EXCLUSIVE: Ned Benson, who made his feature directorial debut on The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby, recalls his beleaguered editor Krissy Boden paraphrasing fellow editor Walter Murch that, “we write one film, we shoot one film, and we cut another film.” Murch was talking about the process of making a single film and not what Benson has done, which is to carve out three distinctly different versions of the same movie. The latest will play in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes.
When Benson unveils his film on the Croisette on May 17, it will be his second international festival and the third version to appear at a festival. At Toronto last fall where The Weinstein Company bought the film for around $3 million, Benson debuted two versions of the film that stars James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain as a married couple whose relationship disintegrates. One version, which they call Him, showed it from the husband’s vantage point, while a second film shown right after, Her, explored it from the perspective of the wife. The Cannes version, which Benson called Them, will follow the more traditional form and clock in at two hours. All three versions will be released by TWC in some form this fall.
“Insane is probably the best way to describe all this,” Benson told me. “The idea of creating a third way to see this story, to have a two-hour relationship film or give the viewer the choice of seeing it in the three hour, two-part perspective is one of the most educational film experiences I’ve had in my life. And the outcome is mind-blowing, like hitting the lottery.”
This is just one of the Cannes films TWC is involved in with issues. The fest’s opening-night film, Grace Of Monaco, was pulled from an early 2014 release date because of disagreements the distributor had with director Olivier Dahan. TWC probably won’t make a decision regarding the release of that film until the new cut is seen at the festival, and the battle has become contentious. Distributors often nudge filmmakers to consider making cuts on films they acquire, hoping to reach the widest possible audience. Though a single film clearly has a better shot at a wide audience than two long separate versions telling the same story, Benson said he wasn’t pressured by TWC to come up with the third cut.
“At Toronto, it was this hanging question that lingered,” Benson said. “It wasn’t until this year that I saw with my editor and my producing partner Cassandra Kulukundis and then talked with Harvey Weinstein about it, and he gave me the opportunity to see if it an omnipotent version could function as its own film. We got in a room and created the film that will premiere in Cannes.”
Actually, not everybody was in that room. “Harvey never set foot in the room,” Benson said. “I showed him the assembly and some cuts, and we found the film had a completely new rhythm. We did the whole thing in about a month, starting with this massive assembly of footage and working backwards. We added some scenes I loved that I had to cut out, lost other scenes I loved, and used different reaction shots. I didn’t initially have the answer to that Toronto question about a combined version of the film, because I’d never tried it. If I had found that the third version didn’t exist, I would have thrown it away. I made two different films to empower audiences to see the story from two different viewpoints. It’s exciting to give them a choice to see it another way.”
Benson said when it became clear a third version would work, they raced to make the submission deadline at Cannes. “Turns out they loved it,” Benson said. “The patience of my editor and my producing partner, to Harvey believing in this project enough to allow another version to exist, it was inspiring.”
Benson said the plan will be to release the new two-hour cut around September 26. A month or six weeks later, the first two films, Him and Her, will play in limited release in art house theaters.
“It all came down to Jessica Chastain,” Benson said. “I’d given her the version that made the Black List, and she liked it, but when we met it all came down to two questions she asked. ‘Who is she? Where does this character go?’ I walked away and it opened up a whole new world to me. I worked on it quite a bit with Jessica (who’s also a producer) and we came up with a worthy storyline.”
And a Cannes ending Benson couldn’t have dreamed of scripting.