Interview by Holly Grigg-Spall
Images by Roman Barrett
“Each of us will remember the same moment, the same event, differently.
—Ned BensonMemory impresses on the subjective experience.” — Ned Benson
Ned Benson is a New York-born writer-director who divides his time between LA and NY. Since graduating from Columbia in 2001, he has written and directed four short films. “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” is his first feature film.
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY
A film broken into three films, titled “Him,” “Her,” and “Them,” “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” portrays the dissolution of the marriage between Connor (James McAvoy) and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain). It premiered at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival. “Them” will premiere in the US on September 12, 2014, while “Him” and “Her” will be released on October 10, 2014 in select cinemas.
A California-born actress with a background in dance and theatre, Jessica Chastain has had two Oscar nominations for “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Help.” She spends her time between LA and New York.
Scottish actor James McAvoy has starred in the X-Men movies, “Wanted,” “Filth,” and “The Last King of Scotland.”
Writer-director Ned Benson didn’t play it safe for his feature debut. Released in three parts, his trilogy of films (“The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” – “Him,” “Her,” and “Them”) follow a couple heading for breakdown in the wake of a seemingly insurmountable experience. An impressive ensemble is headed up by Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy who play Eleanor and Connor. Their vastly different viewpoints portrayed through “Him” and “Her” reveal the emotional depth beneath the more traditional relationship narrative of “Them.”
We caught up with Ned just before the New York premiere to discuss identity, luck, and his love of Los Angeles.
Holly Grigg-Spall: If a couple were to go see “Them” or “Him”/”Her” together, how do you imagine their conversation at dinner later that night might go?
Ned Benson: It’s funny because in the conversations I’ve had with different people it really seems to depend on how people watch the films. Their opinion on who they empathize with the most and who is right and who is wrong depends very much on that person. I wanted the films to be a very subjective, open to interpretation, and not an obtrusive experience for the audience. I would hope it spurs dialogue. What I want people to come away with is a hopeful feeling and idea, that although life can get in the way of love, love can endure and overcome.
HGS: The traumatic event in the movie (which I won’t detail here) feels incidental almost, like it could have been anything that tears this couple apart. The event is dramatic, but it’s not essential to the plot. Was that your purpose, to make their story more relatable?
NB: There was a more dramatic aspect to the event that led me to choose that specifically for this story. The behavior we see is more extreme in terms of revealing how we cope with what we go through. I wanted the event to be kept as subtext, though, and outside of the plot. It is about how two people in a couple do things in different ways. It’s about them and not what happens.
THREE COLORS TRILOGY
Three award-winning films directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski, titled “Red,” “White,” and “Blue” after the colors of the French flag. Each is based very loosely on a corresponding French political ideal, “liberty, equality, fraternity,”
A MAN AND A WOMAN
A 1966 French film written and directed by Claude Lelouch, “A Man and A Woman” is about a widow and widower who meet through their children and develop a complicated relationship.
Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” was released in 1979, starring Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway, and Allen himself. The film was nominated for two Oscars: Best Supporting Actress and Best Writing.
HGS: This is an unusually released and unusually structured set of movies, were there other films that were treated similarly that you have been inspired by?
NB: Definitely the “Three Colors” trilogy, where you have the characters going through different grieving periods and there’s a use of different color palettes for each. I also looked at “A Man and A Woman” and “Manhattan” and those kinds of relationship movies. We looked at ideas and concepts for creating subjective viewpoints through the camera positioning, production design, lighting, costume design, even with the acting.
HGS: How did you come to meet Jessica Chastain? She has been a driving force behind this project for some time.
NB: I met Jessica 11 years ago. A short of mine played at a film festival after I graduated college. She had only done one episode of ER. She was my first fan, I guess. We had a relationship and then we remained friends. I’d written the first part of the script and she asked me about the female character, she wanted to know more about her. That inspired me to write this fuller other character and another script. I wanted to show both sides and both subjective experiences. Jessica didn’t collaborate on the writing, but I would give her a scene and she would give me comments. I was sound boarding off her at the time. She gave me input as I don’t have any idea what it is like to be a woman. She could let me in on what happens between sisters, the dynamics between sisters and between female friends. Jessica’s best friend from Julliard plays her sister in this movie, she’s great.
“Our identities change with
success and failure or both.
You have to reinvent yourself.
People do it all the time.”
— Ned Benson
HGS: In “Them” and “Him”/”Her” many scenes are repeated from different perspectives, but some are entirely rewritten. Although it’s the same scene, what is said is changed. What were you trying to convey here?
NB: I wanted to play on the idea of memory. Each of us will remember the same moment, the same event, differently. Between two people, something will resonate with one and something else with the other. We might both experience something together, and I have had this in relationships previously, but we will discuss it later and disagree on what occurred. In the movie – the scene in the car when they take a road trip – Eleanor intuits Connor’s transgression and so she remembers the moment that way, but Connor doesn’t know that, he just knows he admits to the transgression. I was playing with the idea that even in the same conversation, each person will take away something different that was particularly poignant to them. In the scene in their old apartment, we see how one might remember saying I love you, or one might remember the other person saying I love you. Memory impresses on the subjective experience.
HGS: You’ve been working on this project for ten years, what have you been doing simultaneously and what is next?
NB: In the process of making this film, I made my living as a screenwriter to pay the rent. I’ve been writing stuff for hire and adapting books. I’ve just written another original script though that I want to direct next. It’s my love letter to Los Angeles. I moved to LA after college. I want to explore the idea of people moving there to construct an identity, with their hopes and dreams, and how whether they fail or succeed relates to how they develop that identity.
HGS: “Him”/”Her” deals very much with the issue of identity – why does this topic appeal to you?
NB: I think it’s looking at my life and looking at the lives of my family members, how our identities have evolved through relationships, jobs, and the things we try to do and fail to do. I am interested in how our identities change with success and failure or both. For example, my mother was married, got divorced, was a single mother, got a job, moved to California, her kids moved out, her identity as a wife and mother went away and then what? You have to reinvent yourself. People do it all the time.
This new feature, it’s set in the music industry in the ‘90s, before digitalization, before the Internet exploded. I’m looking at the concepts of going West, Manifest Destiny, trying to become something and make something of yourself.
HGS: Speaking of which, how has ten years of work and then this success changed your own sense of identity?
NB: I really had no idea whether this project would ever pan out. I feel very lucky. I’m trying to just enjoy it as much as I can and use the experience to learn to become a better writer and director so that I can take on another film. I think there’s a sigh of relief that you can have, at least for a moment. In 2001 I graduated from Columbia, I was an English major. I didn’t go to film school. I made shorts with my friends. I struggled through that. But I always wanted to make movies. I have had so many films fail and so many that almost got there and then fell apart. This film had false starts and almost fell apart when we were shooting it. Everything feels very tenuous sometimes. I feel like I won the lottery. I feel like luck plays a big part. If the girl who came up to me at that festival was not Jessica, or hadn’t become what Jessica became, if that moment had not happened, how would this have come about?