Ned Benson has had a pretty typical life toiling on the Hollywood assembly line. Relocating to Los Angeles after graduating from Columbia in 2001, the former English major and aspiring filmmaker placed a few scripts on the industry's coveted Black List and landed work-for-hire writing jobs with some respected producers.
But as he banged out scripts for others' conventional projects, he wondered whether there weren't a different kind of movie to be made.
Or, rather, he wondered whether there weren't a different kind of movies to be made.
Film dramas, particularly those that focused on relationships, were too limiting, he thought. Over the course of 90 or 100 minutes you saw the world primarily through the perspective of one person or, at best, the diluted perspectives of two people.
To truly capture one person in a relationship you needed to see their point-of-view over a whole movie. And to truly capture the other person you needed to see their point-of-view over a second movie. So Benson set out to do what has rarely been attempted by an American filmmaker: make two movies about one relationship.
In about six weeks at the Toronto International Film Festival, Benson will unveil the fruit of his quixotic labor: “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” a relationship drama — or is it dramas? — he wrote and directed that seeks to unearth the truth about a fictional coupling by giving each of the main characters their own movie.
Here’s how it breaks down.
Starring Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy (and subtitled "Her" and "Him"), the two films tell of a young couple that falls in and out of love. Some of the scenes are unique to each film -- McAvoy's character may be seen talking about the relationship with a buddy in "Him"; Chastain's character could open up to a friend in "Her."
Many scenes, though, are common to both movies -- they're just shaded differently depending on whose movie you’re watching. So a word, a glance or a detail will look different, coming up as McAvoy might imagine it in “Him” than it would as Chastain sees it in “Her.”
Essentially, he’s taken the scalpel of literary subjectivity to the rich fodder of a relatable couple. By the time you've finished watching both movies, Benson hopes, you’ll have a complete if complicated picture of the relationship. Think, perhaps, of the multiple-voices conceit of “Rashomon,” the double-feature expansiveness of “Che” and the shifting narrative details of “Memento.” The films, which have not yet been bought by a U.S. distributor, are designed to be watched in succession, though in either order.
"What I wanted to capture was that feeling of looking across the table at a couple and trying to understand what their relationship is really like, and how they each experienced that relationship differently, ” Benson said in an interview.
An egghead with an unassuming air, Benson is prone to citing influences such as Nabokov or the Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski and then catching himself with a "that was really pretentious, wasn't it?" Benson says he doesn't watch a lot of studio romances, though he liked the time-jumping indie drama “Blue Valentine.”
Having failed to get far more accessible scripts off the ground, Benson got these two movies made "by the skin of my teeth," largely because unnamed private investors were taken with the double-barrel conceit. (He noted that the film is "not at all autobiographical," though, he said, he did draw on his own past relationships as well as his those of his friends.)
He shot them both at the same time in New York last year — the process took 40 days, nearly twice the length of a typical indie feature. For the scenes that would appear in both movies, he’d do one series of takes where the action was tilted toward one person, then another series of takes where the action was tilted the other way. “I think the actors really needed to have a presence of mind about which movie they were in,” he said. Then Benson spent the last year making sense of it all in the edit room.
If the premise can seem a little confounding to you, you're not alone. When the film landed on a press release for the Toronto slate Tuesday, it came with the unusual description of “work in progress.” It wasn’t, as it turns out. The description was a vestige of what Benson calls "an ongoing conversation” about the best way for the festival to screen the film(s).
The on-screen romance has taken some ambitious storytelling turns in the past few years, in movies such as “Blue Valentine” and “(500) Days of Summer”). But “Rigby” and its "Him" and "Her" conceit pose new questions. For one thing, what to call it? Is the second movie a companion piece? A sequel? A second chapter of the same story?
It’s also a sociological experiment of sorts. If you listen to both sides of a couple talk about their relationship separately, whose side would you be more inclined to identify with? The one who's the same gender as you? The closer friend? Whoever told you the story first?
Benson said that in a few small private screenings he's found that people related far more often to the character whose movie came second, regardless of whether it (or they) were male or female. “What we’re finding is that when you watch the second movie, you have the subtextuality you didn't have when you heard the first side, and that inherently makes that perspective more relatable.”
As for the best way to screen it at Toronto, Benson, festival organizers and his sales agents at WME discussed several possibilities. They could sell each ticket separately and allow filmgoers to see only one, or sell them as two tickets in a pack. In the end they decided to sell it as one ticket for a kind of double feature, with a short break in-between. (It hasn't been announced whether "Him" or "Her" will go first.)
Benson said he is open to many ways of playing the movies at festivals -- after all, that's the point of the exercise. But he did hope the films ended up with a distributor who would give them a joint theatrical run.
"I want people to go at 2 p.m. and then go again at 4 p.m. and argue about which one seemed closer to the truth," he said. Then, getting meta even for this concept, he offered, "This is a movie about the subjectivity of relationships that's also about the subjectivity of watching movies."
Some might find such formal ambition to be on the self-indulgent side. Others may feel that at a time when cinema is under attack from TV enthusiasts who say the latter form is more suited to complex storytelling, this long-form approach is refreshing, even redemptive. “I know for every person who's intrigued by it, there will be someone who lambastes me for it," Benson said. “But I just want to start a conversation.”
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