Chastain and Benson's battle to make ‘Eleanor Rigby’

Chastain and Bensons battle to make ‘Eleanor Rigby’

Jessica Chastain and Ned Benson battled to make the Eleanor Rigby films, now showing at Cannes

By (Reuters)

Published: Sun 18 May 2014, 12:25 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 5:46 PM

When the disappearance of Eleanor Rigby premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, it was already an audacious project for first-time director Ned Benson: two separate films, one subtitled Him and the other Her, about a relationship fracturing in the wake of a tragedy.

Him was told from the perspective of James McAvoy’s character, Her from the perspective of Jessica Chastain’s; run back-to-back, the two films were stunning, deeply emotional and, one would think, wholly unmarketable.

As buyers came calling in the wake of the film’s triumphant premiere, the filmmakers were adamant that they would only make a deal with a distributor who agreed to release it as two films.

“Every single person along the way has said it should be one film,” Chastain said in Toronto. “But it will not be one film. Ever.”

And now Benson’s drama, which was bought by the Weinstein Co. in Toronto, has come to Cannes as one film. The movie will play as a single two-hour film, as opposed to the two movies and three-hours-plus of the Toronto version.

But that doesn’t mean the original films are dead. “This is a third movie,” Benson said. “The plan is to release all three. But we were given the option to create a combined, shorter film that focused on them as a couple rather than taking different perspectives.”

The Weinstein Co. has said that it plans to release the shorter version in September, and then do a smaller, arthouse release of Him and Her at an unspecified date.

“My hope is that all three versions get released - Him, Her and Them, which is what we’re calling it,” said Benson. “And if there’s anyone who can do this, it’s the Weinstein Co. and Harvey.”

Added Chastain, “There have been a lot of conversations, and I have been absolutely promised by Harvey and the studio that the two films will be available for an audience. My heart would break if they weren’t.”

(In fact, the Him and Her versions are also being screened at Cannes.)

Daunting challenge

The film is the culmination of a journey that began a decade ago, when Benson’s first short, Four Lean Hounds, screened at a film festival in Santa Monica. Chastain, a theatre-trained actress fresh out of Juilliard, won tickets to the fest and was reminded of In the Bedroom by Benson’s short.

“It’s very rare that you see that kind of restraint from young filmmakers,” she said. She approached him in the lobby and said she wanted to work with him, and the two traded numbers.

The two became friends, and Chastain watched - and tried to help - as Benson landed his first two scripts on the Black List, but couldn’t get the films off the ground. The second of those scripts was the Him version of Eleanor Rigby, which focused on a man whose wife has fled their old life.

“I gave it to Jess, and she read it and said, ‘Well, what happens to her?’” said Benson. “So I started exploring that. All of a sudden it turned into a dialogue, and I thought it was really exciting.”

He worked with Chastain and producer Cassandra Kulukundis to capture the female perspective, then went back to his original script to rework the scenes where the action overlapped.

“And one day, when we were playing with the concept of Him and Her, I remember Jess saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be totally crazy if your first movie was actually two movies? Let’s try it!’”

Financiers balked at the idea for years, but Chastain’s spectacular 2011 - which included The Tree of Life and The Help, suddenly made her marketable, and gave the project a boost. Benson got enough money to shoot both movies on a tight 40-day schedule, filming scenes from one character’s perspective and then the other’s.

It presented a daunting acting challenge: In one version of the story Chastain was playing her character, but in the other she was playing the McAvoy character’s memory of her, which meant that crucial details - dialogue, movement, even clothing - were different.

“It’s super-weird,” Chastain said. “I approached it like they’re both Eleanor, but they’re two different women. Her is ‘This is Eleanor, this is my truth, this is everything I have.’ And Him is Connor’s perception of Eleanor, which is very different.” (The Them version playing at Cannes mixes both perspectives.)

“When I started writing this eight or nine years ago, I never expected to get it made, and I never expected it to play out as well as it has. This thing is crazy,” Benson said.

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