The Unison Films principals talk to Jeremy Kay about their Toronto premiere The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her [pictured].
Unison principals and siblings Emanuel Michael and Cassandra Kulukundis have plied their trade for close to a decade as a financier, developer and producer of rare taste.
They arrive at Toronto with the world premiere of one of the most unusual films in a while, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her, the story of a fading romance told from two perspectives that stars Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy.
What makes things even more unusual, Michael and Kulukundis tell Jeremy Kay, is they still don’t know in which order to screen the world premiere on Sept 9.
Myriad Pictures handles international sales and WME Global is the US sales agent.
How did you meet and start the business?
Emanuel Michael: We are brother and sister so we got together at a very early age. Our mother was an actress and grew up loving films and put us through a great education. I had seen Sunset Boulevard six times by the time I was nine. Growing up in Manhattan exposed us to a great deal of independent film.
Cassandra is a casting director who has worked on every Paul Thomas Anderson film. I had been an actor growing up and after Brown [University] I went into business but always had an interest in going back into film. I wrote a few scripts and in 1998-98 I started going to Cannes, Berlin and Rotterdam to learn the business.
I set up Unison in 2004. My personal interest was in fiction and I wanted to be that producer I was looking for who could find a director with passion and make their film without changing the ending just to make it more commercial.
What’s the Unison model?
EM: We’re backed by high net worth individuals from North America and Europe and have returned a profit to our investors on every film. The tease is we make films with universal appeal that can sell around the world.
We have always looked to [structure projects with] international sales and co-productions and government money so that the equity is a small part. It’s always been financially rewarding to investors to the point now where we are comfortable on anything from $10-50m.
How did Eleanor Rigby come about?
Cassandra Kulukundis: It took four years of writing and developing. Ned [Benson, debut feature writer-director] was a childhood friend and I’d reconnected with him in adulthood. He started writing it in 2008 and he’s an incredible, incredible writer and yet it’s never overwritten.
Eleanor Rigby was one story. It was a great script and we showed it to Jessica [Chastain] and she kept saying where does the female character go [when she disappears in the story] and we talked about it and went to Ned and said it was becoming another script.
I had just seen The Norman Conquests [Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy of plays that focuses on the same six characters in a different part of a house over the course of a single weekend] and thought why could that not be done in film? I thought the idea could work.
Talking of Chastain, how did you get your cast?
CK: We signed Jessica about a year before she popped. James [McAvoy] took two years to sign. With Jessica attached I was going out to other actors because that always makes investors feel more comfortable. James was our first choice and when we approached him it wasn’t a good time. We offered it to other actors and we got the money and were ready to go when another actor dropped out. Then James was back and read the script and said ‘Yes’ and was in New York very quickly.
How did you secure financing? The project is such a risk
CK: We shopped it around. It took a couple of years. The private investors came on and said, ‘Don’t you dare make this one movie.’
How did Benson shoot this?
CK: We started in July 2012 in New York and Douglaston doubling for Connecticut. For the most part the films are very much individual. He is in his restaurant and has his group of friends and when she needs space she goes off to her family in Connecticut.
The crossover scenes were shot on different days so as not to confuse the actors. There were little differences people had to remember about who was wearing what. It was all thought out from cinematography, production design and costume perspectives. Each perspective is very clear.
So which order will it screen in at the Sept 9 world premiere?
CK: You can watch these films in either order. We have done screenings and watched people’s reactions. You have to watch it and you begin to figure out what is going on with this couple’s lives. There are no tricks – it’s ‘He said, she said’ from different perspectives. But we still haven’t decided which order to screen it in. The whole thing runs to about three hours and 10 minutes.
EM: When you know someone, you need to know the people they know and take the context of their lives into account. [The film] doesn’t rely on technique. It’s really more about emotion and humanity. You will be thinking about the film for days.
Is there a production mandate for Unison?
EM: Over the last few years we have done three to four a year. We don’t have a number. I think four is the maximum so you have one film a season and are able to nurture it. If it comes together it’s meant to be: there’s a cosmic producer up in the sky.
What else have you done and what is coming up?
EM: We’ve produced movies like A Late Quartet and Great Expectations, which premiered in Toronto last year and will be released on Oct 11 in the US through Mainstreet Films.
We self-distributed [Taika Waititi’s acclaimed New Zealand drama] Boy. We launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise P&A funds for that one. We also self-released a romance called The Elephant King.
Coming up we’re working with Taika again on What We Do In The Shadows. It’s a vampire comedy set in New Zealand that is in post and we’d like to get into Sundance. We’ve also got Jojo Rabbit, a comedy from a Blacklist script by Taika that is a co-production with Studio Babelsberg in Germany and we hope to start shooting in March 2014 in Berlin.