Still Learning: Ben Is Back Writer-Director Peter Hedges on Depicting Addiction

Ben Is Back is the wonderful new feature film from writer-director Peter Hedges (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Dan in Real Life).

The film follows Ben (Lucas Hedges, the director’s son (we’ll get into it)) and his mother Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) over the course of a day. It’s Christmas Eve, and Ben has made a surprise return home from rehab. He explains to Holly, her new husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance), and his sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) that he’s obtained his sponsor’s permission for a short holiday visit on account of good behavior. Ben is lying. The lie propels Ben Is Back as it quickly unravels after the family dog, Ponce, is stolen from the Burns home while the family attends an evening church service. Among the many bridges Ben’s burned in the throes of addiction is one with a ruthless, local drug lord who orchestrated Ponce’s dog-napping as collateral until he’s paid back what Ben owes him in full.

What ensues is an absolutely gripping odyssey Ben and Holly must take together through the underbelly of an opioid-addled New England town that becomes the painful autopsy of a fractured mother and son relationship. I cried so much during Ben Is Back, and was absolutely delighted to speak to its director Peter Hedges about his relationship to addiction, writing a film about opioid addiction amidst a national epidemic, and learning new things 30 years into your career.

It took Julia Roberts’ charm to get Lucas Hedges onboard for Ben Is Back. Image courtesy of LD Ent./Roadside Attractions.

Ryan Coleman, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): When did you start writing the movie, when did you shoot, and if you could talk briefly about casting?

Peter Hedges (PH): I knew I wanted to write something about the heroin opioid epidemic for years. I was researching for quite some time, but didn’t really write anything Ben Is Back related until February of 2017. That May I basically let go of all other projects and gave myself a six-week window to write a draft. I could go six weeks without some kind of paying work. I got a draft in five weeks and five days. At that point, I knew I was going to make the film, even if I had to finance it myself—sell our house, even. I knew I had to make it.

By September of 2017, a producer friend of mine had the film sent to Julia Roberts’ people. She agreed to do it. I thought, well, I knew that Lucas didn’t want to be in a film of mine. He’d been clear: “You’re my dad, and I make films with directors.” I get the best deal, though. I get to be his dad. But when Julia read the script she could only picture Lucas in the part. When his commitments during our window fell away, she persuasively and classily encouraged Lucas to do the film. She’d send me pictures with her red-haired son and say, “look how well boys with red hair get along with me!” It worked. He responded to the material, but it was also the prospect of working with her that outweighed his understandable reluctance.

Ben (Lucas Hedges) and Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) facing the horrors of addiction.

MM: As a director who’s also a father, what do you think of the odyssey that Ben and Holly have to embark on together? Does that deep but forced sharing put a strain on a relationship, or does it bring a healthier accountability to an addict?

PH: It’s a great question. I’m going to tell you a story. It’s something I’ve written about once but never talked about in an interview. I used to go to AA meetings with my mother, because she was in recovery, and I grew up with an alcoholic mom. I didn’t know her sober until I was 15. She was a very popular speaker in the AA community. Speakers usually tell the story of your life as a model of experience, strength, and hope. Whenever I went with my mother, however, she would tell the history of AA. I didn’t realize it at the time because I was just so proud of her. Now that she’s dead I realize: she didn’t want me to know her story. That was one of the guiding concepts behind this screenplay. What if you have to reveal your truth?

As a general rule, it’s good that we have less and less secrets. In the case of the film, I don’t know if it’s all good or all bad. I don’t know if you can fully heal if you don’t expose the infection, get the tumor out, etc. What I do know, what is absolutely important is that we all begin to accept addiction as a disease. It doesn’t mean people can’t be held to account for what they do, but it informs the mercy and compassion we extend to people. My mother walked out of my house when I was seven. She would not have walked out if she were not an alcoholic. She may have taken us with her. I don’t really know because I only knew her when she was sober. But I can tell you that a sober woman would never have walked out on her family. 

MM: Tell me about the way you depicted the triggers Ben and Holly encounter after Ben escapes from treatment.

PH: The film stays mostly in Holly’s point of view but sometimes shifts to Ben’s. The scene with his teacher, for example. I did shoot a scene where you hear what they say. Even as we were shooting Lucas said to me, “Dad, you may want to live with just Holly watching this.” Even he had that instinct. As I was cutting it became apparent it was more powerful to see it through her limited perspective. I learn so much with every movie. It’s like, I’m 56, it’s wrong to be learning so much this late, but here we go! What I’m learning is, the more we can be put in the shoes, the thoughts, the feelings, and the perspective of the people we care about the better. My movies are best when we care about and understand that these people are broken and need help. MM

Ben Is Back is in select theaters now, courtesy of LD Ent./Roadside Attractions. All images courtesy of LD Ent./Roadside Attractions.

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