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The Challenge of Editing ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby’ into ‘Him’ and ‘Her’

The Challenge of Editing 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' into 'Him' and 'Her'

In Benson’s original conception, “Rigby” would be split into two separate films: “Him” followed McAvoy’s Conor while “Her” devoted itself to Chastain’s Eleanor as their lives took separate paths following the death of their young son.

And that’s how the film premiered as a work-in-progress at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, where it was picked up by The Weinstein Company. After its acquisition, though, the studio strongly hinted that they’d like a third version of the film that combined the two points-of-view, potentially making it an easier sell to audiences and theater chains. So in February of this year, Boden and Benson headed back into the editing room and spent five weeks creating “Them,” which opened in theaters on September 12. Rather than consigning “Him” and “Her” to a fate as DVD bonus features, the Weinstein Company is giving both films a limited theatrical release in 10 cities, including New York and Los Angeles this Friday, October 10

Indiewire spoke with the New York-based Boden about the challenges involved in telling the same story three different ways, the specifics of how “Him” and “Her” met in the middle to make “Them” and which version of the movie audiences should see first. [Warning: Mild plot spoilers follow.]

WATCH: James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain are “Him” and “Her” in “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” Trailer

Before “Them” entered the picture, what was the process of editing “Him” and “Her”?

Ned wrote two separate scripts and they were shot together for practical reasons. So the footage was coming in at the same time, and as they were shooting, I was assembling both films. When principal photography was over, it was sort of impossible for me to keep simultaneously cutting them, so we concentrated on doing one film at a time, which was good because it allowed us to see each film as a separate entity. And that’s what Ned wanted—two films. That was the whole concept. For an editor, it was such a great thing, because in most films you’re traveling within a time frame where, after a dramatic event, you can only follow one character. This was an opportunity to see what happens with the other character after that event. You have this one journey that can go in two different directions. It isn’t about the truth—it’s about how they each experience it.

Which version did you edit in its entirety first?

We started with “Him,” because McAvoy’s character, Conor, was more reactive and just wanted to keep going, which made it a little bit easier to do, because there wasn’t the introspection and gravity that comes with “Her.” “Him” also ended up being a shorter movie by maybe 5 or 10 minutes and Conor’s energy dictated that. Eleanor is a more interior person, more contemplative and really shut down. “Her” is a slow burn and that created a totally different editing rhythm, as well as a different look. It was shot with a different color palette and Jessica’s performance is very different when Eleanor is the main character then when she’s Conor’s projection of her. As an editor, you don’t impose the rhythm [on a film] as much as you discover the rhythm.

With all the footage you had to work with, was it a challenge to keep track of which scene would go in which film?

No, because the scripts had clear scene numbers and there are so many different scenes in the different movies. And it helped that in the shared scenes, the actors were dressed slightly differently, because [the idea was that] each character remembered the moment just a little bit differently from the other. That probably helped the actors, too; they’d be in the same location, but wearing different clothes and shot with a difficult color scheme. That’s what was beautiful about the way Ned constructed the script: it allowed us to use the elements as they were shot and performed for each film. That also made it impossible to intercut those scenes and also gave me a clear delineation as to where I was in the moment. I don’t think we ever moved a scene from one film to another as you might do in episodic TV when you’re often shooting a number of episodes at a time and can move stuff around. That wasn’t really an issue for us, because each of the scenes was so clearly for either “Him” or “Her.”

For the movies’ theatrical release, “Him” is being screened first in some locations, while others are starting with “Her.” Which order would you recommend?

Everybody has a different reaction to it. Because I started editing the films that way, it’s always my preference to see “Him” and then “Her.” I think that’s also because Eleanor is more complicated. If you start with “Him,” you get Conor’s energy and Eleanor’s mystery. Then, when you’re a third of a way into “Her,” there’s this amazing “A-ha!” moment where you realize “I’m seeing the story again, only through her point of view.” And then the pieces start to fit together. But some people think it’s more engaging to watch it the other way, with the introspection of “Her” and then “Him” filling in the gaps about who Conor is. 
It’s interesting to hear you talk about how big a role memory plays in the two movies. It’s not something that feels overtly emphasized in the direction or the editing as it was in films like “Memento” or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” for example.
That’s what I loved about the subtlety Ned brought to it by not making it a “he said/she said” thing.  In essence, the same thing happens [in both movies], but you remember coming about it in slightly different ways. Because the changes were so subtle, it wasn’t possible to put them together in the same movie because it would look repetitive even though it really wasn’t. Also, it would have been impossible to cut together because they had different clothing on. And that’s also one of those things that happens with memory; someone goes “Oh, she was wearing blue,” and the other person says, “No, I wasn’t. I was wearing yellow!”  
What were your initial feelings when you learned about having to make the “Them” version at the studio’s behest?Excitement at the opportunity or disappointment that they were asking you to re-cut the movies you had worked so hard on? 

I felt both ways. I really loved “Him” and “Her” and was incredibly proud of those films. But if there was going to be a “Them,” I was going to cut it for sure. And it was always in the back of our minds. Everybody would say, “Don’t you have to cut them into one film?” Even when we applied to film festivals, a lot of them had trouble with programming two separate movies, because the slots are precious. And obviously there are distribution challenges [releasing two films]. So it was always out there, the one movie thing. I think it was a great opportunity, actually. We knew we couldn’t apply the same concept that went into “Him” and “Her.” This wasn’t “Rashomon,” so we weren’t going to have a scene from his point of view and the same scene from her point of view. So we thought, “What’s the other way to look at this? As a storyteller talking about this relationship and describing these two people.” So “Them” became an objective film, and not the characters’ subjective experience. [Ned and I] stood outside of it and were observers. That was exciting, being able to see it in this objective way rather than being as faithful and honest to the emotional state the characters were in during their own movies.
One of the most notable differences between “Him,” “Her” and “Them” is that time is treated in a more elliptical manner in the original films. 

I think we were all really surprised—and this is kudos to Ned—how easily “Them” fell into place. We did it pretty quickly and it wasn’t at all painful or agonizing, and that’s because it became more chronological. There’s a flashback in the opening scene of “Them,” but then it goes into the present time and after that it’s pretty much a chronological thing. Eleanor had two flashbacks in “Her,” and in “Them” it became one because the flashbacks weren’t necessary anymore. In the “Her” version, they show who Conor was and what her feelings were for him, because he doesn’t appear very often in that movie. In “Them,” they don’t serve the same purpose; you can cut to Conor and see who he is, because he’s right there. 
For me, the most interesting thing about doing [the three versions] is what happens to the supporting characters. I love the way that Jess Wexler or Bill Hader or Ciarán Hinds have this incredible purpose in the separate movies, because they’re really contributing to the depth of our understanding of Conor or Eleanor. Like if you saw “Her” first, Hader would appear as a much more mysterious character, but when you see “Him,” it’s established right at the top that he’s Conor’s best friend.

In the separate films, you need more [people] from their world both to understand them and to give them someone to play off of. When we did “Them,” those characters weren’t a part of the story anymore because we were going back and forth between Conor and Eleanor. And that’s usually what you have to do when you’re editing a movie—the best friend and the family often get dropped because the conflict has to be between the two protagonists. I really miss a lot of Hinds’ scenes in “Them,” but they’re not necessary, because you’re getting this meaty mix of “Him” and “Her” and you can juxtapose them. 

Most of the differences between “Him” and “Her” are subtle, but there are two key sequences that appear in both films—a scene where Conor and Eleanor take an impromptu road trip and she learns of a secret he’s been hiding, as well as a later scene in their apartment where they discuss their son—where certain changes fundamentally affect the overall meaning of the scene. How did you decide whose version of events to honor in “Them”? 

In the apartment scene—and I hope Ned doesn’t kill me for saying this—I think we went with “Her,” because that’s how we were ending the film. After that same scene in “Him,” there’s a fade out and then it’s a year later. So we couldn’t really use his version there, because it had more closure. Since we had more information about Eleanor’s plans [we wanted to include] that dictated the choice of using her version of the scene for “Them.” With the scene in the car, it was interesting because in “Him” we see them driving around and changing the radio stations [before she learns his secret] and we felt all of that played very nicely for “Them,” because they were together in real time instead of a flashback time. In “Her,” they leave the restaurant and cut right to their conversation. That was a tricky one to decide, but we erred on his interpretation.
The final shot of “Them” is also taken from “Him” rather than “Her.”
That was always Ned’s ending and I think given his druthers he would have done it for both “Him” and “Her.” Because he wanted to do something different, he tried the “Her” ending. But this was always going to be the end for “Them.” We did include one shot from the ending of “Her,” which is just Eleanor looking at Conor. She looks at him and then walks into that shot from “Him.” 
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your experience editing all three versions of “Eleanor Rigby”?
The idea of juxtaposition informing so much of a story is probably the thing I took away from this the most. To have this amount of material and to do it in three different ways, you can’t help but learn why something works in one film and not another. You see so much of what Conor and Eleanor’s relationship is like when you see them together in “Them” than when you see them separately in “Him” and “Her.” Therefore, a lot of words and descriptions [from “Him” and “Her”] aren’t necessary [in “Them”], because it’s all there in seeing them, either together or cut right next to each other. That reinforces the greatness of editing and how important juxtaposition is. I knew it intellectually, but I don’t know how else I could have experienced it if not with this material and watching it develop into three different movies. I’ve edited a film since we finished “Them” and it was so easy! It was like, “Oh my god! It’s one story! And it’s only 100 minutes long!” [Laughs]

READ MORE: “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby:” “Him” and “Her” — Does the Gimmick Work?

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