“I thought, and researched, and dreamt about this for a long time,” says Peter Hedges about Ben is Back, a heart wrenching drama of a close family’s 24 hour ordeal around a grown son involved with drugs. “The biggest influences on this were a phone call from a relative saying that one of my relatives was in deep trouble. Deep trouble. And might not live. And about that time my favourite actor – who I knew, not well, but enough that he’d stop and talk to me – Philip Seymour Hoffman died. it’s such an untenable loss.
“And then I just started reading, and looking, and absorbing, and consuming every film myself. Watching every documentary, reading every obituary, thousands of obituaries of people lined my walls, my office. Didn’t do anything with it, just kept … And then the election happened, and I decided that my kids were old enough, and I’d been doing a lot of work turning Pinocchio into a little girl for Disney … You’ll never see it, because they’re going to make the regular Pinocchio, but that’s what I did…
“Doing work for others I thought, ‘what if I took all of this frustration and energy, and just put it into an original idea?’ I hadn’t written an original screenplay since Pieces of April, my favourite film I’ve ever made. And I just said, ‘What if I do that?’ I gave myself a narrow window, and I turned off everything, I got off Facebook and I didn’t return phone calls, and I just started writing.
Peter Hedges is one of Hollywood’s go-to screenwriters, having adapted What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and About a Boy, two of the most beloved films of the nineties and naughties. He turned to directing with Pieces of April, Dan in Real Life and The Odd Life of Timothy Green.
“I wanted to make something that I didn’t impede. I didn’t want to perfect it,” says Hedges about Ben is Back, his first time behind the camera in 6 years. “I just wanted to get the script to a place… and then I sent it to a friend who’s a producer… I said, ‘You’ll never produce this, but I’m proud of it, and I want you to read it’. And she called me 90 minutes later. It’s Nina Jacobson [The Hunger Games, Crazy Rich Asians], who I used to work for at Disney, and she said, ‘I have to make this movie’. And we sent it to Julia [Roberts]. And Julia read it, and then she wanted to do the movie.”
With one of the biggest stars and producers on the planet on board, it would be a no-brainer that Peter Hedges’ son, the ubiquitous Lucas Hedges (Boy Erased, Lady Bird, Manchester by the Sea, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) play the key role of Ben in the film.
“Lucas wasn’t available,” Peter Hedges tells us. “I was about to start auditioning pretty much every young actor except for Timmy [Timothee Chalamet], who’s a good friend of Lucas’s who’d done [the similarly themed] Beautiful Boy. And I said to Lucas, ‘You don’t have to do the movie. You’re not available. I’m going to go make this movie’. The play he was going to do on Broadway, pushed, and he was available, and Julia was like, ‘Why isn’t Lucas doing this movie?’ and I said, ‘I don’t think he wants to do a movie with his dad. I mean, would you?’ And she said, ‘He’s got to do it’. She started sending me pictures of her with her children … one son has red hair. I showed this to Lucas, and Lucas is like, ‘Wow. Alright, I’ll read it’. And he read it, and then decided to do it.”
And how was the experience of working so closely with his son on such a personal story? “One of the things I love and admire about Lucas as an actor is his internal life,” says the proud father. “He tends to it. And it’s so full. It’s so rich. It’s very uncommon to find in an actor that age; that capacity to go, ‘I don’t have to prove to you that I’m a good actor’. He’s staggering as a talent. And staggering as a young man.”
“I find I have uncommon strength when I’m connected with whom and what I love,” the filmmaker continues. “I really believed in this story. Some might think, ‘Oh, you wrote a movie for your son’, and no, no, no! I wrote a movie that I had to make, that I hoped my boys would be proud of. That’s all I did. But I never thought that would happen. All I wanted to do was put something urgent – and necessary – and relevant into the world. That’s it.”
Ben is Back is in cinemas January 31, 2019