Peter Hedges is a multi-talented filmmaker having worked in various mediums over the years. He’s written screenplays and novels, one of which is What’s Eating Gilbert Grape one of his most famous works. He’s also directed some of his own scripts like Pieces of April and The Odd Life of Timothy Green. Often Hedges’ films explore themes regarding the family dynamic, whether that be between siblings or a mother and her daughter. In his most recent film, Ben is Back, Hedges’ tells an emotional story about a mother and her opioid addicted son who shows up unannounced after being away at a rehabilitation facility.
Starring Julia Roberts who plays Holly and Lucas Hedges who plays Ben, Holly’s son, over the span of Christmas Eve day, their relationship with one another evolves as the two discover things about each other, and themselves, that they had not previously. The story grapples with the indelible bond a mother has with her child even at its toughest moments.
After the film’s premiere at the Austin Film Festival, we sat down with Hedges to talk about Ben is Back, the significance of the mother-son relationship he’s created between Holly and Ben in the film, and working with his own son on this project. Below is our conversation.
To start, could you tell me a little bit about your decision to make Ben is Back?
Artistically, I just wanted to get back to my roots. I wanted to make something more akin to Pieces of April or Gilbert Grape or some of my earlier work. I had been doing a lot of films for studios and I thought I wanted to just write an original script. This particular story I started thinking a lot about after my favorite actor ever died of an overdose and a friend died of an overdose, very close together. Then a family member nearly died, and in that instance, we were able to rally, gather our resources and put this person in an appropriate facility for a long-term detox and recovery. And five years they’ve now been clean. That process opened my eyes to the heroin/opioid epidemic which was different from what I grew up with which was a family riddled with alcoholism. Different in some ways but very much the same in other ways. After the election, I felt hopeless and helpless as many have, and tried to figure out what I might do and what I could put in the world that might be useful and impactful. And I love the Orpheus myth. I thought I was writing about a brother and a sister at first. A sister going to the end of the world to help her brother but then flipped it to make it a mother, and that mother/son story. I basically set aside a window of time where I said I’m going to write a script within a very narrow period of time and then I’m gonna shoot it in the fall and it’s going to come out in the following fall. And that’s somehow what I was able to do with a lot of help from a lot of people.
You said you changed your original idea and decided to make it a story about a mother and a son. And throughout the film, those two characters are very nuanced, feeling a million different emotions at various times regarding each other. So for you, what is important about that mother-son dynamic in the story?
I once heard a story, it’s probably apocryphal, but I love the notion. That a car had flipped over and the baby was trapped underneath the car and the mother was thrown from the car. Then the mother lifted up the car to pull her child to safety. And I believe that my own strength comes from whom and what I love. So if I have a story I believe in the way I believe in Ben is Back, I can endure all sorts of things that I can’t endure otherwise. Thinking that I’m too weak or insecure or too untalented to rise. But if I have that love then I have an uncommon strength. And when I was writing this I knew I wanted to write a love story about a very hard thing. The greatest love I believe…the greatest love I have is for my children, but I think the greatest love probably universally is a mother’s love for a child. And that seemed like the best water to swim in if you will.
Speaking of that parent/child relationship, your son Lucas plays Ben. He’s had a really great few years and is excellent in this film. But what was it like for you to direct your son in such an emotionally tough role?
The hardest part was the decision to work together. Not so much for me. I was hoping he would do the film. But once Julia had said that she wanted to do the film, I didn’t write it thinking he would do the film because he’d been clear he was never going to be in a film of mine. That said, the day to day work was not hard at all, because he was like the other actors in the film. He prepares in such a deep and meaningful way, and he comes to play in the right way. He’s open and available. He’s got great access to his emotions. He is very thoughtful in his choices. And he and Julia together were so dynamic and magical. So that wasn’t hard. The hardest part for me was the fear that I would fail him. He didn’t need to do a movie with his dad. He’s doing just fine. And I felt fearful that I would fail him. Either in what I had written and the work that we would make together. Or that I would fail him as a father. So I had a few moments that really hit me and worried me. He was unaware of those moments. I didn’t share them with him, but I shared them with my producers. That was probably the hardest part. He’s at an age where the fun part of being 21 is that you can be free of your parents. So to have your dad there, maybe not so much fun.
Why did you decide to set the story during Christmastime specifically?
I needed a reason to help motivate why Holly would want him to stay. Once I knew that he was just going to be home for a day, it could have been for a birthday or a random weekend. But the fact that it was Christmas, that it was special, that would help motivate why she’s insistent that he maybe be able to stay. It’s also a triggering holiday for…
Yes exactly. I mean that’s the time that we’re supposed to be happy and have our shit together if you will. Our stuff together.
The reveals in the story come gradually and organically throughout the film. You meet Ben at the very beginning and you find out as time goes on many of the pieces to his story. As both the writer and director on this film, how did those choices and reveals come together?
This is such a big topic. There are so many stories that I could tell. And I thought I have the bandwidth to handle one family over one day. I used to find limitations frustrating, but I find them enormously liberating. Once I realized I didn’t have to tell the definitive story that covered all points of view, but I could tell hopefully an exquisite version of this family on this day. So many of my favorite films…my favorite film of all is a film called The Celebration by Thomas Vinterberg, first Dogme film ever made, and it took place over a weekend. And I find that films that take place over a short period of time are often some of my most favorite films, and I think one of the reasons is that it compresses big issues but makes them very relatable in that they all take place in a narrow period of time. That’s what I tried to do.
What do you hope is a message audiences take away or something they leave the theater thinking about after watching this film?
For people who’ve been through it, that they recognize it and it feels true so they feel less alone in their own experience, either as a family member or a person suffering from the disease. For people who don’t know this world or it’s hard for them to believe that there are people impacted by this, those who say “I don’t understand, just say no,” that their capacity for compassion and empathy is massively expanded so that they go “oh, this is what my friend has been going through. This is what my relative has been going through.” That it is not a choice. It’s an addiction, it’s a disease. So shame reduction would be great, so that people who’ve been through it can feel less shame, less alone, and for people who have strong judgments that they actually feel more compassion and that they’re more open to the fact that this may be impacting them and they don’t even know it.
Ben is Back is in select theaters December 7th and nationwide December 21st.