Ned Benson's debut films are the same story from different points of view
Director Ned Benson's feature debut looks at a family tragedy, but one seen from different angles
When Ned Benson's The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, the event was introduced by the festival organisers as an "unprecedented cinematic experience". Consisting of two films - subtitled Him and Her - showing the dissolution of a marriage from the male and female perspective, the event was certainly unusual, if not quite as rare as the festival wanted you to think.
After all, an interconnecting film series that follows multiple characters is nothing new. Take Lucas Belvaux's 2002 Trilogy of films ( On the Run, An Amazing Couple and After Life) that can be watched in any order - Benson says that's also possible with The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her. Or the two-part 1988 adaptation of Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit, directed by Christine Edzard. Or, more famously, Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours films, which draws disparate characters together in its third part, Red.
It was watching news footage from Cannes when Three Colours: Red played in competition back in 1994 that inspired the New York-born Benson - then only 16 years old - to investigate European cinema further. Soon he was gorging on everyone from Kieslowski to Olivier Assays, Laurent Cantet, Agnès Varda and the Dardenne brothers.
Yet while Benson admits Kieslowski's thematic interests and visual style were an inspiration, he never set out to copy the structure of the Three Colours trilogy. Instead, it was only after the Columbia University graduate sent his initial script to actress Jessica Chastain (who he'd befriended after meeting at the Malibu Film Festival) that the idea evolved.
"We just had this script and then we developed this character, and all of a sudden it became this two-movie project," he says. At the time, Chastain was working on Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, about to burst onto the Hollywood scene (she's since gained two Oscar nominations, for The Help and Zero Dark Thirty).
Benson asked Chastain to play Eleanor, in a script that was written from her husband Conor Ludlow's point of view. "I said, 'I would love to because I really believe in you, but I would like to also have the female perspective. I want to know why she disappears, where she goes, who's in her life…' And then he went and wrote Her. And it was really special," Chastain says.
With two scripts, one showing Conor's viewpoint and the other Eleanor's, the combined result is a film about how a couple deal with themselves and each other - in this case after the death of their infant son has torn them apart. "All of a sudden I had this film that was based on perspective. I had his side and her side, and we thought that was pretty interesting to at least try to film," says Benson, who until now had made only short films.
Casting James McAvoy as Conor, Isabelle Huppert (one of Chastain's idols) as Eleanor's red-wine-swilling mother and William Hurt as her father, Him and Her indeed make for an intriguing 190-minute viewing experience. Containing some overlapping scenes, "you can view them however you want to view them", says Benson. "They each contextualise the other. I don't think the order really matters. There was never really an intention of how exactly they should be watched, and I want the audience to watch it in whatever way they want to."
There's yet another twist in the tale. After the Weinstein Company bought the film at Toronto for international distribution, Benson went back to the cutting room to produce Them, a third version that splices footage from Him and Her. "There were a lot of other people who were asking me the question, 'Can these two films be one?'" the director says. Sitting with his editor in February, he produced a film about 70 minutes shorter in length than the combined running time for Him and Her.
Chastain compares the fact that there are now two versions, Him and Her, and also Them, with the concept behind Assayas' sublime terrorist thriller Carlos, which was originally made for French television but later reduced in length for cinemas. "I watched the five-hour version. I've seen it many times and I love it," she says. "Most people in the United States have seen the two-hour version, and it's very good, but I prefer the long version of any film."
With Them premiering this year at Cannes, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby now truly lives up to the hype as an "unprecedented cinematic experience". For starters, it offers a marketing challenge to distributors: do you screen Him and Her or do you release Them or perhaps all three? And if so, which way round do you feed them to the audiences?
Thus far, different territories are choosing different options. "I think Belgium is playing Him and Her and Spain is playing all three," Benson says. "I know the US will play all three. It's a conversation we're still having, but for me it's exciting to give audiences the choice, to see how they want to see it, and experience it how they want to experience it. I'm not going to tell any distributor how they should do their job."
The filmmaker is more reserved when it comes to whether there was pressure on him to cut the more distributor-friendly Them. It's an obvious question, however, given The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is now in the hands of Harvey Weinstein, the movie mogul notorious for recutting projects.
Whichever way the audience watches Benson's film(s), what's evident is a stirring portrait of grief - one that's so strong, McAvoy initially turned the project down because he'd just become a new father. While Conor tries to bury himself in his ailing restaurant business, Eleanor - named after the Beatles song - is traumatised by her loss. "Eleanor, when we meet her, has been denied being a mother," Chastain says.
"She's already suffered her great tragedy. And there's a sense she's [metaphorically] disappearing … She's trying to figure out, 'How do I survive? Is it possible to survive? I get tired of grieving. I don't know how to stop the grieving.' I read a lot about women who had lost children, and one recurring theme is trying to re-invent oneself and begin again as a new person."
Benson is now looking to begin again after such an epic film debut. Considering two options - an adaptation of a book he's been offered by the Weinstein Company and an original character piece set in the Los Angeles music industry that he's writing - the one thing he can't face is another movie about Eleanor or Conor.
"I'm done. I'm moving on. I've spent so much time with these people. I want to let go and find something completely different."
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her , Thu, 9.45pm, Cine Grand Century, Sat, 5pm, Aug 24, 9.50pm, The Grand Cinema; The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him , Fri, 9.45pm, Cine Grand Century, Sat, 2.45pm, Aug 24, 8pm, The Grand Cinema. Part of the Summer International Film Festival. Both films open in cinemas on Oct 2