Tom Beasley chats to director Peter Hedges about his new film Ben is Back, in which his son Lucas Hedges plays the title role…
Just a few months after Timothée Chalamet broke the world’s hearts as a bizarrely attractive meth addict in Beautiful Boy, another exciting young actor is flexing his muscles as an addict on the road to recovery. Lucas Hedges, who was so terrific in Manchester By The Sea and Lady Bird, is the title character in Ben is Back, directed by Peter Hedges – the writer of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and About a Boy, who also happens to be Lucas’s father.
The film begins with Ben returning home from rehab on Christmas Eve, determined to spend the festive season with his family, against the advice of doctors. Julia Roberts is his mother, Holly, who decides to give Ben a chance. All seems to be well, until the family dog disappears and the two embark on a road trip through Ben’s past in order to find out what might have happened.
To mark the UK release of Ben is Back, Peter Hedges got on the phone with Flickering Myth to chat about the responsibility of such a realistic issue, as well as his pride at the achievements of his son.
One thing I certainly wasn’t expecting about this film is that it’s a Christmas movie. What inspired that choice?
I needed a reason that Holly would allow Ben to stay home, basically. As you know, when the story starts, he’s got 77 days of sobriety and the agreement is that he shouldn’t return home because that’s where he can get into the most trouble. He shows up unexpectedly and I wanted to make it a story that took place at a particular moment, so you could understand why they might allow him to stay for a day. It could have been a family reunion. It could have been for a wedding or something, but I chose Christmas. It’s also a time when you want your family to be together, and it seems like it would be a good reason for her to keep him home.
More generally, tell me a little bit about how you got involved in telling this story?
I come from a family that has been ravaged by alcoholism. But more recently, I lost a close friend to overdose, my favourite actor ever [Philip Seymour Hoffman] died from an overdose and a family member nearly died. That got me thinking about all of this untenable loss and wondering why this was happening so frequently, not only in my life but in the lives of so many people I know. I began doing a tonne of research for a number of years and all the while looking for a way to tell a story that I thought could be impactful and hopefully helpful.
There’s so much potential in telling a story of addiction to sensationalise and misrepresent the issue. How did you go about making sure the way you told the story was true to life?
In terms of how a family is impacted by a family member who is suffering, that I know about. it’s almost in my DNA, from my upbringing. But in terms of this particular epidemic, and heroin and opioids in particular, I leaned on many of my friends who have suffered and experts who work in the field. I had them interrogate my script and help me expand on what I began with to try to make it feel as believable and truthful as possible. But also, at the same time, I wanted it to be a film that would speak to people who have lived it or who are living it, but also for people who don’t know this world and could, in experiencing the film, gain some compassion and some empathy for how other people are struggling.
It’s that thing we do, where we look to a small cadre of good, smart people who are going to keep it honest. I have those people in my life and, if I didn’t have enough of them, I went out and found others. I asked them to help me make it more truthful.
Does telling a story like this, which is so grounded in real problems that many families go through, come with a sense of responsibility that a more purely fictional tale doesn’t?
Oh, of course. Everybody’s experience is unique, but there are it seems certain truths that are evidenced in most families’ stories. It was important to get it right. It is a movie. It is a fictional story. But it’s built out of lots of real stories either that I know of or that I have learned about. It’s a tricky thing because you never want to romanticise this epidemic, or exploit it, so the hope was – and I’m not saying that I succeeded at every moment – to put a story out into the world that felt true.
The thing I found most interesting actually is that the addiction story is sort of the backdrop for a road trip thriller rather than being the real centre of the movie. Was there a deliberate decision to move the addiction loom over the movie without being the focus all of the time?
It’s a great question. First of all, I believe we need lots of stories that deal with this issue, and from multiple points of view. After I did my deep dive into research, I felt the one thing I could do was tell a story about one family over the course of one day. Once I narrowed the scope of the story, I felt that the structural limitation gave me tremendous freedom. What could happen over the course of one day? One of the frustrating parts of my experience with people who are suffering is the cyclical nature of addiction. Often, they pull themselves together and then they slip, and it keeps repeating, which can become immensely frustrating and painful, to watch someone you love suffer in that way.
What felt unique about having the story take place over one day was it gave me an opportunity to start from the point of view where Ben had put together some recovery, but probably not enough to feel confident to expose himself to places and things that might trigger him to relapse. By setting it over the course of one day, that ended up creating this emotional thrill ride you described, which takes place particularly in the latter half of the movie. It was certainly not my intention when I set out to write the film to write a story that went in that direction. It was just the organic response to the circumstances I had set down, which was that it was going to take place over one day from Christmas Eve to Christmas morning.
Orpheus is my favourite myth, and the prodigal son is my favourite parable. Of course, Orpheus goes into the underworld to bring his love back and I thought ‘what if a mother went in to bring her son back?’. So I knew that was what was going to happen, but I didn’t know how. So I think what I did like was the idea of starting from a place where he had some recovery and was doing well. One of the questions was going to be ‘if he did stay home for this day, would she be able to keep him on the path of health and recovery?’, so there’s that kind of driving question that informs pretty much every moment of the film.
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