When it was first suggested that the theatrical release of the unique, twin-experience of “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: His and Her” might require a distillation of two complementing films into a more traditional single narrative release, Jessica Chastain was less than pleased.
“I was very upset,” she remembers, offering as blunt a statement as possible through her perpetual, off-camera smile. “For me, it was absolute agony. Torture, just the most miserable experience, the idea that we were combining both of the films.”
“That is all honesty,” Chastain insists. “I was completely shocked and scared because Cassandra [Kulukundis], Ned [Benson], Jess [Weixler], and James [McAvoy], we all went into this project knowing and loving that it would be Him and Her, the male and female versions, and fighting to get it made as that. We loved the reception we got in Toronto, so then I was confused, like why is there talk about another version?”
It’s hard not to sympathize, given the project’s long genesis. It began with a script from her friend, writer/director Ned Benson, about a couple that falls apart after tragic circumstances surrounding their young child. It was largely written from the husband’s point of view, but Chastain couldn’t help but wonder more about Eleanor Rigby, the Beatles-inspired titular character who, well, disappears early on in the movie. Where did she go, and why?
“I don’t mind if the character is a small character, but I would just like her to have a journey in the film,” Chastain says, speaking generally about the roles she is now offered. “Sometimes the characters are just there as a prop to further the man’s story. The great directors I’ve talked to, I’ve said listen, I don’t mind playing a woman that is a tiny part, but how does the story affect her? What can I play in the end that’s different from the beginning? Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense, because it’s just like being a prop.”
She posed these questions to Benson, who obliged her with not just answers, but a whole new script, from Eleanor’s point of view. Suddenly, thanks to Chastain’s suggestion, they had two whole films that told the same story from different angles, with the attendant shifts in truth that accompanies each individual version of the truth.
“Ultimately we had this big thing and were like, oh, this works… should we try to make it? Are we nuts?” Benson remembers, laughing. “We said, Yeah, we are, but let’s go try it.”
In retrospect, Chastain was on the verge of stardom, but the movies she had made in recent years such as Terrence Malick‘s “Tree of Life” had yet to be released, creating a logjam that stifled her talent and kept her from being able to get a movie financed on name recognition. “Financing was impossible,” Benson says, and it took a flurry of movies released in fall of 2011, culminating with “The Help,” to score the small budget needed to shoot the unusual project.
Ultimately, the time it took to get the money to make the film allowed them to land a cast that includes James McAvoy as Connor, Rigby’s confused and heartbroken husband. At first, he was reluctant to tackle the part, having just had a child himself, but a few years later, he agreed to dive into the despair required.
In “Her,” the audience follows Eleanor back into the protective arms of her family in Long Island, where her parents (William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert) and sister (Weixler) try to help her recover from tragedy; “Him” keeps McAvoy in the city, with his best friend (Bill Hader) and semi-estranged father (Ciarán Hinds), breaking down amidst a failing business and crumbling marriage.
The two movies were lauded for their bold vision and subtle details at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and bought for distribution by the Weinstein Company.
Then, reality sunk in.
“In this day and age, getting the theatrical experience, it’s hard to get people to go see the movie, and much less a three hour and ten minute, two-part character movie,” Benson says. “I’m really proud of it, don’t get me wrong, but as a filmmaker, you want to have your movie have the broadest reach.”
And so, the decision was made to edit the two films into a third, a process that required both balancing between two characters’ narratives and dealing with the complications that came with subjective points of view.
For starters, “Him” and “Her” were shot with two different color palettes, to reflect the characters’ different mindsets.
“I thought that was interesting because I said, OK we can start this movie off and show these two characters are in completely different color bases, they’re very disparate and we don’t know why,” Benson explains, noting that he was aided by the fact that the two characters actually share very few scenes. “Ultimately I used that color and went into color timing and find a synthesis with the palettes toward the end of the film. I knew ultimately this third movie was about two people who had lost the ability to speak the same language and ultimately find it again.”
For the most part, each character stays in their own world, with only a few supporting characters crossing over at all. Still, the Eleanor-Connor scenes were fundamentally difficult to handle in the new edit, because each character remembered the interactions differently, meaning that they shot two versions of each of their scenes together.
That meant that, along with the color palette, the clothing they wore and words they said in a scene together were often different in “Him” and “Her,” requiring both a careful philosophical approach to finding the truth of the moment, and practical decisions due to the after-the-fact nature of the edit.
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“I was also dealing with continuity, because I did different costumes for those scenes,” Benson said. “In one, [scene] he’s wearing a dark shirt, in another, he’s wearing a lighter shirt. I can’t use both, so whatever he’s wearing the scene is before, I kind of have to follow through with it, because if all of a sudden he’s wearing a different shirt, that doesn’t work.”
Ultimately, Benson found the right balance, as “Them” premiered at Cannes to rave reviews, and was given a September 12 release date.
Nonetheless, it was important to the filmmaker and his cast and crew that the world get to see the full version of “Eleanor Rigby” as originally constructed: “Him” and “Her” back to back, an immersive trip into the psyche of a broken marriage. As Benson says, “Every cut that we made was heartbreaking.”
And so, Weinstein will put “Him” and “Her” in limited release on October 10. Chastain was especially excited about that date.
“After speaking with Ned and Harvey Weinstein, and being assured that it does not mean we’re losing Him and Her, the way we can look at it, is a platform,” she reasons, adding that she wants the world to see more of Weixler’s performance. “Seeing it at Cannes, and seeing it work, completely won me over… So now you’re giving an audience more options, and it’s a platform for another release. That’s exciting to me. That to me means more people are talking about the film and it’s seen as it was initially intended to be seen.”