Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain) does disappear in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, but that’s not necessarily the film’s focus: Ned Benson’s directorial debut is instead a look at how a couple (Chastain and James McAvoy) grieves after a shared tragedy and what happens to their relationship in the process.
Benson wrote the first script 10 years ago and gave it to Chastain to take a look. She pointed out major holes in Eleanor’s story, so Benson took action by writing another script focusing on Eleanor’s point of view that would later be called Her. Now, the film exists in three parts: Her, Him, and Them. While Her and Him detail the individual perspectives of the two spouses, Them combines their experiences into one film.
The films are about love and relationships, but they’re also about loss and how differently we all deal with life’s obstacles. “I didn’t just want to make another relationship movie,” Benson tells EW. “I wanted to show the difficulties of love and how we endure through those difficulties. And I wanted to be as hopeful as possible.”
Benson called up EW to talk about where the Beatles reference came from, what he wants viewers to get from this movie, and why he chose to leave a certain detail out of the story. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me about the title of the movie. Why a Beatles reference, and why not Michelle or Prudence?
NED BENSON: When I was writing the script, I was listening to that song, just for the mood and that idea of all the lonely people, where do they all come from, and it’s just sort of a group of characters going through their own sort of quiet, lonely crises and that sort of infiltrated itself into the story. And then secondly, I’m a child of baby boomers. My father stole a television to see The Beatles play on The Ed Sullivan Show from his professor because they wouldn’t let them watch it. So he got kicked out of school for doing that. And my parents’ music definitely had an influence over me, and The Beatles were a big part of that. It was just something that was, parents and children and how their relationships reflect one another or are sort of a reaction to one another. And I just wanted that to be in this idea with that song and that reference.
Talking about parents and children, a great scene in the movie is when Eleanor’s mom randomly starts talking about how she never wanted to be a mother. How did that scene come to be?
It’s almost like she’s venting in a weird way. There are obviously a couple of layers to it, one being like, it’s devastating to be a parent and watch your child suffer and then you suffer through that suffering. And I think part of what that moment was, it was the fact that she’s angry that she’s upset, that she’s freaking out because her daughter just disappeared with the car and was worried that somehow she would do something silly again. She’s so worried for her daughter, and it’s this hatred of having to be a parent and be terrified that something is going to happen your child, especially because something has happened to a grandchild. I think there’s an exhaustion to it. And there’s the sort of frustration with the fact that she wants her daughter to move on and have her own life outside of what this identity was as a mother and a wife, which she struggled with so much, so she’s sort of projecting that idea of like, she would have liked to maybe have had this alternative life. I don’t think she means it so much, but it’s just like, a reactive moment where there’s just so much happening at once. And she’s projecting her own unhappiness onto her daughter in a weird way.
One thing that struck me was how my own perspective changed throughout the movie. In the beginning, I assumed that he cheated on her and that’s why she was avoiding him, and then you find out what really tore them apart and that was huge shock. Was it meant to be that way?
It was meant to be that way because I like filmmaking in this way, at least the way I write, or like I want to make movies, is that I kind of like that thing where you’re walking down the street and you see a couple walk by, and you just get a snippet of their lives. And because of that snippet, whether it seems like they’re in an argument or the way somebody says something or whatever it was, I want to feel like we’re just people observing them from the outside. And that their behavior tells a story, and let your assumptions make you think like, “Oh, he cheated on her!” Which is exactly sort of what I want, is to let you make these assumptions about people and have those assumptions possibly be undermined, possibly be rewarded by the behavior that they show, and ultimately revealing that information and to show the assumptions we make in terms of what we see in relationships.
And ultimately, it’s a testament to these actors because I want the acting to tell the story. I want the behavior to tell the story. And not reveal like, the exact thing that happened. And let them sort of reveal it to you through that behavior. That’s what I’m interested in in terms of the way I tell stories.
Talking about the exact thing that happened, I noticed — at least in Them — that it’s not specified how their child died. Was there a reason behind that?
I didn’t think it was important. I think it’s funny that that’s one of the things that frustrates people, that we didn’t tell you exactly what happened. But is that really important? The story is about the relationship, and I know exactly what happened to that child and so did the actors. And so did everybody involved in the film. And the closest I get to it, and I allude to it in a very sort of analogical way, but it’s the moment where she is releasing that firefly and she asks it to wake up. And you know, the child died of crib death. But what does it do if all the sudden I have a scene where people are like, “Oh, yeah, by the way,” and like I turned to the audience and say the child died of crib death? I’m just gratifying the audience on something I don’t think they necessarily need because this isn’t about what exactly happened to the child. It’s about what happened to these two people and their love and their relationship. And the child died. It doesn’t matter how the child died. It’s a horrible loss. I just don’t think that when something happens, and you’re in a group of people, whether it’s family or friends, you talk to each other in a way where you tell exactly what happened. Because everybody knows exactly what happened, and we’re after the fact. So it didn’t seem like something that would organically pop up within the storytelling. I wanted to show that it’s a bunch of people sort of delicately dancing around a very difficult subject.
Looking at Him and Her, you’ve talked before about how Jessica Chastain played a part in the writing process. But was there an “a-ha” moment of sorts when you realized, “I’m going to make two movies and it’s going to be awesome”?
Yeah, she’d read the first part and then she just started asking me questions about Eleanor and where she went and like, what happened in terms of the holes in his story. And that gave me the idea. She was like, “Well, can you just tell me what those are?” And then I just was like, pardon my French, but I was like, f–k it, I’m just going to write a whole other script. And that became Her. And then I was like, if i’m going to tell a relationship story about two people coping, what better way than to show both sides? And create this whole other story about how she coped with things so differently versus him. And then that sort of, to me, epitomized what a relationship actually is. It’s two people coping with life in very different ways, no matter the extremity of what happened. It could have been something as simple as like, infidelity is usually the thing that tears people apart or whatever. But I think life throws these things at us and people choose to see them in different ways and that’s what was interesting to me. I didn’t just want to make another relationship movie. I wanted to show the difficulties of love and how we endure through those difficulties. And I wanted to be as hopeful as possible.
Do you think you came off as hopeful in all three movies?
I know that was my intention, is to leave it open-ended where these two people find each other again. And that they do come through something really hard and then ultimately find each other down the road. So to me, that’s very hopeful that they will be following each other through life and that love does evolve in this way. And in my mind, it’s hopeful, and people are allowed to project whatever they want on the ending, but to me, it’s about these two people rediscovering each other in the same place that was so magical to them all those years ago.
Were you against combining the films at first?
I wasn’t. It was my decision to do it. And I take responsibility for it. I didn’t want to, but I think, in this day and age, asking people to watch three hours and 10 minutes of a two-part movie, even though we played so well in Toronto and Weinstein bought us, I think we’re in a weird time in terms of getting people to go see movies, especially like a romantic drama [Laughs] that deals with the subject matter that we’re dealing with here. You’re asking audiences a lot. So to give them a two-hour version as an option as well, I think that was a choice that we all made together.
What was the greatest challenge throughout this entire experience?
[Laughs] I was 27 when I started writing the first part, the first script, which I put down for a little while. But I’m 37 now. The greatest challenge was getting anybody to make it. It was basically my producer Cassandra Kulukundis and Jessica and her friend [Jess Weixler] who had any belief in this project and everybody else was like, “You guys are crazy.” Ultimately, just getting to day one where we were shooting was a miracle. So that was a huge challenge, and getting even festivals to show the slot of two parts, a three hour and 10 minute movie. And then thinking that somebody would never buy it. I mean, making it to the theaters was a miracle, too.
It’s all been a challenge, but a charmed challenge. I think we’re all so happy that we get to make something so difficult in this day and age and have it get picked up at a festival, at Toronto by Weinstein, then play at Cannes then have it come out in the theaters. We’re a small little engine that could. We all feel like we hit the lottery, having this movie make its way in the world. Beyond that, getting to day one. Any sort of neuroses or fear that I had sort of washed away because it was just a challenge to get there, so all the sudden, you’re so creatively overwhelmed, you don’t have time to be neurotic anymore. It’s kind of wonderful. You’re working with this incredible cast, making this movie you’re incredibly passionate about with people you care about, and that’s pretty cool.
If viewers are going to get anything out of either one of these films or all of these films, what would you like that thing be? What do you want them to walk away thinking?
That relationships and love are about the grand scheme in life. Love evolves. It changes with what we go through in life. But at the end of the day, it continues. It’s this ongoing thing. And no matter who you’re in a relationship with, or how serious that relationship is, that love stays with you, period. You always remember these people, you always remember these relationships. And this particular one is probably the most important relationship of these peoples’ lives. Whether they wind up together or not, they stay with each other in a very profound way. And they went through something together, and the hope is that having endured that they find each other again. This is a long answer. [Laughs]
Love is this beautiful evolution, and it’s something that we all talk about the instant gratification of like, that sort of early bliss of falling in love with somebody. But to me, love is the long game. When you’ve gone through life with someone, and you’ve gone through really difficult things, and you’ve had the good and the bad and the boring and the exciting and all of it, and at the end, you’ve been through this stuff together and you’ve shared this stuff together in completely different ways and that accumulation is what real love in a relationship is. That’s what partnership is. So that’s sort of what I want this film to be about. That’s my long-winded answer.
Them, Her, and Him are now in select theaters.