Ned Benson was walking under the bridge in Central Park when the idea for “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her” first struck. There were fireflies in the sky and the feel of romance in the air and Benson was inspired to write about a relationship with all its ups and downs.
Eight years later, Benson had endured a relationship nearly as volatile in guiding his ambitious first feature to the screen. Yet when he found himself once more in the park, this time in the East Village’s Tompkins Square, setting up to film the moment his characters Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and Conor (James McAvoy) lock eyes and you discover they’ve fallen deeply for each other, there was that golden glowing hue all over again.
“We show up and all of a sudden these fireflies just started going, and it was unbelievable,” Benson marveled, recalling how the fireflies rose upward like a gilded curtain. “The one night that we’re shooting that scene, this happens once a year and they are hatching. It was magical.”
So much about the making of “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” could be considered magical — and improbable. An uncompromising three-hour experience involving a married couple recovering from a devastating incident, told through separate sections that follow each half as they deal with what happened and question their connection to each other, it would seem impossible to make in today’s commercial climate.
Even with that obstacle cleared, if Chastain had never called into a radio show to win tickets for the Malibu Film Festival a decade ago to see a program that included one of Benson’s first shorts, there would never have been a Her. Then after she, Benson and producer Cassandra Kulukundis spent the the better part of the next decade expanding the ideas of Benson’s original story and fighting to keep the project’s integrity, McAvoy might not have been around to be the ideal Him.
Together, all these pieces add up to a debut of staggering power, quite possibly the most exciting announcement of a new American filmmaker since Paul Thomas Anderson picked up the camera for “Hard Eight.” And still, “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” is modest at heart, gracefully elevating the trials and tribulations of a long-term couple into something extraordinary with its vivid detail, its perfectly piquant wit and equally sharp dramatic twists and turns, all brought thrillingly to life by an exquisite cast that includes everyone from Viola Davis, William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert to Bill Hader, Nina Arianda and Jess Weixler,
A day after the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival where even the stoic Irishman Ciarán Hinds admitted to being “off-kilter” following the palpably emotional screening – and this writer still is – Benson sat down to talk about the film’s origins, how he went about portraying a relationship from both sides visually and what he learned from his time spent on the set of “Tree of Life” with Terrence Malick.
Even before the characters or the story came about, was identity something that you were interested in exploring?
Definitely in everything I write or do, there’s an element or theme of identity because I’m obsessed with the construction of identity and what we do in creating our own. These two characters are looking back in their relationship and how that forms all of their identities of who they are.
Was that something that crept in then, or was it a starting point for the story you were telling?
It crept in, but the genesis of the whole thing was eight years ago. I was walking in Central Park, not Tompkins Square [where the film’s characters have a romantic interlude], and it was an evening in July — it is actually in that area where that beautiful Harris Savides’ opening shot in “Birth” happened and I was walking through that tunnel, and all of these fireflies started flaring. It was such an amazing moment, cinematically, to live that moment, and to feel it. I was like, “This is so romantic.” I was actually walking alone, but there is something to this and that somehow an inspired scene, and then became the opening scene of the movie and from there I was off.
Since you’re telling one central story, but through two lenses, was it a liberating feeling to know that you wouldn’t have to weigh down one section with exposition because you’d fill in the gap elsewhere or was it challenging as a jigsaw puzzle?
It was a mixture of both. The amazing thing about those scenes was that it almost felt more difficult when it was just on the page, but when I was started rehearsing with the actors and we opened the scenes up a little bit, and saw what they could bring in terms of nuance or we were improvising then and seeing what was working, in her moment versus his moment, I changed little things in the script and it became really liberating.
[I’d think] Wow, this is incredible, we are going to bring a different attention to the scene that we shot yesterday to this version of the scene we are shooting today, rather than feeling redundant, which is what the concern would be. I didn’t want it to be vastly different. I wanted it to feel subtly different, subtly experienced, and subjectively different. That part was really liberating, especially with James and Jess, who just were so incredible to work with in terms of processing this.
Beyond the points where the two characters cross paths in each other’s films and you shoot them from different angles, I did feel like there were a few visual things that you were doing to suggest that this was one character’s story specifically. Was it fun to come up with their perspectives visually without suggesting it was their direct point of view?
I’ve been visualizing [this film] for years and I’ve had a whole workbook with lots of images that I’ve been working off of, and I shot-listed it on my own. I brought in, when [the cinematographer] Chris Blauvelt came in, we re-shot-listed it and reappropriated my shot list with him to make it our shot list. Initially, my plans were to create two separate visual realms. As you saw, “His” film is more steadycam, much more static and more locked off, but when she enters into his film, I actually go handheld loose because I wanted to feel his emotional tenor in that space. His movie is all about moving forward — don’t stop, because otherwise I’m going to feel something — and when she comes into his life, he has to feel something. For that reason, the camera was delegated to that space and his color space is obviously much cooler. Again, in my mind, this guy is more detached, so I thought the cooler hues such as blue would play into that emotional phase.
For “Her” film, I went more hot because the character is much more interior in dealing with more emotional issues, and I went to a much looser camera, shooting her film handheld except when he comes into her movie, when I go more static, and study him, because he is the baseline to her life. He’s the constant or the certainty in her life and once she’s left that, she’s completely uncertain in terms of her identity and trying to re-scope who she is.
This is such an ambitious undertaking that there must’ve been pressure to cut it down, but was there ever temptation? Like if three years in, someone offered a blank check if you could just cut it down by 40 pages or turn it into a more traditional narrative?
It’s funny, because of the core group of people, Cassandra Kulukundis, Jessica Chastain, Jess Weixler and the people who were involved at such a molecular level, and people who kept getting involved, they were so adamant at keeping it as it was. Because they believed in the concept, I felt just as ardent about pushing forward with this, and I felt confident that if we wanted to try something new, I really wanted to. It just seemed more exciting, so why not? We just buckled down and went for it, and enough people got behind it, and we were able to make it. I couldn’t believe it yesterday, that it actually happened, still.
You were the calmest guy on stage at the premiere. And you were standing next to Ciarán Hinds.
I may have looked like that on the outside, but on the inside, I was just humming. The moment when I introduced the film, I think I pretended to be calm going in, then I got up there and I was just shaking as I was introducing the cast, like what have I done, what am I putting up here?
Was your first day on set something similar after all that time developing it?
The first day on set was incredible. It was absolutely opposite, because pulling this film together was so stressful and difficult to A, get [across] what we were doing, B, having to lock in all the financing and C, scheduling the actors and making it all work. Just by the skin of our teeth, we got to that first day. Even after our first day was tricky, because there were financial things going on, but once I got to that first day and shot that first scene, it was amazing because you spend your whole life dreaming about making movies — and I love movies so much — that to get to do this for a living, without sounding a little bit earnest and silly, was awesome. The overwhelming creative fulfillment of that moment meant not even having a second to be neurotic about anything because you’re so focused on making this huge thing. It was like a dream and it was so intense to make two films together.
Any movie is intense to make. You live this quick life, and then it’s over, like I just woke up, but this one specifically had such an incredible group of people from my producer, Cassandra, Chris, the DP, the actors, the grips, the costume production who I love — it was just a beautiful family of people who really came together.
Jessica had mentioned during the post-premiere Q & A that you had got to sit in on the set of Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” and I know he has a similarly tight-knit crew of collaborators. Was it an influence?
Sure. When I was 16, I was an intern in Los Angeles for [producer] Mike Medavoy when they were making “The Thin Red Line”, so I was seeing John Toll dailies and [thinking] “My God, this is so beautiful.” I had been a huge fan at that point, but that was my first involvement. Then years later, I got invited on the set of [“Tree of Life”]. To watch that, and be a part of it, was so spectacular because I almost look at Terry is this person who is so open to finding life with his camera. I think what I learned most from watching him shoot, with Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki, his cinematographer], with Jess [Chastain], and all those people was to allow life to creep into the film. Not to technically lock in what you need, not to force a take, not to have any preconceived notion of what a scene has to be, and allow the scene to find life elsewhere.
What I felt as a director was most important to me was to create a space that was absolutely through your self-consciousness, from the camera operator to the actors, and just let them feel free to do what they do best. If I can create that space and we have this open dialogue, then maybe some life would creep in that I wasn’t expecting. That’s why I think that since I was lucky enough to work with all of these amazing actors, I’m so proud of performances and I feel like you are watching people at their best because you’re stepping out of their way. Learning not to say something as a director was a great lesson to me.
You’re a young man, so the eight years it took to make this film was probably a time of great change for you personally. Does the film mean something different to you now than when you first started?
It evolves. I was such a different person when I started writing it in terms of the things that I was dealing with and the focus that I had then. I hadn’t had my friendships with Jessica and Jess Weixler, and had this beautiful movie about relationships. I don’t claim to know anything about relationships. All I know is there is really no right or wrong in relationships, and that we each just have our subjective experience of it, and that’s what it is. To me, coming off of it, I feel that right now.
“The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” will be released in an abbreviated form as “Them” on September 12th and as two separate parts, “Him” and “Her” on October 10th.