Peter Hedges on Ben Is Back
January 3, 2019
When novelist, playwright and Oscar®-nominated filmmaker Peter Hedges sat down to write the screenplay for the new addiction drama Ben Is Back, he drew from a personal place.
“I grew up in a family ravaged by alcoholism,” Hedges said.
“My mother walked out of the house drunk when I was seven. I knew her first as a sober person when I was 15. I lost a close friend who had been doing well, who relapsed and overdosed.”
These experiences acquainted him with how one person’s suffering impacts a family.
The film, which Hedges also directed, chronicles an eventful 24 hours in the life of an upper middle class suburban East Coast family, beginning on the morning of Christmas Eve when the teenaged Ben (Manchester by the Sea's Lucas Hedges, Peter's real-life son) unexpectedly returns home from live-in rehab, where he was undergoing treatment for heroin addiction.
Ben's sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) and stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story) are both wary of Ben's claims of being on the straight and narrow, but his devoted mother Holly (Julia Roberts, no introduction necessary) is ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. As the day progresses, Holly's maternal dedication is tested far beyond any reasonable limit.
Hedges said he was conscious of not rolling out the same old squalid cinematic addiction clichés with the film.
“The people who suffer from heroin and opioid pain pills and alcohol in my life, I get in a spiral of real frustration and anger with them because it's a perpetual cycle,” he said.
“It seemed that if I could start this story with Ben having some recovery, by having him return home and be in an environment where he'll encounter all the triggers that set him back, that felt like something I'd not seen before. It felt very cinematic, it felt dramatic.”
The narrative of the film centers around how much rope Holly is willing to give her beloved son, despite him having let her down so often in the past.
“The notion for Ben to have a mother who was determined to not give up on him,” Hedges said.
“I knew if she would go anywhere in the way Orpheus would go anywhere to bring back Eurydice [in the ancient legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which the former followed the latter into hell], that being the greatest love story that I know of, what if a mother felt that for her son?”
Although Ben Is Back initially appears to be an emotional family drama, it often has the feel of a thriller, despite Hedges’ lack of intention to make it that.
“It's just not a genre that I'm comfortable with or that I know,” he said.
“But the truth is the more I inhabited where these characters could be and what they were hoping for and what they were afraid of, it organically led to the emotional thrill ride that the story ultimately takes us on.”
That sense of urgent storytelling emerged out of the timeline Hedges wanted to portray.
“I have found in many of the films that I most love, the compression of time can often lead to a very exhilarating cinematic experience because the clock is ticking so loud,” he said.
“And while I've never written a film with such a loud clock, I felt that that was a great way to communicate what families who have a family member who is suffering go through every day.”
Hedges' first screen credit was for the acclaimed 1993 film What's Eating Gilbert Grape, which he adapted from his own novel. That was the film that garnered Leonardo DiCaprio his first Oscar nomination. Hedges went on to garner his own nomination (alongside Chris and Paul Weitz) for writing the 2002 film About a Boy, based Nick Hornby's novel.
Hedges then moved into directing his own screenplays with the Katie Holmes vehicle Pieces of April (2003) followed by the Steve Carell dramedy Dan in Real Life (2007), then the Jennifer Garner domestic fantasy The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012).
In the time since his last film, he has watched his son Lucas become one of the most acclaimed young actors working today thanks to his breakout, Oscar-nominated performance in 2016's Manchester by the Sea.
“I'm in awe of his talent,” Hedges said of his son. “I appreciate actors like Lucas, and Julia too, who really see themselves as servants of the material.” According to Hedges, his son did him a “favor” by working on the film.
“The truth is he didn't need to do this film. He'd just done Boy Erased, a stunning film which he is amazing in and he was due a break. But Julia had a window; she wanted him to do the film, and when he said he would do it, I realized maybe I wanted it but would never allow myself to think it,” he said.
“It was a thrill to work with him. I learned a great deal from him. I got to watch my favorite movie star — who's a great actress — act opposite my favorite actor, who I also happen to be lucky enough to be the father of.”
Ben Is Back is now in theaters.
Written by: Dominic CorryDominic Corry is a Los Angeles-based film critic, writer, journalist and broadcaster. Raised in New Zealand, he is also the West Coast editor of Letterboxd, the social network for movie lovers. For more of his film writing, see his website www.TheGoodInMovies.com