Director Ned Benson talks ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,’ Getting Into The Industry And More

Walker Sayen ‘16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Ned Benson. Photo Credit: IMDB.
Ned Benson. Photo Credit: IMDB.

A new film has hit the marketplace called The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, and it is a very unique and original experience. Not only is it a very well-made, well-acted film, but the way in which the story is presented is ambitious and takes advantage of the possibilities of the film medium to tell its love story in a way that has not been done before. The film, a love story about the struggles that befall a marriage after the initial intoxication of falling in love, has a simple narrative, but by depicting its story over the coarse of three films, it adds depth and insight to the traditional story of marital struggle.

Director Ned Benson decided to tell his story from both the male and female perspective, and to give both characters their own film, in order to explore each person’s side of the story in a complete way. These respective films have the subtitles, “Him” and “Her”, since “Him” looks at their relationship from the husband’s angle, while “Her” follows the wife’s angle. Then, both films were combined into a comprehensive “Them” version that features both perspectives, and because of this, creates a whole new understanding of the characters and their relationship. This “trilogy” is a one of a kind work, and a true cinematic experience.

Emertainment Monthly had the opportunity to talk with Ned Benson about the making of his new film The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, the Him/Her versions, and getting into the industry.

This is your first feature film, and its impressive that your first time at bat you were able to get talent like Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy, so my question is: how did you assemble the talent for the film and what was the process of getting the film started?

Well, it started around 10 years ago. I meet Jessica Chastain 11 years ago at a film festival with a short film of mine, and she ran up to me after my short and said “hay, I want to work with you some day”. And she had just graduated Juilliard and had only done like an episode of ER, which she sent me. Then I went and saw her do a play in New York, and thought she was fantastic, and we became friends.

Ultimately, I wrote the first part [of what became the three part film], which was the “Him” version, for myself. So I wrote “Him” and gave it to Jessica, and asked her what she thought, and she had all of these questions about the character of Eleanor Rigby, like where did she go, and who is she. She asked if I could tell her more about the character, and that inspired me to write a whole other side of it, because if I was going to write a love story, what better way to do that then to write both sides of the relationship.

So I wound up with this 225 page script, myself a first time director, my producer who was untested, and Jessica, who really hadn’t done much at that point (she’d just gotten Tree of Life). So aside from that, no one really knew who she was. So we tried to make it, and we got a thousand “nos”, and everyone saying it was impossible. Then Jessica’s career began to take off, which started to help us with momentum. And I think some people thought the concept was gripping enough to peek their interest, but not commit to it. Ultimately, after years and years we had gotten another actor to play the lead role, but then he fell out. So, I had initially gone to James McAvoy, who liked the script, but the subject matter was too heavy for him, or he just, I guess, couldn’t deal with the subject matter at that moment because he had just had a child (not to give anything away). But, we revisited him, and he said yes, and that locked our financing about 2 months before shooting. It was a long, hair-tearing-out, head-banging process.

James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. Photo Credit: Sarah Shatz/The Weinstein Company.
James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. Photo Credit: Sarah Shatz/The Weinstein Company.

I know before you directed The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, you made a few short films, so I was wondering if you could talk about your background in filmmaking before making your first feature film?

I lived in Western Mass growing up, I went to two schools there, one called Eagle Brook and one called Dear Field. And I was really into movies there. I just have always been into movie, and was making movies there on VHS. And then I went to Columbia in New York. I was an English major. I took film classes and went to see movies every weekend. I watched millions of movies and then began making movies with friends there. But I hadn’t directed one. I was in a screenwriting class at Columbia, so I started writing screenplays, and they were mostly crap, very overwrought. When I graduated I got some money together and directed my first short, which wound up being the short that Jessica saw. And that short got me my agent, my first agent. I kind of struggled for awhile and made my money as a writer, even thought I wanted to direct, or write and direct. I tried to put together a couple of other movies, and I had some scripts that were on this thing called the blacklist in LA, which was helpful and started getting me writing gigs.

So I started making my living as a writer while I was trying to put films together to direct. And ultimately, after that first short, which cost like 30grand to make, I never made a short for more than a thousand dollars, because I just didn’t see the point. To me it was just about working with friends, making mistakes, working with actors, figuring out what moments were working, and playing with the camera. Short films to me are sort of like a good experiment, if you can do them for a low budget. So I think those were important for me, in order to know what I could do, or what I couldn’t do, what I was good at, what I was bad at. And then, through everything this film came together, and I got to make it.

Do you have any advise for young filmmakers who are struggling to get their first project made?

This is about endurance. Someone once told me that its a marathon, not a sprint. I started writing this script when I was 27. I’m 37 now. You have to be willing to put in the time. And I think you you can’t just rely on one project, you can’t put all your eggs in one basket, you have to be writing other stuff, you have to be trying to make other things. Its a trick, it depends on what you want to be doing, what type of filmmaker you want to be, I think its contextual. I really knew the type of filmmaker I wanted to be, and how hard that was. I probably at points could have made my life easier, made money doing other things that I didn’t necessarily want to do. But, I lucked out in this way. So there’s a whole cocktail of things that go into this, and one of them is definitely luck, and another is endurance and self-awareness. You can’t be precious, you can’t be hypersensitive with your material. You have to be open to constructive criticism. You have to be open to hearing whether it’s worth chasing. And like I said, I faced a thousand “nos”. But that initial script of “Him” was on this blacklist, and people believed in it then, so I knew, it least, I had a kernel of something. If someone had told me it was garbage, I might have abandoned it, and I’ve written plenty of garbage scripts.

Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. Photo Credit: Sarah Shatz/The Weinstein Company.
Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. Photo Credit: Sarah Shatz/The Weinstein Company.

Could you go into the transition from making two different movies, to combining them into a third film? In other words, what was the process of getting from Him/Her to the 3rd film?

A year ago, we premiered Him and Her at Toronto. And that went well. We sold the movie to the Weinstein Company, which was an amazing moment. People kept reminding me that I was writing a 225 page script, that I was making this movie, and that it was in two parts. So one of the constant questions I faced was: “Is there a combined version of this?”. And I wasn’t willing to give up my Him/Her concept, because I thought it was really important. But when we started talking about distribution in February of this year, having faced that question so many times before, the question was: “was there a third option for audiences to go see”. Because, you know, a Him/Her, three hour and ten minute, two part experience, is an investment, and some people are willing to do that, and that’s great! But some people maybe might just want to go see a two-hour version of the film that is experienced sort of outside the couple, like us looking in at this couple. So that became “Them”. And I sat in an editing room just to see if I could actually find that movie. And what I found was this cut. Ultimately we submitted it to Cannes, and it got in, and we were kind of mind-blown. And here I am with these three films.

Before you got into Toronto and the Weinstein Company picked up the film, did you ever think you would have to edit the two-part film into a signal unit?

No. I didn’t think that. It wasn’t something I wanted to think, because I think if I had given way to that, we never would have played in Toronto the way we played. I had to be very tough with that idea, and same with Jessica and Casandra [my producer]. Jessica was even more stedfast then I was with that idea.

What was it like, the process of cutting the two films together?

It was an amazing experience, because you’re taking this preexisting material that works in these two separate pieces, that each have their own rhythm, that each have scenes that work on their own, and finding something new. We first assembled it all chronologically, and then you start to realize that this third film has to have its own rhythm. It has to become a completely different organism. It has to be a completely different film. It can’t be what the other two are. So, you’re cutting things that, you know, work in a way, you’re cutting scenes that work on their own, but don’t fit into it because you have to find new themes, you have to find new ideas, in terms of what this 3rd film is about. And some of those themes and subplots that existed in “Him” and “Her”, didn’t fit into this new context. It was an amazing learning process. It was like the best class, it was like a master class in editing. And I have an amazing editor who I got to work with, who was a great teacher to me.

James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company.
James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company.

How long was that process of making the 3rd film?

We made it in a month. We had to cruise, because we wanted to make the Cannes deadline.

Could you talk about the reason behind naming Jessica Chastain’s character Eleanor Rigby? Was the character going to be called Eleanor Rigby from the beginning?

When I started writing the first script I was listening to that song, and the ideas of that song, like: “all the lonely people, where do they all come from”. At the time, I was walking through Tompkins Sq. Park, and the East Village, and the Lower East Side, and I was just sort of looking around at New York, at all of these people in their own lives, and it just seemed to infuse itself into the script. That definitely had an influence on it. And then secondly I’m the child of two baby boomers. My mom went to college here in Boston and my dad got kicked out of High School for stealing a TV to watch The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. So, their music was my music history. And I think I’m a reflection and a reaction to them at the same time. And I wanted to sort of show the relationships of the parents and these stories. Whether it was Ciarán Hinds’ character, or William Hurt’s character, or Isabelle Huppert’s character, they were influencing both of the children. All of the relationships around us, and especially our parents, I think, influence how we deal with relationships. I wanted to see that reflection in each of these characters of Connor and Eleanor, and how we are both reactions and reflections to this generational sort of disconnect. So that was part of it too.

Do you have any fun stories from set you would like to share?

There’s so many. The night we were supposed to shoot the first firefly scene in Tompkins Sq. Park, and there are rarely fireflies in Tompkins Sq. Park, we walked in to do the set up and there were thousands and thousands of fireflies flaring. And the park ranger was baffled, because he had never seen anything like that in Tompkins Sq. Park. And the night before or the night after it wouldn’t have been like that, they wouldn’t have been there. I mean, they would have been there to a much less extent. So it created this magical synchronicity that was pretty special. Partially because the moment that inspired me all those years ago was in Central Park, where I was walking on a summer night and saw all these fireflies, and thought: “this is beautiful and cinematic, why don’t I put that in the story”.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby cycle is a distinct, one-of-a-kind experience, and is highly recommended. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them comes out on September 19, 2014, and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/ The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her come out in limited release on October 10, 2014.

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