Whose Side is it Anyway? An Interview with Director and Screenwriter Ned Benson on ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby’

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, starring Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy was originally two separate films titled The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her, and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him. Each film showcases the characters different perspectives of the same events. Recently, however, the two films were combined into the feature film, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. First-time director Ned Benson, has received a ton of support from The Weinstein Company to bring The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby to mass audiences. Benson is currently working on a new film that is a love letter to the Los Angeles music scene of the 1990’s. The director recently sat down with Entertainment Voice to discuss his new film, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.

Entertainment Voice: How did you arrive at the decision to create two distinct features: “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her” and “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him,” about ostensibly the same subject—love and tragedy—and how did those films become the third incarnation of “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them”

Ned Benson: Well, I think the initial script, which was Him, I brought to Jessica Chastain and she had ideas, just asking questions about Eleanor Rigby, which then inspired this idea that, well, if I’m going to make a movie about a relationship—if I’m going to make a love story—why don’t I show both perspectives of the story? Why don’t I show both perspectives of the context?

Essentially, those two different versions will give you a cumulative whole of what this relationship is and how it is experienced differently. So, that ultimately wound up being a 223-page script that we went to try and make and it took us forever. And ultimately, we got to make it, thank goodness. And when we premiered it at The Toronto Film festival last year, we showed this [longer] version of the two-part film. And then, in February, when we were just talking about distribution, and how to do that, lots of people were asking if there was a combination of the two, sort of a third perspective. And ultimately, I sat in the editing room with my editor and producer to see if that was even possible and what we came up with was this third film.

EV: In “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them,” what led you to use the Rashomon effect – typically used in thrillers or action-based movies – of presenting the story about love and loss through the point of view of each lead character, Eleanor and Connor?

NB: I didn’t really think about it that way. I just sort of looked at the nuances of perspective and subjectivity and how the same moment can be perceived in different ways. And how things emotionally resonate differently with, say, a man or a woman when they experience it. And what some of us remember – the impression that we get – of our loved ones. Say, if we get in a fight, they seem a lot colder to us – and that’s our impression. Or when we’re in a space of understanding, we remember maybe who says ‘I love you.’ Or who took responsibility for something or how giving one was versus the other. It’s just about the nuances of memory and the subtleties of shared experience.

EV: Was there a personal drive to express these experiences of alternate perspectives?

NB: It’s definitely personal. It’s not autobiographical, but it was definitely personal. There were things that I was trying to articulate in myself, things that I had dealt with in a certain way and I watched a girlfriend deal with in a different way. And I think that happens in any relationship. So, you know, I just wanted to know and was interested in love as a subject and thought this was the best way to approach it. You know, I’m interested in the way that all of us have different ways of coping and there isn’t necessarily a right or a wrong way. And ultimately, I think the realization is that’s OK. And that these characters have to get to a realization of understanding each other and empathizing with each other that ‘you dealt with it your way, and I dealt with it my way’ and that’s ultimately what we share and that’s why we love each other and that’s why we can understand each other.’

EV: A few references throughout the film allude to other elegant, poignant and equally tragic love stories, such as a poster in Eleanor’s room of Claude Lelouch’s 1966 French classic film “A Man and A Woman.” Does this act as a homage to Lelouch and his treatment of the delicate subject matter also presented in your film, or as a type of reminder to audiences what they’re in for?

NB: Totally. That was one of the films that we looked at. It’s definitely one of the films I looked at in terms of imagery, even like a look book that I was passing around when I was trying to get the movie made.

EV: A few critical responses to “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him” point out the strong, quotable dialogue presented by Eleanor’s father, Julian; Connor’s friend, Stuart; Eleanor’s professor, Friedman, and others. Does this act as a counterpoint to the almost indefinable pain and loss that the lead and secondary characters experience and later express in the film? Or does it mark resolution and progress for some of the characters? Or serve some other purpose?

NB: Well, I wanted those quotes, essentially, to sort of imply that these people didn’t have their own words to deal with it [the tragedy]. And they ultimately have to find their own words. Especially in that scene that epitomizes it the most where William Hurt’s character, Julian Rigby, tells Eleanor that story [about how, when she was a 2-year-old, he nearly lost Eleanor in the ocean, but found and saved her moments later]. That’s the first time he tells something real and personal. He’s essentially saying, ‘I’m gonna’ reach for something else [the story] to solve this problem.’ Even when Connor’s father, Spencer, and Connor connect, they still use the quotable. It’s like a Hallmark card response. But I think there’s an appreciation of it, because at least there’s a warmth to it. At least, I think there’s an acceptance for who these people each are. 

But ultimately, I just wanted to show people struggling that they couldn’t find their own language. It is such a hard thing to articulate. I don’t think any of us know really how to talk. I remember when I was younger and my best friend’s dad died. And I didn’t know what to say, so basically I went over to his house and I was like, ‘let’s just go take a swim in the ocean?’ And we just walked to the beach and talked about movies and went and swam in the ocean. It was like the day of his father’s wake. In my head, I was like ‘I should say something, but I don’t know what to say. What am I am I gonna’ say here?’ But ultimately, I think, I did the right thing. We just went and swam, like it was any other day. The whole morning, my friend had been grieving with his family. So, you know, none of us know what to say. Sometimes it’s knowing what not to say or just shutting up. So, I just wanted to show these people struggling, with, ‘OK, how do I talk to my friend here? Or how to I talk to my son? Or how do I talk to my daughter?’ I sort of wanted that to be apparent. It comes off as hyperbolic sometimes and it comes off as grandiose, but, you know, it’s more about just people struggling. Like Connor, who wants to resume his life [after the tragic loss of his son] and order Chinese food – he wants to move forward, to keep moving, he wants to feel normal again.

EV: You generated what may be the best to-date performances from lead actors Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy. How did you go about this in preparation, during rehearsals and during production? For characters that actually spend very little screen time together, audiences can feel a connection and tension between them that is palpable. Do you chalk that up to story, structure and editing or something else?

NB: First of all, it is a testament to who they are as actors. Anything that I did was just bring subtext to what they brought to this film. But it’s largely because they are just two phenomenal actors. My direction was really just a discussion and collaboration, providing any help they needed – and just staying out of their way. We talked about the subtext of the story and things that existed outside of the plot. We talked about mood and I gave them some music and gave them articles to review. Then we rehearsed, we went through the scenes to make sure that they worked and to make sure that the dialogue seemed appropriate and then ultimately found different intentions for these characters. And then I created a space where I wanted them to feel as free as they possibly could. Then the rest is all them. That’s my job: to let them feel as free as possible and [allow them to] do the best work that they can.

EV: While other characters – such as family and friends – in “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them” provide advice for Eleanor and Connor, willingly or unwillingly, they reveal their own flaws in the process. How important was this in communicating the nature of community that responds to, and in some ways helped to, create the subjectivity of each of the lead characters?

NB: I sort of wanted to show that everyone was going through their quiet crisis. Everybody sort of has their own thing that they’re going through while other people are going through this moment in their lives or this experience in their lives or that tragedy. And we all have that stuff. So, in a sense, I wanted to show each of these characters and develop each of these characters in a way where you would see they each have their own crisis, that they each have their own problems they’re coping with. And, you know, some people don’t know how to help other people or don’t know what to say or don’t know how to express themselves. And we all sort of try to help or cope or deal with things in a different way, which is part of the point of not only those scenes, but those characters.

EV: As a first-time feature motion picture director, how were you able to round up the fantastic cast and The Weinstein Company to get behind your idea to make what could have been a big gamble in the form of these three movies?

NB: The Weinstein Company came on as a buyer after we showed it in Toronto last year and they acquired the film finished. With Cassandra [Kulukundis], my producing partner, and Jessica [Chastain] involved in an early stage and her friend, actress Jess Weixler, at an early stage, I had some tough collaborators who believed in me and gave me a lot of support. It took a long time, and ultimately without that collaboration and support, I couldn’t have gotten it done.

EV: What project are you working on next? How different or similar is it to “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them”?

NB: The new project has some similarities to “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them” in that it talks about identity. But it’s also a much different project. It’s sort of a love letter to Los Angeles set in the 1990s in the music scene. It’s about people who go to Los Angeles to create an identity or have an expectation of creating an identity and, whether they fail or succeed or both – what that does to them. It’s sort of about this collective of people who are out there who exist in different stories. And, you know, I’ve been looking at a lot of Robert Altman movies. It’s sort of a big character piece with a rock and roll ’90s music aspect to it.