When The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby came late in the Toronto Film Festival program last September, the daring three-hour venture soon became the festival’s sleeper hit. The New York-set relationship drama following the break-up of a marriage after the death of a child, was made as two separate films, Him and Her, and giving both parents’ perspectives. While Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy possibly deliver career-best performances as the grieving Eleanor and Conor, Isabelle Huppert and William Hurt and Ciaran Hinds stand out as the respective parents.
For Chastain, who has experienced a meteoric rise to fame over the past two years, culminating in a best actress Oscar nomination for Zero Dark Thirty, the film was a passion project dating back to over a decade with her old friends, the film’s director Ned Benson and her on-screen sister Jess Weixler (Teeth, The Good Wife). It was Chastain’s idea to retell the story from the female perspective.
“We always get the male perspective in cinema today and I wanted the female perspective too,” admits the self-avowed feminist. “Eleanor was just serving his story and I wanted to know what is happening with her. But I didn’t change Ned’s vision.”
Benson muses, “It came out of a conversation with a difficult actress who wanted more of a character to play!”
Chastain is eternally grateful and proud of her dear friend. “After the most incredible two years that I have had where I feel my dreams have been realised, to now watch someone that I love have this moment is actually more special to witness than actually having it yourself.”
Interestingly, after the film was snapped up by the Harvey ‘Scissorhands’ Weinstein for the US, Benson re-edited it as one film, Them, which screened on the weekend in Cannes. The Sydney Film Festival will show the Him and Her versions. In Toronto, the films were screened in varying orders and I saw Her, arguably the second film first. In many ways, it made it more interesting. Either way, it’s an intense moving experience I would gladly sit through again, no matter the order. Take your hankies.
Where did you first meet Ned?
Jessica Chastain: I met Ned because when I first moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago. I won tickets to the Malibu Film Festival and there was an incredible short that he acted in and directed. I ran after him in the lobby and I said, “Hi, my name is Jessica, I think you are so talented and I want to work with you some day. Can I have my manager send you my reel?” I think I’d only had a guest spot on ER, and we became very good friends. Along with Jess and Cassandra (Cassandra Kulukundis), our main producer, we lived for 10 years dreaming that some day we would make movies. We’d go to see Hitchcock movies and movies with Isabelle Huppert. We were like theatre geeks in high school who found each other after college.
At what point did you decide to have different continuity in the two versions?
Ned Benson: When I started writing the second script, because to me the movie is about the subjective experience of each of these characters. In my mind, we each experience moments differently and we see or remember certain things from a moment that other's wouldn't when they experience the same moment.
JC: When we started approaching these films we discussed with Ned that James and I would be playing two different characters, so in Her I am playing Eleanor Rigby, but in His I am playing Conor's perception of Eleanor Rigby. So all the scenes are in both films but are seen differently, because they are the masculine and feminine version. There are many subtle changes that Ned planned out, like costume changes. You think I am wearing the same dress in the both scenes but you find one is navy blue and one is black. Ned was very specific in changing little tiny moments in both.
Isabelle Huppert is one of Jessica’s favourite actors. What did it mean for you to work with her and who came up with the idea of her drinking constantly? That was hilarious!
JC: When Ned was working on the script I was around a lot and we were like kids, dreaming of the possibility that these movies would get made. As he was writing it, I remember Ned saying, “Wouldn't it be amazing if Isabelle Huppert played your mum?” I hadn't even had a movie come out, I hadn't done Tree of Life yet, it was just this huge idea and so he wrote it for her.
The wonderful thing is that Him and Her took so long to be made and in the intervening years I got to know Isabelle and found her to be the most wonderful human being and incredible actress. So it’s great when you go, “Let me make a phone call and see if she will read the script.” But Isabelle Huppert doesn't show up unless it’s a good script.
NB: With regards to the drinking, it was just a character choice that we made on the page. I have to point out that when Jessica was shooting her first scenes with Isabelle it was like seeing a kid in a candy store. She was just gushing. I remember Isabelle did a series of takes and she said, “I think I like the second one.” And Jessica was like, “Oh yeah, the second one was the best one, so good, you really killed it!”
Jessica, did you have any specific influences for these dual roles where you are both supporting and the lead in two different films?
JC: This is going to sound crazy, but Isabelle Huppert has influenced me a lot when I am working! I find her performance in The Piano Teacher incredible in that she would hold so much in and make the audience have to lead forward. That definitely was something I was going for on this, especially because I got to be her daughter in the film. With Her, so much of it was about Eleanor trying to make herself disappear with the cutting of her hair, using black make-up and wearing sunglasses. No director ever wants you to hide your eyes, yet Eleanor would cover up her face and not look in the mirror. A lot of that was about running away and not being reminded of who she was, because she looked like the child. So every time she looked at herself she saw her son and that was something very strong that I held onto.
How did you shoot it?
NB: We actually shot by location, so we would do a week at the house where the Rigby family lives or we'd shoot at the townhouse where Conor lives with his father. We shot the scenes in Conor’s restaurant the last week of shooting. So basically we tried to stay as chronological as we could per location.
There is some beautiful detail in the movie including a poster for A Man and a Woman (1966) on Eleanor’s bedroom wall. That was a beautiful love story.
NB: Jessica and I actually went and saw A Man and a Woman together. I am a huge Claude Lelouch fan and I love that film. My niece is named Anouk after Anouk Aimée. But I think it was more about looking at certain love stories, the masculine and the feminine. There’s a Godard poster in his apartment. I wanted them each to have their own version of the films about men and women in the background in the design, but I think it was just a film I used as a reference point as a love story to jump off with in pre-production.