One of the unforeseen but delightful surprises at 2013's Toronto International Film Festival was "The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby." I must confess that, stumbling bleary-eyed into its first 9 am press screening, I did feel slightly concerned about the 190-minute running time of writer-director Ned Benson's debut. It was, after all, seven days into TIFF. But my fears proved entirely unfounded: I was hooked from start to finish, and never once felt the need to stick a pin into my arm in order to stay awake.
An ambitious, evocative portrayal of love, marriage, empathy and how people manage personal misfortune, Benson's film is actually two separate features: "Him" and "Her." As suggested (and without giving too much away), they explore the subtle shifts in perspective between once happily-married Conor (James McAvoy) and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) as they struggle to cope in the wake of a tragedy, and she chooses to disappear from his life. In its early, original form, the screenplay for "Him" ended up on the coveted Black List. Chastain became attached before her ascent to stardom, and stayed loyal throughout "Disappearance"'s long, rocky journey to the big screen. It was she who pushed Benson to write a second script revealing Eleanor's perspective and explaining her 'disappearance,' which the pair collaborated on while the actress was shooting "The Tree Of Life" in Texas.
When Joel Edgerton dropped out at the last minute to make "The Great Gatsby," the film almost fell apart and Chastain herself was on the verge of accepting an offer for "Iron Man 3" when Benson's original choice to play Conor, James McAvoy, agreed to step up to the plate.
I sat down with Chastain and Benson after the film's world premiere. The "Her"/"Him" version of the film opens in theaters on October 10.
Matt Mueller: What was the genesis for "The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby"?
Ned Benson: I just wanted to write a love story. I was in that head space and I was in New York in Central Park on a July evening, walking under that beautiful bridge where the opening shot of [Jonathan Glazer's] "Birth" occurred, when all these fireflies started flaring. It was such a gorgeous moment that I was trying to imagine how I'd capture it on film in my head. That's the scene that starts the film and the story built from that.
Did "Him" change much after you decided to write the companion piece, "Her"?
NB: Once we'd embarked on the second part, I looked at the overlaps and amended them to create the subtle differences that I wanted there. And I used scenes in "Him" that were sort of complete and finished them off in "Her," and vice versa.
Chastain is a producer on the film. Was she instrumental in helping you round up the impressive cast? Besides McAvoy, there's William Hurt, Isabelle Huppert, Viola Davis, Ciaran Hinds...
NB: It was a lot to do with Jess...
[Chastain enters the room at this point.]
Jessica Chastain: Hi! It's so much nicer down here than upstairs. I feel like I just came out of a sauna!
NB: [laughs] Having developed it with Jess during that whole time when her career started to take off, this was obviously crucial in terms of other people wanting to work with her. It just became this wonderful synthesis after a lot of years of working together on it.
JC: I think when Ned's script was on the Black List, drama was a dirty word in Hollywood. Everyone wanted to make comedies. I read the script and loved it so much but I'm actually glad that, even though that first script was incredible, it was difficult to get made because then Ned got to write the second one.
So, Jessica, were you originally just planning to play Eleanor in "Him"?
JC: We were in Texas, where I was shooting "The Tree Of Life", and Ned brought up me playing Eleanor Rigby. I said, "Absolutely! I would love to play her." And then, of course, the selfish actor in me goes, "But I'd actually like it better if we knew where she went."