CS Interview: Writer/director Peter Hedges talks Ben is Back
In Ben is Back, 19-year-old Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges) unexpectedly returns home to his family’s suburban home on Christmas Eve morning. Ben’s mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), is relieved and welcoming but wary of her son staying clean. Over a turbulent 24 hours, new truths are revealed, and a mother’s undying love for her son is tested as she does everything in her power to keep him safe.
Recently the film screened at the Austin Film Festival, and we got the chance to sit down with writer/director Peter Hedges about his motivation for wanting to tell this story, the challenges of making it relatable, and finding character-driven ways to address the larger issues at hand.
ComingSoon: This seems like the kind of story you could only tell if you had some personal experience with addicts and addiction. Were there some specific experiences you were able to draw from here?
Peter Hedges: A couple of things. I grew up in a family riddled with alcoholism, and every family riddled with that has some things in common. That’s been my experience. So many of my friends, I found out later, grew up in very similar childhoods. I’ve always been more open about my experiences because I was blessed that my mother, who I didn’t know sober until I was 15, cleaned it up and the last 22 years of her life did really impactful work saving lives. My father, who’s an Episcopal priest of 58 years, a lot of his ministry was in the recovery field.
So I grew up in that family, but I was the person who never drank, never did drugs, was going to be the hero child, if you will, in the family dynamic. So I come from that world, but then I just noticed my favorite actor ever died. A friend died. A family member nearly died. We rallied with this family member into a rather expensive detox and recovery program, and they made it. So, I just saw all this happening, I started researching why trying to understand the difference between an alcoholic family and an opioid [or] heroin-addicted family. And then just quit all my day jobs and decided to try to write something urgent and impactful.
CS: Obviously, there are a lot of people with similar experiences that will identify with these characters. Not just Ben as an addict, but Holly as his mother, and the lengths she’ll go to for him — even at the expense of herself or the rest of her family. Is it a challenge to make these two lead characters empathetic to those who might not have this point of reference?
PH: It is a challenge, and what I found was helpful was that if I could love what they were trying to do, I could go very far with them. I really love that Holly is trying. I think she makes a ton of mistakes, but she’s trying. She’s not giving up on her kid. And I feel like in a culture right now that’s canceling everybody and people are dismissed and mocked and thrown away with apparent ease, it’s very moving and refreshing to me that there’s somebody who’s not going to give up on someone they love. That was kind of the Orpheus myth for me — my favorite myth.
In Ben, I loved the idea of a person who knew he’d fucked up and made many mistakes and was determined to right those wrongs and turn his life around. And that he was at a point in his recovery where they call it the pink cloud. You actually are feeling so buoyant and so hopeful that it’s a dangerous period, my research taught me, that where a lot of people slip up because they get more confident then they have a right to be.
But I found that if their intentions are for the highest good, and then their execution is messy, I could go very far with that. If they were Machiavellis or people that were intent on doing harm, it would be harder for me to care for them. And the film would be bleaker. I mean I think it deals with a very bleak issue, but I think these are people who are doing their best to do the right thing. So that helped me a lot. Understanding the positive thing they were trying to achieve.
CS: How did that translate into finding the right actors to play these roles?
PH: Well, I had a bit of a struggle early on in that I had been making more commercial films for the last 10 years, and my ego wanted to return to an indie cred and be someone that might kids, not that they weren’t proud of the films I’ve made, but my older son who isn’t in the film business said ‘Can’t you make a film like Gilbert Grape or Pieces of April again?’ And I said, ‘I will make you proud.’
There was a part of me that wanted to take my place next to, you know, Debra Granik. She’s such a hero for me. But what I wanted more was to find a way to tell a story that was uncompromised in what I was dealing with. It wasn’t going to make the people happy the way I’ve made and maybe some of my other films, but reach the most people.
That really informed my idea to go to Julia Roberts, because I felt like if Julia Roberts will come do this film in conditions that are less than ideal, it’s gonna be very cold, we’re not going to have enough time, it’s middle of winter, and she lives in a beautiful home with wonderful kids in Malibu. So, to get her to come in the winter, I just didn’t know if she would, and it’s a testament to her that she did, but I felt like if she comes and does what she can do, what I know she could do, and then she did that and did more than I even dreamt of, she brought it in every way that this would give the movie the best chance to reach the most people. And the reward of this film is that it when it’s experienced by audiences, now I’ve seen it with six or seven audiences in different festivals, it seems to impact many.
They reflect back to me that they felt they saw their own lives. They felt their own dynamic, either Holly dynamic or a Ben dynamic. Then the other people I’m hoping to reach to the people who have a very narrow and dismissive view of people who are struggling because there’s so much shame about this and so many secrets about it. Now more and more people, you’ll see this in the obituaries that I read daily, people are owning why their child or their mother or their grandmother or their wife or husband died — and that they struggled. People are stepping forward more and saying, ‘This is affecting us, it’s impacting us, it’s destroying us.’
So, the idea was that if Julia would sign on, and I didn’t ever expect that Lucas would be on her wish list, but when I met with her, I came armed with a group of actors that had expressed interest or their agents that have expressed interest in doing the film. I thought, ‘We’ve got really good options here,’ [but] she was insistent that Lucas do the film. I didn’t know how to tell her that he declared that he was never going to be in a film that I directed again after the disastrous day he spent shooting Dan in Real Life where I made him do a scene so many times that, as an eight-year-old boy with tears streaming down his face, said, ‘Dad, please don’t make me do it again.’ But her interest in him and his belief in the importance of the material overwhelmed his reluctance to be directed by me. Happily.
CS: He’s on quite the hot streak these days.
PH: Yeah, he is. One of the things that’s so inspiring about him is his capacity to look at material and see not only that there might be a great challenge for him as an actor in a role, but he also looks at material and sees its possibilities in terms of how it could land in the world. He does a film like Boy Erased because he believes in what that film’s about. He does Ben is Back because he believes in what that film’s about. You get into all of the choices he makes. He makes really staggeringly wise and thoughtful choices about who he works with and what the stories are these helping tell.
CS: I’m curious about one particular line in the film. It’s very early on, not long after everyone Ben shows up and surprises his family, and Courtney B. Vance, playing his stepfather, Neil, tells Holly that “If he were black he’d be in jail by now.” At what point did that line enter into the script, since it speaks to a much larger problem beyond the story of Ben and Holly.
PH: I came into telling the story trying to find a way, because I knew it was going to be a story about one family, that there’s something about this epidemic that wasn’t true during the crack epidemic in the 1970s, which was, ‘That was other people, those were minorities, we locked them up.’ Even though I know many white people who were crack addicts, it was compartmentalized, so I wanted to address it. The way I did in the script was the homeless woman at the end of the film used to have a monologue that unfortunately just came at the wrong time in the script. It slowed the movie down, but that monologue was about where were you during the 1970s, now that it’s in your neighborhood, it’s a disease, but it wasn’t then.
A lot of people I spoke to said this is just the new version of something that’s been here before, so I wanted to address it that way. When we came up with the idea and offered it to Courtney B. Vance, and he responded, I needed to make one change in the script. There was this speech where Ben talked about how unattractive Neil was, and I said, ‘Well, that’s got to go,’ because how can you say that about Courtney? He’s the most stunning man. He’s one of the great men I’ve ever met. But, I also felt like there was an opportunity there. I try, in my films, to normalize things that maybe 20 or 30 years ago a film would have been about. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner needed its own film, but now blended families you see all the time.
But as I lived with it and I imagined Neil as a character and what his point of view would be, I thought just to be true to [his] point of view, which is the truth. If Ben were black, he would probably be in jail. I felt like that was an opportunity. I tried to find, in an organic way, numerous opportunities to articulate some of the injustices that are reasons for the epidemic — without being political or overt or riff on a polemic, but that moment was important to me. Black people are more likely to be incarcerated than white people. That’s just a fact and it’s regrettable and it’s got to change.
Also, how big Pharma so complicit in this crisis that we’re in the middle of because of their misleading information about what they prescribed. They knew these drugs were addictive, and I tried to find ways to address those points, but organically from a place of character and less from a place of a writer having a strong point of view. Whether I succeeded or not remains to be seen, but that’s what I tried to do.
Ben is Back opens in theaters everywhere December 7.