Eleven years ago, a fresh-from-Julliard actress ran after a twentysomething director through the lobby of the Malibu Film Festival. A fan of his just-screened short, she said, “Hi, my name is Jessica, I think you are so talented and I want to work with you some day. Can I have my manager send you my reel?” The actress was Jessica Chastain, and the director Ned Benson. The fruits of their subsequent labor is the ambitious, heartrending The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, a three-part romantic epic that traces the relationship between a young couples, Connor (James McAvoy) and Eleanor (Chastain), following the death of their young son. Her and Him premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year to rave reviews, while Them made its way down the Croisette as part of Cannes’s Un Certain Regard slate this past May. We spoke with Benson about his decade-long friendship with Chastain, whittling Him and Her down to Them, which order to see them in, and that time that Terrence Malick handed him the camera monitor on The Tree of Life.
To begin at the beginning, what was your inspiration for the film?
It was basic relationships and love. I think I was really interested in identity and identity within relationships and what that means. And I think I initially set out to write this love story and I’d had this moment in the park in the city, where I saw fireflies, and that became the impetus for the opening scene between the couple.
That was in Central Park, right?
Yeah, exactly. So then I’d written the first script and given that to Jessica [Chastain]. She read it and started to bring up these ideas about the character of Eleanor Rigby, and I thought they were really good, so that was the impetus for me to write the second script to see where that character went. We thought, as an idea, it would be so interesting: If you’re going to write a love story, why not show both perspectives of the relationship?
So was there always a sense of Them?
We didn’t really think about Them. We were just doing Him and Her at first.
Two full-fledged scripts?
Yeah, it was one 223-page script in two chapters, basically. So we went with that and put it together. It took forever and nobody believed that we could do it.
It’s veering into almost a decade now, right?
How was pitching that around?
It was exhausting. It was a lot of the word “no.” Anytime you get a meeting, it means someone is somewhat interested, but I think when Jessica and Cassandra [Kulukundis], my producer, and I, and Jess Weixler, who plays the sister, who are all best friends—when we set out, we were all sort of struggling. Not that we’re not struggling still [laughs], but we were just a bunch of idealistic people in their twenties trying to make a movie together. As time went on, Jessica’s career started to take off, so that helped us get some traction. The concept itself was interesting to people. It was interesting enough that it wasn’t just another movie, but at the same time people were like, “You’re crazy.” And then around the time that The Help came out, and Jessica got an Academy Award nomination, that was when we really started to get traction, and that was like six months before we started shooting.
For the Her script, how much of Chastain’s input and other women’s input did you take into account?
Well, we were living together at the time while I was writing the script. I would be giving her pages and asking her for ideas. She was really helping me understand femininity in a way I definitely didn’t have experience with.
I haven’t seen Him and Her yet, only Them, and was wondering when you were shooting the scenes that I assume were overlapped in the two versions, how much of the dual perspective was involved? When you were shooting one scene, how did you shoot that from the two perspectives?
Basically for his perspective, we had one visual rhythm, color palette, production design, and costume that was based within his experience of it. And dialogue that was shifted toward her. And we’re talking about subtleties, we’re not talking about vast differences. His world was much cooler and blue and the camera rhythm was much more fluid and static and that represented who he was and the fact that he constantly needed to keep moving. Otherwise, he was going to feel something. And for her, we created a much warmer, a much more loose, handheld feel, because this is somebody who’s kind of marinating in her own introspective emotions, and I wanted to feel her a bit more. When they sort of shared a scene, I switched things up, in each of those versions. So his fluid world becomes a bit looser because she’s come into his life when he’s emotionally tremoring. And for her, who feels emotionally lost, she comes in touch with herself when he comes into her life. She feels the steadiness of him. So I was dealing with that for both and it was all in the design. And ultimately, as you get later in the film, there’s a synthesis of the color palettes. A little bit of blue in her warm world.
Who would you pinpoint as your main influences? You’ve mentioned Malick, Kieslowski, and even Nabokov in a few interviews.
Definitely Kieslowski. [And] I was on the set of The Tree of Life writing the script for Her.
How was that experience?
It was amazing. Terry’s a great influence. Just to watch him work, and there was a day I was sitting, working, and they took over the small town. I remember Jess was shooting and Terry had his monitor and he saw me just over on the side and was like, “Ned, Ned, come here!” And I was like, “Okay.” In front of the entire crew, I walk up and Terrence Malick hands me his monitor and I followed him as he shot this whole scene with Emmanuel Lubezki and it was really special.