Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, a Boston native, hasn’t had particularly positive experiences with movies.
A Pulitzer Prize winner (for “Rabbit Hole”), Lindsay-Abaire was the writer of record on a couple of films (the animated “Robots,” the less-animated “Inkheart”) – and the less said about either, the better, as far as he’s concerned.
So when Nicole Kidman and her producing partners came to him with the offer to make a film of “Rabbit Hole,” perhaps his most personal play, Lindsay-Abaire says, “I thought, I don’t need to turn this thing I love deeply into something else. I don’t need a bad version of it on film; I’ve got the play.”
Kidman, however, assured him that he would not only write the script but be part of the process of making it, along with director John Cameron Mitchell. The result is “Rabbit Hole,” one of 2010’s most affecting and well-wrought films, the story of a couple (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) trying to regain their footing eight months after the death of their 4-year-old son in an accident.
Lindsay-Abaire, 41, sat down to talk about it before speaking at a recent screening.
Q: Where did this play come from?
A: It came from a couple of places. When I was a student at Juilliard, my teacher Marsha Norma told us, “Write about the thing that frightens you the most.” I was in my 20s and didn’t know what scared me. Then I got married and had a son. And when he was 3, I heard about friends of friends who had children die suddenly. And I understood fear in a profound way. And Marsha’s words came back to me. And that became the seed of the play.
Q: It seems like a departure from your earlier plays, like “Fuddy Meers” and “Kimberly Akimbo.”
A: All of my plays up until then had been absurdist and farcical. I wanted to try a more naturalistic play. But I was waiting for the right story.
Q: What was it like to deal with a story about a couple whose child has died?
A: My son was 4 when I was writing it and the child that dies in the play is 4. So I kept it a secret from my wife while I was writing it. It was so creepy – writing about the death of a 4-year-old. That part was difficult. I had to access scary emotions and feelings. It was very immediate.
Q: What had your experience been like writing movies before this one?
A: I thought, Do I really want to write a screenplay in Hollywood? Well, I’ve got to pay the mortgage and movies pay really well. But the process was so different. The other scripts I wrote were studio movies. You start getting notes and the movie dissipates and loses its way. It quickly becomes not yours. The notes are not about the story, but about other things – many other things. So those were soul-crushing, which I guess is the typical experience. Those weren’t so fun.
Q: What was it like adapting your play to the screen?
A: It came fairly quickly. I took about three months to write it. It was figuring out how to do it, finding the visual equivalent, how to make the material more cinematic and visual. I asked myself, if there was no play, how would I tell it if I was starting over? A lot of it wound up in the screenplay; but a lot of it fell by the wayside. So much happens offstage and I thought, Now I get to see all the places that were only in my head. There were all sorts of things I’d described. Now I can get the character out of the house and see her do things.
Q: Did you have any qualms about John Cameron Mitchell as director? His work up until this doesn’t seem to have much in common with the sensibility of your play.
A: I love his other movies. Still I thought, Obviously he knows how to make it cinematic – but the guy with the sex movie? But, at the heart of both of his other films is a story of people desperate to connect. People lost in an upside-down, chaotic world seeking clarity. So all three are about the same thing, but executed in different ways.
Q: What did Nicole Kidman say when you told her you didn’t want to ruin your play with a bad movie?
A: They said, “We want you to be part of the process. Let’s agree to make the same movie.” And John Cameron Mitchell understood it implicitly. He said all the right things. You never know. You get on the set and people start making up lines. That didn’t happen. They shot for 28 days so there wasn’t a lot of time or energy to “develop” the script. There was no time to “improve” it or say, “Do we really need this?” What I see onscreen is pretty much what I imagined and that’s a rare thing. It’s never happened for me before.