The writer-director looked to get back to his most “authentic and vibrant” artistic self with his latest film
By Kirsten Coachman
Opening in San Francisco this weekend is the new film “Ben is Back,” written and directed by Peter Hedges, starring Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, and Kathryn Newton. Nineteen-year-old Ben Burns (Lucas) shows up at home to the surprise of his mother Holly (Roberts) the morning of Christmas Eve, who, while delighted to see her son, is wary of his unexpected return as well as his ability to stay sober and has to cope with his step-father and sister’s immediate distrust. Over the course of a tumultuous 24 hours, their familial bond is tested when Ben’s past catches up with him and Holly looks to do whatever it takes to keep her son safe.
Academy Art U News sat down with Peter to discuss “Ben is Back” during a press stop, while he was in town for the Mill Valley Film Festival back in October.
Beginning his career as a playwright and later a novelist, Peter adapted his own novel, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” for the screen, as well as Nick Hornby’s “About a Boy,” for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2003. That same year, his debut feature film, which he also wrote, “Pieces of April,” was released. Other directing and writing credits include 2007’s “Dan in Real Life” and 2012’s “The Odd Life of Timothy Green.”
“When my kids came along, I started to need to be a provider, and I had some very nice experiences taking other people’s ideas and either turning them into films or rewriting them, or I got to work on ‘About a Boy,’ or I adapted a book that I wished I’d written,” he remarked. “And just along the way, I looked up and then suddenly it had been 15 years since I’ve made ‘Pieces of April,’ which is the one film I directed that was from an original script. Now my kids were older, and they’d gone through college—Lucas didn’t end up staying in college—but I’d done the things I needed to do to provide.”
For the writer-director, the idea surrounding “Ben is Back” came from a need to “get back to making urgent, original work”—timely stories that Peter felt would be useful to the world in its current state. Part of this desire “was born out of frustrations after the election and not liking feeling powerless about what was happening in our country,” he shared. “And then I thought, ‘Well, what could I do? What kinds of stories could I commit to telling that would be useful?’”
As someone that enjoys writing about family, Peter reflected back on “Pieces of April,” being a film about a family set in a short period of time around a holiday. Embracing those concepts, he decided to take it a step further and incorporate a topic that is very personal to him, being the ongoing heroin opioid epidemic and how it has affected not just people close to him, but people across the country. “It was that personal desire to get back to being my most authentic and vibrant self, artistically,” he said, “but then also wanting to tell a story that I thought would be impactful.”
When it came to casting, Peter knew he needed a great actress to play Holly, one whose performance could genuinely affect the audience-at-large, and at the top of his wishlist was his favorite movie star. “I thought, ‘Well, she probably won’t do it, but let’s send it to Julia Roberts,’” he said. “I didn’t know her well, I’d met her a couple of times, but everything I know about her is that she’s a mother most of all.”
He continued, “She’s devoted and fierce and will just go to the end of the Earth for her kids. And that was a quality that Holly needed.”
Roberts’ agent passed the script onto the Oscar-winning actress, who liked it and met with Peter to further discuss the film, including who would play the titular role of Ben. Before they even began reviewing the list of young actors Peter put together, Roberts inquired about his son Lucas, who received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his work on “Manchester By the Sea” in 2016. “She said, ‘And Lucas is going to do this movie, isn’t he?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know if he wants to do a film with his dad, so we haven’t really talked about it,’” he shared about their conversation, adding that Roberts began “a very gentle, but forceful campaign for [Lucas] to do the film.”
“And that, I think, piqued his interest,” said Peter.
After Lucas came on board, he asked to have a conversation with his dad. “We went downstairs to the garden floor of our house, and he had three questions for me and about the script,” said Peter. “We talked for two hours about those three questions and within moments after he asks those very smart, very astute questions, we were director and actor working.”
On-set, the father and son duo were peers, Lucas addressed his dad as “Peter” throughout the shoot, and Peter admitted that more than usual, he tried to stay out of the way. “I didn’t want him to feel my presence,” he said. “I’m sure there were moments for him where it’s like, ‘Ugh, that’s my dad talking,’ you know? When you’re a part of serving a story that’s bigger than any of us, that’s about a topic more important than any of us, you just try to proceed in the spirit of service, in the spirit of ‘how do I help make this the best version of what it can be?’ And that’s what we did.”
At the top of the film, Holly informs Ben that she intends to keep a close eye on him while he’s at home—“You are mine, all mine. Got it?”—which includes attending an AA meeting right by his side. “It’s a favorite section for me because it’s where everything we know to be true expands in every direction,” said Peter. “We understand his shame, we understand her fear.” Additionally, it was also a way for him to tell the story in a way that the audience could learn things about Ben at the same time Holly was learning things she wasn’t aware of about her son.
A film featuring potential career-best performances from its leads is always a plus, but it created an interesting situation for the writer-director. “I could watch [Julia and Lucas] interact all day,” he said. “It was a challenge to edit their performances because they were so alive with each other in every take that sometimes it was painful to have to make a choice. I feel like I could have put out two or three versions of this movie with alternate takes of some of the key scenes.”
In one of those key scenes, Roberts’ Holly confronts her son with a powerful, yet paralyzing question in the middle of a cemetery: “Just tell me, son, where do you want me to bury you?” It’s heart-wrenching, yet ultimately riveting to watch as the characters deal with the harsh reality of Ben’s struggle with addiction head on.
“I think that’s one of the beauties of what she does in this performance,” said Peter. “Julia has a capacity to go to so many different places that she’s frail, she’s fragile, she’s fierce, she will not be denied. Her teeth can get very sharp, and all of that makes for a very complex performance.”
He added, “One of the things I love about Lucas’ performance as Ben is that you feel the good person inside and you feel that he’s trying so hard to hold onto that good person.
“My hope is that people who have lost their patience with addicts or given up can see that there are remarkable people inside there, if we can find them.”
“Ben is Back” is now playing in San Francisco.