Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love, get married, start a family, confront a crisis, split apart. It’s one of the oldest stories ever told, and writers and filmmakers are always searching for new ways to tell it: exactly the challenge that the screenwriter and rookie director Ned Benson faced in making “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” which opens Friday.
Though it was not his intention when he started nearly a decade ago, Mr. Benson ended up making not one film but three, each of which uses the same cast to tell the story of Eleanor Rigby and Conor Ludlow, played by Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy, from a different point of view. “Her” is the version of their romance, breakup and attempt at reconciliation as experienced by Eleanor, “Him” is Conor’s account, and “Them” is a kind of condensed hybrid, with both viewpoints synthesized into something more neutral and detached.
“The point is perspective and subjectivity,” Mr. Benson, 37, said last month, seated on a bench in Tompkins Square Park, just yards from the spot where the films’ final scenes were shot. “With ‘Him’ and ‘Her,’ I wanted to show their separate experiences, and the disparate ways they perceived that,” whereas “ ‘Them’ is more a straight-up two-handed love story.”
Telling the same story from multiple perspectives is not a new conceit, of course, as Mr. Benson readily acknowledged. Antecedents to “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” include not just films like “Rashomon” and the 1973 made-for-TV movie “Divorce His, Divorce Hers” featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, but also novels like Lawrence Durrell’s “The Alexandria Quartet” and Vladimir Nabokov’s “Ada or Ardor.”
But Mr. Benson said he was intent on telling a contemporary story, using all the devices that film offered him. He chose a different color palette and camera rhythm for each version and, to indicate the unreliability of memory, introduced subtle variations into scenes that ostensibly portray the same event: Characters wore costumes that were a bit different, for instance, or were placed in slightly different positions or delivered the same line in a different intonation.
That format obviously required maximum agility of the cast. Ms. Chastain, who is also one of the film’s producers and made what Mr. Benson described as significant contributions to the script, recalled the process as one in which she would often play one version of her character in the morning, take a break for lunch, then come back and film the same scene in a markedly different fashion for the other version.
“Because I was in my head playing two different characters, it was good to do it that way,” she said. “For ‘Her,’ I played it absolutely true to who I felt she was. But for Conor’s version, because it’s his perception of her, I tried to create a separate character that would serve his story, so I made her more mysterious, more cold, more unattainable.”
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In contrast to Ms. Chastain, Mr. McAvoy said it really only dawned on him that “we were going make two movies in the time that it normally takes to make half of one,” when he showed up on the set. But he and the other cast members quickly found a way to adapt to the demands of a situation that he found “kind of weird, but even more exciting.”
Mr. McAvoy, whose character is the proprietor of a struggling restaurant in the East Village, said he initially shied away from the script because one central aspect of the story “was too near to me at that point.” But when the part was offered to him again in 2012, he found that “the rawness I originally felt was replaced by a deepened understanding of what the script meant and a feeling that, yes, I could do it.”
“It was such a sophisticated story about adult love and the trauma it can cause, the pain of two people who love each other more than life itself,” he said by telephone from his home in London. Even when he passed on the script, he said, it appealed to him because it took “a poetic approach to a love story and to healing, not just one’s partner, but also one’s self.”
Mr. Benson said he was also trying to address the generational divide between boomers and their children, albeit obliquely. Hence the film’s title, which evokes not only the refrain “ah, look at all the lonely people” from the Beatles song that supplies Ms. Chastain’s character with her name, but also the weariness and disillusionment that Eleanor’s parents, a university professor and a once-promising musician, and Conor’s father, the owner of a successful restaurant, reflect.
“The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” began, Mr. Benson said, in 2005 with a screenplay for the film now known as “Him.” But when he showed that first script to Ms. Chastain, hoping she would want to play the title character, she was full of questions — and doubts.
“I wasn’t very interested in playing her in that incarnation,” she said. “Because it did feel to me that she was a product of his story, that she wasn’t a real person.
“As an audience member and an actress, I’m interested in women’s stories, too, and what they go through,” she continued. “I see this a lot in scripts: The female character is the puppet or prop of the male character. But I’ve always tried to look for characters that have their own arcs, that are flesh-and-blood human beings.”
Prodded by Ms. Chastain’s questions about who Eleanor really was, Mr. Benson set to work fleshing out the character, and then, he recalled, almost imperceptibly “it became ‘Why don’t I just write a script?’ ” because “ ‘Well, what better way to explore a relationship than both completely subjective sides?’ ”
Mr. Benson and Ms. Chastain were by that time a couple. So he was with her on the set of Terrence Malick’s 2011 film, “Tree of Life,” a breakthrough role for her, and also accompanied her to Paris, all the while revising and polishing the script, with her input.
As Ms. Chastain’s career continued its vertiginous ascent, she used her growing prestige to help recruit a supporting cast that has won Oscars, Tonys, Césars and various other awards. Isabelle Huppert and William Hurt play her character’s parents, Ciaran Hinds plays her father-in-law, and Viola Davis, with whom Ms. Chastain appeared in “The Help,” plays Professor Friedman, who sort of befriends Eleanor when she enrolls in her “identity theory” course.
“It was the red hair, the red-haired family,” Ms. Huppert said jokingly in an interview last month in New York, where she was appearing in a play. “No, she’s been declaring her admiration for my work for quite some time, and she’s a wonderful young actress and person, so I did it mainly for that.”
With so distinguished a cast, Mr. Benson said, he at first felt he had taken on a daunting task. He had directed several shorts — he and Ms. Chastain first met at a film festival that showed one of them, when she tracked him down in the lobby to express her admiration and a desire to work with him someday — but “Eleanor Rigby” is his first feature-length film.
“I’m not going to teach William Hurt or Isabelle Huppert anything,” he said. “But the moment I started shooting, all my neuroses went away, because I didn’t have time to think too much about being worried or fearful. I just jumped wholeheartedly into it and enjoyed it as much as I could.”
As a first-time director with an oversize script, Mr. Benson found it difficult to raise the money needed to get his project off the ground. Assembling an all-star cast helped ease that problem, as did the actors’ willingness to work for scale or less. But even as the film was being shot, he said, the producer Cassandra Kulukundis “was still raising money” and “using her credit card to keep things together,” he said, because “we had little pieces of the financing coming together and falling apart.”
Mr. Benson said that in separate conversations about the scripts with Ms. Huppert and Mr. Hurt before the filming began, both mentioned the French director Claude Chabrol. That reference, he said, helped guide him toward a spare directing style and also had an impact on the way his story was told. “Chabrol’s gift, his power, was a way of just showing things with a certain objectivity, and without a psychological explanation,” said Ms. Huppert, who had worked many times with Chabrol. “He would show things from a bit above the story, show the facts, the relationships, so that in the end, everybody can give their own answers to the story they watch.”
By the time filming began, two summers ago, Ms. Chastain and Mr. Benson were no longer romantically involved, which added another layer of resonance to the story. “It was kind of a strange thing to after that approach each other and get these films made,” Ms. Chastain said. “And a friend noted that it is also interesting that these films are about a relationship ending.”
At the Toronto International Film Festival last September, a three-hour-plus version of the film called “Him/Her” was shown as a work in progress. The order in which the two films were shown shifted from one screening to the next, and that was the version to which the Weinstein Company acquired distribution rights.
But when Mr. Benson set his sights on having the film shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May, he knew the rules there required that he submit an unscreened work. So in late February he started a monthlong scramble to see if he could shape a third version of “Eleanor Rigby” from what he had already filmed.
“We were just sleepless trying to get that thing done,” he said. “We were really under the gun and working nonstop.” About an hour was eventually cut, and some plot nuances were lost, but Mr. Benson said that he feels “people can go and see this two-hour version and still get an emotional experience.”
As things now stand, American viewers will have the opportunity to see all three films. “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them” will open first, this month, and about a month later, on Oct. 10, “Her/Him” will have its premiere in art houses.
“I definitely prefer the ‘Him/Her’ version, but I always prefer the long version of anything,” Ms. Chastain said when asked what her recommendation to viewers would be. “I recognize that most people will see the shorter version. But I’m hoping that the more we talk about it, we can encourage people to see the long version, to dedicate the time to ‘Him/Her.’ ”