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Interview With Ned Benson, Director of ‘The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby’

Jenny Kim |
September 14, 2014 | 1:42 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

(Twitter via @ThePlaylist)
(Twitter via @ThePlaylist)
Having graduated from Columbia University and worked on several short films, Ned Benson is a young budding director who has debuted in Hollywood with not only one, but three feature films. In this project, “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby”, Benson explores the relationship of a young married, but recently separated, couple living in New York City, struggling to adjust to a new life after a tragic loss. In order to properly dive into the characters, he created three films: one for "Her," one for "Him," and one for "Them." In this true exploration of love and relationships, perspective and reflection hav been vital in his visionary effort in interpreting a relationship of troubled individuals yearning to search themselves in a time of disparity and need. With the release of the first of the three debut films, director and writer Ned Benson came to The Landmark Theater and gave a live Q&A session to movie-goers of his film, "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them."

Q: A lot happens to this couple. What were you trying to say with this film?

I was sort of looking at the dual perspectives of both people in a relationship trying to cope and behave in completely different ways and cope with life in a way that they need to and that’s singular to them. But ultimately…I just wanted to show how we cope differently as people and I think that the cumulative whole of these two people is the relationship itself and that being the truth as opposed to these two separate sides.

Q: How did you decide to call the film ‘Eleanor Rigby’?

When I first started writing, it was just a song that I was listening to and the theme of the song, “All the lonely people/Where do they belong?” found its way into these characters who are having their own quiet crisis around this couple. The idea of why I just named her that, it sort of just infused itself into the mood and then I created this whole backstory with the parents because my dad stole a television set to watch The Beatles play on The Ed Sullivan Show and got kicked out of high-school way back in the day. His love for The Beatles and my mom’s love for The Beatles, you know, was a big part of my music education and so I used this idea of this Eleanor Rigby character passed on from my parents as we’re all reflections and reactions to our parents especially in terms of what their relationship was and how we take that into our own relationships with people, at least I do. So I wanted to use that within Eleanor’s relationship with her parents and Conor’s relationship with his dad and how those things influenced each of these characters in terms of how to make their relationship function. 

Q: I was struck by the quietness of the streets of New York. Were you shooting the streets naturally or did you enhance it?

It was very natural. New York is the best collaborator and the biggest nightmare at the same time so in particular there’s a scene where James follows Jessica into Astor Place Subway Station and if you wait long enough, if I kept on going with that take, you’ll sort of see this pocket of Korean tourists off in the right who will all of a sudden notice James walking off. All of a sudden I heard “Professor X!” and there was literally no way we could shoot after that because all of Astor Place started to be mobbed because they recognized James. We were just trying to run around doing these steadicam shots through 3rd Avenue and Astor Place and do what we could without being noticed, so sometimes it works in your favor and sometimes it doesn’t. 

READ MORE: Film Review: 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby - Them'

Q: Do you think these two characters can ever get someplace good again?

Of course they do. If you see the “Her” film, it might answer that a tiny bit for you. It comes out October 10. But to answer your question, for me, it is very hopeful because I think they need time and space to get to that place again. I think that sort of cathartic scene towards the end of the film is about them figuring out that they did deal with in separate ways and they did sort of reach an understanding with each other to accept that. And that ultimately, a year later or beyond that, my point is that they are constantly going to be following each other through life. You know that last scene, which is more metaphorical, there is a literal version of that scene. It is more metaphorical to me, but in a way, the point is that that relationship and that love is just going to be following them their entire lives. I think that any relationship that means something to you where you go through experiences together, whether good, bad, difficult, easy, you can carry that with you forever, and that love may evolve but ultimately you are going to endure through life period. So to me, it is very hopeful.

Q: In the His and Her versions of the movie, is it more explained how they lost the child?

No, the closest I get to explaining that is when she releases the firefly and she is sort of tapping the jar and she’s saying “wake up, wake up”. That scene happened outside the plot. It wasn’t something that was part of the story for me, at least this plot. It happened outside and I didn’t necessarily want to go into exactly what happened. The actors knew exactly what happened and in the writing I knew exactly what happened, underneath and in subtext. In terms of the film itself, it just didn’t seem like a necessary point. I could tell you that, and I allude to it, but it just seemed like I was more interested in what these people were going through in the relationship itself rather than what actually happened. Because ultimately, the baby died either way. 

Q: What was your intention with Eleanor sitting down on the ground in multiple scenes?

I think it was just a choice that we made with Jessica when we were blocking the scenes and it seemed organic to what the character was going through. I mean I wrote that in the script and it sort of became this little runner with her and the professor. I think she has this exhaustion and carelessness to her and that was a choice that we made. It wasn’t something that we really though too much about. There’s no meaning really put into it. 

Q: Was there much improvisation, or was it all in the script, once you started shooting?

I think we all started with the script, but there were certain scenes like the scene in the car with the two of them when they’re dancing in the headlights. I sort of let them go with that to see what would happen. Usually, I would let the actors have the first take or two and then make some adjustments and ultimately if I felt I had what I wanted, we let them go on the third take. I think when we’re working, if you see “Him”, you’ll see Bill Hader and James riff a bit more. And those guys, you know, Bill’s like a professional improvisor. You never knew what you were gonna get with him because he’s such a genius. I think at one point, they burst into a song from “Rent” at the end.

Q: In the “Her” version, is there more about Eleanor’s grief and dissatisfaction with the relationship?

The answer is yes. But it’s actually more in “His” film. In the beginning of his film, there’s actually some scenes where they’re still living in the apartment together, and each of the supporting characters, I guess, their story lines open up in “Him” and “Her”. So Ciarán Hinds, and William Hurt, and Jess Weixler and all these people actually have their own arcs within those films and I think that sort of aspect of things her in her dissatisfaction with him becomes more apparent in both of those films, actually.

READ MORE: Q&A: A Look At 'Sideways'

Q: When you’re filming with the cinematographer, do you map out the symbolism of the lighting and the visual aspects?

Before I started shooting, I knew I wanted to create two very specific looks for each character in each film. So I had a really cool color palette for His film and a very fluid sort of visual rhythm and in Her film I created a very warm color palette much more yellow and a looser camera rhythm that I thought reflected their emotional space that they were in. We did things in production design and costume design, the intention of the actors in those separate scenes would change, every detail we possibly could we changed lenses, we changed set-ups. We knew what we were doing going into it, and then we rehearsed on the day and see if there was anything better than what we mapped out on paper. But it was very plotted and planned out and I think that those differences are apparent in “Him” and “Her” and I used them in “Them” when you see the disparate color spaces that exist in and ultimately you get to use technology and a DI to sort of synthesize those things towards the end where the color palettes merge a bit more. 

Q: While shooting, did you foresee that you would do a “Them” version? Once you did do it, how did you creatively approach it?

When I was shooting, no. I didn’t even think I was going to. It didn’t cross my mind at all. I think because I just wanted to focus on what I was doing and I think to get this made, I sort of had to be as steadfast as I possibly could in terms of this is what we have to do, because people were asking me this constantly, “can you turn this into one movie?”. I think if I had cracked, people would have tried to push me into doing it, and ultimately when I got into the distribution stage and figuring out how to do this and seeing that there was a third option that might make my life easier and give this film perhaps a chance at broader appeal then I did try it. It was tricky. You’re actually making a completely new film because you have a new rhythm. It has to be a different organism in a weird way. Scenes that worked in the other two, don’t necessarily fit in this one so you’re making choices but the cool thing is that I was working with such talented actors that were doing such amazing work that it made my life easier. The crazy thing that Jessica and James were doing is that they were actually playing two characters. She was playing Eleanor Rigby, and Conor’s perception of Eleanor Rigby. And he was playing Conor Ludlow and Eleanor’s of Conor. So that scene in the film where they’re in the apartment together, we had to shoot that twice. We had to do two completely different set-ups and then each of them are giving so much emotionally, so on the same night, we’re shooting half the day, one version of it, and then we’d take a break and reinvent the whole scene again and find different intentions for it with them. Watching two actors who give you the emotional stuff that they were giving for hour upon hour upon hour upon hour until the sun’s coming up, it was pretty phenomenal what the two of them accomplished in terms of what we’re trying to do here.

Reach Staff Reporter Jenny Kim here.



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