, I was just able to feel it. My imagination can be so powerful, and the psychological places it allows me to go to are just frightening sometimes," says the actress, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf in 2002's The Hours.
"A story like this bleeds into your real life," adds Kidman, who says she had a hard time turning her character on and off. "My dreams are very much a part of who I am, so when my dreams start to become disturbed - like they were during the making of this film - I know my whole balance is off. My spirit was battling."
Eckhart did countless hours of reading and research on loss and grief, and the havoc they wreak on families. "The Internet is an amazing tool. There are people doing video blogs about the loss of their child - and some have been doing them 10 years - so you can follow the stages of their grief, something which is cathartic for them and was extremely informative for me."
The star of Thank You for Smoking and Love Happens also attended grief-counselling classes, but cut that experiment short because he felt "extremely intrusive … almost like I was taking advantage."
To relieve pressure during filming, says director Mitchell, he and Eckhart would horse around between takes. "I had a really hilarious relationship with Aaron," says the 47-year-old filmmaker, who worked in New York theatre before breaking into movies with the 2001 indie musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which he followed up with 2006's award-winning comedy-drama Shortbus.
By contrast, says Mitchell, Kidman "had to stay in a certain uneasy place emotionally, so there wasn't a lot of small talk. She had to go back to her room and stay in the same state."
As for his own role in creating the film, he says: "I was there to create a place for these people to do their best work," noting that Rabbit Hole , which as a play won five Tony Awards, weaves a story "not only about loss, but about the loss of communication that comes with it.
"I knew my job was to be invisible," adds Mitchell, whose cast also includes two-time Oscar-winner Dianne Weist plus Miles Teller, Tammy Blanchard and Sandra Oh. "I wanted the camera to be very unself-conscious. My goal was for this to have a pace that was the pace of life."
He sees a certain serendipity in the film's release at this time of year. "At its core, it's a story about forgiveness and reconciliation," he offers. "The holidays are a time when people often get really emotional and stress levels are high. Films like Rabbit Hole need to get made because they remind us how lucky we are to be alive. And how much we need other people, to go on.
"In a very un-Hollywood-like way, it shows you can go through the fire, and come out the other side, clinging to the people you love."