Interview: Ned Benson of “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, Her, and Him”

Posted on September 26, 2014 at 3:59 pm

Every story has at least two sides, especially the story of a relationship.  Writer/director Ned Benson explores romance and loss from the perspective of the man (James McAvoy) and the woman (Jessica Chastain) in two separate films, “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him” and “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her,” both to be released at the same time next month.  First, though, is “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them,” which combines the two.  I spoke to Benson about how his leading lady persuaded him to add the title character’s point of view and the famous director who invited him to dinner.

What is it that makes us so curious to look inside the different characters and show us what the other character does not see?

When I started this I had only written a male perspective of it. And Jessica actually asked me some questions about the character of Eleanor Rigby and where did she go, who was she. I knew that I wanted to write a love story, I knew I wanted to make a film about a relationship. And then all of a sudden I was like, “Wait! There’s no better way to show a relationship than get both perspectives of it, both sides of what these two people were going through, are going through.”  So that spun this whole other script and that became this 223 page two-part script that an untested first-time director was going to try make with an actor who was about to be in a Terrence Malick movie but had not been seen in anything yet.  And my producer is a first-time or a second-time producer so we were sort of three untested delusional people trying to make this movie.

I think we’re all very different and sometimes we narcissistically project ourselves onto other people and don’t allow them to be exactly themselves.  I wanted to show the differences and the different personalities of people in terms of the way they deal with things which makes them exactly who they are and ultimately that’s the thing we love about them.

Tell me little bit about some of the visual cues that you used to help the audience keep straight whose view we were getting.

We created different color palettes for each of them. Different production design, different costume design. We created different visual rhythms for each character in Him and Her. So his film has a cooler, more detached feel with a sort of fluid visual rhythm because he is constantly moving.  If he stops he’s going to feel something.  He is running forward into his life wholeheartedly and running after Eleanor. And she has retreated into this sort of warmer color space with a more handheld feel.  Her film is a bit more interior because she’s a bit more interior character.  We sit with her and feel what she’s going through more.

I did the same thing with the production design and costume. And then the actors and I worked together to create different intentions for each version of the scenes that overlap. Because there are four scenes that overlap in Him and Her that are essentially the same moment but shots from different perspectives, different angles, different writing, different experiences with the same moment as if you and I are having this conversation right now and we’re each going to walk away with a different perception.  Sometimes we misremember, sometimes things emotionally resonate with us more and I just wanted to show that with those moments that the things that resonated more with each of them.  So for example in one of the overlapping scenes which occurs in a bar and then continues into a car ride. James is wearing a sort of white light collared shirt in one version of the event and then he’s wearing a dark gray in another version.  That played into the color palette that I was dealing with because I was dealing with mood but I was also dealing with memory and how we mis-remember certain things.

Do you consider yourself a romantic?

A cynical romantic yes.  I’m romantic in the idea that I believe in love, I just don’t know what it is necessarily in terms of how to do it right or how to make a relationship endure because I’ve never made one endure. I’ve been in long-term relationships but it’s something that’s interesting to me and I love the way love evolves and even though those relationship are over I think both my ex-girlfriends and I all have a great respect and love for each other and that love has just changed.

Jessica and I were in a four years relationship which is how we developed a script together so that’s definitely infused into the story. I have such great affection and respect for her as a person. She’s a wonderful human being and a great collaborator. She’s going to be a part of my life always. Eleven years ago she ran up to me at a film festival with my short playing that she had just seen because she won tickets to it on NPR and said, “I want to work with you.”  She had just graduated from Juilliard and done an episode of ER, so that was it. And then we grew together which is really cool.

Why is the character called Eleanor Rigby?  Is she one of the lonely people like in the Beatles song?

I was listening to it while I was outlining the script or the story and figuring out what the story was. And just one day I was like, “Wow!”  You know because I heard the “all the lonely people where do they all came from” and that mood just sort of infected the whole thing and infected each of those characters because they each were sort of going through their own quiet crisis. So that instilled itself into it and I named the character because of that.  But it was also this abstract idea because I’m the child of two baby boomers and my dad got kicked out of high school for stealing a TV to watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.  My parents gave me this wonderful music education.  I look at my parents’ relationship and how I am a reaction to and a reflection of it in a weird way and how that infects my relationships in a good way or in a bad way. So I wanted to use that in terms of these two characters and their parents in the story.  In the movie, her parents met at the Beatles concert that was supposed to happen but never happened. So since his last name was Rigby, they named their daughter Eleanor.

Copyright 2014 Weinstein
Copyright 2014 Weinstein

How did you use music in the film?

I try not to let music dictate feeling. I would rather let acting and talking do that. There’s a lot of diegetic music existing within the scenes because I love doing math but on top of I  that I looked into working with this wonderful composer who when he saw the films decided that he had this great idea to look at scene and see what objects existed in them and then create the instruments based on those objects. So they were based on things that existed within the film and ultimately I wanted a very atmospheric score but sort of like felt very theorial and existed within the mood of peace and sort of acted like a collaborator as opposed to a dictator feeling and then he wrote some beautiful songs on a big beautiful score. We don’t have ‘Oh so much score’ between three films but he did such a beautiful job and that was really cool to experience and get like, I love music in terms of when I write I usually listen to music and it’s a very important part of my artistic process and even when we’re shooting I was playing songs for the crew and what rhythm we’re going to shoot at and I gave playlist to each of the actors in terms of like what their character was listening to what their moods were. It was really cool to sit with somebody and hear sketches and then get to give notes on those sketches and feel like oh you can could push the guitar there a little bit or you could use the glass a little bit more because he create this wineglass instrument.

I think it works always but I think if you see Them first you can expand into these other two films and have those characters in each of these separate films be fleshed out more. And I think if you are going to watch all three that is the way to do it. But I don’t think it matters whether you see Her or Him first it will change your experience because one will give subtext to the next or change your opinions about a character from one to the other. But if you’re into this type of subject matter this type of film I encourage people to try and see all three. I would love that but again it’s sort of out of my hands.

Who are some of the directors you admire?

One is Robert Altman.  I met him and his wife at a brunch. I was a kid, a friend of mine was invited and I tagged along. It was in my 20s. I remember I walked outside he was sitting and smoking and he was like, “Come on, sit down” and just we started talking. And I geeked out! I was like, “Could we talk about the multi-track song in “The Long Goodbye,” could we talked about “McCabe and Mrs. Miller?”  He sort of looked at me like…”Sure!”  And I’m sitting with him, incredible.  And then he said, “Why don’t you come to my house?”  And I went to with my girlfriend to this dinner at his house in Malibu that he and his wife hosted and  Paul Thomas Anderson was there, all these other movie people, and I felt like I was in a Robert Altman movie myself.

What is next for you? 

I just know that there’s always room to improve, there is always room to improve in your writing, there is always room to improve in directing. The only point is to make better and better films.  I was lucky that I get a chance to make three the first time and I am hopeful my writing or directing will improve in the next one and I hope that I get to make more.


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