Ned Benson :: Behind 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby'
10 years ago filmmaker Ned Benson was walking through Central Park on a summer's night and saw some fireflies. "And I thought it was so cinematically beautiful, it inspired me. So I started writing a love story that I called 'Him.'"
Now in his thirties, the bearded, stylishly groomed director sat in a Boston hotel recounting the somewhat improbable history behind "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them," which is currently in limited release.
The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this past May and, more recently, opened in New York and Los Angeles where critics embraced Benson's imaginative concept in much the same way they raved about Richard Linklater's "Boyhood." Both push the limits of conventional filmmaking through unique narrative techniques; in the case of "Eleanor Rigby" it looking at relationship from three different points-of-view.
Crucial to the development process is Jessica Chastain, the Oscar-nominated actress who overnight became one of Hollywood's leading stars through roles in "The Tree of Life," "The Help," "Zero Dark Thirty" and the upcoming Christopher Nolan sci-fi thriller "Interstellar." Chastain met Benson by chance: she had won tickets to a LA Film Festival where one of his shorts was being shown; she saw it, tracked him down and told him she wanted to make a movie with him.
"She had just graduated from Julliard and had done one episode of 'ER,' and sent me her reel, which was that one episode of 'ER,' and we became friends. Then I saw her off-Broadway in a play called 'Rodney's Wife' by Richard Nelson and I just saw right then that she was special. We developed a really close relationship. That's how we got involved."
He gave her his script to "Him" - the story of a relationship between two New Yorkers -- a restaurant owner named Connor Ludlow and Eleanor Rigby, the woman he meets casually, falls in love and marries. What Chastain took away from the script was more questions about just who Eleanor Rigby was, what was motivating her as their marriage falls apart?
"She asked questions about Eleanor Rigby, which inspired me to write this whole other part for her. So my producing partner, her and I, who were all very untested, had this project on our hands that was seemingly impossible to make. Me being the biggest wildcard because I had only had done four shorts up to that point and was mostly making my living as a screenwriter; so I think I hindered us a bit. But I think their belief in the project and the ascent of her career helped get this film made. It was James McAvoy who joined that finally locked our financing."
With Chastain and McAvoy as the leads, Benson cast such prestigious actors as Ciarán Hinds, William Hurt, Isabelle Huppert, Bill Hader, Viola Davis, Nina Arianda and Jess Weixler to play their family members and friends. He shot the film over 40 days in the summer of 2012.
"If I was going to write a relationship movie, why not show the dual perspective - two separate experiences of the same thing. So I wrote that, had this 220-page script, which is what we shot."
A composite film
His two films - "Him" and "Her" premiered at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, where they were well-received and picked-up by the Weinstein Company. Now came the hard part: how could they be marketed and distributed? What came up in the discussions was a question Benson had heard over and over again from the start of the project: if both films told the same story, was there a composite film? With his editor and producer on hand, they decided to take a stab at that.
"So I sat with my editor and my producer and tried it in the editing room to see if it was possible. And what we found is this 'Them' version, which we then submitted to Cannes, which got in and was mind-boggling because that has been a dream of mine for so long. And here we are with three films where people have a chance to see a two-hour love story from an outsider's perspective of this couple, or, on October 10, see 'Him' and 'Her' and have that experience too."
Where did she go?
"Them," though is up first, and it both impressed and frustrated critics when it opened last week in New York and Los Angeles. (Benson said that he doesn't read reviews for better or worse.)
A.O. Scott in the New York Times called it "a strikingly ambitious debut feature. Shot in and around New York, it sets out to chronicle the end of a marriage in all its emotional complexity...The film is an expansive, roaming, sometimes unwieldy excursion across a landscape mined with sorrow, secrets and unresolved questions of identity, a study of friendship and intergenerational miscommunication as well as romantic failure."
At the start of the film, Eleanor walks to a Manhattan bridge and jumps into the East River. She's rescued, but the reason she attempts suicide is the loss of the couple's first child, which sends her home to her parents (William Hurt, Isabelle Huppert) and a return to college. In the process, she abandons Connor, who has no idea as to just where she's gone.
An extreme topic
What gives the film a sense of mystery is that Benson largely dispenses with exposition; instead he thrust the audience headlong into the story. "I think exposition just sucks the wind out of a story sometimes. I would rather you watch these people, because that's sort of what life is. I wanted it to feel that I was sitting in a restaurant looking at this couple and their behavior and wondering what was going on between them. When we talk to someone we know, there is a familiarity where some things are unspoken; so I want to do that with the audience. Let them figure these characters out, like we do in real life when we meet someone. You slowly get to know someone else, so I wanted the mystery of love and relationship and life to be infused within the project and let the actors and their behavior tell the story."
Choosing an extreme topic - the loss of a child - was a way for Benson to explore the emotional depth of the central relationship. "I think I wanted to show an extreme case of grief, an extreme case of loss, which throws everybody off and shows the extremities to which people cope completely differently. Connor handles things one way, Eleanor another way, and that is what throws them apart, but it also brings them back together. All the characters handle this tragedy in a different way, but in a relationship we have to understand how we are very different in how we cope with life and that's part of what surviving a relationship is - to understand that your partner is different than you and empathizing with you. His way may have been frustrating to her, but that's how he was able to endure; and I think it's the same way for her. I think it's about finding that synthesis in the apartment at the end of the movie when they really see each other and forgive each other for going through the process differently."
As for Benson, is he in a relationship now?
"I am in something new right now and it's exciting, but you don't know the future. You take your past and your wariness into it and you get excited and scared; it's such a beautiful thing to feel it and lose it and have it all.
"But," he added, "Today I'm the luckiest guy in the world. I have a movie coming out in a theater. I've been wanting to do this since I was teenager, so this experience has been really special."
"The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them" is in limited release. For more on the roll-out of this film, and of "Him" and "Her," visit the film's website.