One of the unforeseen but delightful surprises at 2013’s Toronto International Film Festival was “The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby.” I must confess that, stumbling bleary-eyed into its first 9 am press screening, I did feel slightly concerned about the 190-minute running time of writer-director Ned Benson’s debut. It was, after all, seven days into TIFF. But my fears proved entirely unfounded: I was hooked from start to finish, and never once felt the need to stick a pin into my arm in order to stay awake.
An ambitious, evocative portrayal of love, marriage, empathy and how people manage personal misfortune, Benson’s film is actually two separate features: “Him” and “Her.” As suggested (and without giving too much away), they explore the subtle shifts in perspective between once happily-married Conor (James McAvoy) and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) as they struggle to cope in the wake of a tragedy, and she chooses to disappear from his life. In its early, original form, the screenplay for “Him” ended up on the coveted Black List. Chastain became attached before her ascent to stardom, and stayed loyal throughout “Disappearance”‘s long, rocky journey to the big screen. It was she who pushed Benson to write a second script revealing Eleanor’s perspective and explaining her ‘disappearance,’ which the pair collaborated on while the actress was shooting “The Tree Of Life” in Texas.
When Joel Edgerton dropped out at the last minute to make “The Great Gatsby,” the film almost fell apart and Chastain herself was on the verge of accepting an offer for “Iron Man 3” when Benson’s original choice to play Conor, James McAvoy, agreed to step up to the plate.
I sat down with Chastain and Benson after the film’s world premiere. The “Her”/”Him” version of the film opens in theaters on October 10.
Matt Mueller: What was the genesis for “The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby”?
Ned Benson: I just wanted to write a love story. I was in that head space and I was in New York in Central Park on a July evening, walking under that beautiful bridge where the opening shot of [Jonathan Glazer’s] “Birth” occurred, when all these fireflies started flaring. It was such a gorgeous moment that I was trying to imagine how I’d capture it on film in my head. That’s the scene that starts the film and the story built from that.
Did “Him” change much after you decided to write the companion piece, “Her”?
NB: Once we’d embarked on the second part, I looked at the overlaps and amended them to create the subtle differences that I wanted there. And I used scenes in “Him” that were sort of complete and finished them off in “Her,” and vice versa.
Chastain is a producer on the film. Was she instrumental in helping you round up the impressive cast? Besides McAvoy, there’s William Hurt, Isabelle Huppert, Viola Davis, Ciaran Hinds…
NB: It was a lot to do with Jess…
[Chastain enters the room at this point.]
Jessica Chastain: Hi! It’s so much nicer down here than upstairs. I feel like I just came out of a sauna!
NB: [laughs] Having developed it with Jess during that whole time when her career started to take off, this was obviously crucial in terms of other people wanting to work with her. It just became this wonderful synthesis after a lot of years of working together on it.
JC: I think when Ned’s script was on the Black List, drama was a dirty word in Hollywood. Everyone wanted to make comedies. I read the script and loved it so much but I’m actually glad that, even though that first script was incredible, it was difficult to get made because then Ned got to write the second one.
So, Jessica, were you originally just planning to play Eleanor in “Him”?
JC: We were in Texas, where I was shooting “The Tree Of Life”, and Ned brought up me playing Eleanor Rigby. I said, “Absolutely! I would love to play her.” And then, of course, the selfish actor in me goes, “But I’d actually like it better if we knew where she went.”
NB: Then it became this whole thing where I was writing the new script and giving pieces to Jessica and building it from there. When we finished, we felt like, “Oh, this actually works.”
JC: I’ve never done anything like this. James and I played two different characters. I played Eleanor Rigby, and I also played Conor’s perception of Eleanor Rigby. In his film, she’s more distant and mysterious and cold. She’s so confusing.
Did you have in your head where Eleanor had ‘disappeared’ to when you wrote “Him”?
NB: There were certain ideas I’d had about where she was going but we built new stories, new ideas.
JC: The scene between Conor and her mother wasn’t in that original script. Once he had “Her,” he was able to put in that crossover.
There are all kinds of nods to French cinema in the film, not least having Isabelle Huppert play Eleanor’s mother.
NB: Jess is a huge Isabelle Huppert fan…
JC: …and French film fan, which just comes from being an actor in a time when no one wants to make dramas – although that has changed now. Then you look over at France and they make the most incredible dramas with very complicated characters who aren’t heroes. When Ned was writing it, it was like, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if it was Isabelle Huppert in that role?” None of my movies had come out at that point [laughs].
NB: We had all these little pipe dreams.
JC: Then I went to Cannes for “Tree Of Life” and I became friendly with Isabelle so it was nice to know I could make the phone call.
The film is very self-assured, both visually and in its storytelling. It doesn’t feel like the work of a first-time filmmaker.
NB: I think when you have the group that I had around me believing in me, it’s so much easier. We had such a difficult road getting to that first day of shooting that once I got there, I felt free. All my neurosis — because I’m kind of a neurotic guy — literally disappeared because I was overwhelmed by creative excitement.
At TIFF, the sequence was changed for different screenings. We watched “Him” followed by “Her.” What’s your experience of how the running order changes perceptions?
NB: The last time I saw it before we sent it here was “Her/Him” and I loved it that way. There’s something so mysterious about watching “Her” first. I’m so happy that it can be experienced both ways.
If it didn’t contain the name of a famous Beatles tune, some people might think it was a horror film. Can you explain the title?
NB: It’s a bit abstract but I’d actually been listening to that song when I started pulling things together, and the idea of this lonely woman struggling with herself. It’s also a cultural reference to the prior generation: her parents are struggling through something that’s sort of analogous to what Conor and Eleanor are going through, so I wanted to play with that sort of generational disconnect. In terms of “Disappearance,” we’re looking at a woman who’s trying to erase herself.
JC: She’s doing everything she can to disappear who she was; what the past was. When you see both films, you realize you can’t underestimate any line because it will lead somewhere else.
How did James McAvoy come on board?
NB: We’d gone to him years before and we sent the script to him at the wrong time. He was just not in the right place to do it. When we sent it to James again at the last second, he responded to it in the way of being free from that moment.
JC: It was a thing, too, because I was about to sign on to [“Iron Man 3”] and it was this moment of, “Wait, do we have an actor now?” The fortune and timing was wonderful, because if you had called me a week later…
NB: A day later.
JC: Yes, a day later! That was a tough weekend.
You’re obviously great friends but, Jessica, what was Ned like on set?
JC: You know, every single week he would send an email to the entire cast and crew, every assistant, every PA, about the wonderful things that had happened that week. He would mention people by name, not just the actors but he might mention an incredible thing that a runner had done that week. It inspired people. I’ve only been on one other set where everyone worked so hard because they loved each other and because of the director, and that was “Tree Of Life.” Terrence Malick is also someone who expresses his gratitude.
There you go, Ned: you’ve earned a comparison to Malick.
NB: That did not come from me!
JC: [Laughs] Can I tell him that story? Ned was on set for “Tree Of Life” working on this script and he came to see what we were doing and Terry goes, “Ned, Ned! Come here!” And he takes his monitor and hands it to Ned.
NB: The entire crew are set up and about to shoot and Terry has a portable monitor that he walks around with. He sees me and goes “Ned!” in front of his whole crew and says, “Here, take this.” It was one of the great geek-out moments of all time.
Are you planning to work together again?
JC: I hope so. We talked a couple days ago about something I would like Ned to do.
NB: I would be very lucky to work with Jess again.
JC: I know what it’s like being an actor and no one wants to take that first chance on you when you haven’t been cast in a lead before. And then once you start to work, the jobs start coming in. I know that for the longest time it was difficult to get this made because it’s a first-time filmmaker and people are nervous about that. But I don’t think they’re going to be nervous anymore.