Writer/Director Peter Hedges on Re-Finding his Voice With Ben is Back

Writer/director Peter Hedges was in attendance at the Middleburg Film Festival to promote and talk about his new film Ben is Back, which stars Julia Roberts and Hedges’ son Lucas, as a mother and her drug-addicted son, who returns from rehab for a 24-hour visit on Christmas Eve. Holly Burns (Roberts) loves her son, even as it is clear he’s having difficulty getting his life back together. Ben seems genuinely committed to sobriety, as he interacts with his mom, his sister, his stepdad and half-siblings. It becomes clear, however, that Ben has left unfinished business and made enemies, when the house is ransacked and the family dog goes missing. Holly and Ben go out to try to right some of his wrongs, in the hopes of getting the dog back safely by Christmas morning.

Hedges, who is known as the writer of both the novel and screenplay for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and as writer/director of Pieces of April and Dan in Real Life, was persuaded by Julia Roberts to approach his son for the title character in Ben is Back, even though Lucas, who was nominated for an Oscar for his work in Manchester By The Sea, said he’d never work with his father. Clearly, something changed. Hedges, a humble, reserved man who lights up when discussing his newest project, spoke to The Credits about the new film.

You and your son have different experiences or memories relating to addiction, can you talk about that? 

Of course, he’d have to speak for himself, but I grew up in a house where I didn’t know my mother sober until I was 15. She had sober moments, but she was mostly sad and drunk. She left when I was 7. Lucas didn’t experience that. He grew up with two parents that were sober and present. He certainly has friends who have struggled, but I grew up in a family very different from his. I’m not saying he didn’t grow up with shame, and guilt, and complications, but it was very different. He heard me talk a lot about my childhood, and he did copious amounts of research. He went to meetings, he talked to lots of addicts and did all kinds of things I hadn’t even realized he’d done. He was so quiet about it. I recently had an experience with extended family, when one of my family members almost died and went to rehab. As a family, my dad as he was dying, my two brothers, my sister, and my other niece all did family therapy over the phone, every week for more than a year.

Why did you pick Christmas specifically as the 24 hours in which Ben comes home? 

I needed a reason for him to come home that was special. If he’d just shown up any day, they’d have sent him back. Holly even says that. It could have been a family reunion or a birthday, but I had a lot of success with a film that centered on Thanksgiving, Pieces of April, and I also felt that Christmas is a time when we’re supposed to be happy and generous. It’s also a particularly loaded time for everybody involved, and a time that sets off all our triggers. It did occur to me while we were shooting that this wouldn’t be a Christmas movie a family will want to sit down to, year after year.  No one is going to say they need to pop it in and sit down with popcorn after opening the presents. That’s hard for me. I tend to make movies that I hope people will enjoy over and over again. Of all the films I’ve made, this feels the most important, and it’s about the most, and so that’s what guided it.

Do you have any particularly loaded experiences around Christmas that influenced the writing or wound up influencing the film? 

It’s interesting I never thought about it before right now. Something happened when I was 7, at Christmas. I thought my mother was moving home for good. I went to sleep on Christmas Eve thinking she was home for good. In the middle of the night, I ran in to see my parents and jumped into the bed and she wasn’t there. My dad was alone. I woke him up and asked him, ‘where’s mom?’, and he said, ‘Oh, Peter, she’s not coming back.’ I wrote about it in my second novel, which is about a 7-year-old boy, and I described it as feeling like a vacuum had been stuck down my throat and my heart had been sucked out of my body. I didn’t consciously draw on that in this movie at all, but it is interesting, and that’s probably the most defining moment of my childhood.

What accounts for how quickly you were able to write Ben is Back

I felt that I had lost touch with my purpose as a writer. I had lost my confidence as a writer. I had spent a few years rewriting things or trying things that weren’t coming to fruition. I even started looking around for where I might teach. I thought maybe I was done. I started a lot of work cognitively, developing strategies to challenge assumptions I was starting to form about myself. Then what I did was I decided to gift myself a period of time. I got off every kind of social media, although I’m not on much as it is, and I created a window of time. I told myself I was going to write a draft of something I’d just started, and that was Ben is Back. It had to be done by my birthday. I said I’d rewrite whatever needs fixing, and then I’d make it. I just kind of decided to do it. I finished on the 4th of July and my birthday is on the 6th. I threw myself a birthday party and did a reading there, and then did a rewrite based on that, and then sent it to Julia Roberts. I think what it was is, I wasn’t stuck as a writer. I hadn’t lost it. It was just that I wasn’t writing the stories I was meant to tell. Somehow through all that work, and the perfect storm with what’s happening politically, and feeling helpless, thinking I just can’t watch any more cable news and rage at the television, I felt like I have to take whatever my gifts are, and put them towards work that is meaningful and impactful. I felt like this could be the start of a new phase of work, and it appears that that’s the case. Now I’m writing quickly. Things are pouring through me right now.

I’m at an age where friends are dying, and I’m looking at people disappearing, and so it was time to ask what I could put into the world that are stories I have to tell, or can’t wait to tell. Those are the stories I’m courting in my dreamtime and my writing time. Hopefully, I’ll have the good fortune, as I did with Ben is Back, to attract people like Julia and Lucas, and the others who came on board, and I can make more films that have meaning like this one.

Featured image: Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges in ‘Ben is Back.’ Courtesy Roadside Attractions.


Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale is lead contributor for the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, where she writes reviews and spotlights focused on female filmmakers and women in film. You can find her work on the site at AWFJ.org. She has owned ArtInsights, an art gallery dedicated to film art, for over 25 years, which has resulted in expertise in the history of animation and film concept art.  She is in her eighth year as producer and moderator of the "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con.