Ned Benson on The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

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Still from The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
Still from The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

Following its screening at the London Film Festival, we speak to director Ned Benson about his mesmerising debut, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

It is rare for a first-time director to bag a cast as stellar as Ned Benson’s in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. No less than AnOther cover star Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy and Isabelle Huppert appear in the director’s debut labour of love, a moving tale of love and loss set in New York. Benson originally made two feature-length strands, Him and Her, telling the story of a couple – the titular Eleanor and her husband Connor – from their separate perspectives as they cope (or don’t) with a devastating loss. After being picked up at Toronto in 2013, a third version was created out of the scenes from Him and Her to form Them, which premiered at Cannes this year and played more recently at the London Film Festival.

Chastain is mesmerising as Eleanor, McAvoy impish and charming in the scenes showing them in the first bloom of their love – scenes that become all the more tragic when juxtaposed with those from their present. Benson examines whether it is ever possible to regain one’s sense of self after a traumatic event, and moreover if two people can do it together. Yet with a script leavened with humour and a cast of wonderful supporting characters played by the likes of Huppert, Viola Davis and William Hurt, he gives the couple ample reasons to carry on. At the end of a screening for the London Film Festival, the charming and wry Benson took a short Q&A to discuss the making of the film and how he got his incredible cast together.

On meeting Jessica Chastain at a screening for his first short film…
There were, like 12 people in the audience at this film festival in LA and most of them were the filmmakers. Afterwards I’m in the lobby and this girl comes running up to me saying, ‘did you write that film?’ I said yeah and she was like, I wanna work with you, and I was like – why?! She had just graduated from Juilliard – she happened to be Jessica – and she had done one episode of ER. My producer and I went to see her do a play in New York and we became friends, and have been trying to do movies together ever since.”

On writing the script…
Ten years ago I started writing a script that became the Him version and then Jessica got involved and read that script and started asking questions about her character. So I thought, why don’t I write a whole other script to show the female perspective? I wanted to make a film about relationships so I thought, what better way to do that than to show the male and female perspectives? So we wound up with this 223-page script, with a first time director, essentially a first time producer and an actress, Jessica, who hadn’t really done much – so we were in really good shape right then. Then this really cool thing happened, Jessica’s career started to take off and people started to think that the concept was crazy enough to make.”

On Isabelle Huppert
“Isabelle Huppert is Jessica’s favourite actor so when we were developing the script, she told me to write this part for her, and I was like, yeah ‘cause that’s ever going to happen. But she said, ‘just do it’, and so I write this French mother for her. Years and years later, Isabelle Huppert came onto the project the first week of shooting and I had to write another scene for her. So my first day of shooting my first film, I go into my trailer at lunch and I write and finish a scene for Isabelle so she’ll actually join the movie. And then she joined the movie and everything Jessica preordained wound up working out and I felt like an idiot.”

On New York
I grew up in New York, so I wanted to show my version of it and make it a character within the film and just show areas that felt more pedestrian and lived in as opposed to the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty or Central Park. I think New York is a city like London; it can be your best collaborator and your worst enemy. I keep telling this anecdote about how we’re doing a scene where Jessica goes down into the subway and James follows her and when he gets to the top of the subway stairs, this group of Korean tourists gets off the bus and all of a sudden shouts, PROFESSOR X!”

On writing about a couple
“I like writing and directing films as if we’re sitting in a café next to a couple and sort of making assumptions about them and then slowly revealing who they are.”

Words by Laura Allsop