The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, starring two-time Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) and James McAvoy (Atonement), is an incredibly ambitious project for first-time writer/director, Ned Benson. After all, it is a 3+ hour movie, split into three different films. Him, is told from the perspective of Conor (McAvoy), Her is told from the perspective of Eleanor (Chastain), and Them is a more objective story that encompasses the characters lives together. A love story at heart, all three films detail a couple’s romantic journey and the effect a traumatic event has on their relationship. Will they be able to find each other again?
Full disclosure, I am a HUGE Jessica Chastain fan. Based on her performance in this film, my fandom has reached an even higher level. Once again she proves herself as one of the best actresses working today. Chastain’s ability to beautifully capture raw human emotions is unparalleled; it never feels as though you are watching her act. She is the master of subtlety and naturalness, a trait that makes her characters seem more relatable (and easily attributed to real people in my life) than fictional characters.
McAvoy also shines, playing a husband that is desperately searching for his wife, both literally and emotionally. Although his character, Conor, may not show his pain as outwardly as his estranged wife, it is obvious that he is also hurting . Viola Davis, Jess Weixler, Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt, and Bill Hader round out the incredible cast, and thankfully, Benson allows every character to shine.
Because I enjoyed the movie so much, I was really excited to get a one-on-one interview with Ned, where we spoke about his long-time relationship with Jessica Chastain, the eight year period it took to get the film made, his feelings on the third, originally unplanned, film Them, and much more! Check out the interview below and go see The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them in theaters this weekend! Him and Her will be released in select markets on October 10.
If you, like me, like to go into movies completely blind, BEWARE of spoilers below!!!
Lauren Bradshaw (ClotureClub.com): First off, I loved the movie!
Ned: Thanks so much!
Lauren: I’m a huge Jessica Chastain fan.
Ned: Yes, she’s fantastic.
Lauren: I went to see her when she was in The Heiress on Broadway.
Ned: Oh yeah! We had just finished shooting.
Lauren: Really? That’s awesome! So this film took about eight years to get made?
Ned: Eight years to get made and ten years to get here today.
Lauren: Wow, that’s crazy. Can you talk a little bit about the idea first came to you? I read that you originally thought of the idea and then gave it to Jessica to look at and she encouraged you to make a film from her character’s perspective as well?
Ned: Yeah, I had written the first part of the script, which ultimately became Him. I gave it to Jess and she asked me some questions about the character of Eleanor Rigby. Where did she go in the script and who was she? That created this idea of ‘maybe I should explore it!’ So, I started exploring it and then I was like, ‘Well, why don’t I just write a whole other script?’ I had initially wanted to write a love story or a film about a relationship, so I thought, what better way to do that than to show both sides, show both perspectives at the same time between two people?
Lauren: Yeah, that’s great. I can’t think of too many movies that are told from his and her side.
Ned: I think there are a few instances? It wasn’t like I was trying to audacious or anything, it just seemed appropriate for what we were trying to do.
Lauren: How did you and Jessica meet?
Ned: I had a short film at a film festival eleven years ago. It was the first short that I directed. There were about twelve people in the audience and most of them were filmmakers from the movie. Jessica won tickets on NPR to come see films within this festival and I left my theater after the movies ended and this girl comes running up to me and says, “Did you direct that movie?” I said, “Yeah!” She was like, “I want to work with you.” At that point, she had just graduated from Juilliard. She had done one episode of ER and that was her reel. Then I went and saw her do a play with David Strathairn called Rodney’s Wife Off-Broadway. She was so good in it and I just watched her and thought, “This girl’s magic.” We became really close.
Lauren: That’s awesome! So, like you said, the process to get this film made took ten years. Once you got the movie into the Toronto International Film Festival and showed it to everyone, they [Weinstein] said they loved the movie, but wanted you to also edit Her and Him to create Them… were you precious about it? Did you mind editing it down so much?
Ned: I was precious about it all the way through Toronto and past because that  wasn’t even a question for me and my producers and collaborators because we knew we wanted to do this two part love story. But, people had constantly through the process, because it was such a difficult film to get made, asked “Is there a version that is just one?” The original script was 223 pages…
Ned: Yeah! So it was, “Is there one version of this? Is there a tighter movie that just focuses on the two of them? Is there a combined version” And it just happened all the way through to the moment in Toronto. Then, five minutes before we premiered at Toronto I thought, “What have I done?” Then we screened and it went so well within the context of the festival and Weinstein bought us at that moment. About in February of this year, we thought about how we were going to distribute these films because it’s tricky. You’re taking difficult subject matter and asking people to watch 3 hours and 10 minutes of a two part movie. Finally, my editor, assistant editor, producer and I got into a room to see if it was even possible to find a third film and what we found is this, which we submitted to Cannes.
Lauren: So did you have a choice or was it the distributor asking you to make a third film?
Ned: It was ultimately the producer and my decision to do it. I think we talked about the possibilities but it’s been a really collaborative experience with [the Weinstein Company]. They have been super supportive of me as a filmmaker. I think as a first-timer, to have three movies coming out and having them all distributed in movie theaters is pretty crazy.
Lauren: Right, it really is amazing! I was reading another interview where you talked about making the color palate for Him and Her very different. In the editing process, was that a nightmare?
Ned: It actually played to our advantage because thematically, when I was creating these two separate films with their different palates and different camera rhythms and production design, costume design and even different acting intentions within each scene, I did ultimately… with the beauty of technology, because they are separate at the beginning of Them, I could use those disparate color palates to show them in separate visual spaces. Then throughout the film, as they start to understand each other and synthesize a bit more, blend those things and create a more neutral color palate that blends those two ideas to subconsciously show the understanding they reach with each other… the synthesis they find with each other in terms of rediscovering that they did both experience [a tragedy] even though they did it in different ways. It is something they will always share together. I was able to use it to my advantage, at least I think so.
Lauren: Were there any other editing issues that you didn’t think would be a problem but became a problem once you started?
Ned: Well, you’re playing with continuity in terms of shirt colors or different changes that you have to follow in the context of one movie or else it doesn’t work. Some things had to be dictated by that. Ultimately, I think the actors did such a phenomenal a job that it wasn’t too awful a choice to make. They were so great and I was very lucky to work with them.
Lauren: Was it weird to direct friends? Obviously you knew Jessica [Chastain] and I know you are friends with Jess Weixler. Was it hard to direct people you have such a close relationship with or was it easier?
Ned: It both makes it really easy, because you have a shorthand, and makes it difficult because you are so close with each other. You’re trying to be professional in a very personal setting or personal in a very professional setting. It’s a double-edged sword. But it ended up being really great and they are both so talented and we’re such good collaborators. I was pretty lucky.
Lauren: Yeah, it must be nice to have your directorial debut feature such wonderful actors. Viola Davis too! It was nice to see in a more comedic role, well comedic as much as the movie would allow.
Lauren: We screened Them but I know in Him and Her there are subtle differences based on memory and a character’s perception. What is your favorite little change you placed in the movie? Are there any little Easter eggs a viewer might not pick up on?
Ned: Yeah, there are different subtle cues… like, one of them says one thing in one of the overlapping scenes and then the other says it in another one. One of them divulges information in one scene and the other sees right through it and doesn’t have to have the information be divulged in the other film. It’s about what their impression or memory of that moment or experience.
Lauren: In terms of casting, how did you get everyone else involved like James McAvoy, Jess Weixler, and Viola Davis?
Ned: My producing partner, Cassandra Kulukundis, who did a phenomenal job, came from a casting background. She cast for all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films and she used some of her relationships with actors to get them involved and Jessica had a relationship with Isabella Huppert that was very helpful. Things started to fall into place in terms of… James, I had sent the script to years before because he was my first choice but he had just had a son and the subject matter wasn’t right for him in that moment. But, two years later, when I went back to him he felt like he had the space and felt equipped to handle the character and story so he jumped in.
Lauren: Building off of your comment about the subject matter, you had an eight year time to live with this movie… due to the trauma the characters face, was it hard to live with and work with this subject for all of those years? To keep thinking about it and writing about it?
Ned: It’s funny because you’re not… when you’re trying to get it made a) I had to be writing other stuff to pay my rent. That is how I make my living, as a screenwriter. I was focused on other stories, but you’re not sitting with the script every day when you’re trying to get it made. You’re just sort of having conversations with people and hearing the word “no” a lot [laughs]…
Lauren: So over the eight year period you didn’t bring it back out and work on it based on experiences you went through?
Ned: I did. The first part of the script I started eight years ago and the second I started years later. Then I ironed it out afterwards. It was a 3-4 year process after that to get it made. It was this sort of long, elongated process with the script that was built over four years between other projects. Ultimately it was ironed out but then we had this “try to get it made” period, which was a whole other thing. Then when we were in pre-production and rehearsal I sort of ironed out the script with the actors and reappropriated it to each of them.
Lauren: Was the hardest part about getting the film made finding financing and getting the right backing behind the film?
Ned: One hundred percent. Nobody was really that excited about letting a first-time director, who was untested, make two movies. Granted, Jessica’s career started to take off so that was helpful. But, ultimately when James said yes that locked our financing because of the combination of him and Jessica.
Lauren: How many days did this take to film?
Ned: Forty days. We shot 223 pages in forty days.
Lauren: Good grief!! [laughs]
Ned: [laughs] So that was exciting.
Lauren: I bet! So when you were filming each scene from different perspectives, did you film one character’s version of events and then switch to the next? How did that work?
Ned: Sometimes it was the same day, we would just change setups in between. So you’re changing the production design, the costume design, talking with the actors about different intentions and the different versions of those scenes and then new camera setups, blocking, rehearsal… So, for each of those versions, even though it’s the same moment, it’s the same scene. It was a real testament to everyone working on it, but I think particularly actors who had to play two different roles.
Lauren: Right because you’re playing you and then someone’s perception of you.
Lauren: You don’t give away the big catalyst in the film until about 40 minutes into the movie. Did you want the catalyst to be a twist and something shocking or is it more about the marriage breaking up?
Ned: It’s more about the relationship. I wanted it to focus on the relationship but I was also more interested in the behavior and how behavior would tell the story. You see people acting in a particular way and you start to ask questions. I didn’t want that scene where I drop everything on you and you think, ‘Well, I knew that.’ It just felt like that happened outside the story and it was something I wanted infused in the behavior. I think when you’re going through something like that it isn’t something you’re able to talk about or talk about well, which is why everyone is trying to figure out how to talk and quoting people… like, ‘What do we say??” Nobody knows what to say or how to act.
Lauren: I liked that you didn’t spoon feed it to the audience.
Ned: And that’s part of the point. I wanted it to be this mystery and sort of a slow unfolding of who these characters are.
Lauren: We don’t find out how the child dies, did you have something in your head as to what happened?
Ned: Myself and the actors knew exactly what happened. There’s a scene in the movie that I think is the closest thing to articulating it. It’s when [Chastain] goes to release the firefly and she’s tapping on it and saying, “Wake up.” To me, it was basically a SIDS type situation. I just don’t want that to be… it’s about a relationship and people coping in different ways. That is the thing I was interested in, not the specifics of how it happened. When we look at other people going through stuff, we don’t necessarily know what happened , we just know something is wrong. Nor do we want to ask that, so I wanted to treat it in that fashion.
Lauren: Exactly. And also in the way you present it, without defining how the child died, it can relate to more people who have also gone through something similar.
Okay, last question. Is there any way you prefer people watch these films? Is there one you think people should start on?
Ned: I think it’s really up to how you feel like seeing it. I don’t think there is any right or wrong way to see it. Like with these characters in the film, there is no right or wrong way to deal with things. It’s subjective experiences. I think if you see Them, the story expands if you see Him and Her afterward because you get to live with these characters a bit more. You get to know Connor’s father Spencer or Alexis, who works in the bar with him, or Bill Hader and what actually happens to the bar. The same goes for William Hurt’s character of Julian, Mary the mother, Katie the sister… these characters open up. If you like them and want to see these characters more, that’s a way to see it. My original intention was this two part film, so that’s where my heart lies but I’m really proud of the entire project and happy to have three films.