Ned Benson is no stranger to taking meetings and pitching projects. The Columbia grad had a few scripts on the Black List that generated some buzz and landed him some writing jobs. He’s also a noted short-film director: At Toronto, Jessica Chastain recalled how she once saw Benson’s short film at the Malibu Film Festival and was so impressed she walked up to him, introduced herself and said she would love to work with him. That was when they were both relatively unknown and waiting for their big break. Obviously, a lot has changed in the last few years.
I first met Benson in 2009, when I was working in development. I loved one of his Black List scripts and asked him the inevitable question: “What else do you have?” What he sent was The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, a unique, bittersweet look at the evolution—and devolution—of a relationship. Actually, it was two separate scripts: one from the man’s point of view (Him), the other from the woman’s (Her). The writing was so touching and true, the film seemed destined to get made. The only catch was the distribution challenge: How can you convince people who care about the numbers (instead of the story) that taking a risk and releasing what is essentially two indie films about the same subject is a wise move? Not easy.
Yet, seven years since Benson first embarked on the project, he got his films made (no easy feat for a first-time director) and, what’s more, with an incredible cast that includes Chastain, James McAvoy, William Hurt, Jess Weixler, Viola Davis and Bill Hader. The films premiered at Toronto this week to positive reviews, with IndieWire calling it a “finely tuned and tenderly detailed love story of two people told on a cosmic scale … one of the year’s greatest relationship films.” On Wednesday, The Weinstein Co. made a deal, brokered by WME Global, for the two-part film.
SSN spoke with Benson about getting his passion project made and what it was like watching his first feature with an audience at Toronto.
SSN: I know it took about seven years to get the film made, and we first met about the project about three or four years ago. At what point did things start taking off?
Benson: I had to do it with a core group of people that got behind it like Jessica and Jess and producer Cassandra [Kulukundis]. It was serendipity that Jessica’s career took off because that gave us the momentum we needed, and then more people signed on. It was a tricky road but finding people like Myriad Pictures and Dreambridge, who helped finance it, was so important. Getting a movie made is like a needle in a haystack. When I talked to you about the project, it was so long ago, and a lot of people liked the material but were reticent. “First-time director” is kind of a dirty word.
SSN: You had such a great, specific look book when you were pitching the project. What have you learned about pitching over the last few years?
Benson: I didn’t want to use any preexisting process to represent myself. The most important meetings were the ones that I got to actually sit down across a table from someone and discuss what I wanted to do. It’s always better to sit down with someone face-to-face.
SSN: I know it was tough convincing people to make two separate films at the same time, both logistically and because of the distribution challenges. Were there ever moments when you thought, “Screw it, let’s just make one film?”
Benson: We never went there because we believed so wholeheartedly in what we were doing. I think we would have punched ourselves for not having the integrity to see this through and see if we could pull it off. Jessica and Jess and Cassandra have such high creative integrity, and on the worst days, they really believed in the project and that helps. It’s hard to get a movie made and having that kind of familial group is super important, and it’s why I stuck it out for so long.
SSN: What was it like screening your first feature at Toronto?
Benson: Horrifying, literally. I had an amazing group of people there, but I came to the festival thinking I would get creamed, just destroyed. I remember walking up to the stage when they were announcing the film, and I just started shaking. I had no idea what I was going to say, and I remember thinking, “I’m about to die.” I wasn’t going to watch it, but my friend Andrew said, “You have to sit through this. It’s a rite of passage.” I had heard someone describe the experience as putting a chair on the stage and looking back at the audience, and that’s exactly what it felt like. I wasn’t even really watching it; I was just watching the audience. Afterwards I couldn’t tell what the reaction was until I walked on stage and the cast got emotional, and then I started to see outside my own neuroses.
SSN: Have you seen any of the reviews?
Benson: I haven’t read any reviews because I don’t think that would be healthy for me, but people have told me things.
SSN: You had such a specific vision of this film for so long, did anything really surprise you during production, or when you saw the finished film?
Benson: What really surprised me was the laughter. I didn’t expect people to laugh like that. There were all these moments that got really big laughs, and I didn’t expect that, it was such a weird experience. I had seen it with maybe ten people, but seeing it with a big audience is very different.
SSN: You recently adapted Steve Martin’s book Object of Beauty. What else are you working on, and what lessons will you take from the experience of directing Eleanor Rigby into your next project?
Benson: I finished a draft of that, and I’m writing a script I want to direct, but I want to take my time. I don’t want to rush a project out. What I learned with this film was that, when you take your time and really develop the story and get it in the right place, you have an amazing blueprint. I know there’s pressure to hurry and make your next film, but it’s so much better to take your time than rush through it. One of the most important lessons I learned is that, when you all feel strongly about where the script is, the actors can do something really interesting.