Writer/director Ned Benson recruited actors Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy for his double-feature The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, an ambitious film that’s divided into Him and Her movies. Chastain (The Help, Zero Dark Thirty) and McAvoy (Atonement, The Last King of Scotland) play Eleanor and Conor, a married couple who deal with the loss of a child in very different ways: Eleanor is angry, distant and depressed; Conor pushes the pain aside. The strong supporting cast features Bill Hader, William Hurt and Viola Davis. Rolling Stone talked with Benson in Toronto about making a 190-minute movie – and how he’d like audiences to view it.
First off, what’s the significance of Eleanor Rigby?
The song’s not in the movie. It’s a reference to her parents being the age. . . that cultural moment when the Beatles were involved. My father and mother were listened to their music in the car. That’s where I got my tastes from – or the beginnings of it. I wanted to point to Eleanor Rigby as this generational idea, this concept of loneliness that exists in the song.
This film has nothing to do with the Beatles, but there’s lots of music in it. What role does music play with you?
I’m obsessed with music – it’s a huge component when I write. So I wanted all the source music to be diegetic, to exist in the space of the film. If it filters out into a scene, that’s fine.
Do you want viewers to like both characters?
I don’t want you to do anything, except to have your own opinion and experience with who you respond to more.
You’re asking a lot of the casual film-goer to sit through a movie that’s over three hours long.
Well, it is two films, so you have the choice to watch one and waiting days to watch the other.
I didn’t find Eleanor likeable, but I saw Him first. If I saw Her first, would that be different?
Maybe. But there’s another element that’s there, which is you’re looking at his perception of her. When somebody leaves you – when somebody makes these choices – they become the bad guy pretty quickly.
Would you say audiences sympathize with your protagonists?
I definitely think so, because you’re understanding more of what that character is going through. What really helps is the protagonist in the second film, when you have all the subtext from the first film, when you understand what they’ve gone through, then all of a sudden there’s all this information — you realize why they’re behaving the way they’re behaving and why they’re making the choices that they’re making.
So when is it coming to theatres?
We’re in discussions about that now. This is about creating your own experience at the movie – choosing which one to see first. You can see one this week and one the following week; one this week and one months later. Or watch them all in one piece.